In 2014 the Ukrainian war had as a fundamental point the unwavering idea of Russia to annex the Crimean peninsula, something that finally ended up happening. Since then, tensions between the two countries have remained latent, but in recent weeks several movements suggest a major move by the Kremlin to invade the neighboring country. Is Vladimir Putin’s intention realistic? Can he do it? But more importantly, if so: is it in his interest to do so now?
At the moment, one of the latest chapters has been very recent. This Friday the Russian authorities have branded as “provocation” the actions of a Ukrainian vessel that was sailing in the vicinity of the Kerch Strait and that would not have responded to the orders of the Russian ships.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova has expressed that it is “obvious” that this is “yet another provocation at sea” and the Kremlin has warned of possible “serious” consequences of Kiev’s alleged move. “What happened again shows the possible damage and possible consequences that can result from such provocative actions. Any small provocation can lead to very serious consequences,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov maintained, according to Sputnik news agency.
There are many clues that Russia’s possible invasion of Ukraine is close to becoming a reality, especially in the face of an ever-increasing deployment of troops on the border. The total annexation of Ukraine is in fact one of Putin’s obsessions in his intention to return almost to the time of the Tsars, with him at the helm and with a sort of “Russian empire”, in the style of what the USSR once was. The Kremlin believes it has the tools to do so.
Just a few days ago, the Russian government explained that it will have a new hypersonic missile by 2022. And that’s another part of its strategy: the narrative. “We don’t want to go to the extreme of having to use it,” Putin said then. It’s not so much about resorting to these kinds of tools, but about letting others know that Moscow has them. Russia develops what is known as “coercive diplomacy”, which consists of exerting pressure against those it considers its strategic rivals.
But the imperial agenda has a handicap, and it is human. The war seven years ago entailed significant material losses, but mostly of soldiers who went to the front lines. That history is one Putin cannot afford again. The costs, therefore, would be very high and even more so in a scenario that would mean living the same nightmare twice in less than a decade. The Russian president insists: “Russia and Ukraine are one people”. He has repeated it ad nauseam. But he knows he cannot lose that “people”.
In view, moreover, of the collapse of the Iranian economy, Putin knows that a total blockade of the Russian economy would mean the ruin of his weakened economy. To put things in perspective, Russia’s GDP today is similar to that of Italy but less than that of France, so its financial situation is not much to write home about either.
The EU, just in case, is already on alert regarding Russia. Putin thinks like what he is, a former KGB officer. He hesitates according to the benefit he can get and if it is not high enough he does not take the step. The Union, on the other hand, is at a kind of crossroads and has already launched its Strategic Compass. This is a plan to set itself up as an independent player in a geopolitical battle that plans to intensify in the coming months and years. In that game Ukraine is a more important player than it appears. It is neither a member of the EU nor of NATO, but it can be the protégé of the 27 if they so decide. Where the European Union cannot stay is in no man’s land, because that would mean ceding ‘land’ to Russia.
Russia is a geopolitical power and wants its area of influence to continue to grow in the short and medium term. Ukraine is just one step on that route. Its influence in other countries such as Hungary – Viktor Orbán has always been on good terms with Putin – could also increase and the Baltic countries are marked in red on the Kremlin’s map. The strategy has many edges but carrying it out depends on several factors. Crisis after crisis, it may not be worthwhile for Putin to accelerate now.