Image courtesy of the BBC and AP. Image courtesy of the BBC and AP.

**NOTE: What follows is War Council’s very first cadet submission – an important first.

By Cadet Caleb Stevens

Recent coverage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is evolving a fixation on Sevastopol’s strategic importance to Russia, to the point of beating a dead horse with pictures of the Black Sea fleet and discussion of Russia’s need for warm water ports. These articles completely ignore the questions: “why now?” and “how will Russia be willing to resolve this situation?”  


Russian troops and battleships make sexy front pages, but focusing solely on the military significance of Sevastopol has led the media to ignore entirely the political considerations that led Russia to invade this week, as well as those that will shape any resolution of the current conflict. Ukrainian political developments in the past five years were the true catalyst for invasion, and have sharply limited the outcomes Russia is willing to entertain.


Major Players

Russia’s motivation to invade hinges around three major players, all Ukrainian:


Viktor Yanukovych: Former prime minister (sporadically 2004-07) and president (2010-14) of Ukraine. He made several pro-West lunges during his presidency, but each time Russia successfully reined him in with threats and economic inducements. Impeached February 23rd amid violent protests.[i]


Yulia Tymoshenko: Photogenic businesswoman and former Ukrainian Prime Minister (2007-10), best characterized as “anti-Russian.” This places her in the pro-West camp for now, even if she doesn’t intend to stay. She is a close ally of the interim president, Turchynov. Tymoshenko was imprisoned on trumped up charges of embezzlement from 2010-14, and is popular among the anti-Russian crowd for her role co-leading the “Orange Revolution,” where in 2004 Ukrainians protested electoral corruption by Yanukovych, and succeeded in forcing a revote. This ousted Yanukovych in favor of Yushchenko.[ii] She was released by parliament on the same day Yanukovych was impeached.[iii]


Viktor Yushchenko: President of Ukraine from 2005-10. Yushchenko is former rival to Yanukovych. His immediate influence is limited, as he demonstrated an inability to build and maintain a coalition during his presidency and subsequently reached record low approval ratings for a presidential incumbent.[iv]


The Situation

Originally negotiated in 1997, the agreement under which Russia leased its military base in Sevastopol was set to expire in 2017. In 2010, after grumbling about closing the port, Yanukovych agreed to extend the lease until 2042 in exchange for dramatically lower prices for Russian natural gas. This sparked calls for Yanukovych’s impeachment over allegations of violating Ukrainian sovereignty. A group opposing the deal, including Yushchenko, Tymoshenko, and the heads of regional councils in western Ukraine, submitted a petition to Ukraine’s highest court claiming that the agreement violated the constitution. [v]


Ukraine’s constitution does explicitly prohibit stationing foreign troops in Ukrainian territory, giving Yushchenko and Tymoshenko legal grounds to demonstrate a violation of the constitution. However, only the president, prime minister, or a majority of parliament can submit such a petition to the constitutional court. In 2010, Yushchenko and Tymoshenko had just lost their positions as president and prime minister. The court moved to preserve its legitimacy by refraining from ruling in a politically charged case. It threw out the anti-Russian petition on the grounds that the petitioners didn’t have the right to sue, as they did not occupy one of the positions permitted to bring such a suit before the court. [vi]


More recently, when Yanukovych began to pursue Ukraine’s integration into the EU, Putin responded with an economic veto. Seeing his buffer with Europe and future access to Sevastopol slipping away simultaneously, he met with Yanukovych and convinced him to toe the Russian line with economic inducements including loans and continued access to cheap Russian gas.[vii] At least that was the public part of the agreement—Putin likely threatened more in private. When Ukrainians protested Yanukovych’s kowtow to Russia, the regime cracked down violently, killing around 75 protesters.[viii] As days bled into a week, and Ukrainian blood spread over the cobblestones of Kiev’s Independence Square, the Ukrainian political climate turned against Yanukovych.


Last week, Russian leaders watched their puppet’s impeachment, and realized that one of two courses in the near future would lead to the same result. First, the Ukrainian parliament could declare Russia’s position in Sevastopol illegal or submit a petition to the constitutional court to the same effect, this time with an authority the court cannot ignore. The decision would be simple; the Russian base in Sevastopol directly violates a provision of the Ukrainian constitution. Second, Tymoshenko or another anti-Russian could ride the tidal wave of anti-Russian sentiment into office in the coming May election and do the same.


Yanukovich’s recent impeachment makes it possible, if not likely that Tymoshenko will replace him. Tymoshenko remains relatively popular, despite allegations of corruption and the failure of her coalition during her time as Prime Minister.[ix] She is likely the only anti-Russian politician with the name-recognition to win the presidency. After receiving 5.33% of the popular vote for president in 2010, Yushchenko lacks the popularity to be a contender, and interim president Turchynov is severely untested.[x] There’s no recent polling data for the upcoming presidential election, and political opinions are at their most volatile as the invasion plays out, so public opinion remains somewhat opaque. However, Tymoshenko’s recent actions and press releases indicate that she is effectively positioning herself at the center of the “February Revolution.”[xi] Even if the soon-to-be-formed interim government doesn’t take a strong stance against Russia, the upcoming election will be a referendum on Sevastopol and the larger Russian question. A vote for Tymoshenko, or whoever fills in as the most prominent anti-Russian politician, will likely be seen as a vote for EU membership, and a stance against Russia, its recent invasion, and the base in Sevastopol.


Facing an immediate political threat to Sevastopol, Putin took the opportunity to secure Russia’s only viable port with access to the Mediterranean (Russian facilities in Tarsus have been rendered useless by the Syrian civil war).[xii] [xiii] It is no surprise that Russia justified its invasion with the same logic we saw around Abkhazia: pointing to violence against civilians and a responsibility to protect ethnic Russians.[xiv] This is a proven strategy for Russia; cite human rights abuses and concern for ethnic Russians and the international community will stop at a verbal slap on the wrist.


Where to go From Here

Putin is invading to improve his military position by securing Sevastopol. More importantly, though, Putin is invading now to foreclose Ukraine’s ability to control Sevastopol. The Kremlin cannot afford a Tymoshenko or Turchynov presidency; it knows they view the Russian base as a violation of Ukrainian sovereignty, and possess the legal power to remove it. Crimea’s autonomous status within Ukraine has proven insufficient to safeguard Russia’s security interests in Sevastopol. For this reason, Putin will likely pursue a partition of Ukraine, and stand firm against American and European opposition.


Russia cannot afford to return control of Sevastopol to Ukraine. After watching political instability threaten his Crimean base, Putin will be unwilling to even consider ceding to the West’s demands. However, Russia may be willing to accept a truly independent state in Crimea and perhaps Eastern Ukraine. Allowing the Russian-speaking Ukrainian population in the South and East, who overwhelmingly voted for Yanukovych in 2010,[xv] to form their own state may be the only way to come to an official settlement that maintains a degree of autonomy for the Crimean and East Ukrainian population.


Crimea and Eastern Ukraine’s political history and ethnic makeup suggest that it would closely align with Russia if granted independent status. Most in the region are Russian speakers and support coordination with the Kremlin in both economic and political affairs.[xvi] An independent state would effectively guarantee Russian security in Sevastopol. Even if the government of Eastern Ukraine was beholden to Russia, it would possess more independence than a territory occupied by the Russian military—the likely alternative.


A Ukrainian state characterized by violent disagreement between Western-oriented Ukrainians and Eastern-oriented ethnic Russians cannot stand. The state will continue to define itself through the political turmoil we’ve seen in recent years, as its deficit deepens and the country trends towards insolvency, amid poorly managed fiscal policy and rising gas prices. Maintaining the current Ukraine will force Russia’s hand in the future as it responds, perhaps with more aggression than the current invasion to protect its interests in Crimea.


The West is now limited to a few likely options: accept Russian control of Crimea, pursue an autonomous Eastern Ukraine, or challenge the Russian invasion with military force. The United States cannot afford to use the kind of sanctions used against Iran; any response involving sanctions would likely be narrowly targeted and lack cooperation from the EU, producing little actual change.[xvii] [xviii] All of these options will likely involve redrawing maps and revising widely-held conceptions of what Eastern Europe looks. The geopolitical reality of the region has changed, and Western leaders need to kiss their old maps of Eastern Europe goodbye. Western presidents, prime ministers, and generals want to avoid war with Russia at all costs, but need to exercise caution in pursuing peace. A simple denouncement of Russia’s invasion would set a new precedent for aggression in the Russian military, and toleration of such actions in the international community. In Abkhazia, a strategically insignificant region, Russia was able to justify its invasion using the ongoing civil war between Georgians and ethnic Russians. In Ukraine, however, Russia invaded based on strategic considerations. Instead of creating a new norm for tolerating Russian invasions of convenience, Western leaders have an opportunity in Ukraine to pursue a democratic solution amenable to all.


Pursuing the creation of a new state in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea would affirm respect for Russian security interests while allowing a degree of Ukrainian self-determination. The choice is clear, but Western leaders’ ability to coordinate an effective response remains to be seen.

[i] Talaga, Tanya

[ii] Karatnycky, Adrian

[iii] Same as i

[iv]Russia Today

[v] Starozhitskaya, Maria

[vi] Ibid

[vii] Dougherty, Jill

[viii] Today’s Zaman

[ix] Paul Waldie and Mark MacKinnon

[x] Kyiv Post

[xi] Beaumont, Peter

[xii] Tim Sullivan and Vladimir Isachenkov

[xiii] Hille, Kathrin

[xiv] Daily Mail

[xv] Fisher, Max

[xvi] Ibid

[xvii] Newsmax

[xviii] Justyna Pawlak and Luke Baker