By Adnan Khan
Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko cancelled a planned trip to Turkey on Friday August 29th as Russian troops apparently moved across the border to support separatists, the president effectively accused Russia of invading his country. Poroshenko explained: “Recent Russian actions clearly demonstrate that Moscow is bluntly drawing Ukraine and the entire world into a full-scale war.” The crisis in Ukraine has now been raging for over 8 months and despite western interference, sanctions and threats much of Eastern Ukraine is out of the hands of the Ukrainian government. In response to the Ukrainian Presidents accusations and much saber-rattling from Europe and the US Russian president, Vladimir Putin, speaking to a pro-Kremlin youth camp responded: “I don’t think it would come to anyone’s mind today of starting a large-scale conflict with Russia. Of course, we were always ready to repel any act of aggression toward Russia. Our partners, regardless of the situation their countries are in or their foreign policy line, have to always realise that it’s better not to mess with Russia. I’ll remind you that Russia is one of the largest nuclear powers, it’s best not to mess with us.” The Ukrainian government, despite help from the West, has failed to halt Russia’s advance due to four primary reasons.
Firstly, Putin has utilised the ethnic Russian diaspora that reside in former Soviet Republics to maintain Russian influence. The Soviet Union utilised ethnic Slavs (the Russian people) by migrating them to areas of Central Asian and Eastern European republics in order for them to become an important demographic in those nations to act as a bulwark. Today in Ukraine a large Russian minority comprises about 17% of the population, more than 30% of all Ukrainians speak Russian as a native language, and more than half of the country belongs to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the Moscow patriarch. These tools allowed Russia to annex Crimea, forcing the Kiev government to watch from the sidelines as the population in the peninsula called for a secession referendum and subsequently ceased to be a territory of Ukraine. Ever since the large Russian speaking population that makes up Eastern Ukraine has undermined the Ukraine central government by siding with Moscow. One of the reasons why military intervention by the Ukraine military has not seen any results is because this Russian population has been armed by Moscow and has forced the Ukrainian military to fight across Ukraine’s Eastern border which has seen them and over-stretched.
Secondly, Russia’s intelligence agency the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the Soviet KGB, remains a key pillar in projecting Russia’s influence. The Soviets developed a unique model of espionage by excelling at placing undetectable operatives in key positions. Ukraine’s intelligence services are still heavily influenced by Russia because not only did they originate from Moscow’s KGB and Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), but most of the officials were trained by the Russian services. The descendant of the KGB, Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), has a heavy presence within Ukraine’s intelligence agencies, making the organization a major tool for Russia’s interests. The FSB played a central role in bringing Viktor Yanukovych to power and maintaining his rule. The FSB has organized and sent small, well-equipped teams across the Ukrainian border to seize government buildings. The FSB played a central role in Russia’s annexation of Crimea. It was the FSB through its covert agents in Ukraine that concluded Ukraine was in no position to resist a Russian onslaught. A so-called snap military exercise was eventually used to distract attention and hide Russia’s preparations for an invasion. None of the former Soviet republics have anything close to countering Russian intelligence.
Thirdly, the Soviet Union’s defence relations played a central role in its power projection capabilities. Due to the nature and length of defence contracts the Soviet Union was able to form and solidify strategic relationships with other nations. The Soviet Union constructed and maintained a large defence industry, army and advanced weaponry to project power globally. It created thousands of military bases to act as supply lines throughout its republics. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has maintained some of these bases. One of Russia’s most important military bases is in Ukraine, at the Black Sea port of Sevastopol, the Russian military’s only deep- water port. Russia’s Black Sea naval fleet in Crimea is many times larger than Kiev’s small fleet. The Russian Black Sea Fleet also contributes to the majority of Crimea’s regional economy, something that keeps this region loyal to Russia and contributed to its annexation.
Fourthly, the Russian economy is mostly based on energy, with half of government revenues coming from oil and natural gas. Energy for Russia is the most important tool of political leverage around the world via energy relationships with other countries. Energy ties are something Russia has very publicly used as a political weapon, either by raising prices or by cutting off supplies. Russia currently supplies 80% of Ukraine’s natural gas. This has been one of Moscow’s favorite levers to use against Kiev; it has not shied away from turning off natural gas supplies at the height of winter. Russia also provides 38% of Europe’s oil and 24% of Europe’s Natural Gas; half of Europe’s energy comes through pipelines traversing Ukraine. Whatever the rhetoric from Europe or Ukraine, they are beholden upon Russian energy for the foreseeable future.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990 led to a decade of decline in the former Soviet territories. The emergence of Vladimir Putin and the security establishment in 2000, stabilised the countries situation. Despite suffering setbacks in Ukraine, neither the government in Kiev or Washington and Brussels has been able to remove Russia from Ukraine. The reality for the Kiev government is most of its allies have provided limited support and even equipment has been mostly non-lethal aid, Ukraine is unlikely to receive the significant military help that it desperately needs. Kiev continues to struggle in accessing its own airspace in the East. The crisis in Ukraine boils down to one important issue: the conflict in Ukraine simply matters much more to Russia than it does to Ukraine’s western allies.