World Politics

Russia is risking all-out war to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO

Key Points
  • Russia's dealings — or, more accurately, its clashes — with the West have focused on one country that has been a particular flashpoint for confrontations in recent years: Ukraine.
  • This has come into focus this week with a series of high-stakes meetings taking place between Russian and Western officials.
  • The talks are centered on trying to defuse heightened tensions between Russia and its neighbor Ukraine.
NATO-Russia work to ease Ukraine crisis
NATO-Russia work to ease Ukraine crisis

Russia's dealings — or, more accurately, its clashes — with the West have centered on one country which has been a particular flashpoint for confrontations in recent years: Ukraine.

It's back in focus this week with a series of high-stakes meetings taking place between Russian and Western officials that are centered on trying to defuse heightened tensions between Russia and its neighbor.

A particular issue right now is whether Ukraine — something of a frontier country between Russia and the rest of Europe, and one which aspires to join the EU — could one day become a member of the Western military alliance NATO.

This is a possibility Russia vehemently opposes.

As the Russia Council prepares to meet NATO officials in Brussels on Wednesday, CNBC has a guide to why Russia cares so much about Ukraine and how far it might be willing to go to stop Ukraine from joining the alliance.

Why does Ukraine matter?

Relations between the European neighbors hit a low in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine, and it has supported a pro-Russian uprising in the east of the country where low-level fighting between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian troops has continued ever since.

Tensions have ratcheted up even further in recent months amid multiple reports of Russian troops amassing at the border with Ukraine, prompting widespread speculation that Russia is preparing to invade the country although it has repeatedly denied it is planning to do so.

Conscripts get on a train at a railway station before departing for military service with the Russian Army. This year, the autumn military call-up in Russia lasts from October 1 to December 31; estimated 127,500 men are going to be drafted.
Sergei Malgavko | TASS | Getty Images

For their part, the U.S., EU and NATO have warned Russia that they will, as President Joe Biden told President Vladimir Putin during a phone call on Dec. 30, "respond decisively if Russia further invades Ukraine." Just how far the West would go to defend Ukraine is a big question, however.

What does Russia want?

Last month, Russia set out several main demands to the West on Ukraine, among other security matters, in a draft security pact.

In the document, it demanded that the U.S. must prevent further eastward expansion of NATO and must not allow former Soviet states to join the alliance.

Russia also demanded in the draft pact that the U.S. "shall not establish military bases" in the territories of any former Soviet states that are not already members of NATO, or "use their infrastructure for any military activities or develop bilateral military cooperation with them."

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Although not mentioned by name in the draft pact, Ukraine is an obvious focal point for the Russians — it is a former Soviet republic, as is Russian ally Belarus, Azerbaijan, Moldova and Armenia, among others. The former Soviet states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are already NATO members.

Russia has already, and often, expressed its dislike of U.S. missile defense complexes in Poland and Romania in Eastern Europe and the bolstering of NATO's presence, in terms of "combat-ready battlegroups," as NATO describes them, in the Baltic states and Poland.

For their part, the U.S. and NATO have already described demands that Ukraine not be admitted to NATO, or that it roll back NATO deployments in Eastern Europe, as "non-starters" — in the words of U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, who led the U.S. delegation in talks with Russian officials in Geneva on Monday.

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While she noted that the U.S. had pushed back against Russia's security proposals, her Russian counterpart Sergei Ryabkov said the talks, which lasted around seven hours, were "difficult" and signaled that Moscow's demands had not changed, telling reporters, "it's absolutely mandatory to make sure that Ukraine never — never ever — becomes a member of NATO."

With no clear progress made in talks on Monday, hopes are being pinned on further discussions between Russian and NATO officials in Brussels on Wednesday, and more discussions on Thursday at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in Vienna.

Why is Russia doing this?

Putin has made no bones about the fact he thinks the breakup of the Soviet Union was a catastrophe for Russia, describing it as the "greatest geopolitical tragedy" of the 20th century.

Ukraine has particular importance for Russia, given its location — it stands as a bulwark between Russia and the eastern EU states — as well as symbolic and historical importance, often being seen as a "jewel in the crown" of the former Soviet empire.

Putin has extolled the cultural, linguistic and economic ties Ukraine has with Russia, describing Russians and Ukrainians as being "one people" last year. He even wrote an essay on the subject, titled "On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians."

The sentiment is not largely requited in Ukraine, with the country's government under President Volodymyr Zelenskiy looking westward for economic aid and geopolitical strength, particularly in the years following Russian's 2014 annexation of Crimea.

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Ukraine has repeatedly expressed its desire to join the EU and NATO, which represents a geopolitical kick in the teeth for a resurgent Russia vying to maintain power and influence in the region.

Many strategists and close followers of Russian politics believe Putin, who has been in power alternating between prime minister and president since late 1999, harbors a strong desire to invade Ukraine.

Maximilian Hess, fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told CNBC on Tuesday that "Russia is not just seeking to prohibit Ukraine from joining the alliance — something it has sought to do since Ukraine's 2008 NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP) application — but also to remove Ukraine from the Western sphere of influence to which it has moved since the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution."

"NATO membership is particularly symbolic, but Russia would not accept a situation in which the West significantly expanded military support to Ukraine either."

How far is Russia prepared to go?

One of the biggest questions facing Western officials is just how far Russia is willing to go to stop Ukraine's drift toward Europe and the West, and to enhance and extend its presence and influence in the country as it stands.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg are seen during NATO-Russia Council at the Alliance's headquarters in Brussels, Belgium January 12, 2022.
Olivier Hoslet | Reuters

At talks on Monday, Russia's delegation insisted that there were no plans to invade Ukraine, but analysts aren't so sure.

Angela Stent, director emerita of Georgetown University's Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies, told CNBC on Tuesday that a Russian invasion of Ukraine could still happen. "Let's say, 50-50 at the moment," she said, adding that it could be a "more limited invasion" rather than a massive one.

"That danger still lies there," she said.

Hess agreed, noting that "I do think Russia is prepared to go to war, but I do not think the Kremlin would desire a war far beyond the current fronts. The risks of encountering a sustained Guerilla resistance would be very high, particularly if they went beyond Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts," he said.

Russia does need a "credible invasion threat" to remain, however, especially as it's played the key role in bringing the U.S. to the table, Hess added.

"The risk of renewed or expanded Russian invasion — Ukraine of course already faces an ongoing Russian invasion of Crimea and proxy occupation of parts of Donetsk and Luhansk — has never fully receded these past eight years and is unlikely to after these talks as maintaining the ability to restrict Ukraine's potential success is still seen as key to the long-term self-preservation of the Kremlin," he said.

Meanwhile, Tony Brenton, a former British ambassador to Russia, told CNBC on Tuesday that both Russia and the U.S. want to avoid a military confrontation and that Moscow just wants what it sees as its interests "accommodated."