What Does Russia Really Want in Ukraine?

Chess pieces on a chess board.  left chess piece is Blue on top and yellow on the bottom representing Ukraine and the right chess piece is white, blue, then red, representing Russia

On Monday, Vladimir Putin said he would recognize the independence of Russian separatist regions in Eastern Ukraine and ordered forces to the area, further ramping up tensions.

Russia expert Paul B. Stephan, a University of Virginia School of Law professor, said it’s important to understand what Moscow really wants from the conflict over Ukraine.

In recent weeks, Russia has been marshaling troops on the border of Ukraine, a former Soviet country, while U.S. and Europeans leaders have attempted to broker peace. Russian President Vladimir Putin has criticized Ukraine’s aspirations to join NATO and denounced what he described as the nation’s pro-Western stance. On Monday, Putin said he would recognize the independence of Russian separatist regions in Eastern Ukraine and ordered forces to the area, further ramping up tensions.

Stephan’s expertise in the region ranges from a stint as a CIA analyst, to teaching Soviet law, to helping Russia design its tax system after the Cold War ended. A frequent expert witness in international arbitration cases involving Russia, Stephan discussed what could lie ahead in the coming days and the long-term outlook for U.S. relations with Russia, and how his new book explains the failure of international institutions to contain such threats.

Paul B. Stephan Headshot

Paul B. Stephan is the John C. Jeffries Jr. Distinguished Professor of Law and David H. Ibbeken Research Professor of Law. (Photo by Jesús Pino)

Q. Can we avoid a full-on invasion at this point?

A. I think one has to define “invasion” carefully. If we mean it in the narrow technical sense of a breach of the borders of Ukraine that we recognize using armed force, it appears a breach has already happened. But if you think of invasion as a full-scale conquest of the entire country and occupation, I would be surprised if that happens. It’s not impossible, no one is in control of events, but I’d still be surprised.

The model I have in mind is Georgia in 2008, where the Russian response to what they regarded as a Georgian provocation was to send troops into Georgia without doing a huge amount of destruction or slaughter, making it clear that they were in a position to conquer the capital, Tbilisi, without any greater effort, and then withdraw. They made the point they could do it, and that was the point they were trying to make. I’m not saying that this current episode is going to follow the same script, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it did.

Q. What does Putin’s recognition of the separatist regions of Ukraine mean for the region and possible conflict?

A. I think the Georgian model applies. Russia, as well as its allies such as Nicaragua, Syria and Venezuela, recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, rather than as components of the Georgian Republic, as they were at the time of Georgian independence. Russia has not annexed them, but rather uses their unsettled status as an instrument for disrupting and pressuring Georgia. The move also is a provocation to Europe and United States, in effect a dare that the West do something in response.

Q. What legal tools do countries have at their disposal to keep Russia in check? Or are we beyond that?

A. It depends on what you mean by “in check.” We’ve already established in 2014 with Crimea that the existing legal structures cannot deter or even significantly punish Russia if it chooses to annex territory in this region. So if we see something that looks kind of like what happened in Crimea – that’s to say, the two parts of Eastern Ukraine that are currently in contestation, if they are formally declared as independent states the way Abkhazia in Georgia is treated by Russia as an independent state – there’s not a whole lot anyone can do about that.

The people in the press who are very worked up about Russia’s behavior complained that we haven’t done more, and the really harsh sanctions that they want us to impose – cutting Russia off from the clearinghouse for bank deposits, for example, extending sanctions to anyone related to the people who are already targeted, their companies, their family, things like that – the same people say we should have done that back in 2014. So it’s not clear to me that we have a lot more left in our sanctions arsenal.

We could try to get our colleagues in Europe and other like-minded countries to promise to stop buying Russian oil and gas, but I’m deeply skeptical that our allies would agree to that. And indeed, I think the defection from that by our allies – starting with Germany, but other countries as well; Italy has already announced it could not comply with that kind of sanction – that would just do more damage to us than not imposing the sanctions at all. It would just expose what the limits are on our cooperation with Europe.

[Editor’s note: Tuesday afternoon, after this interview was conducted, President Biden announced a new round of economic sanctions, including on bank transactions and on the financial dealings of Russian elites and their families.]

Q. What does Russia really want?

A. I think Moscow’s more basic concern with Kyiv is that for the lion’s share of the period of Ukrainian independence – since 1991 – the existing regime in Kyiv has seen as its primary objective to make sure Moscow is happy and not to seem at all threatening to Russian interests. That changed only in 2014 and under circumstances where Russia perceived inappropriate meddling by the United States and Europe in Ukrainian domestic affairs.

That is the starting point for anything that happens after that. Moscow wants to restore that status quo ante 2014, and to the extent possible, they want the Ukrainians to do that on their own. They don’t want to impose a regime by conquest. They want to persuade the Ukrainians that they really have no choice in the matter.

Their secondary objective is to create discord within Europe, and particularly between Europe and the United States. And their third objective is to embarrass the United States and to make it seem ineffectual.

I don’t think anyone seriously believes Ukraine, in the short run, is a candidate for NATO. It requires consensus among the members and there are several members who would find that a bridge too far. So I think from a Russian perspective, the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO would be based on contingencies that are not evident now, but the world could change in a way that people who are at the moment adamantly opposed to extending NATO membership to Ukraine might change their minds. Even though it’s the articulated basis of Moscow’s concerns, I think that’s sort of two or three chess moves down the road.

Q. Why are those Russia’s objectives?

A. Russia sees itself as a revisionist state. The mentality of Moscow for the entirety of this century has been one of dissatisfaction with what they saw as the immediate settlement at the end of the Cold War. They perceive the Russians’ treatment by the United States and Europe during the 1990s as exploitative and harmful. They never again want to be in a position of what they perceive as the subjugation that they experienced in the 1990s, something that we on our side experienced as simply exposing them to the advantages of democratic politics and an open economy.

I think the perceptual divide here is enormous. And all I’m trying to do is to try and get inside the heads of people in Russia. I won’t justify their perceptions – I’m just trying to explain them.

Q. Is a compromise even possible?

A. It is very unfortunate, to say the least, that Russia’s chosen to take this path, because they aren’t in control of events any more than we are, and events can get out of control. But I don’t think all-out war is likely and I think there will be a new settlement that will involve mostly a change of policy and orientation, not necessarily a change of government in Ukraine.

Secondarily, I would be very surprised if at the end of all this the Eastern parts of Ukraine will continue to have the constitutional status that, in form, they now have under Ukrainian law. Part of the Minsk II Agreement [that ended violent conflict in eastern Ukraine in 2014], too, involved a restructuring of the constitutional status of those parts. The options include their secession from Ukraine, like Abkhazia in Georgia. I don’t think annexation by Russia, as we saw in Crimea, is likely, but you can’t rule that out. Another solution would be that they nominally remain in Ukraine, but they enjoy a special constitutional status, which would include veto rights over fundamental changes in the Ukrainian order.

Q. What outcomes could Russia face from its actions?

A. It will be interesting how the response plays out, and I’m not sure the United States has given itself much wiggle room here. I would say the most ambitious sanctions would be, as I mentioned before, seeking to block all exports of oil and gas, cutting Russia off from the banking system, the international banking system through the SWIFT [Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications] mechanism, then targeting not simply individuals in the leadership and people in close contact with Putin, but going after their families and their firms.

Of those steps, I think the one that would be most likely would be the last, but I think that the U.S. would have difficulty, for example, getting the British to go along with that. The British services economy is so dependent on Russia, from educating their kids, to providing litigation and British courts for disputes among Russian business leaders, to processing investments. I just am really skeptical that the City of London would permit such targeted advanced sanctions to happen. I think an attempt to ban the export of Russian oil and gas would not be successful.

I’m sure the administration is taking stock of this very carefully because I think they don’t want to announce sanctions that turn out to be a total flop. And from Putin’s perspective, he’d love to embarrass the United States and make it seem to be impotent. I’m sure the people in the administration are very much aware of that, so I think they’re going to find themselves constrained in what kinds of sanctions they can impose.

Q. How do you view the Russia-China alliance?

A. On a really deep level, they are adversaries rather than allies. Their cooperation [on this issue] is opportunistic. On the one hand, it doesn’t worry me because I think it’s built on sand, but of course they, over the short run, have a common interest in exposing and embarrassing, and even humiliating, the United States. So if we’re talking about a one- to two-year cycle, as opposed to a 10-year cycle, you will see them collaborating, particularly if it’s costless. They will have each other’s back in the United Nations on the Security Council and in other areas. But I don’t think that any of this changes their fundamentally hostile interests.

Q. What does it say about international institutions or international alliances that Russia can’t really be controlled?

A. I actually have a book coming out this fall about this topic. It’s being published by Cambridge University Press and the title is “The World Crisis and International Law: The Knowledge Economy and the Battle for the Future.”

In a nutshell, my argument is that the 1990s was a period of illusion for the United States and its friends in Europe and elsewhere in the world. And this belief that we were beyond balance-of-powers global politics – we were beyond the Cold War and that international institutions could step in and solve the problems without falling back on balance of powers – was very much what people lived for and acted on for that decade. But my claim is the entire 21st century has been a time of undermining and hollowing out the premises of that conviction.

My argument is that we should not give up on international law and international institutions, but we ought to be appropriately modest about what they can and cannot do. So my book ends with a series of projects that I think are doable that won’t save us from disaster, but can help us identify where organized institutional international cooperation can work. They also can alert us as to those areas where we can’t count on the institutions and have to look for other means, which I think ultimately means skillfully doing balance-of-power politics.

Q. Is there a way to improve relations with Russia?

A. Our relationship has always been complicated. We do best when we understand the limits of what we can do. And I think our relations are threatened when one side or the other offers itself out as a transformative model. So during the Cold War, and particularly in the ’50s and ’60s, our principal beef with them was that they were holding themselves out as a model for the future. And there were not an insignificant number of people in our society who bought into that model. That made us anxious and, in some ways, stupid.

I think their reaction to the ’90s is, in some broad and abstract way, symmetrical. I mean, we came in saying, “We won the Cold War, you’ve been completely wrong for 75 years, and now we’re going to teach you how to be a civilized nation.”

Their view is, “We have our tragedies, but we are an older and wiser country than you. The fact that we have experienced tragedies does not diminish us. We’re not failures, we’re just tragic,” is their attitude. You know the way we’re Calvinists still in this country in spite of everything, right? Russian orthodoxy infuses their outlook and – it’s like any ecumenical project – the starting point has to be, we’re not going to try and convert you.

Q. Can we have a stable relationship with Russia as long as Putin is president?

A. I hate to rain on the parade, but I think the alternative to Putin is likely to be far worse. All these reasons not to like him – I’m not going to dispute any of them – I’m just saying that the range of possibilities coming out of Russia includes far worse ones than what he presents. Another way of looking at this is to compare Russia under Putin to Ukraine over the last 32 years, where rather than having centralized corruption, you just have widely dispersed corruption.

If you look at change in gross domestic product per capita on an annual basis from 1991 to 2018, you’d much rather be a Russian than Ukrainian. It is shockingly different, and there are many reasons for that, but one is that in Ukraine, corruption is both pervasive and disorganized; so rather than having it all organized around a hierarchy of leadership, it’s far, far more Wild West.

I’m not defending Putin at all. I’m just saying that if we want the world to conform to our values and our standards – which are good values and standards – we’re going to be upset and disappointed more often than not.

Media Contact

Mary Wood

University of Virginia School of Law