Understanding Russia’s behavior in Ukraine

Maksym Beznosiuk
Edited by Catlin Seibel-Kamel


It has almost been two years since the dramatic events in Ukraine that led to the first redrawing of borders in Europe after the World War II. Russia’s offensive policies in Ukraine marked a shift from a universal approach to a selective interpretation of international legal norms and shook the foundations of international legal order and the balance of powers in Europe.

A lot of scholars in defense, security and other areas of study have been struggling to explain the driving force behind the current Russian foreign policy and the ongoing hybrid warfare campaign in Ukraine. The latter caught the of attention of many interdisciplinary specialists in the West due to the recent emergence of the hybrid warfare concept, coupled with the special characteristics of Russia’s hybrid warfare instruments applied in Ukraine.

Ukraine’s decision to get out of Russia’s sphere of influence

Ukraine’s unique geopolitical position puts the country in a very vulnerable situation. Located between Europe and Russia, Ukraine has tried to both balance its foreign policy and use it to its advantage. Nevertheless, such a situation couldn’t last forever, and the time arrived to make a civilizational choice. Ukrainian society was leaning towards closer convergence with the EU, which was pursued by the Ukrainian government until the end of November 2013. A possibility of closer convergence with the EU gave ordinary Ukrainians hopes for higher living standards, lower corruption levels, and more responsible public officials. Unfortunately, all these dreams were ruined. Due to the pro-Russian nature of the Ukrainian political leadership, headed by former Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych, the signing procedure of the EU Association Agreement planned for the end of November 2013 was suspended. The Ukrainian government chose to postpone the signing process for an indefinite period, and instead proceeded with steps to move closer to Russia. These steps culminated the signing of the 17 December 2013 Ukrainian-Russian action plan. According to the plan, Russia would reduce the cost of its natural gas supplied to Ukraine while investing $15 billion in Ukrainian government securities. This critical shift in foreign policy led to the Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity and the arrival of the pro-Western government in Ukraine. Following, this Russia reacted quickly to prevent Ukraine from moving closer to the West.

The nature of Russia’s hybrid warfare campaign in Ukraine

Russia’s covert military takeover of Crimea lasted less than three weeks. During this period, no single shot was fired. Following the military takeover, a referendum on Crimea’s reunification with Russia, and subsequently Crimea’s incorporation into the Russia Federation, was held. Since the annexation of Crimea, the Kremlin has continued its hybrid warfare activities in eastern Ukraine by supporting separatist movements in Ukraine’s Donbas region.

There has been a contested debate among scholars in security, defence and other areas of study concerning the nature of Russia’s hybrid warfare. However, it is important to understand that the West is not faced with a new Russian military strategy, but rather Russia’s attempts to catch up conceptually to the realities of modern warfare in the West. Apart from that, after a closer look at Russia’s hybrid warfare applied in Ukraine, one could notice that it is heavily based on the Soviet research on the development of a so-called “reflexive control” theory (RCT). The main purpose of RCT is to shape the perceptions and decisions of Russia’s opponents by getting them to act voluntarily in a way that would be particularly favourable for Russia’s strategic interests. This technique has been employed to deny the presence of Russian forces in Ukraine, conceal Russia’s original intentions, and prevent the West from interfering in the conflict in any possible way. Russia has succeeded in convincing the West not to interfere in the conflict or supply Ukraine with more significant military aid, etc. In addition, Russia has managed to present itself as an outside observer, rather than a party in the conflict.  Most importantly, the Kremlin’s main intention has been to avoid communicating its actual strategic goals in Ukraine and the post-Soviet space as a whole to the West and Ukrainian leadership.

Understanding Russia’s intentions

In order to understand Russia’s hybrid warfare application on the Ukrainian territory, one has to understand the government’s intentions. Without understanding these intentions and mainly focusing on tactical operations and small campaigns, winning the war is unlikely, even if one manages to prevail in small battles. By conducting its hybrid warfare campaign in Ukraine, Russian political leadership hasn’t clearly stated its long-term plans and according to foreign policy experts and analysts, prefers to remain silent. However, after a more thorough analysis of Putin’s current doctrine, it becomes clear that the goals of this hybrid warfare campaign against Ukraine are to extend the Russian influence in the post-Soviet space and to use Ukraine as a training ground for future hybrid campaigns, combined with the elements of informational operations, economic coercion and diplomatic pressure. In addition, various military trainings and threatening statements about Russia being a nuclear power aim to both intimidate and deter any potential reaction from the West.

The ideological core of this Russian expansionist agenda is rested mainly on the neo-Eurasian concept, with its key imperative being to renew Russia’s dominance in the post-Soviet space, and prevent any alleged western attempts to encircle and reduce Russia’s influence in the region. Extending Russia’s influence in the post-Soviet space will serve Russia’s ultimate goal of restoring its previous glory and might within the boundaries of the former Soviet Union. It could be achieved via the unification of a Eurasian space in security, economic and political terms.

In conclusion, Ukraine’s decision to pursue closer convergence with the EU has triggered Russia’s application of hybrid warfare in Ukraine. Russia’s hybrid warfare has Soviet origins, with the reflexive control approach playing a key role in its practical implementation in Ukraine. The Kremlin’s main goal has been to support Russian expansionist policies aimed at imposing a neo-Eurasian agenda in a post-Soviet space.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of The Euroculturer.

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