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  • Writer's pictureRobbie Sutton

Episode 35. Ukraine and the War in the East

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Russia's entire defence strategy relies on a friendly or neutral Ukraine, so when Ukraine almost turned to the west in a revolution in 2014, panic swept the Kremlin and Russia invaded and occupied the Crimean peninsula and the Donbas region in the East. Will this war slow down to frozen conflict like in Transnistria, or will it roar back to life like in Karabakh?



Steven Pifer

  • Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute

  • Specialist in Arms Control and Eastern Europe

  • Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Focused on US-Soviet Relations

  • Former Ambassador to Ukraine

  • Former Special Assistant to the US President during the Clinton Administration

Gustav Gressel

  • Senior Policy Fellow for the European Council on Foreign Affairs

  • Specialist in Ukraine and the Eastern Bloc

Thomas Graham

  • Senior Advisor at Kissinger Associates

  • Distinguished Fellow at the Council of Foreign Affairs

  • Co-Founder of the Russian, Eastern European, and Eurasian Studies program at Yale University

  • Former Special Assistant to the US President and Senior Director for Russia on the Security Council during the Bush Administration


Part 1: The Borderlands (6:15)

  • The lands which today comprise Ukraine have long been closely intertwined with Russia politically and historically, but the breakup of the Soviet Union divided them, creating a tension between the Russians who sought to re-associate the two and the new Ukrainian nation-state which sought to distance itself from Moscow. Steven Pifer explains the competing interests and desires of Russia and the US in wooing Ukraine to their respective alignments.

  • We also discuss the post-Soviet History of Ukraine, its relationship with its neighbouring states, its economic status and development, and the agreement which secured the denuclearisation of the country.

  • The “Euromaidan” events in 2014, hailed as a revolution or denounced as a coup, depending on one’s perspective, radically shifted the regional dynamic, and are the beginning of the current crisis. Ukraine had been moving slowly towards an association with the EU, and many citizens were angered by the Yanukovich Government’s decision to abandon that course, some taking to the streets in protest. Pifer explains how this evolved into a broader revolution against Yanukovich, widely seen as corrupt, and the subsequent establishment of a pro-western government.

  • A separatist movement, stoked by Russia, began to grow, especially amongst those who had supported Yanukovich in the Donbas and the Crimean regions. Russia has long held an interest in the Crimea, and based the Black Sea fleet amongst other forces there by (former) agreement with Ukraine. Pifer details the logic employed by the Russia Government, why they chose to act in this instance, their goals and strategy, and their reaction to the subsequent sanctions levied by Western states.

  • We also the discuss the mobilisation of forces by both sides in the eastern Donbas region, the establishment of militia forces and the acquisition of heavy weapons by the separatists thanks to the Russian military and nationalist Russians who crossed the border, providing aid and supplies.

  • We explore the wider regional politics surrounding the conflict, how it and other post-Soviet ‘breakaway regions’ may be part of a Russian strategy to keep its neighbours out of NATO, and how the relative disinterest in the war by the USA has left the diplomatic effort to European leaders like Macron and Merkel.


Part 2: War, Without War (31:11)

  • The Crimean Peninsula holds a commanding position in the north of the Black Sea, and has significant historical attachment, both political and emotional, to the Russian nation. After the Maidan Revolution, Russia used its armed forces to seize the region, holding a referendum of dubious legitimacy on its annexation. With Gustav Gressel we discuss the tactics used by Russia in this operation and the subsequent War in the Donbas, the so-called “Hybrid War”.

  • These tactics involve the use of troops without proper identification, the massing of conventional forces to distract and tie down Ukraine’s regular army, and the use of special operatives and black ops forces to recruit and coordinate both ideological nationalists (from both Russia and Ukraine) as well as local criminals to form the separatist militia forces who carried out the fighting in Eastern Ukraine. As the Ukrainian Army and volunteer forces rallied and began a counter-offensive, these militia forces gave way to direct Russian military intervention, who outflanked and smashed the Ukrainian forces in the autumn of 2014.

  • The Russian invasion of Ukraine has so far been quite limited in its territorial goals, focused on the Crimea and propping up the self-declared “People’s Republics” in Donetsk and Luhansk. Gressel elaborates on the Russian force structure in its 2014 build-up and posits that the significant involvement of the Ministry of the Interior was to establish a wider occupation if needed, but that the greater than expected resistance from the Ukrainian population and states resulted in much more restricted action.

  • We also discuss the Minsk 2 Ceasefire Agreement that followed the Russian victory at Debaltseve, the Russian and Ukrainian calculations and goals in the negotiations and the ‘freezing’ of the fighting. Gressel argues that the relative Russian restraint in this phase was motivated by a desire to reduce the costs of its involvement and avoid heavier western sanctions, having gained its main objectives already.


Part 3: Going East (57:00)

  • Thomas Graham explains for us the political situation within the post-Maidan Ukraine, as well as the objectives and challenges faced by the Government. Ukraine continues to have issues with corruption and a stagnant economy, which places pressure on its Western supporters and complicates its relationship with Western States.

  • We also discuss the economic relationships between Russia and Europe, and how these relate to the conflict. Part of Russia’s interest in maintaining military force in the Black Sea is to protect the export routes for its goods out to the Mediterranean. Russia is also the origin point for natural gas pipelines intended for sale into Europe, namely Nord Stream 2, which transits the Baltic Sea into Germany, and the TurkStream, which runs via the Black Sea, through Turkey to Southern Europe.

  • We explore the possibility of a Ukrainian military victory in the Donbas, and how it would have to contend not only with the Separatist Forces, but also the Russian military. Conversely, the Russians would have to deal with a Ukraine which is both backed tacitly by NATO and internally far more united and committed to a policy of resistance than prior to the conflict, and is equally unlikely to achieve a decisive battlefield victory, preferring to maintain the status quo established by the Minsk Ceasefire agreements.

  • Graham also explains the nature of the support provided by the United States, which has been limited primarily to technical and training support, as well as diplomatic backing regarding the occupation of its territory, though he does not see any real policy pathways that would result in the recovery of the Crimea.

  • We consider the economic orientation of Ukraine and its relationship with the EU it seeks to join. It suffers from an agriculturally focused economy, and lacks an established manufacturing base with which it could compete with other European states. Graham argues that the key long-term challenge for Ukraine is to restore a working relationship with Russia, as a key and natural market for its products, while maintaining its independence from Moscow.


The Red Line's Ukraine Reading List:

We’ve put together some further reading for those of you looking for more resources to help you get across the geopolitics of Ukraine.


The Eagle and the Trident: U.S.—Ukraine Relations in Turbulent Times

By Steven Pifer



For episode transcripts, monthly geopolitics Q&A’s, member-only videos and to support the show, check out our Patreon here:

This episode is dedicated to Patreon member Essilvio Sulejmani.


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