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Putin’s Game Plan in Ukraine

How Moscow Aims to Force Concessions Out of Kiev

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during a rally and concert marking the fourth anniversary of Russia's annexation of Crimea in central Moscow, March 2018. Alexander Zemlianichenko / Pool via REUTERS

At the end of 2013, Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s president, postponed signing an association agreement with the European Union, choosing instead to pursue closer ties with Russia. Protesters began massing on Kiev’s central square, known as the Maidan. Weeks of tension spilling into violence culminated with Yanukovych’s ouster on February 22.

Russian President Vladimir Putin looked on with anger and alarm. Suppose that what had happened on the Maidan sparked similar protests in Russia?

Putin began to refer to the Ukrainian government as a “junta” in speeches. The term belonged to the Soviet propaganda lexicon: the Kremlin used it to describe the Latin American dictatorships the United States supported during the Cold War. Putin’s revival of this language marked a steep downturn in relations between Moscow and Kiev. Russian state-controlled media took up a propagandistic narrative, in which the new Ukrainian authorities were illegitimate and Russia would not hesitate to “protect” the Russian-speaking citizens of Ukraine from these “fascist usurpers.”

The actions Russia took after Yanukovych’s ouster—the annexation of Crimea and the aggressive military support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine—are well-known. For Putin, such moves signaled Russia’s rebirth as a great power, ready to ignore world opinion in the pursuit of its national interests. And Putin’s Ukraine policy was at first extremely well received domestically, benefiting from a sophisticated television propaganda campaign as well as a rise in popular revanchist sentiment.

Putin achieved a near record high of 86 percent approval in the months after annexing Crimea. As a result, he considers any concession on Crimea a redline he cannot cross without jeopardizing his hold on power. This position forecloses the possibility of reconciliation with Kiev for the foreseeable future, since the majority of Ukrainians will not accept the loss of the peninsula. Moreover, with presidential and parliamentary elections fast approaching in Ukraine, Russia sees a chance to return the country to its sphere of influence. The Kremlin wants to take advantage of the sharp

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