Bob Seely a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, and is MP for the Isle of Wight. He has written a definition of new Russian warfare and a study of Kremlin activity in eastern Ukraine.
What are Vladimir Putin’s aims? In a sentence: to prevent Ukraine, in his eyes, falling into the hands of the West, to break Western unity, to build a new sphere of influence and, in Russia, to present the West as a decadent, mortal enemy of the Russian people.
Putin’s infamous essay last summer on Russian and Ukrainian unity revealed that he did not recognise Ukraine within its current borders. His speech a fortnight ago on the eve of the invasion showed that, although Ukraine was the battleground, the West, its values and its ‘Nazi puppets’ in Ukraine were all protagonists.
Ukraine represents the nexus of Putin’s fears. A law-governed democracy in Kiev, however imperfect, threatens Moscow’s autocracy. Russia without Ukraine becomes a country, not an empire. A Ukraine outside Kremlin control feeds Russian insecurity, although the fear of ‘invasion’ is now largely psychological.
The battle to ‘re-recapture’ Ukraine has been ongoing for nearly two decades and in three distinct phases.
From 2004 to 2014, the Kremlin used political, economic, information and other non-military tools to subvert Ukraine’s political and military leadership. it’s aim then was to persuade Ukraine’s leaders to reject EU association treaties and sign instead binding military and economic pacts with Russia. These would have secured Ukraine within Russia’s sphere of interest. This narrowly failed, due to the ‘Maidan’ uprising with overthrew the heavily pro-Moscow and exceptionally corrupt government of Victor Yanukovych.
From 2014, the Kremlin used the ‘managed conflict’ model to create conflict in the east and south of Ukraine, as well as annexing Ukraine. This model was a more sophisticated version of the form of conflict used in Georgia and Moldova which I witnessed as a young reporter during the early 1990s.
Political front groups were formed, protestors took to the streets, lethal provocations were staged and armed paramilitary groups suddenly appeared, in reality pre-prepared for months by the Russian security agencies. Most of Ukraine’s 2014 uprisings: in Odesa, Kherson, Kharkiv and elsewhere, failed. Groups in Lugansk and Donetsk succeeded, setting up so-called Peoples’ Republics, controlled by Russian forces out of uniform and run out of the Kremlin.
The political outcome Putin wanted at this stage was to force these ‘Peoples’ Republics’ back into a deeply federalised Ukraine and ensure they were given a veto over domestic and foreign policy. This would be used as an anchor to prevent Ukraine’s westward drift and eventually, a return to Moscow’s sphere of influence. The threat of war would be ever-present.
Now, Putin has launched the third stage of conflict. Having failed to regain control of Ukraine in the first two phases of war, he has now escalated further to rely on largely conventional means, seeing to remove the Ukraine government in the hope/expectation that a puppet regime, similar to the Yanukovych regime of a decade ago, will be able to survive and deliver Ukraine. The likely result would be perpetual civil strife, combined with repression and mass refugee flows.
Effectively the Kremlin is trying to turn back the clock 30 years. It is difficult to see how Putin can either win the war or keep control of Ukraine should he do so. He has proved the maxim; you can control when you start a war, but not when you finish it.