Recently, the Russian Federation has violated Ukrainian sovereignty, invading, occupying, and even annexing portions of eastern and southern Ukraine. Despite crippling economic sanctions from the United States and several European countries, Russia continues to advance, grabbing more and more territory.
Why is Russia so interested in Ukraine? What about Ukraine is so valuable that it’s worth alienating the international community and provoking the west?
Ukraine, positioned strategically between Russia and her traditional enemies in western Europe, is of extreme importance for the security of the Russian state for its use as a defensive buffer zone.
Russian Buffer Zones
The core of the Russian economy and state is the industrial heartland around Moscow. With a majority of the Russian population and most of the major industry, protecting this area is the primary geopolitical goal of the Russian Federation.
Unfortunately for the Russians, this land is militarily indefensible. Eastern Europe has few natural defensive borders like mountains, oceans, or deserts that the Russians can use to slow advancing armies. The northern European plain – highlighted in red – is a direct, flat route straight from western Europe into the core of Russia. For centuries, European conquerors like Napoleon and Hitler exploited these weaknesses by mounting devastating invasions that have pushed Russia to the brink of collapse.
To accommodate for their lack of natural defensive barriers, the Russians have adopted a strategy of acquiring massive land buffer-zones on their European frontier. In the event of an invasion, advancing armies are weakened as they overextend their supply lines by fighting through hundreds of miles of Russian occupied land.
The Russians care little about the people in these buffer zones, simply using the territory to protect the Russian heartland. In the event of invasion, the Russians have repetitively laid waste to their buffer zones under the scorched-earth policy, burning crops and villages in order to deny their opponents food or shelter.
The use of buffer zones has historically been extremely effective, leading Russia to victories over militarily superior opponents in both France in 1812 and Germany in 1943.
Ukraine as a Buffer Zone
Ukraine is arguably Russia’s most important buffer zone. Positioned on the Russian border directly between Russia and her traditional European enemies, Ukraine is vital to securing the Russian frontier. As the crown jewel in their buffer zone defense strategy, Russia has actively dominated, colonized, and controlled Ukraine for hundreds of years.
The Russian Empire conquered Ukraine in 1783 established a policy of Russification, suppressing the Ukrainian language and relocating the native population by settling ethnic Russians in their place. As more and more Russians moved into eastern and southern Ukraine, Russia secured its political control over the territory. The eastern and southern portions of Ukraine became linguistically and ethnically dominated by Russians, who became the majority in some provinces.
Ukraine was crucial to the Soviets victory during World War II, who used land to harass the Germans and cut their overextended supply lines. Through their effective use of their buffer zones, the Russians wore down the German military juggernaut and turned the tide. After the destructive Nazi invasion, the Soviets were keen to grab as much land as possible in Europe to use as a buffer zone against future invasions. To solidify control over the strategically important Ukraine, the Russians incorporated the land into the Soviet Union. Interested in extending their buffer zones as far as battle and unwilling to relinquish any of their World War II land acquisitions, the Soviets founded the Warsaw Pact.
NATO and the Warsaw Pact
After the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was established by the United States in 1949 to limit Russian military expansion, the Soviets responded by announcing the Warsaw Pact. The Warsaw Pact was a military alliance between the Soviet Union and their satellites, used by Russia to maintain control over their strategically valuable buffer zones in Eastern Europe. For the first time in Russian history, Moscow controlled large swathes of land in Eastern Europe that could be used to protect Russia’s core.
The Russians were ruthless in their domination of the region, unwilling to abandon any of their new, strategic buffer zones. When Hungary announced its withdrawal from the Warsaw pact in 1956, Soviet troops entered the country and removed the government. They crushed a similar revolt in Czechoslovakia in 1968, adamant that Eastern Europe had to remain under Soviet control for the protection of the Russian state.
The Expansion of NATO
However, when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, the Warsaw Pact ripped up its charter and the once-Russian dominated governments of Eastern Europe held free elections. Russia saw its influence in Poland, Germany, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia – all crucial Russian buffer zones – evaporate as the countries elected pro-western leaders.
Witnessing the fragmentation of the Warsaw Pact and the dissolution of their geopolitical buffer zones, the Russians grew desperate. When Chechnya, a southern Russian buffer zone strategically located by the Caucasus Mountains that protects Russia’s southern flank, secede from Russia and form an independent republic, the Russians drew a line in the sand. Unable to accept the loss of their key southern buffer zone, Russia invaded the country in 1994, brutally suppressing resistance.
Having been dominated by Russia for decades, many newly independent eastern European countries were understandably frightened and afraid by Russian deployments to Chechnya, and appealed to NATO for membership. Naturally, the United States and NATO were happy to accept new members on the Russian border that it could use to militarily strangle Russia in the event of war. As a result, over the last 25 years, The Russian Federation has lost control over nearly all of its buffer zones.
Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, Germany, and the Czech Republic have all joined NATO. Recently in 2004, Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania also joined NATO, giving the United States bases directly on the Russian border. On Russia’s southern border, even Turkey, which controls Russian access to the Mediterranean, is a member of NATO.
As NATO exists solely to combat Russian military expansion, this caused serious concern in Moscow as they were encircled by American-backed NATO countries. The longer Russia waits, the more countries join NATO and the more of Russia’s buffer zones are systematically eliminated. By 2010, only Belarus and Ukraine, both traditionally close to Russia, remained within the Russian sphere of influence.
Russian Fears of NATO Expansion into Ukraine
Russia uses their political influence to keep Ukraine docile and under the control of Moscow. They’ve supported numerous pro-Russian politicians who embrace political and economic ties with the Russia Federation, such as the former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych.
Due to centuries of Russian colonization, Ukraine is ethnically and linguistically divided between the Russian dominated south-east and the native Ukrainian population in the northern and western parts of the country. While ethnic Russians supported Yanukovych’s pro-Russian policies, native Ukrainians were angered and protested against the president. When Yanukovych used the military to brutally suppress the protests in 2014, he was impeached and replaced by a pro-western government.
The new, nationalistic Ukrainian government quickly issued statements that they would be turning west towards Europe, threatening to undermine Russian influence in the region. Alarm bells went off across Russia as Ukraine did the unthinkable – expressed interest in NATO membership. If NATO controlled the geographically important Ukraine, they would have a direct staging point to launch a major invasion of the Russian industrial heartland.
Russia gave up on political methods and moved to direct force in order to defend their last major remaining buffer zone, invading Crimea in southern Ukraine and sponsoring pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine.
Russia Invades Crimea
Crimea is an ethnically Russian province in southern Ukraine on the black sea. In additional to being a key buffer zone, the Ukrainian city of Sevastopol in the Crimean province is home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet – a major Russian military installation that defends Russia’s southern border. The port is Russia’s seat of power on the black sea, responsible for protecting Russia’s southern flank. With Ukraine teetering on the edge of western influence, Putin’s generals demanded swift action to protect their foothold in Crimea.
Afraid of losing their most valuable historical buffer zone, the Russians used the turmoil in Ukraine to grab as much territory as possible. Russian troops, disguised in non-descript, green uniforms without insignias were deployed throughout the region. Dubbed by the press as ‘little green men’, they quickly moved across the peninsula, storming Ukrainian checkpoints, surrounding military bases, and establishing road blocks.
Within a few weeks, the plain-clothed Russian military had thousands of soldiers deployed throughout Crimea to defend their key naval port at Sevastopol. The new Ukrainian government was outraged at the flagrant violation of their sovereignty and leaders worldwide condemned Putin’s invasion. However, Putin denied responsibility, saying that the green-clad troops were “native Crimean militias” who opposed the new, fascist Ukrainian government. Uninterested in political formality, the Russians blatantly lied to the world as they deployed more and more troops to the region.
As the international community and press roasted Putin, the Russians established total military control over Crimea. Appealing to the Russians in the Crimea that had been strategically settled there over hundreds of years, Putin garnered support from many ethnic Russians in the area. Wasting no time, the Russian authorities held a disputed “referendum” and annexed Crimea into The Russian Federation.
Separatist Movements in the East
After taking Crimea, other ethnic Russians in Ukraine have tried to follow in the footsteps of Crimea and join their historical homeland. Pro-Russian insurgencies sprung up in both Donbass and Luhansk, two industrialized, ethnically Russian provinces on the border. Russia, keen to acquire more strategic buffer zones, has directly sponsored these separatist movements.
Denying his actions to the world, Putin clandestinely supported the pro-Russian rebels by smuggling arms, munitions, and supplies across the border. Capitalizing on the situation, the Russian military sent military advisors and disguised troops across the border to strengthen the rebels. Within months, the pro-Russian rebels were armed with Russian made assault rifles, heavy artillery, and even tanks.
Faced with aggressive Russian militarism, the already western-leaning Ukrainian government reacted by cutting economic and political ties with Russia. Declaring the pro-Russian separatists to be terrorists, the Ukrainian military went on the offensive to retake their land. They laid waste to the Donbass and Luhansk regions, killing thousands of rebels and advancing towards the Russian border.
Strategically unable to accept a pro-western Ukraine on their doorstep, the Russians deployed their forces. Multiple armored battalions, supported by Russian infantry and heavy artillery poured into eastern Ukraine, sending the Ukrainian army reeling. Using their powerful military, the Russians easily retook the territory in just a few days. Then, after propping up the rebel forces and successfully securing eastern Ukraine as a buffer zone, the Russians were gone, retreating back to their bases inside Russia.
Russia Will Defend its Buffer Zones
Very rarely do countries make decisions for moral or ideological reasons, more often, they act in geopolitical self interest. Putin cares little about the Russians in eastern Ukraine or their struggle, he merely exploits them in order to expand critical Russian buffer zones. The more land Russia can take, by political or military means, the more defensible Moscow is in an invasion.
To prevent Russia from strengthening their geographical position, the United States has placed economic sanctions on entire sectors of the Russian economy. But Putin is undeterred by western sanctions – the cost of losing all of Ukraine to NATO is much higher. In the interest of defending their industrial and cultural heartland, the Russians will stop at nothing to acquire as much land as possible between themselves and Europe.
In the coming months and years, we’ll see Putin continue to support the pro-Russian rebels in the east, likely annexing the territory they’ve acquired. Putin understands that without buffer zones, Russia is at extreme risk and he will therefore defend Russian control of the region mercilessly. If the situation escalates and Russia is given the opportunity to strategically insert troops across all of southern and eastern Ukraine, they will. As far fetched as it may seem, a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine within the decade is not only possible, but given the current situation, probable.