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Andrei Olegovich Sannikov

Andrei Olegovich SannikovSannikov

Russia’s interests in Ukraine

The Crimea crisis in 2014 has made the Kremlin’s various interests vis-à-vis Ukraine fade into the background. This is why the Russian interests will be presented concisely here in order to deliver a differentiated picture of them. A background article by Stefan Bernhardt

Apart from Crimea, what other interests does the Russian Federation have vis-à-vis Ukraine? Or is Crimea everything? Russia’s interests are not clarified that easily. The Crimea crisis in 2014 even covers up more important topics that, despite everything, cannot be disregarded by Vladimir Putin. As a result, one must, independently from how the Crimea crisis turns out, observe how the Kremlin wants to pursue its interests in Ukraine. For that to happen, however, the observer must know what these Russian interests are.

The classic: Crimea

Crimea’s importance to the Russian Federation is summarized somewhat easily: It is the base of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. The problem is that, for Russia, it is its sole base in the Black Sea. Every other base in Russian territory is – due to the weather conditions in the Black Sea – either only sometimes useable during the year or not suitable for a naval base at all. This is aggravated by the fact that all of the other sites that would allow for year-round usage of a military harbor are located abroad. The loss of Crimea as a base for the fleet would be equivalent with the loss of the fleet itself.

In addition, Crimea has some other advantages as the base for the Russian Black Sea Fleet. As long as the Russian fleet is stationed there, the accession of Ukraine to NATO is virtually impossible – it would breach the NATO statute. Aside from these strategic considerations, Crimea also bears symbolic value for Russia since it was not until 1954 that the Ukrainian-born Soviet party leader Nikita Khrushchev returned Crimea to Ukraine. Hence, some still have the association that Crimea, with its Russian-speaking population, is actually a part of Russia.

The unknown: Arms manufacture


A main area of interest for security policy is the Ukrainian and Russian weapon industries. The Soviet Union’s collapse has caused an oftentimes disregarded problem between Russia and Ukraine: Research and production of the arms industry was concentrated in these two countries, which is why it only worked cooperatively. Not much has changed about this; the Russian arms industry is still dependent on suppliers from Ukraine.

Even though the available data is limited, ten years ago, it was the case that merely 20 percent of Russian weaponry could be manufactured in a closed production cycle in Russia itself. Thus, 80 percent of Russian arms manufacture only functions with the help of suppliers, usually Ukrainian companies. Therefore, Russian weapons manufacturers and the state have considerable interest in buying the respective Ukrainian companies but also in smooth trade.

The second classic: The energy issue

More than half of Russian gas for Europe runs through Ukraine, and Ukraine itself is one of the major customers of Gazprom. The energy issue has always been the subject of negotiations, exchange transactions or a topic of conflict between Russia and Ukraine. This is oftentimes regarded in the context of the Orange Revolution 2004 or, generally, when there is a government holding power in Kiev that is anti-Moscow. In fact, ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, this can be observed regardless of Ukraine’s orientation of foreign policy.

In order to sell its gas to Europe, Russia depends on Ukraine’s conduit system. Ukraine receives charges in exchange, as well as gas at a reduced price. Since gas prices have always been a subject of negotiations with Russia, a dispute with the Kremlin occurred under almost every Ukrainian government. This is the reason Russia seems to have formed a plan, years ago already, to invest in alternative routes with new partners. These surely include the Nord Stream Pipeline, and the pipeline projects through the Black Sea with Turkey. After all, the Russian national budget still strongly depends on the revenues from this business.

The new: The necessary dream partner


Due to strenuous relations between the Kremlin and the EU and NATO, Ukrainian foreign policy has become a considerable part of Russian interests. Ukraine’s accession to NATO poses a problem to Russia insofar as NATO is seen as a threat to Russian security. An accession to the EU, on the other hand, seems to be regarded ambivalently since it is relevant to the aforementioned interests of the Kremlin; more specifically, there is the fear of negative economic consequences for Russia.

There is also Putin’s endeavor in the post-Soviet region to offer an economic alternative to the EU. Currently, this manifests itself as the Eurasian Economic Union that, however, does not bear enough political weight. Apart from Russia, only Belarus and Kazakhstan are members. In order to give this Union a greater economic but also political or symbolic value, Ukraine is needed.

Everything is more complicated than expected

These large areas of interest by themselves show how complex Russian interests in Ukraine can be. Surely, even more aspects can be found. However, one must also consider that none of these interests stand-alone and that Moscow’s priorities can shift in this mesh of interests.

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