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The second stage of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is underway. The scope of the war now appears to be establishing full control over Donbas and southern Ukraine. If successful, this would mean Russian occupation of approximately one-third of Ukraine, cutting the country off from its Black Sea ports, including Odesa.
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If fully realised, these objectives also raise the deeply worrying prospect of a Russian move on Moldova and its break-away region of Transnistria. Stage two of Putin’s war could thus very well imply a more serious escalation.
Russia’s foreign policy strategy towards its neighbours is intimately linked with Vladimir Putin’s longstanding aspiration to turn Russia into a great power akin to the Soviet Union, whose demise he has lamented as a geopolitical catastrophe. Short of recreating the Soviet Union, Russia needs friendly political regimes in neighbouring countries, or at least regimes it can influence and prevent from sliding into the western orbit of the EU and Nato.
For a long time, one of Russia’s main levers of such influence were so-called “de-facto states” in former republics of the erstwhile Soviet Union. These include Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, Transnistria in Moldova and – since 2014 – the self-declared people’s republics of Donetsk (DPR) and Luhansk (LPR) in the Donbas region. Moscow’s price for restoring control of these breakaway regions to their countries would be to legitimise proxy regimes there. This would give the Kremlin long-term influence over these countries’ foreign policy choices. This has always been a non-starter.
But that doesn’t diminish the territorial value of these areas. By recognising Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008, by annexing Crimea in 2014, and by recognising the DPR and LPR in 2022, Russia achieved at least part of its aim of restoring a dependable sphere of influence beyond its borders. This strategy is now evident in Russia’s latest moves in Ukraine, including the announcement of a “referendum on independence” in the key southern city of Kherson on April 27, 2022.
Moscow’s aim to occupy all of southern Ukraine is the logical conclusion of this strategy. Nonetheless, it reflects how much things have changed with Russia’s original aspirations. From the ultimatum for Kyiv’s unconditional surrender in February 2022, to demands that Ukraine recognise the independence of the DPR, LPR and the annexation of Crimea the following month, it now appears that a negotiated agreement on Russian terms is less and less likely.
If successful, the land-grab by force that the Kremlin is now pursuing would also create a land bridge to Transnistria – one of the early Russian-controlled de-facto states – something that had already appeared to be a possibility after the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
There is very little enthusiasm in Transnistria for being drawn into Russian aggression against Ukraine. But there is also limited ability to resist Moscow’s ambitions if Russian forces advanced all the way there. It would leave Moldova even more exposed to Russian aggression, given the fact that it has nowhere near the defensive capabilities that Ukraine has, despite having a “cooperative arrangement” with the alliance which has included supplying troops to Nato’s peacekeeping effort in Kosovo since 2014.
Moreover, give the country’s sizeable ethnic Russian and Russian-speaking community, the Kremlin would likely again cry “genocide” in justifying military aggression against Moldova and could rely on a small minority of hardline pro-Russian supporters to do its bidding, pushing for more “independence referenda”.
So, regardless of actual capabilities, the Kremlin has clear incentives to pursue its second-stage goals of capturing more Ukrainian territory and entrenching itself and its proxies along the entire Black Sea coast.
The consequences of Russian success would be extremely damaging for Ukraine. Central government control would be limited to a landlocked, economically devastated territory. Major population centres, including the capital Kyiv, would likely be within easy reach of Russian artillery and missiles and frontlines would remain highly volatile zones of low-intensity conflict. Meanwhile, large numbers of Ukrainian citizens would be subjected to a brutal Russian occupation regime whose excesses have been witnessed in places like Bucha.
Maintaining pressure on Putin
These calculations make it clear that Ukraine will continue to do everything possible to defend these territories. The west will need to continue to support these efforts, and will need to do more and faster for its strategy of proactive containment – preventing a spillover of the war into neighbouring countries and gradually diminishing Moscow’s capacity to fight and hold territory in Ukraine – to continue to work.
The west’s program of sanctions need to be expanded – especially when it comes to Russian oil and gas. The supply of military equipment needs to be stepped up to enable Ukraine to resist and eventually push back Russian invaders. This is not free of risks and costs for either Ukraine or its western partners. Russia is likely to further increase its air attacks and possibly expand its list of targets, especially along the Black Sea coast, as has been obvious with the recent missile attack on Odesa.
Toughening the sanctions regime will hurt the west as well. But the alternatives are worse. Not only for Ukraine, but also Moldova. A Russian success along the lines of its declared goals of the so-called second stage of its aggression against Ukraine will also make direct confrontation between Nato and Russia more likely. And it would almost certainly encourage Putin to try to achieve by force what he failed to gain in his proposed new Nato-Russia agreement of December 2021: the withdrawal of Nato forces from territories of all 14 states that joined the alliance since end of the cold war.
Stopping Putin in Ukraine is the only realistic way to avoid a tragedy of even greater proportions and the spread of the conflict to a second country. The sooner the west realises this and acts accordingly, the greater the likelihood of effectively containing Russia and preserving the possibility of future peace and stability in Ukraine and beyond.
Stefan Wolff receives funding from the United States Institute of Peace. He is a past recipient of grants from the Economic and Social Research Council of the UK, the British Academy, the NATO Science for Peace Programme, the EU Framework Programmes 6 and 7 and Horizon 2020, as well as the EU's Jean Monnet Programme. He is a Senior Research Fellow of the Foreign Policy Centre in London and Co-Coordinator of the OSCE Network of Think Tanks and Academic Institutions.
Tatyana Malyarenko receives funding from the European Union (Erasmus + Programme of the European Union; Jean Monnet Project '2020-2022 'Countering Online Disinformation and Hybrid Threats'