What goals drove Russia in 2014 and 2015 during the escalation and ongoing conflict in Ukraine?


In this article we will talk about Russia's goals in 2014 and 2015, it will be analyzed from the categories of diplomacy, economy, and military directions.

Throughout various periods in history, the leaders of the Russian state have consistently exhibited a profound fascination with the Black Sea region, particularly the Crimean peninsula and its strategically vital port of Sevastopol. Following Russia's defeat in the Crimean War in 1856, when it was compelled to comply with conditions imposed by France and England, including the relinquishment of its military base in Sevastopol, Russia has persistently pursued routes to gain control over Crimea and exploit its potential for dominating the Black Sea region. This pursuit remains ongoing to this day.

During the era of Catherine the Great, Russia seized this strategically significant territory. However, in a later period, Nikita Khrushchev, the leader of the Soviet Social Republic, transferred this region to the Socialist Republic of Ukraine, where it remained under Ukrainian control even after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Notably, for official Moscow, the port of Sevastopol retained immense importance for its geopolitical interests, as it was controlled through an agreement signed with Ukraine in 1997. This port plays a crucial role in supporting Russia's Black Sea Fleet, enabling it to project power in the region. Its significance was underscored during the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, as well as earlier conflicts like the Abkhazia war, during which Russia deployed its armed forces from the port of Sevastopol.

On the Crimean Peninsula before its annexation, there were two separate armies representing Ukraine and Russia respectively. Both sides were perceived as legitimate by the local population, and there was no doubt regarding their legitimacy. As mentioned earlier, in the 20th century, Khrushchev transferred the Crimean Peninsula to the Ukrainian Socialist Republic. However, since both territories were integral parts of the Soviet Socialist Republic, the transfer held more symbolic significance than strategic implications. At that time, nobody foresaw the collapse of the USSR and the subsequent struggle for a new balance of power in the region.

Given the substantial Russian population residing in Crimea, fostering active cooperation with the Russian Federation held great importance. Exploiting this situation, Russia employed covert operations, including the infiltration of Kremlin operatives disguised as local militia personnel, to gather information and influence the local climate. Furthermore, the Kremlin carried out a propaganda campaign aimed at stoking skepticism towards both local and central authorities, thereby making the population more receptive to the Kremlin's policies.

Undoubtedly, the Russian military played a substantial role in the annexation of Crimea. However, it is crucial to acknowledge the significant impact of Russian propaganda and agitation mentioned earlier. The events of 2014 served as a stark reminder that Russia's relations and attitudes towards the Western world and post-Soviet countries are not isolated or independent matters. Simultaneously, the expansion of the European Union and NATO towards the eastern borders, nearing Russia's vicinity, was perceived by the Kremlin as both a challenge and a threat, seen as encroaching upon Russian interests.

Throughout history, Russia has consistently viewed Ukraine as an intrinsic part of the Slavic world, particularly the Russian sphere of influence. It has regarded Ukraine's role as that of a buffer state positioned between Europe and Russia. To impede Ukraine's inclination towards the West, Russia made considerable efforts to redirect its trajectory away from the European Union, utilizing figures like Viktor Yanukovych. Subsequently, following the notable events of the Maidan Revolution in 2014, Russia initiated an active military campaign. These actions underscored Ukraine's pivotal position within the Kremlin's interests, highlighting its significance to Russian geopolitical objectives.

The events that unfolded in the heart of Kyiv in 2013, along with the preceding wave of protests, were sparked by the pro-Russian leader Viktor Yanukovych's refusal to sign Ukraine's Association Agreement with the European Union. These incidents escalated into violent clashes between protesters and state security forces, serving as a stark reminder of Russia's unwavering determination to extend its influence over the country. Consequently, by "recruiting" Ukraine into its fold, Russia aimed to establish an axis of absolute power within its leadership, leveraging the collaboration between the two states. Indeed, events unfolded in a manner that resulted in Russia experiencing a significant geopolitical setback. However, this setback did not deter Russia from pursuing its goals. Instead, it deliberately executed a two-fold campaign. The first objective was the annexation of Crimea, while the second involved fomenting a series of protests in eastern Ukraine, which eventually escalated into a full-fledged rebellion. By adopting this approach, Russia aimed to assert its control over Crimea and fuel unrest in eastern Ukraine, furthering its strategic interests in the region.

All this was very easy for Russia and it achieved its goals practically without resistance because, at the local level, the local population received the Russian military forces as friendly and considered them saviors.

While Putin's actions may appear contradictory to the goal of restoring the Soviet Union, it is evident that his primary objective is to maintain the current political system under his leadership. The ongoing events in Ukraine serve as a demonstration of how crucial internal stability is, particularly for Russian-speaking communities. Preserving his power and leadership within the existing political framework is of utmost importance to Putin. It is worth noting that the Russian economy has faced degradation in recent years, particularly following the 2008 financial crisis. Previously, Putin enjoyed an 80 percent popularity rating with the country experiencing a seven percent annual economic growth. However, the current situation has seen a slight decline in his popularity, now standing at around 60 percent. This decline coincided with a slowdown in economic growth, with the economy shrinking to 1.4 percent per year in 2013. Consequently, Russia, and specifically Putin, feared that this economic stagnation would not be temporary but rather become a systemic and irreversible issue.

Russia feels threatened by the West. It is particularly unacceptable for it to expand the European Union, and especially NATO, closer to its borders. The Ukraine crisis has turned into a zero-sum game where the winner gets everything and the loser gets nothing.

In 2010, Ukrainian President Yanukovych and then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed the Kharkiv Agreement, which entailed a lease agreement for Russia's Black Sea Fleet in Crimea. This agreement extended from 2017 to 2042 and included provisions such as discounted gas imports worth around 40 billion dollars for Ukraine. The primary objective of this strategic move was to safeguard the sovereignty of the Russian fleet in the region, particularly if Ukraine aligned itself with the Western world. However, it is important to note that Russia's motivations in the Ukrainian and Crimean conflicts were not solely focused on stabilization and de-escalation. Rather, it aimed to secure its naval power in the Black Sea region and maintain dominance over the Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol. This was done to mitigate potential threats that could undermine Russia's influence in the region.

The Black Sea region holds significant economic influence for Russia, serving as a crucial transit route for its energy exports to Europe. Before the 2022 war, Russia accounted for over 25 percent of Europe's total oil exports, with approximately one-third being transported via oil tankers through the Black Sea. Moreover, the region acts as a gateway to the Middle East, facilitating partnerships between Russia and numerous countries. Consequently, the Black Sea region represents a vital economic asset for Russia.

By annexing Crimea, Russia was able to secure its naval power and dominance in the area. It had further plans to develop Novorossiysk, one of its largest and most important shipping ports. Additionally, Russia had ambitious aspirations for the renewal of its Navy, which would be considered one of the most significant developments in the future. The implementation of these plans would bolster Russia's provision of navigation and enhance its control of sea lines and communication in the Black Sea. Russia would also increase its military and political exercises to exert control and prevent potential internal conflicts that could pose a threat.

By safeguarding its economic and security interests in the Mediterranean, Russia aimed to improve economic dynamics and protect its economy. Overall, these actions aimed to strengthen Russia's position and influence in the Black Sea region.

Following the annexation of Crimea, Russia gained the ability to construct and upgrade its bases in the Black Sea region, thereby bolstering its military power without interference from the West or Ukraine. The reconstruction of the Black Sea Fleet enables Russia to maintain sovereignty over Sevastopol and the broader Black Sea region. This provides an opportunity for Russia to enhance and modernize its military equipment, including coastal missiles, ground forces, aircraft, and transit routes.

While the annexation of Crimea has granted Russia certain advantages, it has also created new risks of tensions and confrontations in the Black Sea region. Regional and external actors have mobilized against Russia in response to these developments, posing challenges and potential conflicts in the area. It is important to recognize that the annexation of Crimea has not only altered the geopolitical landscape but has also sparked concerns and opposition from various stakeholders in the region.

The annexation of Crimea indeed served to bolster Russia's sovereignty and strengthen its control over the Black Sea Fleet, particularly in Sevastopol, as outlined in the Kharkiv Agreement. By gaining control over Crimea, Russia was able to secure and enhance its transit routes for energy exports to both Europe and Asia. Moreover, the inclusion of Crimea within the Russian Federation has reduced the pressure and influence exerted by external actors, most notably the United States and NATO. This has allowed Russia to exert greater control and diminish the influence of these external forces in the region.

It is indeed possible to argue that Russia's involvement and motivations in Ukraine and Crimea were not primarily driven by a desire to reduce unrest or protect the pro-Russian population within Ukraine. Instead, the situation with pro-Russians provided a convenient justification for Putin to intervene. By portraying itself as the protector of the pro-Russian population and defending them against perceived Western forces, Putin was able to boost his popularity among the Russian population. Simultaneously, Russia aimed to establish itself as a dominant state in the diplomatic arena, showcasing its ability to assert its interests and challenge Western influence. Therefore, Putin's Russia seemed to have pursued dual objectives, leveraging the situation to both consolidate domestic support and enhance its position on the global stage.

It is accurate to recognize that great powers strive to secure wealth and resources, as a strong economy leads to enhanced military power and defense capabilities. In this context, Russia's approach to the Black Sea region can be attributed to its pursuit of rich natural resources and strategic dominance, as well as the potential for profitable transit routes to Europe and Central Asia. The annexation of Crimea has presented opportunities for Russia to strengthen its economy and expand its influence in the region.

One of Russia's key economic goals in the Black Sea region is to control important transit routes and energy exports to Europe, given its significant contribution to Europe's oil consumption, accounting for over 25 percent. Additionally, Ukraine plays a notable role in the global grain market, ranking seventh in grain exports in 2014-2015, with 37.9 million tons of wheat. By gaining control over these resources, Russia could secure substantial profits from the wheat trade, exert influence over market prices, and leverage this resource as a mechanism for influencing other states.

The economic considerations associated with the Black Sea region align with Russia's aim to strengthen its economy, expand its market reach, and exert greater geopolitical influence. These factors highlight the economic motivations behind Russia's approach and engagement in the Black Sea region.

Considering that Crimea now belongs to Russia, it becomes clear that one of the reasons why the annexation of the peninsula was carried out; Economic benefits and a window of opportunity that involves adjusting the role of the main player in the Black Sea region and excluding Western influences.

Great powers also seek to gain land power through military means, as this is the best possible way to gain maximum control over the region. This means that the most important military assets for states are land forces, reinforced by strong air and naval forces. In other words, states try to strengthen their military potential to compete with the rest of the world, which consists of territorial hegemons. Before and during the Cold War era, the Black Sea region practically belonged to Russia, but after the collapse of the USSR, it became a more or less vulnerable region. However, in recent years, the actions of the United States and the West have forced Russia to strengthen its power in the region in order not to lose control and influence. In addition, another advantage of the Black Sea region from the Russian perspective is that this area is the way to the Middle East, where Russia has partnerships with many countries. Therefore, the Black Sea is a very important economic asset for Russia. Crimea, especially Sevastopol, plays a very important role for Russia since the Russian Black Sea Fleet is stationed there. After Ukraine's independence, it became Russia's goal to maintain its navy and bases in Crimea. However, the problem, arising in the context of the Ukraine crisis, was the fear that if Ukraine were to be admitted to the EU under the 2013 agreement, it would affect Russia's influence and dominance in the Black Sea in the long term.

The Kharkiv agreement would have given Russia the opportunity until 2042 to modernize and expand the Black Sea fleet. The annexation of Crimea, as well as the agreement signed in Kharkiv, increased the presence of the Russian fleet in the region and allowed it to begin the development of the Black Sea Fleet, which is assessed as one of the most ambitious military naval reforms in the region. This would further increase Russia's naval power in the long run.

In conclusion, Russia has managed to secure the region for its good and thereby created a wider and better coastline for itself, which will strengthen Russia's military power in the future and thus reduce the influence of external actors on the Black Sea. Russia can improve the provision of navigation and maritime communication lines in the Black Sea. This will further increase military, economic, and political influence and prevent domestic conflicts, as well as eliminate the possibility of external pressures that could undermine Russia's security. Therefore, it can be argued from a futuristic perspective that if Russia's actions like this continue successfully, it will be able to protect its economy as well as its security interests in the Mediterranean.