Russia and Ukraine: can Putin make a clean break?

Zbigniew Brzezinski, an American foreign policy advisor in the 1970s, famously stated in his 1997 book The Grand Chessboard, “Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire.”[1]

Putin / Wikipedia

This was reflected by Russia’s swift annexation of Crimea after the pro-Western Euromaidan revolution in Ukraine in early 2014, and subsequent Russian-backed separatist movements in Ukraine’s east in the form of the breakaway Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics (LPR and DPR, respectively). While Crimea is ultimately a resolved issue from a traditional security perspective, Donbas is not, and there doesn’t seem to be a clean way out. The prevailing idea about the Donbas conflict is that it is designed to hamper Ukraine’s western integration aspirations, however it is placing major bottlenecks on Putin’s regime to move forward. The strategic benefits of maintaining the LPR and DPR are starting to outweigh their costs.

The Russian media paint the current Ukrainian government as fascists. The Russian media mentions Right Sector (Pravyi Sektor), a Ukrainian political party, second most frequently only after Putin’s United Russia. This is in spite of the fact that Right Sektor only commanded a 6% share of the total Ukrainian vote in recent elections.[2]

Russia felt that it was allowed to annex Crimea from its neighbor because in its eyes the Euromaidan was an illegitimate coup to install a pro-western government.[3] The Russian media promotes this theme of “fascist west Ukraine versus anti-fascist Russia,” especially in legitimizing annexation. The situation is similar but different in the Donbas conflict. Russia is lukewarm on the LPR and DPR, saying that it respects their referendums to be annexed by Russia, but not actually pursuing annexation.[4] These two breakaway “republics” are a tool to keep Ukraine in a permanent state of flux.

Russia can meet any possible talks of Ukraine joining the EU or NATO with the roadblock of major unresolved security dilemmas. There is a variety of evidence pointing towards direct Russian command and control being involved in Donbas separatism. . The 2016 leaks of emails belonging to Russian political operator Vladislav Surkov demonstrated that Putin’s close associate is involved in political decision-making over the DPR and LPR. Further leaks of emails between military officials confirm that Russia shipped military equipment from Russia to Donbas.[5] Russia sees value in keeping these republics functioning militarily to keep the international focus off Crimea. With the LPR and DPR actively opposing Ukraine’s security they remain a larger priority than settling the Crimean question. Ukraine doesn’t want to blemish its name with a potentially deadly re-capture of the Donbas,

This all suits Putin nicely, but as the next sections reveal, all is not well at home – patriots are restless.

Russia obviously denies any claims that it has its troops in Ukraine, but things at home are starting to reflect the grim realities of mixing double-think and war. In 2015 the Supreme Court upheld Putin’s decree allowing Russian combat losses in peacetime to be withheld from public record.[6]

Unmarked graves are starting to pop up in Russia’s western regions, as well as in the eastern parts of Donbas, and are veterans groups are starting to cause troubles by claiming that Putin must give official status to troops fighting in Ukraine.[7]

Doing so would ease pressure with his nationalistic wing, but then unravel three years of narrative on the international stage that Russia isn’t involved. Russian nationalists have been extremely active lately, carrying out terrorist attacks against an unpatriotic film director for depicting Tsar Nicholas II in a premarital affair.[8]Given the pressure surrounding veterans’ affairs, they may be inclined to make their voices heard. This is an internal pressure that is constantly weighing on Putin and pulling in two directions.

Brokering a deal with the fascist Ukrainians will aggravate his patriotic base who are now more emboldened than ever, but not doing enough will see the same result. Suppressing patriotic sentiment would be unwise too, it’s the base of Putin’s appeal; before annexing Crimea, Putin was quite unpopular in Russia. It was on the back of his patriotic image that he got Russians to ignore their economic woes starting in 2009.

Problems with patriots will only be compounded by economic woes and an oligarch system being undermined by sanctions. One in six Russians working can’t provide for their families.[9]

The latest budget approved by the Duma will be lowering taxes on energy giants, reducing state pensions and increasing military spending, which is an unsustainable formula for growth.[10] Lastly, there’s the sanction x-factor: section 241 of the new American sanctions on Russia specifically targets any offshore assets held by all major Russian oligarchs.[11]  Putin’s hierarchy relies on the support of his oligarchical system, and they depend on him to secure their interests overseas. Most have assets in America, and with them under threat, the system may start to unravel. Patriots who are poor will have nothing to lose and may resort to violence, and potentially be manipulated by oligarchs like right-wing politician Konstantin Malofeev who harbor deep nationalistic tendencies.

Ukraine has been thrown into the deep end by Russia’s actions, and has responded in kind. In a matter of three years their military is capable and only lacking in anti-tank and electronic warfare capabilities. Presently, Ukrainian military strategists do believe they can take LPR and DPR territories but avoid doing so to not harm civilians and tarnish its international image.[12] 

RNBO_map_eng-ukr-rus 08-07
Eastern Ukraine / Ukraine Ministry of defence

With the USA tabling $500 million for military aid, Ukraine’s capabilities will only rise.[13] Lastly, Ukraine is more pro-NATO than ever and joining NATO is now an official foreign policy objective of Ukraine.[14] Instead of coercively persuading Ukraine to rejoin Russia, Putin has done the opposite, and galvanized the political will of Ukraine.

To navigate all these factors, Putin will have to deftly juggle internal and external factors to produce a feasible exit strategy from Donbas, fix a stagnant economy being steered in the wrong direction, and deal with angry patriots and uncertain oligarchs. These factors combined could all amount to a disaster at home. While in Ukraine, Russia’s grip is fading, and the war in Donbas is galvanizing opinion and forging Ukraine’s westward orientation. A peace plan that humiliates Russia least may seem attractive on the outside, but domestically it will kill Putin’s credibility, and with a slumping economy, could see his ouster. The recent UN peacekeeper talks between Russian envoy Vladislav Surkov and US envoy Kurt Volker are doomed to fail while Putin sees no clear way out to save himself.

~ ~ Stefan Karlo Rajic is studying his maters in International Relations at La Trobe university, specializing in Europe and Russia. His major focuses are: IR theory, geopolitics, Europe, and Russia. Follow him on Twitter: @geopolskr

Picture from: Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, Information Analysis Centre;

[1] Z. Brzezinski, The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geotstrategic Imperatives, Kindle Version, Chap. 4

[2] Ukraine conflict: Turning up the TV heat, BBC, 11 August 2014, (Accessed 19 November 2017)

[3] Ukraine MPs appoint interim president as Yanukovych allies dismissed, The Guardian, 24 February 2014, (Accessed 19 November 2017)

[4] Ukraine separatist votes draw Kremlin ‘respect,’ not annexation, Los Angeles Times, 12 May 2014, (Accessed 19 November 2017)

[5] DPR Oplot brigade received artillery and drone systems from Russia. Photos and documents, Inform Napalm, 10 January 2017, (Accessed 18 November 2017)

[6] Russia Official State System of Legal Information Internet Portal, Decree of the President of the Russian Federation of 28.05.2015 No. 273, 28 May 2015, (Accessed 19 November 2017); H. Coynash, Russia’s Supreme Court allows Putin to hide Russian military losses in Ukraine, Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, 14 August 2015, 19 November 2017)

[7] H. Coynash, Unmarked Graves of Russia’s Undeclared War, Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, 5 February 2015, (Accessed 19 November 2017)

[8] A. Baunov, Is Putin Losing Control of Russia’s Conservative Nationalists?, 10 October 2017, (Accessed 19 November 2017)

[9] One in Six Working Russians Can’t Provide for Their Family, The Moscow Times, 31 October 2017, (Accessed 19 November 2017)

[10] V. Milov, Бюджет-2018: что с ним не так (Budget 2018: What is wrong with it), 30 October 2017, (Accessed 19 November 2017)

[11] S. 722, Congress Digital Archives, 15 June 2017, 19 November 2017)

[12] Ukrainian general: Ukraine does not retake Donbas by force to avoid international condemnation, UAWire, 18 September 2017, (Accessed 19 November 2017)

[13] U.S. Senate allocates $500 mln in security assistance for Ukraine, authorizes lethal aid, UNIAN, 19 September 2017, (Accessed 19 November 2017)

[14] Support for joining NATO at a historical high in Ukraine, Euromaidan Press, 06 August 2017, (Accessed 19 November 2017)


  1. Putin is far more concerned about his popularity rating in Russia rather than ”credibility” worldwide. On the other hand, he likes to have something to ”bargain about” with the West to maintain balance of power. Therefore, as far as Donbass is concerned, he will neither escalate it further, nor will he try to resolve the issue all together. The current state of affairs suits him best :).

    Liked by 1 person

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