Putin’s Endgame for Ukraine: Integration Into the Union State

A leaked article by Russian state-owned news agency RIA Novosti, published and redacted on Feb. 26, gives insight into President Vladimir Putin’s ultimate goals for Ukraine. By analyzing previous statements released by Putin and the Kremlin, it appears that Russia has broader strategic objectives for Ukraine beyond establishing a puppet government that may involve incorporating Ukraine into the Commonwealth of Independent States, CIS, and eventually nitrating it into the Union State of Russia and Belarus. 

The redacted article by RIA Novosti titled “The offensive of Russia and the new world” appears to have been written in the event of a swift victory of the Russian armed forces over Ukraine, a result which has failed to materialize.

The article claims that “Russia is restoring its historical fullness” through this military operation and “gathering the Russian world, the Russian people together – in its entirety of Great Russians, Belarusians, and Little Russians.” This outlook aligns with Putin’s address before the invasion and is reinforced by Putin’s later speech to the Russian people on March 3. It also harks back to Russia’s imperial past. The future that Putin envisions for Russia is a return to the autocratic style of governance as seen in the Russian Empire. 

This nationalistic rhetoric hints at a broader goal for Ukraine beyond establishing a puppet government loyal to Moscow and a restoration of Russo-Ukrainian relations prior to the 2014 Maidan Protests and ousting of the pro-Russian President, Viktor Yanukovych. There is no doubt that Putin wishes to prevent an event such as the Revolution of Dignity from happening again in the future and desires more direct control over Ukrainian domestic and foreign policy. 

According to Ukrainian intelligence sources gathered by Ukrayinska Pravda, Russia plans to reinstall ex-President Yanukovych as the leader of Ukraine. Though the Kremlin will try and say it restored the pre-2014 geopolitical balance in Eastern Europe, Ukraine will be the closest to Russia it has been since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Modeling itself on President Alexander Lukashenko’s Belarus, Russia could gain significant leverage over Ukraine without direct annexation. Russia has already shown itself capable of putting down popular demonstrations, as seen through the repression supported by Russia during 2020-2021 Belarussian protests. While in the past Lukashenko has tried to use its neutral position to balance between the EU and Russia, he has become increasingly reliant on the Kremlin and has steadily increased integration between the two states. If restored to power by Putin, Yanukovych will be even more reliant on Putin than Lukashenko to maintain power and Ukraine’s vassal status may be institutionalized by Russia.

This conclusion is reinforced by the RIA Novosti article further, hinting at a possible future for Ukraine following a Russian victory in the conflict and the removal of anti-Russian sentiment in the country. “In what borders, in what form will the alliance with Russia be fixed (through the CSTO and the Eurasian Union or the Union State of Russia and Belarus)?” 

Emerging from the Commonwealth of Independent States, the organizations mentioned by the article would integrate Russia and Ukraine in three key dimensions – militarily, economically, and politically respectively. It is worth noting that entry into these organizations would mark a dramatic pivot in Ukrainian alignment towards Russia. Ukraine has never been a member of any of these organizations, and the government previously withdrew its participation in the CIS in 2018. 

The Collective Security Treaty Organization, CSTO, a counterpart to NATO, is a military alliance between Russia and five other post-Soviet states. It includes similar provisions to Article 5’s collective security agreement and regularly conducts joint military exercises. To lessen the perceived threat that Moscow sees in the expansion of NATO eastwards, Russia wishes to have a significant say in Ukrainian military affairs. 

The economic arm of the CIS is the Eurasian Economic Union, EAEU. It is subdivided into a Customs Union and Single Economic Space, which provides the free movement of persons, goods, services, and capital within the EAEU. Though Ukraine was offered to join the EAEU, following increased tensions with Russia, it has drifted closer to aligning itself with the European Union instead. Like the CSTO, a Russian-backed government in Ukraine would most likely be pressured to join the EAEU binding the Ukrainian and Russian economies further together. 

The most significant form of integration for Ukraine would be the entry into the Union State of Russia and Belarus. Though specific proposals to solidify the Union State into a confederation have significantly lost traction since its creation, so far, the organization has focused mainly on economic, defense, and security. However, the rhetoric used by Putin and the Russian state-owned media seems to lean in the direction of renewed focus on political integration due to the perceived shared history of the Russian people. 

A Union State consisting of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine would in the Kremlin’s eyes correct the mistakes of the past and once again make Russia a respected power on the world stage. This would also set a precedent of incorporating further countries into the Union State such as Kazakhstan and Georgia, or any of the many Russian-backed separatist republics including Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia. 

Donetsk and Luhansk, the breakaway republics in Ukraine, may still go the way of Crimea and hold staged referendums to join the Russian Federation. However, the rest of Eastern Ukraine and the entirety of West Ukraine will most likely be incorporated into a Russian-backed puppet government. This puppet government will either rewrite or revise the constitution of Ukraine to move away in the direction of the EU and NATO and towards the CIS and its constituent intergovernmental organizations. Specifically, articles 85, 102, and 116 of the current Ukrainian constitution revised in 2019 layout a pathway for Ukraine to apply for EU and NATO membership, and would most likely be removed. 

Though it remains to be seen how Putin’s objectives will shift now that plans for a quick invasion have been foiled by stiff Ukrainian resistance, there is still room to speculate what his vision of Ukraine in the future might entail. If successful in installing a pro-Russian puppet government in Kyiv, Putin will begin to increase integration of Ukraine with Russia, gradually leading to its incorporation into the Union State. Putin has set out to enact his irredentist worldview through force, but he has severely overestimated Ukraine’s ability to reject this ideology. The people of Ukraine neither want nor will accept entry into the Union State without significant armed resistance and civil disobedience. Knowing this, Putin will resort to increasingly violent measures to attempt to quell dissent. 

[Photo by Kremlin.ru/Wikimedia Commons]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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