Why the Kremlin has long wanted to annex Ukraine, and why the US has long wanted Russia trapped in a Ukraine quagmire
Robert H. Wade updates a previous opinion piece on the causes and possible direction of the conflict in Ukraine in light of recent developments.
On 26 March President Biden, speaking in Warsaw, said, unscripted: “For God’s sake, this man [Putin] cannot remain in power.” Such an overt statement of intention for regime change in Russia has not gone down well in most of Europe. US Secretary of State Blinken later clarified Biden’s Warsaw remark: “As you know, and as you have heard us say repeatedly, we do not have a strategy of regime change in Russia, or anywhere else, for that matter” (Lauria 2022). Blinken has apparently forgotten Vietnam, Chile, Iraq, Afghanistan, and quite a few more.
Consider the following quotes:
- 24 February 2022: White House press conference (first day of invasion): Biden said sanctions are designed not to prevent invasion but to punish Russia after invading “… so the people of Russia know what he has brought on them. That is what this is all about.”
- 27 February: James Heappey, UK minister for armed forces, wrote in The Daily Telegraph: “His failure must be complete; Ukrainian sovereignty must be restored, and the Russian people empowered to see how little he cares for them. In showing them that, Putin’s days as President will surely be numbered … He’ll lose power and he won’t get to choose his successor.”
- 1 March: Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesperson: the sanctions on Russia “we are introducing, that large parts of the world are introducing, are to bring down the Putin regime.”
These statements reflect long-standing US strategy for regime change in Moscow, with Ukraine as the pivot. It has three elements. First, actions which prompt the Kremlin to order an invasion. Second, sufficient military and other equipment to Ukraine as to trap the Russian military in a quagmire in Ukraine – akin to the US quagmire in Vietnam and to the Soviet army quagmire in Afghanistan. The third element in the US strategy is severe, far-reaching sanctions on Russia so as to cause major disruption to the Russian elite and major contraction of living conditions for the Russian middle-class. The combination of the three elements should last long enough that Russians rise up to overthrow Putin and install a government more sympathetic to the West.
The key point is that this three-fold strategy was not intended to prevent Russia’s invasion, nor to make Russia withdraw now. The point is to punish Russia enough through massive sanctions across the economy, especially on the elite, and massive damage to its military including high casualties, as to provoke regime change. But for this plan to go into action the necessary condition was a casus belli, which had to be Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
It in no way excuses Russia’s invasion and its despicable, war-crimes tactics to say that Moscow fell into a US and NATO trap. But independently of the US and NATO trap, Moscow had powerful reasons of its own for annexing Ukraine and bringing it back into the Russian Federation. We have to understand the strategic calculations on both sides.
The Ukraine crisis expresses the clash of two mega forces shaping the world order. One is the US’s long-standing assertion of “primacy” or “hegemony” vis-à-vis all other states. Presidents Putin and Xi talk often and pleasurably of the decline of the US and the fracturing of the West, especially since the 2008 North Atlantic financial crisis. Yet what is striking about the US and West’s response to Russia’s invasion is how forcefully the US has rallied other western states – and western multinational corporations – to isolate a prominent G20 state and former G8 member. This is US “hegemony” in action. The second long-standing mega force comes from Russia.
Russia’s long-standing aim to make itself the center or hegemon of the Eurasian polity, culture, and economy
The western media has tended to present a narrative of “evil, revanchist Putin attacks innocent and unified Ukraine, as first step to conquest of other parts of eastern and central Europe and restoration of the erstwhile Soviet Union” (Wade 2015, 2022). The focus on Putin misses Russia’s long-standing aim to make itself the center of the Eurasian polity, culture and economy.
Jane Burbank, emeritus professor of history and Russian and Slavic studies at New York University, reminds us, “Since the 1990s, plans to reunite Ukraine and other post-Soviet states into a trans-continental superpower have been brewing in Russia. A revitalized theory of Eurasian empire informs Mr Putin’s every move” (2022).
Indeed, ever since the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917 a line of Russian thinkers has developed an ideology of Eurasianism. It was suppressed during the Soviet period but burst forth during perestroika in the late 1980s. The ideology posits not just America but the whole Atlantic world as Russia’s “clash of civilizations” opponent, with Russian Orthodoxy harnessed as the glue in the geopolitical war to come. Under Mr Putin, the themes of imperial glory and western victimization have been elevated to center stage across the country.
As Burbank explains, Ukraine figured in this Eurasian ideology as an obstacle from the start. Eurasian ideologists in the 1920s were already talking of “the Ukraine problem”, presenting Ukraine as excessively “individualistic” and insufficiently Orthodox. Prominent ideologists of the 1990s identified Ukrainian sovereignty as, in the words of one, a “huge danger to all of Eurasia”. Russia’s Eurasia project, he said, required, as an “absolute imperative”, total control of the whole north coast of the Black Sea (not least to keep the Black Sea as western Russia’s only ice-free access to the sea). Ukraine had to become “a purely administrative sector of the Russian centralized state”.
This is the ideology which motives Putin, which led him to declare Ukraine as “a colony with a puppet regime” on the eve of the invasion, February 24, 2022. This is the ideology which inspires and justifies the brutal war in his eyes.
More specifically, Putin and his Moscow allies were spooked by the US’s “Phase Two” of the global war on terror: taking out Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003. Putin responded with the invasion of Georgia in 2008 and, seven years later, the annexation of Crimea, followed by the appearance of Russian irregulars in eastern Ukraine – all the better to protect Russia from another US-led blitzkrieg like Iraq (Barber 2021).
The US and NATO strategy
To understand US and NATO strategy for Ukraine we have to begin with the US’s overall geographic strategy. It is set out in starkly clear terms in a Congressional Research Service bulletin, November 15, 2022, which begins:
“Most of the world’s people, resources, and economic activity are located not in the Western Hemisphere, but in the other hemisphere, particularly Eurasia [not defined]. In response to this basic feature of world geography, US policymakers for the last several decades have chosen to pursue, as a key element of US national strategy, a goal of preventing the emergence of regional hegemons in Eurasia.
“This objective reflects a US perspective … that incorporates two key judgements:
- that given the amount of people, resources, and economic activity in Eurasia, a regional hegemon in Eurasia would represent a concentration of power large enough to be able to threaten vital US interests;
- and that Eurasia is not dependably self-regulating in terms of preventing the emergence of regional hegemons, meaning that the countries of Eurasia cannot be counted on to be fully able to prevent, through their own choices and actions, the emergence of regional hegemons, and may need assistance from one or more countries outside Eurasia to be able to do this dependably.”
Following on, the Biden Administration’s October 2022 National Security document states:
“The United States is a global power with global interests. We are stronger in each region because of our affirmative engagement in the others. If one region descends into chaos or is dominated by a hostile power, it will detrimentally impact our interests in the others.”
The Congressional Research Service document makes clear that the broad US foreign policy towards Russia and China aims to ensure that neither becomes a “regional hegemon”, let alone one of sufficient reach to challenge US hegemony. In particular, the document explains US military force allocations “that enable it to deploy from the United States, cross broad expanses of ocean and air space, and then conduct sustained, large-scale military operations upon arrival in Eurasia or the waters and airspace surrounding Eurasia.”
This larger strategy for containing Russia is the context to understand expansion of NATO members all along Russia’s borders, from Baltics to Bulgaria, and 30,000 NATO-designated troops; and to understand why the Kremlin does not see NATO as a defensive alliance, despite NATO protestations that it is only that. It also helps to understand why the US and some other western states have long sought to overthrow Syria’s ruler – Syria is Russia’s ally. And why they encourage NGOs to foment unrest inside Russia.
No surprise that Moscow has long read US and NATO actions as deeply hostile, intended to produce “regime change” in the Kremlin and install a ruler accepting of US hegemony, so that the US can block a China-Russia bloc and focus more fully on containing China.
The US-laid trap
The war in Ukraine looks like the Kremlin has fallen into a trap (to say this is not – to repeat – to excuse Russia’s actions). The trap has similarities to the trap the US set for Saddam Hussein in 1990 when it said it would not interfere in his government’s dispute with Kuwait. Saddam invaded Kuwait, which gave the US the casus belli to destroy Iraq’s military.
The trap also has similarities to the CIA’s trap for Moscow four decades ago, by arming mujahaddin to fight the Soviet-backed government in Afghanistan. The US intended for Moscow to send in its military to defend the government, which it did in 1979. President Carter’s national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinsky in an interview in 1998 with Le Nouvel Observateur happily admitted the US had set a trap:
“Indeed, it was July 3, 1979 that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention….. That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap [note his phrase] and you want me to regret it? The day the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter, essentially: ‘We now have the opportunity of giving the USSR its Vietnam war.’ Indeed, for almost 10 years, Moscow had to carry on a war that was unsustainable for the regime, a conflict that bought about the demoralization and finally the breakup of the Soviet empire” (emphasis added).
Brzezinski presumed, as the US does today, that control of Eurasia is vital for US “primacy” or “hegemony” in the world system (directly countering Russia’s Eurasian ideology). In his 1997 book The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geopolitical Imperatives he wrote:
“Ukraine, a new and important space on the Eurasian chessboard, is a geopolitical pivot because its very existence as an independent country helps to transform Russia” (emphasis added).
He explained that without Ukraine being integrated into or closely allied to Russia, Russia was a “predominantly Asian imperial state”. Whereas Ukraine integrated into Russia gave Russia the opening to be (or resume being) “a Eurasian empire”. So, the long-held US aim has been to push Ukraine away from Russia as a major step towards constraining Russian strategy, and more distantly Chinese strategy too, thereby sustaining US primacy.
In 2013 (before Ukraine’s President Yanukovych was overthrown in 2014) , Carl Gersham, director of National Endowment for Democracy (NED), gave another statement of US strategy for Ukraine and Russia:
“Ukraine is the biggest prize.” If it could be pulled away from Russia and into the West, “Putin may find himself on the losing end not just in the near abroad but within Russia itself.”
From 2015 onwards the CIA oversaw a secret intensive training program in the US for elite Ukrainian special operations forces and other intelligence personnel. On January 14, 2022, Yahoo! News reported, “The CIA-trained forces could soon play a critical role on Ukraine’s eastern border, where Russian troops have massed in what many fear is preparation for an invasion.” A former CIA official explained, “The United States is training an insurgency.”
The countdown to Russia’s invasion
In 2014 the democratically elected president Yanukovych -- explicitly friendly to both the EU and to Moscow -- was overthrown in a coup, with substantial US backing. On 23 February, the day after Yanukovych fled, the first act of the Ukrainian parliament was to revoke the legal status of Russian as a national language; and more broadly, to prevent regions from allowing the use of any other language than Ukrainian. The government set about blocking access to Russian news, TV channels and radio. All through the next months the government, the broadcast media and large sections of the population chanted the motto “One Nation, One Language, One People” (Wade 2015).
These were blatantly belligerent acts towards a large minority. It is easy to understand why the many millions of Russian speakers and Russian Orthodox believers felt under envenomed siege; and why they felt emboldened by support from the powerful state on their doorstep. The fact that language legislation was then not put into law did not suddenly “make everything right again”. The efforts to marginalize Russian speakers and Orthodox believers continued.
The largely Russian speaking and Orthodox believing populations of the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk voted in favour of independence from Ukraine. The government in Kyiv (mostly Ukrainian speaking and Catholic or Greek Orthodox) launched a war against these provinces to bring them back under Kyiv control, a fact rarely brought out in western media.
Scroll forward to December 2021. The Kremlin presented treaty proposals, which included:
- implement the 8-year-old Minsk peace accords (which include a commitment that Ukraine not join NATO);
- dissolve extreme right Ukrainian militias;
- engage in serious negotiations about a new security architecture in Europe.
The US, NATO and Ukraine’s government consistently refused to negotiate. As they refused they also warned the world, from December 2021 onwards, that Russia would invade. The US and NATO began transferring huge quantities of weapons and expanding the training of Ukrainian military.
On 19 February 2022 Ukrainian President Zelensky gave an impassioned speech at the Munich Security Conference. He insisted that Ukraine must have a clear path to join NATO, and regretted that Ukraine had given up its nuclear arsenal at the end of the Soviet Union, then the world’s third biggest.
In the third week of February 2022 the Ukrainian military dramatically increased its shelling of the Donetsk and Lugansk, as reported by observers of the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe). It is likely that this step-up in the Ukrainian attack on the Russian-separatist regions had the blessing of the US and NATO.
Till this point the Kremlin had not recognized the two Donbass republics; it had held off for 8 years. Now, as the Ukrainian military stepped up its attack the Kremlin had to decide. It entered the on-going civil war not just to protect the Donbass republics from the military attacks, but on a scale big enough for it to replace the national government and bring it under Kremlin control, in line with Russia’s Eurasia strategy.
There was some resistance within the Russian military. A senior retired Russian general (Leonid Ivashow) warned in an open letter shortly before the invasion that an attack would be “pointless and extremely dangerous” and threaten Russia’s existence. The Financial Times (28 March) quotes a Moscow-based military analyst (Pavel Luzin), “The Kremlin didn’t listen to the military – they listened to [secret service officers] who said we can do this special operation quickly.”
The sanctions strategy
The quagmire or Vietnam strategy is complemented by the sanctions strategy – the harshest sanctions the US and Europe have ever imposed on any nation. As noted, even to those sceptical of claims of “the end of the American empire”, it is astonishing how effectively the US has mobilized western nations around the project to isolate one of the world’s biggest economies, one of the top two nuclear powers, and the biggest energy supplier to Europe, as though it was North Korea (Wade 2003, 2013, Starrs and Germann 2021).
The list is impressive:
**The most damaging sanctions are those on Russia’s central bank, which have hammered the value of the ruble (from 85 rubles to the US dollar on February 24, the day of the invasion, to 154 to the dollar on March 7, back up to 101 on March 25, and 65 in mid December 2022).
**Most Russian transactions are no longer allowed to be settled through the SWIFT international payment system, which means most Russian international transactions are no longer allowed.
**Russia’s largest banks are sanctioned.
**The already physically completed German-Russian Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline was closed down and its company bankrupt.
**US has prohibited imports of Russian oil.
**BP and Shell have pulled out of Russian partnerships.
**Russian exports of wheat and fertilizer have been banned, driving up the price of food around the world, especially in low income countries.
**European and US airspace is closed to Russian planes.
**Putin and many Russian leaders are personally sanctioned.
** PayPal, Facebook, Twitter, Netflix, McDonalds, Coca-cola operations in Russia have shut down.
**US cable providers have succeeded in getting RT (Russia Today) America shut down.
French Foreign Minister Le Drian explained that the aim is “asphyxiating Russia’s economy”, even if the West is damaged in the process. Damage to the West is a price worth paying for regime change in Moscow with new leaders respectful of US primacy.
Containing costs to the West may require giving up the regime change objective
But after only a month from the start of the invasion the heavy costs of the US and NATO strategy to themselves became only too clear. As the quagmire dragged on the effects of the economic rupture with Russia were felt acutely in Europe, in the form of rising prices, energy shortages, lost jobs, the absorption of many millions of Ukrainian refugees, and absorption of still more refugees from food-starved countries that previously relied on Ukrainian and Russian grain and fertiliser. The costs are significant even in the US, where inflation is high and President Biden’s approval ratings fragile. At some point the US and other western nations will have to backpedal on the regime change objective, to save themselves (Rachman 2022).
Balancing the aim of securing a Russian government respectful of US hegemony with the aim to keeping Russia as a NATO enemy
The US and NATO objectives are still more complicated than Moscow regime change and keeping costs to themselves tolerable. The objective of securing a Russian regime respectful of US and NATO primacy is intertwined like a double helix with the objective of keeping Russia as an external enemy in order to provide glue for cooperation between the West’s often fractious member states under US leadership. To justify US leadership, to present a unitary front in NATO, and to justify big increases in western (especially German) military budgets, Russia must be presented as the common enemy. Western military firms also have a strong demand for the West to believe it faces existential enemies in the form of major states, and not just slippery “terrorists” or “a bunch of midgets”, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey labelled the Islamic State. Indeed, the share prices of the major US arms manufactures zoomed skywards as the Russian invasion looked likely.
The key point was made by Georgi Arbatov, a political scientist and advisor to Gorbachev (and other secretaries of the Communist Party), and founder and director of the Institute for US and Canada at the Russian Academy of Science. He said to a group of senior US officials in 1987: "We are going to do a terrible thing to you – we are going to deprive you of an enemy."
This is how one can understand the West’s persistent rebuff to efforts of Gorbachev, Yeltsin and early Putin to establish non-adversarial relations with western states. The West needs Russia as an enemy to provide internal unity. On the other hand, it also needs Russia as a cooperative partner showing suitable deference to the West, especially over the next decades as China grows stronger. It is a mixed outcome game.
Meanwhile, China is watching the Ukraine crisis and the US and NATO strategy, and probably recalculating its confidence in the decline of the West. That recalculation has also prompted Beijing to forge closer ties with Moscow -- but Beijing also wants to make sure that it does not help Russia to the point where it becomes subject to even more western sanctions and to the point where Russia could win enough in Ukraine to challenge China’s strategy to dominate the Eurasian landmass, which is well underway in the form of the infrastructure alliances created by the giant Belt and Road Initiative.
How does the war end?
In countries that have suffered under Russian imperial rule in the not-distant past, including Poland, the Baltics, and Ukraine, the most popular view says: it can only end with the dissolution of the Russian Federation. Ukraine and the West have to keep the Russian army bogged down and the sanctions in place till distress in Russia is sufficient to build enough support – with western help -- for separatist movements to split the federation (Krastev 2022).
Others, including Ukrainian President Zelensky, say the war can end only with the return to Ukraine of all territories annexed by Russia including Crimea, and of course the removal of Putin. This goes with NATO enlargement to include Ukraine and other states along Russia’s western and southern borders.
The third broad position says that the West and the Ukraine government have to accept an outcome in which Russia does not win, Ukraine does not lose, the war does not broaden beyond Ukraine, both sides agree on something like the Minsk agreement, and no regime change in Moscow.
This “realist” scenario is the most likely, especially because the US and the other countries of NATO are themselves under acute economic pressure, quite apart from the financial, military hardware, and personnel demands on them of the war in Ukraine. The effects of the economic rupture with Russia are felt acutely in Europe, in the form of rising prices, energy shortages, lost jobs, the absorption of many millions of Ukrainian refugees, and absorption of still more refugees from food-starved countries that previously relied on Ukrainian and Russian grain and fertiliser. The costs are significant even in the US, with high inflation and fragile approval ratings for President Biden. J.D. Vance, elected Senator from Ohio to the US Congress in November 2022 holds views on Ukraine which are becoming emblematic of the “America First” movement. “I don’t really care what happens in Ukraine one way or the other”, he said in February 2022. Kevin McCarthy, Republican Leader of the House of Representatives, said in late 2022 there can’t be a “blank cheque” for Ukraine.
At some point the US and other western nations will have to backpedal on the regime change objective, to save themselves. They will have to push for compromise: Moscow to give up its intention to annex a major part of eastern Ukraine, and Kyiv to settle for less than all its land (Rachman 2022, Kupchan 2022).
Negotiation starting soon in 2023 may avoid reducing Ukraine to rubble.
Robert H. Wade - Professor of global political economy, Department of International Development, LSE.
Photo by Алесь Усцінаў
Barber, Lionel, 2021, “America’s search for a new place in the world begins”, The New European, September 2 – 8
Burbank, Jane, 2022, “Putin’s goal, obviously, is empire”, New York Times (International) 24 March
Congressional Research Service, 2022, “Defense primer: geography, strategy, and the US force design”, In Focus, November 15
Krastev, Ivan, 2022, “Committed to Ukraine, for now”, New York Times (International), 9 November
Kupchan, Charles, 2022 “Bring Russia and Ukraine to the negotiating table”, New York Times (I) November 4.
Lauria, Joe, 2022, “Biden confirms why the US needed this war”, Consortium News, March 27.
Rachman, Gideon, 2022, “War risks destabilising the west”, Financial Times 29 March
Seddon, Max, 2022, “Russian defence minister’s brief cameo adds to mystery”, Financial Times, 28 March.
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