What are the Russian interests in influencing/controlling the Ukrainian politics?

When talking about Ukrainian politics in general from the time before the orange revolution until the more recent developments with Euromaidan in 2014 and the regime change going hand in hand, western society is confronted with a serious issue of remembering politician names and matching their correspondent political profiles. Also referred to as the grand who is who of Ukrainian politics. Let’s list some of the most important actors of the recent decade:

Yanukovych, Milošević, Poroshenko, Yushchenko, Kuchma, Tymoshenko, Saakashvili… There certainly exist more names and I can promise as much as it would get even more confusing if I would just list the former prime ministers, but if you have not already questioned yourself “why are Milošević and Saakashvili mentioned?” then I have obviously proven a point.

Let’s cross out the former president of Serbia Milošević and the former president of Georgia Saakashvili to reduce the circle of personalities. This leaves us still with Yushchenko, Kuchma, Yanukovych, Tymoshenko, Poroshenko! Despite being all politicians they differ from each other in their political preferences and tendencies.

At least when talking about Russian politics Putin, the mass media stylized enemy of the American unipolar world remains notorious to most humankind.

Question: Who is pro- Russian and who is pro- European?

(For the solution scroll to the bottom of the page below the conclusion)

Sidefact: Interestingly the former president of Georgia Saakashvili, who ceased power after the bloodless rose revolution in 2003 and pretty much “Putinized” (referring to the autocratic practices of the Russian president) Georgia quickly by taking control of the states media station and centralizing power erasing thereby “checks and balances”, is now the governor of Odessa a western district of Ukraine. Georgia plays with the idea to deprive him of his Georgian citizenship as national law implies that multinational citizenship is not eligible. Follow this link to read about his further engagement in local politics and possible Russian practices to seek influence in politics.

What does it mean to be supportive in either direction? The Ukraine stresses it sovereign role and seeks the most favorable policy outcomes in the gamble for its own national interests. Euromaidan has showed that a large percentile of the urban population desperately wishes closer aligning with Europe. Further expecting to benefit from modernization through westernization and hoping for a decrease of national corruption and influence of oligarchs in daily politics with a more pro European government prominent.

In this essay I would like to focus on the Russian interests in controlling/ influencing the Ukrainian politics; does today´s Russia really need Ukraine? In order to evaluate Russian interests in controlling the Ukrainian politics I will briefly explain the term “Regime Change” at the case of the US Iraq liberation 2003. After I created a general understanding of regime change I will draw a more situate connected picture with the Ukraine in observing the Orange revolution 2005 and Euromaidan 2014. Finally, I will approach Russian interests in controlling/influencing Ukraine politics. Therefore I seek to raise awareness for cost and benefits inferring from affirmative attitudes (positive international relations) between countries, highlighting military, economic and domestic political considerations. At the end I ll briefly abstract the main findings.

What is regime change?

Given the primarily assumption that individual sovereign states have win-sets of multiple opportunities that fall within their spheres of interests they can choose from a “pool” of strategies to reach their political goals. Therefore an authoritarian regime would seek to exploit all options that fall within its win set to remain in power. More detailed, regime maintenance implies the use of force to create legitimacy, for instance through the exercise of more or less non-violent, opposition repression. Hence, when talking about regime change literature most frequently refers to democratization.

In this essay I want to highlight the 5th core strategy of “change for stability” as mentioned from Albrecht and Schlumberger “5. External influences: transforming constraints into opportunities” (Albrecht/Schlumberger 2004), as the sentence implies a core variable for regime change to successfully occur are external influences. This implies a range of possibilities to fill the space of transforming constraints into opportunities; one option could be arming local individuals or the supply of other goods and services in need. But returning to our premise that sovereign states are rational actors, in an anarchic environment (given the theoretical framework of the rational approaches) it is highly unlikely that external support in favor of an authoritarian regime or in favor of the opposition happens without merit.

For instance the US claimed past 9/11 that Iraq possessed possible weapons of mass destruction and militarily invaded Iraq on the bases of a global scale Anti-Terror mission. The government of Saddam Hussein was tossed over and after installing a coalition provisional government United states lend hand installing a Pro- American new government. Despite the fact that there were no weapons of mass destruction found and the legitimacy of the invasion after United Nations law remains questionable if not indefensible(Borger 2004) Operation Iraqi Liberation is an extreme example of regime change due to external influences. Further the control of natural resources in Iraq added to the beneficial side of the military intervention. Therefore Operation Iraqi Liberation demonstrates the cost and benefits that stroll along with a possible regime change out of American perspective.

Quality relations are significant in an anarchic international environment.

As in general we have understood that external influences of regime change are strongly rooted in the expected benefits perceived from the new regime installed we should turn back to the question I raised in the introduction. The grand who is who of Ukrainian politics until Euromaidan can be seen as West (EU, US, NATO) East (RUSSIA, CIS) conflict of Ukrainian politics.

The Orange revolution:

Pro-European opposition supported by the civil society organized the Orange Revolution. Even though the Ukrainian civil society´s immaturity was a challenge for collective action and political change, it is truly astonishing how successful the opposition coalition was during the orange revolution (Laverty 2008). Especially the activists of the group Pora glued the demonstrants together ensuring peaceful and non-alcoholic protests and providing with its internet prowess highly effective media campaigns. Achieving renewed elections because of accusations of electoral fraud Victor Yuschenko became the president and Yuliya Timoshenko became the prime minister. Nevertheless, the rise to power of these leaders did not bring about the desired change that was on the “Oragen agenda”. Timoshenko was shortly after the election in 2006 dismissed as prime minister and the government closed ties again with Russia. Apparently the situation of Ukrainians even deteriorated further in regard to basic rights and freedoms (Khmelko/ Pereguda 2014).

Euromaidan and the annexion of Crimea:

The Euromaidan began after president Yanukovych refused to sign the European Association agreement in 2013. The government of Yanukovych claimed that economic reasons stimulated the constrained response. Further, I would suggest that the pro-Russian president was caught in a dilemma regarding Article 7 of the European Association Agreement that states “Foreign and security policy 1. The Parties shall intensify their dialogue and cooperation and promote gradual convergence in the area of foreign and security policy, including the Common Security and Defence Policy (…)” (COM(2013) 290), making the Association Agreement that was supposed to be solely about trade suddenly as well about a military alliance, potentially harassing Ukrainian foreign relations with Russia. However, the growing Pro-European civil society moved to Maidan to show their will to bond closer with Europe. The Ukrainian society was simply sucked up with indignation about violation of basic rights and freedom and the repression from oligarchic elites. The dominant view is that the ongoing dissatisfaction of the population with the government has been rolled in with a number of factors that contributed to the escalation of tension and violence in the Maidan (Khmelko/ Pereguda 2014).

Leading to the Maidan Massacre of the 20 February; It still remains a controversially debated question of current interest who the snipers were that lead to the escalation of the situation enabling the new government to run for office and the new presidential elections to be held in may 2014. Follow this link here to read an interesting article about possible influences.

Nevertheless, following the regime change of the pro-Russian president Yanukovych being ousted the new government discussed about the ban of multiple official languages, including Russia. Viewed as final indicator that convinced some groups in Southeastern Ukraine that nationalists, extremists, fascists, and anti-Semites came to power in Kyiv. “This act convinced many in the Southeast that they may be marginalized even further in the Ukrainian policy process, and their apprehension about this has convinced them of the need to fear the new Kyiv government”(Khmelko/ Pereguda 2014). Following the regime change and the immediate threat of repressive language policies in a multi ethnic Ukraine, on average 50- 75% russophone population live in Crimea and the Eastern Ukraine, Russian soldiers took control of strategically important positions and infrastructure within Crimea. In the same month the new parliament of Crimea declares Crimea part of Russia and is incorporated into the Russian federation after a referendum supports the decision. Furthermore like the ouster of Yanukovych is violation of national law it can be argued that the annexation of Crimea violates international law as the interim government did not take up arms against Crimea or eastern Ukrainian civilization and the small percentile of extremism is most likely to be found in any country.(University of Cambridge 2014, OSCE. 2014) Still fuelled by Euromaidan tensions in Eastern Ukraine violent clashes between pro-Europeans and pro-Russians emerged that are known until today at the beginning as Ukraine conflict and developed to the Ukraine war.

In October 2014 the new parliament was elected and consists of many pro-European parties that have been washed into office as result of Euromaidan. Poroschenko is the new elected president and Arsenij Jazenuk the prime minister; together they form a pro-European government that attempts with its “Strategy 2020” to join the European Union. Moreover Poroschenko is said to be very America friendly, and stated three days after being President of the Ukraine that he sees his country’s future as NATO member.

In the word of Brezezinski: “As the EU and NATO expand, Ukraine will eventually be in the position to choose whether it wishes to be part of either organization.” (Brzezinksi 1997 p.121). Seems like Ukraine has made its decision in favour of Europe, even though the regime change in 2014 raises the question of Western sponsorship. However, Ukraine is not member of the EU or  NATO yet.

Again it shows that Brezezinski was pretty ahead of his time in 1997 when he predicted “2005- 2015 as a reasonable time frame for the initiation of Ukraine´s progressive inclusion by the West”(Brzezinksi 1997 p.121).

Lets evaluate the Russian interest in controlling/influencing the Ukrainian politics:

According to Saradzhyan 2014 does Russia not need Ukraine as much as the West likes to believe, Russia does not seek to influence who becomes next president or prime minister as long as the Russian interests in world politics are being heard.

That includes naval superiority of the Russian fleet anchoring in Sevastopol and that the safety of ethnic Russians are not threatened by a possible Ukrainian NATO or EU expansion. Putin has made clear in many TV appearances that he does not see Russia to be the aggressor. Without doubt is the NATO eastwards expansion a serious threat to Russian collective security. Hence the Georgian war and acceptance of breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia blocked any possible Georgian NATO membership in 2008 is an interpretation in the same direction (Deyermond 2014). Maybe Putin seeks so reach a similar goal in the east of Ukraine.

Additionally are Russian nuclear weapons and aircraft stationed in Eastern Ukraine and the Crimean military basis marks a geostrategic military and economically important pier accessing the black sea and the Atlantic.

Nevertheless do economic sanctions imposed on Russia hurt the Russian economy. Russia´s economy is dependent on its oil and gas exports ever since the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991. For example Gazprom´s main importer is Europe with 80% of Gazprom´s exports capacities due to the same route Ukrainian gas market shares range around 16%. The problem is that due of sanctions the key pipelines “Uzengoy-Pomary-Uzhgorod” and “Druzhba” running through Ukraine are only used on certain occasions resulting in a more or less stagnant economy (Grigas 2015).

Other political interests in the Ukraine are to prevent a regime change domino effect and Ukraine is seen as the birthplace of the Slavic population. Integrating Ukraine into the Russian federation or guaranteeing sovereignty that makes a tripartite trade agreement possible would be a solution that would satisfy Russian interests. Second option may be an acceptable outcome also for Brussels and Washington.

Last but not least if Putin would back out of the conflict now, he is most likely to loose his face internationally and domestically. Besides according to opinion pools Putin’s popularity has reached a new peak with around 80% of the population backing him up.


I have shown that Russia is not interested in influencing/ controlling the progress of president or parliament elections and manipulating the votes being casted. However, Russia´s daily politics were much easier with a pro-Russian president that was weighing between Europe & NATO and Russia & CIS. After the Euromaidan that escalated in a coup d´état washed a pro-European interim government and later a real pro-European government mainly consistent of Maidan activists in office, Russia acted quickly annexing Crimea and protecting therefore quite a few economic and military geopolitical interests as well as its ethical russophone people. Further violent clashes in the Eastern Ukraine resulted in sanctions imposed on Russia by the West. It remains to be seen how the situation further develops as Putin has often stated that he believes in a sovereign Ukraine, but insists on Ukraine to distance from further NATO and EU common security east enlargement. However, Euromaidan, the new government and civil society riding on the wave of democratization feel closer to Europe then ever. As presented above Russia has economic interests in a strong Ukraine, because it depends on foreign markets to stabilize the Rubel with oil exports. But also BRICS and new Iran foreign relations draw a picture that Russia without Ukrainian is not far off topic. The world becomes more multi polar. Therefore  and due to all reasons presented above Russia´s interests in controlling Ukrainian politics are increasingly low, but Russia is interested in influencing daily politics to protect its national interests of military, economic and domestic political considerations.

Solution: Political preferences and tendencies

Kuchma: during his office period Russian-Ukrainian relations flourished. At the end of his term the will of the nation for modernization and westernization became obvious in the “Ukraine without Kuchma” campaign preceding the later Orange revolution.

Yushchenko: following Kuchma, Yushchenko became president in a second election in 2005 after protests that questioned the legitimacy of the previous electoral outcome. The protest became known as the Orange revolution. Yushchenko promised a more pro-European agenda but dismissed the Parliament under Tymoshenko shortly after elections under accusations of fraud and corruption. This led to a breakup with the former Orange coalition. Accomplishing little of what was on the former “Orange agenda” his newly appointed prime minister Yanukovych, symbolically meant a rapprochement with Russia.

Yanukovych: following Yushchenko in 2010 Yanukovych was a pro-Russian president.

Poroshenko: president that won the 2014 presidential elections in May after the ouster of Yanukovych and has since then put on his agenda closer relations with the West.


Albrecht, Holger/ Oliver Schlumberger. 2004. Waiting for Godot”: Regime Change Without Democratization in the Middle East. International political science review. Vol. 25. 371–392

Borger, Julian. The Guardian. 2004. There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2004/oct/07/usa.iraq1, stand 08.11.2015

Brzezinksi, Z. 1997. The Grand Chessboard. Basik Books. 87-122.

Deyermond, D. 2014. “What are Russia’s real motivations in Ukraine? We need to understand them.” The Gurardian. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/apr/27/russia-motivations-ukraine-crisis

European Commission. 2013. Association Agreement between the European Union and its Member States, of the one part, and Ukraine, of the other part. COM(2013) 290. Brussels http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/docs_autres_institutions/commission_europeenne/com/2013/0290/COM_COM%282013%290290%28PAR2%29_EN.pdf , stand 08.11.2015

Grigas, Agnia. The Hill. 2015. One year since Crimea’s annexation: Russia’s interests in Ukraine run deep. http://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/foreign-policy/236487-one-year-since-crimeas-annexation-russias-interests-in, stand 08.11.2015

Khmelko, I./ Pereguda, Y. 2014. “An Anatomy of Mass Protests: The Orange Revolution and Euromaydan Compared” Communist and Post-Communist Studies 47

Laverty, N. 2008. The Problem of Lasting Change. Civil Society and the Colored Revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine. Heldref Publications. p. 143-158.

OSCE. 2014. Developing situation in Crimea alarming, says OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities. http://www.osce.org/hcnm/116180

Saradzhyan, S. 2014. “Does Russia Really Need Ukraine?” http://nationalinterest.org/commentary/does-russia-really-need-ukraine-9944, stand 08.11.2015

University of Cambridge. 2014. International law and legality of secession in Crimea. http://cjicl.org.uk/2014/04/20/international-law-legality-secession-crimea/

Katchanovski, Ivan. 2015. The “Snipers’ Massacre” on the Maidan in Ukraine. http://www.researchgate.net/publication/266855828_The_Snipers’_Massacre_on_the_Maidan_in_Ukraine


Documentation Maidan Massacre: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zV-TZQKgAPE

ARD exclusive interview with Putin: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BdlXqyZHB9k

Listen: Victoria Nuland Says F*CK The E.U. in Leaked Phone Call: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2QxZ8t3V_bk







10 thoughts on “What are the Russian interests in influencing/controlling the Ukrainian politics?

  1. Good overview about Russians interests in Ukraine. However, one point is maybe given too little attention: the need of a strong Russian foreign policy for domestic reasons. Let me explain this point shortly. After a good relation to NATO at the beginning of his regency, Putin is propagating a decisive nationalist policy for several years now. To fulfill this nationalist ideology, he simply had to backup Russian ethnic groups in Ukraine and could not allow the EU to gain easily influence in Kiev. Furthermore, as a soviet dreamer, the home country of the former Soviet Union leader Nikita Chruschtschow had to be under the influence of Moscow. It could be said that in a certain way, Putin is driven by its own ghost of nationalist ideology. Or in a German saying: “Die Geister, die er rief, wird er nun nicht mehr los.”

    Please be aware this point is just one factor of this complex issue.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Dear Philip,
    what I find quite interesting about your essay is the fact that you try to explain the events going on in Ukraine and the interests behind the political moves impacting the conflict in the country not in a case-specific but in a more generalized, theoretical manner. I indeed think too that understanding what Putin drives in his foreign political considerations in Ukraine also means keeping in mind the interests of the West, as there are always two sides to the medal. But why exactly do you assume that a pro-European Ukraine, which the West is undoubtedly aiming at, is what Putin wants to avoid? Or to put it more clearly: why should he bother? In In my eyes there is a simple answer that I couldn’t find in your text: because of its geographical location. Ukraine is the link between Russia and Europe, culturally as well as historically. If Moscow now would lose this geopolitical “buffer” separating it from the West its borders would literally lie open. For Putin, who always likes to be at the reins and thinks the safety of his own country to be essential, this threat must be unpleasant. Moreover the current situation is all about power and not only about the Ukraine. If the Kremlin would show weaknesses now, why shouldn’t it later in a different scenario. Putin’s concession of sovereignty to the Ukraine always was and still is a limited one: it only goes as far as he is comfortable with.


    1. Hey Julius
      I am afraid this essay assumes that people know about the geographical setting of the Ukraine and does not start from zero. Therefore when I talk about the NATO enlargement and that Putin feels threatened it is a prerequisite to know that Ukraine is a so called “buffer” at the moment.

      It is just not possible to include everything as this would burst the frame. For instance I could also go back in history and describe the Kiev-Russ relations… leading to a whole different essay.

      Therefore the arguments presented here focus on the Orange Revolution and the Euromaidan in connection with regime change. Having a pro- Russian to pro- European regime change and the geopolitical consideration arising from the new situation with most likely soon to come Ukrainian EU membership…

      Hope this explains why you could not find any direct hint that Ukraine lies between Europe and Russia.
      If you have further questions don’t hesitate to ask!


      1. Hey Philipp,
        You are probably right that most of the people will know that Ukraine and Russia are direct neighbors! With my comment I simply wanted to explain in more detail why a pro-Russian government in Ukraine is essential for Russia itself. Thanks for your comprehensive answer 🙂


      2. Hey Phillip,
        thanks for your comprehensive answer 🙂 I think you are right that most of your readers will know that Russia and Ukraine are direct neighbors. What I wanted to emphasize with my comment a bit more is simply the importance of a pro-Russian government for Moscow!


  3. Hey Philipp!

    This is a good essay about the Russian intentions or interests in Ukraine. I would agree with you that fearing a “domino effect” of modernization or in general electoral interests are a minor point. More importantly, especially Crimea has a geographically significant position! It gives Russia access to the Black Sea and also, the East of Ukraine is most productive.

    But you could use the same argument for Ukraine clinging on its territory even though the majority has voted for joining Russia. You can criticize the referendum as much as you like, but there is evidence that the mood on the peninsular was rather pro-Russian. (See: http://www.globalresearch.ca/the-annexation-of-crimea-to-russia-opinion-poll/5430781 ).


  4. Even though I am not a highly political person I really enjoyed reading your article. You kept things interesting and gave a good insight into the Russian interests in influencing the Ukrainian politics.
    Seems like you put a lot of effort into your posts!
    Keep up the good work!


  5. Thanks for this interesting post, Philipp! It was great to read more about Russia´s motives and your use of videos and photos is always so great – keep that up!
    I would agree with the importance of Ukraine´s geographical location for Russia that Julius pointed out – a buffer zone between NATO and Russia has always been quite important to them. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was promised that Russia´s neighbouring countries would not be joining NATO, but this promise was not kept. Ukraine, being both economically and militarily important and close to Russia, would be a huge loss to NATO and possibly bring NATO forces to Russia´s border which is deemed as unacceptable by them.
    What I don´t quite understand yet is how you come to the conclusion that Russia has no interest in influencing Ukrainian politics – I would argue that Russia does have that interest or at least want to ensure that the Ukrainian government is pro-Russian, both for the economic, military and domestic policy reasons you pointed out. That they just want to influence daily decision making seems a bit unrealistic to me, as that would involve a lot of uncertainty and could not prevent Ukraine from eventually joining the EU or NATO like a pro-Russian government would.


    1. Hey Noren thanks for your post. I guess you misread the conclusion. Russia wants influence in politics to protect their intersts, but not to control them. After having annexed Crimea and the conflict in Eastern Ukraine maybe developing to a frozen conflict is having a pro-Russian government not anymore that much of a concern to the leading figures in Russia. It would naturally be pleasant. But I think considering civil soviety after last years Euromaidan, a pro-Russian government is for now off the table! But as this topic is affected by currents, it is unpredictable what the future holds.

      Here a small extract from front news: ” The combined Russian-militant forces attacked Ukrainian army positions in eastern Ukraine 12 times over night, using
      grenadelaunchers, heavymachinegunsandsmallarms, the press centre of the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) wrote on
      Facebook on Thursday. “The pro-Russian militants were firing on the villages of Opytne, Novhorodske, Pisky and the town of
      Avdiyivka. Inaddition, they were firing in the direction of Chemical and Cement plants, the village of Spartak, and the old terminal
      of the Donetsk airport, the village of Shyroka Balkaand Putylivskiy park in the city of Donetsk.”
      – The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) has arrested Olena Lukash who held the post of justice minister during the rule of
      former president Viktor Yanukovych, SBU spokesperson Olena Hitlyanska said.
      – The Ukrainian government forces started withdrawing mortars smaller than 120mm in caliber from the line of contact in the
      Artemivsk sector of the military operation area in Donbas, Vladyslav Selezniov, a spokesman for the Ukrainian armed forces’
      generalstaff, told Interfax on Thursday.
      – The Ukrainian parliament has ratified an agreement on air transportation signed by the Ukrainian and U.S. governments, the
      pressservice of the Ukrainian Infrastructure Ministry reported on Nov.5.”


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