Ukraine in Russian Geopolitics


The Communist experience  failed with the collapse of the Soviet Union, giving rise to 15 independent republics after they had gone through economic, social, and military turmoil. Boris Yeltsin, the first Russian president following the  collapse of the Soviet Union,  believed that dismantling  the costly Soviet empire and pursuing  a market economy were  critical to achieving  prosperity  and to ensure that the Russian people were lifted out of abject  poverty. Perhaps he was not aware that his successor, Vladimir Putin, had a totally different vision. Since ascending to power in 2000, Putin  has worked systematically to develop a plan to revive the Soviet empire as he considered its dissolution 30 years ago to be a great humiliation.  It is clear that the end goal of President Putin is to reverse the outcomes of the Cold War which enabled  NATO  to gain a foothold in the traditional Russian areas of influence. NATO established  military bases and deployed missiles — posing a direct threat to  Russian national security.

Despite his efforts, Putin will not succeed in  reviving the former Soviet empire. Nonetheless, it seems that he is rushing headlong to reimpose  Russian dominance over some former Soviet republics, primarily  Ukraine. This country is considered to be a strategic  route into Russia, and NATO’s expansion into it would compromise and expose  the Russian Lebensraum (living space).  Using diplomatic  methods with several European presidents along with the US President Joe Biden, Putin tried to ensure that Ukraine adopts a neutral position in regard to the West. But his efforts were in in vain. Putin lost patience, and  he  started his military campaign  against Ukraine on February 24, 2022. Through this military campaign, Putin aims to re-establish a geopolitical buffer zone  that  Russia’s rulers throughout  the country’s history — from the Tzars to  the Bolsheviks — felt necessary for their  own survival. The ongoing developments in Ukraine  indicate that the Russian ambition is to ensure  that Ukraine totally spins in  Moscow’s orbit — away from NATO — or at least to keep  it neutral or to ensure  control over it  through creating two pro-Russian independent republics: Donetsk and Luhansk. Both were  officially recognized by Russia on February 21, 2022.

The Strategy of the Russian Lebensraum

Lebensraum is an old concept with an inherently colonial nature.  The Lebensraum of countries varies  depending on their understanding of the concept of Lebensraum, and the interests they seek to secure.  According to the concept of  Lebensraum, a living space  grows like a living creature and stretches  like rubber to encompass land, sea, air, and space. Weak states most often do not seek to expand at the expense of their neighbors since they lack the necessary means. Major states— against the backdrop of  competition for global supremacy and the pursuance of qualitative superiority over their foes — find themselves prompted, though illegally, to expand their borders at the expense of their neighbors. They also may exercise their economic influence at the expense of weaker states — even if this leads to the deployment of  military force.

The Concept of the Russian Lebensraum                                               

The  concept of  Lebensraum was the reason behind the colonial expansion of several countries in the era that followed the Industrial Revolution.  The need arose for raw materials and markets  to export finished products. Thus, this  concept emerged to make a case for stronger countries to  occupy weaker ones and  expand at their expense. In the 19th century, Western countries took control of regions and states in Africa, Asia and Latin America. It is important to note that prior to this  Western colonialization, the West deemed these regions backward and not worthy of exploiting for  their resources, potential and location.[1]

The geopolitical concept of Lebensraum  gained momentum in the 1930s. The Nazis  extensively used it to restore Germany’s power and clout which it lost following its defeat in  World War I. The Nazis  expanded into  neighboring countries to secure the raw materials to build “the German nation.”

During the Cold War between the Eastern and Western camps, the concept of Lebensraum was manifested in the behavior of the two disputants and their proxy warfare in most of the Third World countries. Since the end of the Cold War —except for the  US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Iranian Shiite geopolitical expansion at the expense of the Arab countries — the concept of Lebensraum  has significantly diminished which is primarily based on dominance and monopoly of clout. This concept has gradually been replaced by  different forms of international cooperation and economic competition.  The aforementioned have characterized the new system of international relations amid the upsurge in globalization. 

 However, it seems that Russia under Putin has clung on  to the old concept of Lebensraum, which turns bordering  countries — especially those that were part of the former Soviet Union — into normal areas of influence for Moscow, as well as some distant countries that could serve as military bases such as Syria. Putin’s application of the concept of Lebensraum  is no different than what Friedrich Ratzel, the godfather of political geography who inspired  Hitler, had visualized.  Ratzel believed that the state is a living creature, with necessities  prompting it to expand to annex territories, even if military force is deployed to this end.[2]

There had been extensive discussions in Russian decision-making circles on the concept of the Russian Lebensraum. They  pointed out that the principal threat since the fall of the Soviet Union has been the expansion of  NATO  to swallow the entire region of Eastern Europe, thus coming in to close proximity  to  Russian borders. Russian cities are  within  NATO’s firing range. 

The Russian Strategy Toward the Caucasus

When looking at the map of Russia and the Caucasus, one finds that Russia — despite some concerns that the United States will  draw Georgia toward its sphere — mainly fears the expansion of NATO  from the south. From this direction, Russia has always been protected by the Caucasus. It is a rugged mountainous area that does not help in mounting  attacks, thus NATO  has never considered this option (see Map 1).

Map 1: Russia’s Outlook on the Caucasus as a Lebensraum

Source: Geopolitical Futures.[3]

The Caucasus region consists of two mountainous chains. The north is more rugged while the south is less rocky to some extent. The north houses Chechnya and Dagestan — both of which contain Islamic separatists which Russia  fears and with whom multiple skirmishes have taken place,  particularly in Chechnya.  Russia lost two wars to Chechnya and it  just about   won the third one.  These Islamic separatists have remained calm until now as  Putin took political measures to control these two regions. But, Russia fears that outsiders may enter the fold   to help in reorganizing and supporting the separatists  to exhaust her,  especially after the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan. Moscow fears that Afghan territories  could once again turn into a gravitational center,  attracting  terrorists from  the Caucasus and Central Asian regions.

 Putin is concerned that the South Caucasus  countries (Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan) have broken away from Russian influence as they are now independent states.  Russia fears that the South Caucasus countries may form an anti-Russia alliance and that the West, especially the CIA,  will back revolts or rebellions in the North Caucasus, paving  the way for eliminating  the southern barrier and opening up a loophole in the north. Driven by its fears, Russia has maintained an alliance with Armenia, the weakest of the three countries and has complicated its ties with Azerbaijan, a prosperous oil-producing country. As for Georgia, it moved away from Russian influence and placed itself in the US  orbit. Therefore, Russia  waged a military campaign against it in 2008 given that it is the most acute threat in the south against her. 

Moreover, Russia has been suffering  in the south because of the long dispute  between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. For over two decades, Azerbaijan avoided a full-blown dispute. But it recently decided, through support from its ally Turkey, to wage a massive attack on Nagorno-Karabakh. The Russians are aligned with Armenia and feel uneasy about the victory of Azerbaijan and Turkey which seeks to become an influential powerhouse in the Caucasus region. As an ally of Armenia, which is a poor former Soviet republic with a populace of less than 3 million, Russia already possesses a military base northwest of Armenia. It sent a 2,000-troop peacekeeping force to Nagorno-Karabakh which will serve for at least five years. The disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh is a pocket of land in Azerbaijan inhabited by the Armenians under the agreement which brought the fighting in the region to an end last year.[4] In the end, it was Russia that helped with the negotiations to end this war. In the meantime, 2,000 Russian troops in Nagorno-Karabakh represent a decisive force. This means that its ally Armenia now has Russian forces in the east of the region and Azerbaijan has Russian forces in the north and west of the region (see Map 2).

Map 2: Areas of Russian Peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh

Source: EURACTIV.[5]

In reality, Russia took an important step to restore the South Caucasus or at least to have a certain level of control over it.  The existence of a major Russian force with a long-term right to stay there will eliminate what would have been a potential threat in the long term. Maybe the presence of  US forces in Georgia poses a problem. But given the lack of US offensive intent, it is unlikely that  Washington is ready to deploy a significant number of  troops to the region. The minimal presence of  US training forces  in Georgia is something that Russia could possibly live with. 

The Russian Strategy Toward the Western Front

On the western front, a look at the Russian map reveals that  NATO  is advancing from the West to keep Russia besieged within  its borders and prevent it from expanding toward  warm waters. Russia is  aware that its western flank (Ukraine)  has  always been the path taken  by invaders. Russia still remembers that the invasions led by  Napoleon and Hitler happened through crossing this gateway between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea. Hence, it prefers to keep this region as a buffer zone and a barrier against  Western advancements (see Map No. 3).  The West perceived it necessary to secure the eastern flank; throughout ancient and modern history it had represented the gateway used by the  “Barbarian” invaders to subdue Western cities and  extend influence over them. Therefore, through reinforcing the eastern front, the Russian bear can be contained and its expansion curbed.

Map 3: Ukraine’s Geographic Location

Source: Google Maps.

No doubt that the West has so far swallowed the whole of Eastern Europe, except two countries: Ukraine and Belarus. If the West moves ahead  to expand its influence into  these two countries, it will totally deprive Russia of any foothold to the central region of Eastern Europe. Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there were Russian-American understandings, resulting in a tacit agreement with Washington: The United States will not provide Ukraine with massive offensive weapons. In return, Russia will not move large numbers of troops to Ukraine. Neither Russia nor the United States wanted the war. Perhaps each of them wanted Ukraine to be a buffer zone. This is what appeared initially, before things  drastically changed.[6]

As to Belarus, it still spins in the Russian orbit. Russia will not accept any other attitude. Belarus is just 400 miles away from Moscow. Poland,  which is hostile to Russia and houses some US forces, is located to the west. This poses a major threat to Russia if it fails to keep Belarus spinning in its  orbit. The elections in Belarus held this year  created an opportunity for Moscow. Though Russian-backed Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko faced dangerous opposition, he won the vote. In exchange for  Russian support, Lukashenko is prevented from making any compromises with the West to which  Moscow disagrees. He also has to meet  Russian military requirements.

On balance, the three Baltic countries (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) continue to pose a threat to Russia due to their NATO membership  and because of the alliance’s military units  stationed there. Yet, their terrain makes it difficult to wage a full-scale war  against Russia. Hence, Russia may be secure in terms of not facing a  ground offensive. But of course, it  is not immune  from aerial and missile attacks.

The Geopolitical Significance of Ukraine in the Russian Strategic Calculus

Political geography focuses on the study of  natural and human geography — since both factors are critical to  determining  a country’s international significance and standing.  Ukraine is geopolitically significant mainly due to its location and natural resources. Further, the country is an  important linkage point between Eastern and Western Europe through which the best trade routes pass. The global powers represented  by Russia and the United States have attempted to exert influence over Ukraine, given that it is one of the main gateways to dominate and control the world. This is backed up by Halford Mackinder’s heartland theory which focuses on the territories deemed to be  the heart of the world — Ukraine represents the epicenter of the heart.

Ukraine:  Strategic Depth for Russia

In  his address before the Russian Federal Council in 2005, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the fall of the Soviet Union was the most devastating geopolitical disaster in the history of Russia. Putin meant that the fall of the Soviet Union had caused Russia to lose its strategic depth which had allowed it to withstand foreign invasions since the 18th century. The Russians  cannot accept Ukraine joining NATO.  Russia  allowed the Central and Eastern European countries as well as the Baltic countries to engage with the West and Western organizations.  But  Russia embraced an intransigent position toward Belarus and Ukraine (Slavic nations) breaking away from its influence.  Ukraine is of particular importance. It represents  strategic depth for Russia  and serves as a barrier preventing Western expansion.  Since the independence of Ukraine, the West has attempted to integrate it into NATO  and the European Union, given its geostrategic and economic significance.  Russia is adamant that it will  not allow Ukraine to join the West if it wants to regain its spheres  of influence and restore its standing as a global superpower.

Over the course of history, Russia has always considered Ukraine to be part of its traditional motherland and an essential part of  its history despite the cultural differences. During the Soviet era, despite the full control over Ukraine, there had been calls from Ukrainian national elites to seek  independence from the Soviet Union. However, Russia was able to repress Ukrainian nationalism until the collapse of the Soviet Union. After its collapse, it was unable to maintain its grip over Ukraine.  The latter became an independent state and Russia recognized it in 1997.[7]

In geographic terms,  Ukraine has a unique location.  When looking at the map of Europe, we find that Ukraine has an important strategic location in Eastern Europe. It is located at the crossroads between Europe and Asia. Ukraine’s unique geographical location lies in the fact that it overlooks the Black Sea. Getting access to the Black Sea allows access to the Mediterranean, which is particularly important for  Russian trade and the passage of energy supplies to all parts of the region. Russia cannot cede Sevastopol city or the Crimean Peninsula, the essential base for the Russian Black Sea fleet, allowing it to have a presence  in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean  (see Map 4). This presence gives Russia greater room for free strategic maritime movement, the ability to carry out strategic deployment and the capacity to transfer  forces to its  spheres of influence in the Middle East. This means Russia possesses the necessary characteristics/capabilities to be considered as a superpower. 

Map 4:  Ukraine’s Geography

Source: Bangkok Post.[8]

  Russia is aware of the threat posed to its national security if Ukraine joins NATO.   Ukraine is the last strategic garrison that  separates Russia from the West and its allies. As known to all, the principle of collective defense is one of the  key principles of NATO.  An attack launched against  a NATO member country is considered to be an attack against all the alliance’s members.   If Ukraine is granted NATO membership,  it will be acutely dangerous for Russia to take any military action in the Ukrainian territories.   NATO could also support Ukraine to restore the Crimean Peninsula and wrest full control over the separatist region of Donbas. This would be considered a massive loss for Russia and would diminish its influence, however, it would be  a triumph for Washington and its allies. Russia fears that  Ukraine joining NATO would open the door for Georgia to follow suit, which would be a severe blow to Russian influence.  It would also lead to Russia being besieged  militarily and pose an aerial and missile threat to its security.

To Russia, the West’s entrenchment of its interests and clout in Ukraine means its exertion of  influence over the entire northern part of the Black Sea and the Crimean Peninsula which has  strategic and historical importance. As Turkey, the West’s ally, sits on the southern coast of this sea — and Romania and Bulgaria on the western coast and Georgia on part of the eastern coast — Russia’s presence in this warm sea will be limited  to only part of the eastern coast.  The Black Sea is strategically important for Russia as it allows the safe and swift movement of its  naval fleets. With Russia’s limited presence in this sea, it will no longer have the aforementioned strategic benefits.  This will curb the movements of the Russian navy toward the Mediterranean.  Russia has a foothold in Syria and pockets of influence in  in Libya and some North African nations.

 Russian Policies to Contain Ukraine

Immediately after the  collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine maintained traditional relations with Russia. In 1994, Leonid Kuchma was elected as the new Ukrainian president who hoped to maintain good ties with Russia. In 2003, he approved a Russian proposal to create “a common economic zone” with Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. In 2004, the Russia-backed candidate Victor Yanukovych won the presidency.  Shortly afterwards, the Orange Revolution, staged by the supporters of the candidate backed by the West Viktor Yushchenko, broke out. This revolution forced the election results to be reconsidered, resulting in  Yushchenko being declared the winner. Yushchenko’s victory triggered a Russian crisis of confidence, with Moscow  believing that the Orange Revolution was instigated  by the CIA to weaken Russian clout  and disentangle its connections with its neighbors.

Russia is always concerned about foreigners infiltrating its  neighboring Eastern European countries. This not only includes  the expansion of Western political or military clout into these countries but also  Western cultural infiltration.  Russia deems the latter to be a dangerous Western  policy to move the Eastern European  countries away from its clutches and make them embrace  liberal ideas which are  despised by President Putin. He has always said that liberal ideas reflect  a culture that goes against  Russian social and traditional values. He has also warned against the moral decadence that liberal ideas could lead to. 

At the  intelligence level, Russia has been working through the use of  soft power to win over Ukrainian officials and for them to  partake in  elections.  In 2010, Moscow  succeeded in supporting its candidate Yanukovych. He won the presidential election and resumed relations with Russia. His administration extended Sevastopol port’s lease agreement with Russia and reduced ties with the European Union. But the protests demanding alignment with the West  quickly reemerged, which prompted Yanukovych to resign from  office amid Russian astonishment. 

A new Ukrainian government was installed.  The Western-backed Oleksandr Turchynov was elected as Ukraine’s president.  Russia refused to recognize  Turchynov’s government.  Then in 2014, the Ukrainians  elected Petro Poroshenko, who continued his escalatory and harsh rhetoric against Russia. Relations between Russia and Ukraine went downhill.   Russia realized  that diplomacy did not achieve  its objectives in Ukraine and that  military force must be deployed  and a fait accompli must be imposed that enhances its  geopolitical standing.  Thus, Russia  waged a military campaign leading to the capture of  Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 — the first time  a European country annexed territory belonging to another country since World War II.[9]

 In a speech he delivered in 2014 before the Duma,  Putin  made the claim of Russia’s historical right to Ukraine. He said, “In people’s hearts and minds, Crimea has always been an inseparable part of Russia. This firm conviction is based on truth and justice and was passed from generation to generation, over time, under any circumstances, despite all the dramatic changes our country went through during the entire 20th century.”

He added: “Our task was not to conduct a full-fledged military operation there, but it was to ensure people’s safety and security and a comfortable environment to express their will.”[10]

 Putin and  Russian state-run media outlets have repeatedly accused Ukraine of mistreating people who have  Russian origins, and reiterated the demand to reintegrate  the Crimean Peninsula into the Russian motherland.  The aforementioned speech came days after the people of  Crimea demanded a  referendum to support its  return back to the Russian motherland  and weeks before violence started in eastern Ukraine between  Russian-backed forces and the Ukrainian army.

The annexation of the Crimean  Peninsula and the outbreak of revolts in eastern Ukraine in 2014  created the justification for the new Ukrainian ruling coalition to turn to NATO.  It demanded to be part of NATO’s  defense umbrella to deter Putin’s ambitions which go beyond  the Crimean Peninsula. As  for Moscow, the Ukrainian leadership merely entertaining the idea of letting a  former Russian satellite state with much  geographic and economic importance  joining  NATO  would be an unacceptable scenario  and reflects the abject failure of  Russia’s broader strategy.

 Russia is aware that  NATO’s expansion  eastwards toward its sphere of influence will undermine its ability to defend itself against ground, air and naval incursions.   The Russians began to re-read what  the strategic theoretician Halford Mackinder wrote, “Whoever controls Eastern Europe controls the Heartland. And whoever controls the Heartland controls the World Island. And whoever controls the World Island will soon rule the world.”[11]

 Russia is aware that Ukraine is the heart of Eastern Europe and that NATO’s outreach to it and placing it under its security and defensive umbrella  is a stab in its back and a move that will thwart its chances of  becoming a global superpower.                

In 2019,  comedian-turned politician Volodymyr Zelenskyy won the Ukrainian presidential election at the expense of President Poroshenko. Zelenskyy was no less hostile  than his predecessor when it came to  relations with Russia. His victory symbolized that the majority of the Ukrainian people are  fed up with  Russia’s hostile behavior and  they want to turn to the West, not to Russia. Hence, Zelenskyy did not bow to  Russian blackmail and called for a full Russian withdrawal and the disarmament of all  its illegal  military formations in eastern Ukraine. He advanced the process to  join  NATO  and the European Union.  The West, particularly the United States,  rushed to provide Ukraine with cutting-edge weapons and military training, putting more  pressure on Russia.

Russia’s Geopolitical Achievements From Invading Ukraine

Have the Russians Achieved Their Goal in Ukraine?

Putin is intent on establishing the new Russia through exploiting the so-called “frozen conflicts;” the differences within the Eastern European countries neighboring Russia — and using  these conflicts as an entry point and justification for  Russian intervention and expanding  Moscow’s clout beyond Russian borders. Over the past three decades, Moscow has thrown its weight behind a pro-Russia regime in the separatist region of Transnistria in Moldova. It has also backed separatist governments in South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, two countries with a large number of Russian-speaking people. The existence of Russian-speaking people presents the Kremlin with a justification to interfere  in the affairs of other countries. The Kremlin claims to act as the guardian of the Russian-speaking people against their  integration into the West and protect them from embracing Western liberalism. Moreover, there are some who argue that Russia uses the Russian-speaking people  as a bridgehead to expand  its geopolitical sphere.

Russia has argued that  NATO’s expansion eastwards damaged  international relations with the West after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and this must  be rectified now. The Kremlin wants, at all costs, to end  the expansion of  NATO  eastwards — especially in the sphere of  its traditional  clout — and  remove US nuclear weapons from Europe.  Russia also wants to ensure that Belarus, Georgia, and Ukraine will never belong to a military or an economic bloc other than one  that is dominated by Moscow and that it will continue  to have the final say over foreign and security policy in the aforementioned  countries.  These three countries, according to the Russian point of view, should recognize Moscow’s sovereignty over their political decision-making as a fait accompli.  According to the Russian point of view,  Moscow should possess an exclusive sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and the South Caucasus, even if  military force must be deployed to secure  its interests in these regions.

In its military campaign against Ukraine, Russia announced that it had finished the first stage of its  campaign, claiming it had achieved the goals set for  the first stage. Before examining to what extent the Russian goals had been achieved, we should ascertain whether Russia has set an “end state” that it aims to achieve by the end of the war or if it has identified a set of goals which it seeks to achieve.    The end state — as I see it — can best be defined as “ which point are we at now? And where should we be by the end of the war?” This means that  policymakers should paint a precise picture of the geopolitical situation which they want to achieve by the end of the war to  their military and civilian leaderships.

Prussian military thinker Helmuth von Moltke (1800-1891) advised war commanders against starting a war without having the desired outcomes  visualized  in their minds. He had a maxim which became the basis  of one of the most important strategic planning rules. Addressing political leaders, he said, “Don’t start  a war before imagining the ends in your mind and  you have the ability to win it.” The role of field commanders and war generals is important: they should know what the political leadership specifically wants from the war  and the end state which  it wants to achieve.

Senior field commanders should start from the desired outcome  to develop the necessary war plan and evaluate  the  needed military capabilities to secure  victory. There is no such  thing in  military science as starting  a war and determining the final outcome  later. Military commanders need from the very beginning to outline  the battle scenario they  want to wage and execute it via  war games before entering the battle. It is easy to start a war but it is difficult to control  it and its consequences  after the first spark breaks out.

Neither the final outcome  nor what Putin intended  to achieve by the end of  Russia’s military campaign against Ukraine was unknown. Despite some victories, it remains unclear whether there is a well-defined Russian military strategy. This is also true of US operations  in Iraq and Afghanistan, with  US political and military planners unsure of the final outcomes. They did not even prepare a comprehensive military strategy over the course of the wars, which led to  America’s failure to a great extent, prompting Washington to look for what it called  a strategic exit. The exit plan is mostly executed  when facing difficulties and setbacks in achieving the  visualized end outcome  and wanting to save face in front of domestic audiences and the world. 

In the War Proclamation Address before the nation on February 24, Putin  specified his goal regarding the special military operations:  to strive for the demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine.[12] In fact, it is hard to convince us that this stated objective reflects the final goal of Putin’s war  against Ukraine. The aim behind  demilitarization is clear and achievable to a great extent because of  Russia’s massive firepower. However, the process of denazification could be extremely difficult, given that Nazism is an ideology. It is not something material, logical or visible. Those embracing this ideology do not have marks on their bodies  identifying them as Nazis. There are no clear structures representing Nazism nor are there specific leaders championing  Nazism.

Putin’s remarks can  be understood in the context of  political rhetoric — not to clarify the ultimate goal of the war but to disseminate some sort of propaganda at home and abroad — painting a bright picture to legitimize the act of war.  In doing so, politicians aim to secure  the highest possible level of popular and official sympathy. The real goals of the war are usually concealed. They are only revealed to war generals or national security officials for them to develop plans and strategies to achieve the desired end. 

In the face of such ambiguous remarks by politicians about the goals of  war, observers and analysts find themselves prompted to conclude war objectives through tracking the course of military operations, the positioning of  forces, the directions of  military movements, the categories of  weapons used and the size of the  forces deployed. If we project  the aforementioned considerations onto the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we  will find — in my opinion — that  Putin’s estimated  and desired   outcome  is the  ouster of the Ukrainian government and the installation of a pro-Putin government that agrees to amend  the Ukrainian Constitution, stipulating  that Ukraine shall be armed on a limited scale, neutral and not a NATO member.

It is believed that so far Putin has failed to deliver on Plan A — achieving the supposed end  outcome as  mentioned. But the Russian defense minister called it  “the first stage.” He also said that the Russians have now begun the second stage, which, according to  military planning science, is nothing but Plan B. Under this plan, instead of taking control of Kyiv and toppling the government, which is hard to achieve, Russia seeks  to take control of Donbas,  and enhance the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk   while continuing negotiations with the Ukrainian government to play on the element of time.

All the aforementioned is related to the end outcome.  As  for the strategic objectives of the Russian military campaign, the Russian Defense Ministry did not clearly disclose them.  However, it  can be concluded that the strategic objectives include: first, weakening the Ukrainian political leadership and forcing it to make concessions;  second, turning Ukraine into a neutral state and not allowing it to join NATO; third, defeating the Ukrainian armed forces and weakening them  so that  they do not pose a threat to Russia or to the separatists in Donbas;  fourth, toppling the capital Kyiv; and finally, separating Donbas from Ukraine by creating two independent republics affiliated  with Moscow. 

The Extent of Russia’s Achieved Strategic Objectives

Two months have passed since the start of the  Russia-Ukraine war. Despite the Ukrainian resistance, Russia has managed to achieve some of its strategic objectives. However,  Russia has fallen  short of scoring the geopolitical points that it aspired  to achieve. As to the first and second objectives — weakening the Ukrainian government so it yields to the conditions dictated to it — so far, the Ukrainian political leadership is still effective and is faring quite well when it comes to managing the crisis. The Russians have so far failed to liquidate members of the Ukrainian government.  The survival of the Ukrainian government can  be construed as  Russia’s inability to eliminate  its members or a desire to keep them alive to finalize the negotiations but with a weakened resolve, moral defeat and  their isolation from the Ukrainian people.  Maybe the Kremlin seeks  to merely put pressure on  the Ukrainian government so that it accepts  an agreement to ensure that  Ukraine remains neutral and pledges not to join NATO.  So far, the  negotiations are still going on and the Russian demands, particularly regarding Ukraine’s neutrality, remain firm.

With regard to the third objective,  disarming Ukraine, the Russian army has achieved a considerable portion of this objective through the near-total destruction of the Ukrainian military infrastructure and significantly reducing the combat capabilities of the Ukrainian armed forces — particularly the air force and the air defense force. Until mid-April 2022, 123 out of 152 Ukrainian fighter jets, 77 out of 149 helicopters and 152 out of 180 medium and long-range air defense systems were destroyed. Furthermore, the naval force was totally destroyed, and all units of  Ukraine’s ground assault force suffered heavy losses.[13] Meanwhile, Russia imposed aerial control and reached the extent of what is known as  full air sovereignty over the airspace of the war theater.

When it comes to  capturing  Kyiv, it will remain a strategic objective for the Russian army  — though hard to achieve at the present stage.  This is because taking the capital is always the biggest objective, which if successful, makes securing  the other military objectives much easier. The capital is always the symbolic heart of a country, as it represents the political functioning of the Ukrainian state.  The fall of the capital dampens national morale,  causing the rest of the cities to fall, securing victory for the invaders.  Until now, the Russians have failed to take control of Kyiv, a city with a populace of 3 million, despite being only 30 kilometers away from it due to the powerful Ukrainian armed resistance and  Russia’s fear of attracting negative  public opinion against its  war in case it pursues a  scorched-earth policy resulting in a bloodbath.  But the chief reason is  Russia’s fear of sliding into urban warfare which it experienced before without any significant success. In fact, the Russian army’s incursions into  Grozny in 1994 and 1999 and  its involvement in Aleppo in 2015 were difficult.  Thus, it seems that the poor experience of  urban warfare is  still fresh in  Russia’s military memory. Instead of direct attacks on cities, the Russians this time chose a different military approach: placing  cities under siege, encircling  resistance pockets and isolating them from civilians,  attacking cyberspace and communications networks to deprive the government of the ability to communicate with, inspire,  and guide the people.   This is in addition to bombing key facilities in cities  and military infrastructure as well as  opening up safe shelters for people to vacate to  until  cities surrender. 

After completing most of the first stage of its military campaign in Ukraine, which can  be considered as Plan A, Russia will focus on its bigger strategic objective or what it calls the second stage: fully liberating Donbas  in eastern Ukraine, considered to be part of Plan B. The Russian Defense Ministry said the separatists backed by Russia now control 93 percent of Luhansk  and 54 percent of Donetsk.  The Russian Defense Ministry also announced Russia’s control of  Mariupol port after liberating it fully from the militants of Ukraine’s Azov Battalion.[14] Mariupol is Moscow’s chief target in  Donbas  since it will make it easier for it to link its forces deployed in  Crimea with those stationed in Donbas’  separatist areas. Taking control of Mariupol marks an important step toward complete control of the largest and most important port on the coast of the Sea of Azov. Wresting control over it means a strong economic capacity for Donetsk and Luhansk, especially in the field of coal and minerals exports. Depriving Ukraine of controlling it will mean undermining its economic capabilities, especially grain exports.

Beyond the abovementioned strategic objectives, there are ephemeral gains which Moscow managed to make. Among the gains is the sympathy displayed by several countries, especially in the Arab world and Africa — or what the West calls the Third World. Russia has launched media and diplomatic campaigns to promote  its war against the liberal, expansionist and draconian West, which according to Moscow has turned Ukraine into factories of epidemics and spread them all over the world. Russia has significantly succeeded in this despite the strong Western propaganda that supports the Ukrainian narrative of the war. But this propaganda has lost its credibility, especially among the peoples in the Arab world, who  have grown weary of the Western methods  of influencing  public opinion.  Therefore, Arab media outlets resorted to  Russian media outlets in search of the truth instead of  Western media outlets, which have lost credibility.

In fact, Moscow managed to gain sympathy  for its war from many Arab and African countries.  The Western world rose up in unison to denounce and decry the Russian war  against Ukraine and provided Kyiv  with weapons and imposed economic sanctions on Russia. But Africa and the Middle East displayed sympathy with Russia. This confirms two facts: first, Russia has succeeded over the past two decades in mending ties with the African and Middle Eastern countries and forging partnerships, whether in energy or in the military fields. Second, it seems that a large number of  Middle Eastern countries are fed up with  US interventionist policies and no longer feel that  Washington  nor the West in general are credible when it  comes to honoring their commitments to support  peace and stability in  the region, especially when they have done little to exert pressure on Iran to stop its proxy war projects. The Gulf  states, which have long depended on the  United States for protection, now believe that this security umbrella has loopholes. Gulf diplomats  and others across  the region hope their neutral position on Ukraine sends a message to Washington that “if we cannot  depend on you, you cannot depend on us.”[15]

It seems that from now on, the Gulf states  in their foreign policies will give precedence to their interests, commit to  neutrality and  diversify their  alliances. China and Russia have become two essential partners for the Gulf states.  The interests between  these two major world powers and the Gulf states are much more significant compared  to the mutual interests between the Gulf  and the West, especially in the economic and energy fields.  Even the military field is witnessing more interactions between the Gulf states and the two aforementioned major world powers.  Regardless of the level of  US political pressure on Saudi Arabia to increase the share of its oil production, Riyadh will be keen to maintain relations and joint understandings with Russia. It seeks to maintain a balanced policy on energy that first serves its interests and second achieves the interests of OPEC+ members, a bloc in which Russia is a major member.

On February 25, the UAE shocked the United States  and the West when it abstained from voting on a UN Security Council resolution condemning the Russian military operation in Ukraine. Moreover, the Arab League statement issued three days later made neither implicit nor explicit mention of Russia and although Egypt and the other Gulf states voted in favor of the General Assembly proposal in this matter, the officials  of these countries argued  that it is not their war and they do not have any official alliances with either of the parties involved in  the conflict.[16]

Among the manifestations of sympathy with Russia  was when most of the Arab countries abstained from voting on a resolution to suspend Russia’s membership  to the UN Human Rights Council. Abstaining from voting reflects  a position that is close to rejection or is indicative of  reservations regarding the resolution. Arab countries are hesitant  about issuing a resolution that condemns Russia before sending a committee to investigate the crimes committed in Ukraine  as was the case in Syria, Gaza and Lebanon. They do not want to escalate the situation in a way that does not serve the mediation efforts led by the Arab League.

Anyway, when looking at the European map, one  will realize the geostrategic significance of Ukraine, which lies in the fact that it is located at the heart of the European continent. Whoever wins Ukraine on its side as an ally will be closer to pulling the geopolitical strings in Europe. This  cannot be untrue given  Ukraine’s massive and unique natural resources. It is bigger than France in terms of area and at the crossroads of important maritime and overland routes, where the East and West and the North and South converge.

In the end, Ukraine will remain one of the most important geopolitical arteries for Russia in terms of its strength, survival, and recognition  as a global power. The Russian military campaign will continue until Ukraine becomes — at best — a pro-Russia country again or Moscow at least gets  guarantees that Ukraine will remain neutral and will not join NATO.  However,  Russia will not withdraw from Ukraine without ensuring that Donbas is  fully liberated and under its control.  Surely, Russia’s  expected  gains will not come without economic consequences for it,  especially in the short term. But Putin is betting that the cost-benefit calculus will swing in his direction, and he will make significant geopolitical gains.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                

[1] Aqel Abbas, “Lebensraum and Russia’s Dreams of Reclaiming a Glory that Will Never Return,” Al-Nahar Al-Arabi, March 1, 2022, accessed March 31, 2022, [Arabic].

[2] “The Lebensraum Theory of Countries,” Ra2ej,November 24, 2019, accessed April 2, 2022, [Arabic]

[3] George Friedman, “Russia’s Search for Strategic Depth,” Geopolitical Futures, 17 November 2020, accessed 12 April 12, 2020,

[4] “Russian Military in Armenia Reinforce Areas Near Azeri Border,” EURACTIV, 4 May 2021, accessed April 17, 2022,

[5] Ibid.

[6] Friedman, “Russia’s Search for Strategic Depth.”

[7] Ibid.

[8] “Russia blocking of Black Sea would be ‘unjustified’: NATO,” Bangkok Post, April 17, 2021, accessed May 12, 2021,

[9] Christopher Schmidt, “Evaluating Russia’s Grand Strategy in Ukraine,” E-international Relations, July 6, 2020, accessed March, 21, 2021, [Arabic].

[10] Ibid.

[11] Dalal Mahmoud, “The Ukrainian Crisis: The Real Objectives of Russia and the United States,” The Egyptian Center for Thought and Strategic Studies, February 22, 2022, accessed March 21, 2022, [Arabic].

[12]  Frank Ledwidge, “Ukraine War: What Are Russia’s Strategic Aims and How Effectively Are They Achieving Them?” The Conversation, March 2, 2022, accessed April 4, 2022,

[13]  Elena Teslova, “Russia Has Achieved Main Initial Goals in Ukraine: Defense Chief,” Anadolu Agency, March 29, 2022, accessed April 4, 2022,

[14] “Russia: Most of the First Stage of the ‘Ukraine Campaign’ Is Completed and Now the Focus Is on Donbas,” Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, March 23, 2022, accessed April 4, 2022, [Arabic].

[15] “The Economist: How Does Russia Win the Sympathy of Africa and the Middle East in Its War on Ukraine?” Al Jazeera, February 14, 2022, accessed April 18, 2022, [Arabic].

[16] Ibid.

Editorial Team