This chapter examines the developments that lead to the annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of war in the Donbass. It first analyses Russia’s efforts to halt Ukraine’s path towards association with the EU and examines the Kremlin’s attempts to ensure that Ukraine instead joined the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union. The chapter shows how Russia’s policies were characterised by the use of quite harsh coercive methods, which indicated that Russia was ready to use all instruments at its disposal to keep Ukraine within its sphere of influence. The chapter then examines Russia’s responses to Ukraine’s EuroMaidan Revolution as well as the path towards the annexation of Crimea and its aftermath. The chapter argues that clear geo-strategic concerns lay behind Putin’s decision to annex Crimea – worries over Russia’s naval forces being evicted from the Crimean base at Sevastopol on the Black Sea, and concerns over Ukraine’s NATO membership. However, the chapter notes that an imperialist project and a nationalist mindset also guided the Kremlin’s actions in relation to Crimea. The chapter finally argues that as a result of Russia’s annexation of Crimea , Putin shifted the foundations of Russia’s foreign policy paradigm from great-power geo-politics to revisionist imperial geo-politics.
The chapter also assesses Russia’s role behind the outbreak of violence in the Ukrainian Donbass and examines Russia’s involvement in the war in east Ukraine during 2014 and 2015. It argues that while geo-strategic imperatives certainly lay behind Putin’s decision to support and encourage the Donbass insurgency , an imperialist conception also directed the Kremlin’s actions. Russia’s policies in the Donbass revealed the true essence of the Kremlin’s objectives in Ukraine – to keep the Donbass under Russia’s influence, in order to ensure, above all, that the country did not fully embrace NATO, the EU and the West. This was seen as weakening Russia’s geo-strategic defences and creating a cleavage among the Slavic Russian and Ukrainian nations. To many Russians, Ukraine was identified with ‘Small Russia’, with Russians and Ukrainians seen as being part of a single ‘divided’ Russian nation. The chapter shows how, as events in Kiev unfolded in February 2014, Russians increasingly questioned the territorial integrity of Ukraine – clearly attesting to a neo-imperialist mindset. Putin and the Russian leadership, , as well as most Russians, saw Ukraine as undoubtedly belonging to the same civilisational space as Russia. This explains why the Russian leadership found it very difficult to discard the country’s imperial legacy, especially as far as Ukraine was concerned.