A few months ago, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich was expected to sign some agreements that could eventually integrate Ukraine with the European Union economically. Ultimately, Yanukovich refused to sign the agreements, a decision thousands of his countrymen immediately protested. The demonstrations later evolved, as they often do. Protesters started calling for political change, and when Yanukovich resisted their calls, they demanded new elections.
Some protesters wanted Ukraine to have a European orientation rather than a Russian one. Others felt that the government was corrupt and should thus be replaced. These kinds of demonstrations occur in many countries. Sometimes they're successful; sometimes they're not. In most cases, the outcome matters only to the country's citizens or to the citizens of neighboring states. But Ukraine is exceptional because it is enormously important. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Ukraine has had to pursue a delicate balance between the tenuous promises of a liberal, wealthy and somewhat aloof Europe and the fact that its very existence and independence can be a source of strategic vulnerability for Russia.
Ukraine provides two things: strategic position and agricultural and mineral products. The latter are frequently important, but the former is universally important. Ukraine is central to Russia's defensibility. The two countries share a long border, and Moscow is located only some 480 kilometers (about 300 miles) from Ukrainian territory -- a stretch of land that is flat, easily traversed and thus difficult to defend. If some power were to block the Ukraine-Kazakh gap, Russia would be cut off from the Caucasus, its defensible southern border.
Moreover, Ukraine is home to two critical ports, Odessa and Sevastopol, which are even more important to Russia than the port of Novorossiysk. Losing commercial and military access to those ports would completely undermine Russia's influence in the Black Sea and cut off its access to the Mediterranean. Russia's only remaining ports would be blocked by the Greenland-Iceland-U.K. gap to the west, by ice to the northeast, by Denmark on the Baltic Sea, and by Japan in the east.
This explains why in 1917, when the Bolsheviks took power and sued for peace, the Germans demanded that Russia relinquish its control of most of Ukraine. The Germans wanted the food Ukraine produced and knew that if they had a presence there they could threaten Russia in perpetuity. In the end, it didn't matter: Germany lost Word War I, and Russia reclaimed Ukraine. During World War II, the Germans seized Ukraine in the first year of their attack on the Soviet Union, exploited its agriculture and used it as the base to attack Stalingrad, trying to sever Russia from its supply lines in Baku. Between the wars, Stalin had to build up his industrial plant. He sold Ukrainian food overseas and used it to feed factory workers in Russia. The Ukrainians were left to starve, but the industry they built eventually helped the Soviets defeat Hitler. After the Soviets drove the Germans back, they seized Romania and Hungary and drove to Vienna, using Ukraine as their base.
From the perspective of Europe, and particularly from the perspectives of former Soviet satellites, a Ukraine dominated by Russia would represent a potential threat from southern Poland to Romania. These countries already depend on Russian energy, fully aware that the Russians may eventually use that dependence as a lever to gain control over them. Russia's ability not simply to project military power but also to cause unrest along the border or use commercial initiatives to undermine autonomy is a real fear.
Thinking in military terms may seem more archaic to Westerners than it does to Russians and Central Europeans. For many Eastern Europeans, the Soviet withdrawal is a relatively recent memory, and they know that the Russians are capable of returning as suddenly as they left. For their part, the Russians know that NATO has no will to invade Russia, and war would be the last thing on the Germans' minds even if they were capable of waging one. The Russians also remember that for all the economic and military malaise in Germany in 1932, the Germans became the dominant power in Europe by 1939. By 1941, they were driving into the Russian heartland. The farther you move away from a borderland, the more fantastic the fears appear. But inside the borderland, the fears seem far less preposterous for both sides.
From the Russian point of view, therefore, tighter Ukrainian-EU integration represented a potentially mortal threat to Russian national security. After the Orange Revolution, which brought a short-lived pro-EU administration to power in the mid-2000s, Russian President Vladimir Putin made clear that he regarded Ukraine as essential to Russian security, alleging that the nongovernmental organizations that were fomenting unrest there were fronts for the U.S. State Department, the CIA and MI6. Whether the charges were true or not, Putin believed the course in which Ukraine was headed would be disastrous for Russia, and so he used economic pressure and state intelligence services to prevent Ukraine from taking that course.
In my view, the 2008 Russo-Georgian War had as much to do with demonstrating to Kiev that Western guarantees were worthless, that the United States could not aid Georgia and that Russia had a capable military force as it did with Georgia itself. At the time, Georgia and Ukraine were seeking NATO and EU membership, and through its intervention in Georgia, Moscow succeeded in steering Ukraine away from these organizations. Today, the strategic threat to Russia is no less dire than it was 10 years ago, at least not in minds of the Russians, who would prefer a neutral Ukraine if not a pro-Russia Ukraine.
Notably, Putin's strategy toward the Russian periphery differs from those of his Soviet and czarist predecessors, who took direct responsibility for the various territories subordinate to them. Putin considers this a flawed strategy. It drained Moscow's resources, even as the government could not hold the territories together.