Listening to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin’s revisionism on Monday evening (21 February), one could be forgiven for believing that time machines do exist. But it’s really Putin’s next move that should give headaches to European diplomats.
In 1994, Russia signed an agreement to respect Ukraine’s independence and sovereignty.
Last year, Putin wrote an op-ed describing Russians and Ukrainians as “one nation”, and now he says that modern Ukraine was entirely created by communist Russia.
Let’s not fool ourselves, Soviet nostalgia, or the feign of it, does not fully explain Russia’s historic lust for Ukraine. But geography might.
Now Putin’s decision to recognise the independence of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics has brought a paradigm shift to the geopolitical table.
How far will Russia go?
Much of the attention is on the east, where Russian troops could soon be on the ground.
While the West has anxiously looked towards the Donbas, Russia’s silent grab of Belarus has effectively encircled Ukraine. With up to 190,000 Russian troops close to the country’s borders, there’s little sign Moscow will back off easily.
Strategists fear the latest developments could mean Putin might be tempted to go for the ‘full monty’ and attempt to devour all of Ukraine.
Ultimately, he might be satisfied with a stretch of maritime territories to turn Ukraine into a landlocked country.
When there was a pro-Russian government in Kyiv before 2014, Moscow was happy about its de-facto buffer zone. A pro-Western Ukraine, however, with ambitions to join EU and NATO one day might be too much for Putin.
And this for a simple reason: access to ports.
The Russian navy would not be able to get out quickly to the Baltic Sea, since NATO members control the Skagerrak Strait and GIUK Gap (Greenland, Iceland, UK), while NATO member Turkey controls the Bosphorus as per the Montreux Convention of 1936.
Putin’s biggest nightmare, however, might be a Ukraine that could one day host a NATO naval base.
Russia’s only warm-water port, Sevastopol, located on the illegally annexed Crimean peninsula, gives Moscow a strategically important base for its naval fleet.
In case Russia desires to create a land bridge to Crimea, key Ukrainian port cities of Mariupol, where much of the steel and other industrial products of the Donbas have been exported, and Kramatorsk, where Ukraine’s army has its eastern HQ, are a tempting prospect…
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Views are the author’s.