The security situation in Ukraine: Lessons for Eastern Partnership neighborhood and wider Europe

Sergiy Gerasymchuk, Foreign Policy Council "Ukrainian Prism"

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Understanding of the security situation in Ukraine is hardly possible without understanding of the Russian motivation and strategic goals, on the one hand, and without assessing the vulnerabilities of Ukraine and other countries that Russia is targeting at, on the other hand. This article is a modest attempt of both discovering Russian motives and the weak sides of the countries that are or potentially can be the victims of the Russian aggression

Growth of Russian ambitions and “Ukrainian crisis”

The very fact of the Russian intervention first in Georgia in 2008 and then in Ukraine in 2014 supplemented by the illegal annexation of Crimea became possible due to a number of factors. Probably, the main factors were the false assumptions of the West that Russia is more of a partner than an adversary and that Europe is stable and secure after the collapse of the USSR, the underestimation of Russian ambitions in the region, as well as an infiltration of the Ukrainian elites by the supporters of the idea of the Russian-dominated world.

The West put a blind eye on the fact that the Russian Federation never accepted the domination of the Western liberal democratic values and their influence on the world order. Moscow had its own vision of the new world order. Notwithstanding the defeat in the Cold War, Russia did not face any repercussions from the West. On the contrary, the countries of the West invested a lot into the development of Russia (1). These investments, alongside with the huge amounts of money gained through the hydro-carbonates selling to the EU countries, provided Kremlin with the resources for acting beyond its borders. Moreover, successfully manipulating Western false assumptions, Kremlin even tried to promote its own agenda in the international relations. For years Russia promoted (nearly forgotten nowadays) the idea of a “Greater Europe” (2), a space ranging from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast, from Lisbon to Vladivostok, as a new form of cooperation between Russia and the EU, and deeper integration on the continent. Under this pretext, Russia was attempting to regain the control over Eastern Europe, integrate it to the “russkiy mir” (“Russian world”) concept, and aimed at a second round of the geopolitical competition with the US within the framework of the revolutionary expansionism concept (3).

Within such a context, the involvement of Ukraine into its geopolitical orbit was among the essential goals of Russia. First, this would contribute a lot into the Russian geopolitical integration projects. Despite Kremlin’s success in shaping the Eurasian Economic Union, it would hardly become a success without the inclusion of the Ukrainian market and Ukrainian human resources. Second, the Russian success in Ukraine would demonstrate that Russian influence goes far beyond Kremlin’s influence on autocratic regimes of Central Asia. Besides, the incorporation of Ukraine into the Russian integration project would have brought Russia even closer to NATO and the EU borders, would have increased the length of these borders far beyond the Belorussian segment, and would prove that the Russian integration ideas, although rather imposed than promoted by means of a soft power, are still feasible.

However, something went wrong in 2013. Although the Ukrainian president Victor Yanukovych suddenly withdrew from the planned signing of an Association Agreement (AA) with the EU, a significant step towards European integration of Ukraine, and a symbolic demonstration of Ukraine belonging to the Western bloc. The people of Ukraine did not accept this, and the Revolution of Dignity started. Also, despite all the attempts of Kremlin to prevent the success of the revolution and labeling it as a coup, the first weak reaction of the West later converted into the protestors support.

That was a significant blow to Russian geopolitical ambitions. On the one hand, it challenged the Russia’s great power’s capacities: despite having full-fledged control over the Ukrainian president and government, Moscow was not able to implement its objectives because of the opposition of people at the grass-root level. Besides, signing the AA with the EU would also hamper the Russian desire to stretch its geopolitical border with the West. And on the top of all that Russia was not ready to accept the challenge of a stable, independent, democratically and Western-oriented Ukraine that will put into question the Russia’s own model of a “managed democracy” in its so called “near abroad countries”.

Accepting that would come into contradiction with the strategic goal of the Russian leadership, that was to establish their country among the world’s great powers, with a status it enjoyed during the Cold War period, meaning, according to Putin (4), a role that has been conferred upon Russia by its history and is a defining feature of the country. The great power’s models for development could not be questioned in the Russian elites’ opinion; small countries also could not put into question the influence of the great power and undermine the Russian goals in the region. In this regard, the Ukrainian crisis, de-facto Russian war against Ukraine as a demonstration of the Russian strength to Ukraine and other smaller countries of the region and the West in general, was somewhat unavoidable. The Russian logic was clear: those who oppose it should be punished, whereas those still hesitating should be intimidated.

Russian “hybrid intervention” instruments

For the sake of such a demonstration, Russia applied a new model of the Russian military thinking, combining traditional Russian military thought instruments thought with a new emphasis on a surprise, deception, and strategic ambiguity.

This model enables Russia to disguise its real intentions and conduct an “invasion by stealth” (5). The theoretical background and framework for such a model was elaborated beforehand by the Russian strategic thinkers, and was reflected in several documents. In the Western literature, it is often described as a “hybrid warfare”. However, it is important to note that there are some differences in the Western and Russian perception of a “hybrid war”.

While describing a “hybrid war”, Western scholars often refer to some “hybrid threats” that incorporate a full range of the various modes of warfare, including conventional capabilities, irregular tactics and formations, terrorist acts with indiscriminate violence and coercion, and criminal disorder. “Hybrid wars” (6) can be conducted both by the state and a variety of non-state actors. However, such description is rather applicable to the phenomenon of the radical Islam or ISIS, whereas the Russian interpretation was somewhat different. The war in Ukraine contributed into further elaboration of the toolkit for describing warfare used by Russia. An important feature of the Russian hybrid war is that it is not only conducted by both military and non-military actors but also is targeting both state actors and non-state or supranational entities (e. g. the EU in general), as well as the societies (e. g. Western society in general). Some authors argue that the term is confusing as Moscow itself is not conducting war in a classical sense but applying a wide set of confrontational instruments. It would be more appropriate to use the terms “hybrid threat” or “hybrid intervention”, which consist of a mix of the non-military and military elements, applying both a “soft power” and a “hard power”. The use of a “soft power”, however, is fundamentally different as understood in the West, where it is seen as means to attract other countries to its own community.

Opposite to this power of attraction is the Russian view of a “soft power”, that is to influence or destabilize countries through some non-military actions. Russia’s Foreign Policy Concept, issued in February 2013, refers to the use of “мягкая сила” (7), which is better translated as a “soft force” rather than a “soft power”.

But it’s even more important to follow another ideologist of the Russian intervention to Ukraine to understand what is being applied by Russia. Writing under a well-known pseudonym just days before the Russian annexation of Crimea, Kremlin advisor Vladislav Surkov discussed a new form of a “non-linear war” (8) that involves “everybody and everything, all aspects of life, while still remaining elusive in its main contours”.

In this regard it’s fair to admit that (9) in the Eastern Ukraine “Kremlin has not operated by the direct military intervention but by the “indirect means” of various sorts: propaganda by putting all the blame on the “offensive” Ukrainian Army; covert activities by supporting proxies (local rebels) with weaponry and by sending Russian volunteers disguised as “green men” or local fighters; and keeping the area somewhere between war and peace through supporting the Minsk negotiations, on the one hand, while ignoring violations of the ceasefire agreements, on the other hand. Moscow’s interest is to keep the Donbas area in a hybrid situation of neither full-scale war, nor a functioning political entity under the control of Kyiv. In essence Putin’s aim is to keep Ukraine destabilized, thus preventing it from becoming a functioning state ready to set up closer ties with the EU and NATO”.

The destabilization on the contact line inspired by Moscow keeps pressure on the Ukraine’s military but also diverts Kyiv’s attention from enacting reforms, creates a “Ukraine fatigue” among the Western powers (which are quite vulnerable towards such a challenge, since politicians there still remember the failure of the “Orange revolution team”), and labels Ukraine as a fragile if not failed state.

Simultaneously, disappointment with the authorities is growing. Ukrainians are upset with the slow pace of the reforms, the problems of corruption, and the oligarch-based system. According to the opinion polls conducted at the end of 2016 (10), the lowest results on the scale “success—failure” were gained by such governmental activities as fighting corruption, the situation with the tariffs for utilities, the currency exchange rate, and pricing for the main products and services. It is no surprise that under such circumstances only 16% of the population are satisfied with the activities of president Poroshenko, whereas 82% are disappointed with him. Same is true for the prime-minister Groisman (16% are satisfied with his activities, whereas 78% are disappointed) and for the speaker of the Parliament Parubiy (11% are satisfied with his activities, whereas 82% are disappointed).

The aforementioned circumstances create perfect ground for the continuation of the Russian hybrid intervention. Despite the continuation of the military operation in the East of Ukraine, Russia is applying its soft force in the rest of the country. The propaganda war conducted by Russian media and pro-Russian media-outlets in Ukraine is supplemented by the strengthening Russian positions in the social media. Pro-Russian opinion makers highlight the mistakes of the government and invigorate further disappointment, hinting on the early parliamentary elections as the best solution.

At the same time, there is a visible rise of the pro-Russian/anti-Western political forces that aim at passing the parliamentary threshold. At the beginning of May, even the leader of the forbidden in Ukraine Communist party Symonenko participated in some demonstrations (11), appealing to protest for the high utilities tariffs.

All these factors result in Ukraine’s further vulnerability towards the Russian hybrid aggression.

Prospects of Russian-Ukrainian conflict, what needs to be done

In 2017, the security situation has high chances to get even worse. The ongoing conflict, as well as the eroding support from the population, prevents the government from the prompt and proper reforms. On the other hand, the situation in Europe is changing fast. Although the Russian main attempts of the hybrid intervention are focused on Ukraine, its efforts to expand already challenged the EU, and the elections both in France and in Germany (both countries are parties to Normandy format) are heavily influenced by the Russian propaganda, which not only labels Ukraine as the state not worth European efforts but also inspires in-country destructive populist forces. If any of these approaches is successful, the West will get weaker in its response to the Russian intervention and Moscow will get a broader field to maneuver in Ukraine.

It is also clear that the Russian resources for conducting its hybrid aggression are far from being exhausted. Moscow will continue to apply its soft force and will not limit its geographic scope by the Eastern Partnership countries, the “near abroad” or Central Asia but will also continue its efforts on winning hearts and minds further in the West.

Successful counteracting to the Russian hybrid war demands fulfillment of the certain preconditions. The main and most important precondition is the acknowledgement of the fact that Russian hybrid aggression is not aimed solely at Ukraine but rather at the Western way of life, the EU, and the West in general (although without applying a military component yet). In this regard, the West has to respond to this aggression in a cohesive way and to demonstrate its solidarity. Both European and Transatlantic solidarities matter a lot.

Also, it would be of an immense importance to understand that while it is Ukraine being the direct target of the Russian hybrid aggression but failing of Ukraine in the war with Russia would also mean the defeat of the pro-European forces in the other EaP countries. While the success of Ukraine would prove that even the Russian great power’s ambitions can be vain if the people do not agree to them, the defeat will lead to disappointment and frustration that will make these countries more vulnerable towards the Russian hybrid aggression. And finally, the government of Ukraine, as the governments of other AA countries of the EaP, should accelerate the pace of the reforms in the key sectors of governance and economics to counteract general disappointment and depression, which are the best allies to the Russian hybrid forces.

  1. Applebaum, Anne (2014), ‘The myth of Russian humiliation’, available at
  2. Menkiszak, M. (2013). Greater Europe: Putin’s vision of European (Dis)integration. OSW Studies No. 46. Warsaw: Centre for Eastern Studies.
  3. Tsygankov A. (1997), ‘From International Institutionalism to Revolutionary Expansionism: The Foreign Policy Discourse of Contemporary Russia’, Mershon International Studies Review, Vol. 41, No. 2 (Nov., 1997)
  4. Svarin D. (2016), The construction of ‘geopolitical spaces’ in Russian foreign policy discourse before and after the Ukraine crisis, Journal of Eurasian Studies, No. 7.
  5. Larrabee S., Wilson P., Gordon J. (2015). The Ukrainian Crisis and European Security. Published by the RAND Corporation, Santa Monica, Calif.
  6. Hoffman F. G. (2007). Conflict in the 21st Century: The Rise of Hybrid Wars. Arlington, VA: Potomac Institute for Policy Studies.
  7. Drent M., Hendriks R., Dick Z. (2015). New Threats, New EU and NATO Responses. Clingendael Report, July 2015
  8. Racz A. (2015). Russia’s Hybrid War in Ukraine: Breaking the Enemy’s Ability to Resist. The Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA) Report. Vol. 43.
  9. Drent M., Hendriks R., Dick Z. (2015). New Threats, New EU and NATO Responses. Clingendael Report, July 2015