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Vladimir Putin Profile ;

What does Putin want and what can the West do?

The war on Ukraine explained: Hear from our experts
Andrew MacLeod

Visiting Professor, Department of War Studies

28 February 2022

On the surface, one may be tempted to think what is happening in Ukraine is simple: a bully is picking on a small neighbour, but what is really happening is much more complicated and much more important than that

Let’s start by figuring out “what is Russia doing and why is it doing it?”. I stress here that the West needs to understand, but not necessarily agree, with Putin. In Russia there is enormous importance placed on what is known as the Rostov-on-Don line. It stretches from St Petersburg down western Russia to Rostov-on-Don, linking Russia’s two “warm water ports of last resort”, roughly where the Russian border with the West and Ukraine is now.

When Russia is at its weakest, the Rostov-on-Don line is historically the furthest east that Western influence has reached. The Rostov-on-Don line is where Ukraine sits. And when Russia is pushed that far east, it always pushes back. When Russia is at its strongest, like after World War II, its influence reaches Germany. When this happens, the West pushes back, as it did after the Cold War.

Russia has argued it had to push back when they perceived the threat of Ukraine joining NATO, much like the US pushed back when the Soviets put missiles in Cuba. But what does Russia want to achieve by its strategy of launching a full-scale invasion of its neighbour?

Many believe that in the short term it wants a land-bridge from Russia through Ukraine to Crimea. Over the longer term, it wants to keep Ukraine unstable, push back the West beyond the Rostov-on-Don line, and re-assert its regional influence. It will then push west as far as they can.

As Russia’s objectives become clearer, how should the West respond?

The kind of unified voice on sanctions and isolation of Russia that we have seen, will continue to be crucial. There need to be clear messages to the people of Ukraine and the people of Russia that the West will support Ukraine. This stops short of NATO joining the war, but if Russia were to step into its member countries, it would be a different matter.

For the people of Ukraine, it is a difficult reality that they are the buffer between Russia and the West precisely because Ukraine is not in NATO. But Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and every country west of Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova, are NATO members and Article 5 of the NATO treaty outlines the notion of collective Defence.

This is why it needs to be made crystal clear to Putin that, should one of the NATO members be attacked, then all will join the conflict and that would be catastrophic.

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Andrew  MacLeod

Andrew MacLeod

Visiting Professor

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