Russia’s political leadership has pursued a consistent policy of pushing a reluctant Ukraine into evolving Moscow-led Eurasian economic integration projects, which are in fact geopolitical and aimed at establishing Russian strategic control over the post-Soviet area. Due to its size, potential, and historical closeness to Russia, Ukraine has been perceived as the key country for these projects. While the annexation of Crimea was a success for the Kremlin, boosting popular support for the Putin regime within Russia, Moscow has failed in achieving its offensive strategic goals toward Ukraine. Facing Ukrainian resistance and economic crisis, Moscow has decided to de-escalate the war in Donbas with the goal of convincing the West to relax sanctions. However, Russia hasn’t changed its goal of ultimately bringing Ukraine under its control, but rather only changed tactics and the use of individual instruments. The objective is to derail the process of Ukraine’s integration into Europe and reform based on European standards. Russia wants Ukraine to fail as a successful transformation would pose a challenge for Moscow by providing an alternative model of
development and integration in Eastern Europe, ultimately undermining the legitimacy of the Putin regime. That means a long strategic game in and over Ukraine is to be expected. The United States and European Union, rather than accommodating Russia, should pursue a three-fold strategy of “smart containment”: continuing to pressure Russia, including by sanctions, while engaging Russians; offering targeted support for Ukraine and other Eastern neighbors; and increasing Europe’s resilience against negative Russian influence.