Putin doesn't need to invade Ukraine to get what he wants

John Hulsman

THE SIMMERING crisis in Ukraine has just been brought to a boil again. Pushed to the point of no return, the fledgling government in Kiev has at last responded to Russian provocations, for the first time deploying troops, aircraft, and armoured carriers in the east of the country. Kiev has explicitly labelled this an “anti-terrorist operation”, designed to move against pro-Russian forces that last week took over government buildings in multiple cities. Now all eyes shift to Moscow, to see if Vladimir Putin will use this pretext to send Russian troops over the border into eastern Ukraine itself.

This is understandably the question on everyone’s lips; however, it is the wrong one. Invasions undoubtedly make for dramatic scenes, but in this case the dramatic is largely obscuring the important. While everyone plays the “Will They/Won’t They?” parlour game as to whether Putin will invade Ukraine proper, his key goals and motivation remain unremarked upon.

For from the Kremlin’s perspective, the question of invasion is instrumental; it is merely one of a series of tools that can allow Russia to achieve its basic foreign policy goals. At best, this is only a secondary, tactical concern for Putin, even as the entirety of the western press, mesmerised, reads endless tea leaves to guess at whether the tanks are about to roll. Everyone obsesses about the means of domination, rather than the fact of domination. Everyone, that is, except the Russian President.

For Putin, the one major strategic goal is simply this: Ukraine must stay in Russia’s sphere of influence, rather than drifting towards the periphery of the Euro-Atlantic community as it seemed to be doing with the ouster of President Yanukovych. Practically, this means Kiev must not be permitted the option of joining either the European Union or Nato. Simply put, that is what this whole affair is about.

A government in Kiev that allowed real federalisation, that de facto let the south and east of the country drift away – such as the interim regime is now proposing – would do the trick. After the May elections, a weak, divided Ukrainian government – falling ever further behind on its gas payments and chafing under Gazprom’s rate hikes – would also work. The only outcome that would be unacceptable to Putin at this point is a unitary Ukraine, economically confident, proudly sovereign, and increasing its ties to the West all the time; in other words, a country capable of leaving the Russian orbit. This long-shot chance must be dealt with at any cost, by any means.

Invasion is not remotely the point of what Putin is up to. However, given the Kiev regime’s late but firm response to events in the east, it may now be the route chosen to put paid to a sovereign Ukraine having the chance to emerge from Russia’s shadow. To understand what is really going on, forget the foreground of invasion, and go through the looking glass, seeing the power politics that lie behind the parlour game.

Dr John C Hulsman is senior columnist at City A.M., and president and co-founder of John C Hulsman Enterprises (www.john-hulsman.com), a global political risk consultancy. He is a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of Ethical Realism, The Godfather Doctrine, and most recently Lawrence of Arabia, To Begin the World Over Again.