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David Satter assesses Russia’s motivations in Ukraine conflict

As the crisis in Ukraine continues to dissolve into a bloody stalemate between Kiev and Russian-backed separatists, Russia expert David Satter examined the root causes of this escalating conflict and discussed the engagement within the context of post-Soviet political development in each respective country. His lecture at The Institute of World Politics on October 1, 2014 was sponsored in part by the graduate school’s Kosciuszcko Chair of Polish Studies.

Mr. Satter explained that, historically, Ukraine and Russia have enjoyed a close, mutually beneficial political partnership. According to Mr. Satter, this relationship was exemplified by Ukraine’s standing within the USSR’s rankings of nationalities: its most reliable communist citizens enjoyed a higher status than many others. Furthermore, Russia enjoyed a romantic portrayal in Ukrainian literature. As a result, Mr. Satter argued that the present conflict is the byproduct of artificial Russian militaristic adventurism in order to distract its citizens from the success of Kiev’s uprising against a similar corrupt regime.

Ukraine, he noted, has a unique set of political conditions when compared to Russia due to its geographical location and its potential candidacy to enter NATO, the European Union, or both. As such, Mr. Satter contended that Ukraine lives with the possibility of an alternative, one that sets its citizens on a path of Westernization that would improve the livelihood of its citizens. This political psychology is consistently evident within Ukraine and was showcased in the country’s uprising against former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. 

Mr. Satter concluded that while Russian President Vladamir Putin’s military adventurism in Ukraine may support his domestic politics in the short term, it will ultimately cripple his standing, as Russian casualties mount and international economic sanctions take their toll.

Therefore, said Mr. Satter, Mr. Putin’s efforts to maintain his position’s longevity under the false banner of protecting Russian citizens is an unsustainable political maneuver that will endanger his absolute authority over Moscow’s politics. 

David Satter is a former Moscow Correspondent for the Financial Times of London. He is currently a Fellow at John Hopkins SAIS and is a Senior Fellow with the Hudson Institute.

-Tyler Deffebach