The fresh escalation of tension around Ukraine began in December last year when Russia sought security guarantees from the United States (US) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) “to refrain from any further enlargement.”[i] The negotiations that followed at the NATO-Russia Council meeting in early January failed to reach a consensus. Following the meeting, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg noted that no changes would be made to NATO’s Open Door Policy but expressed the need to resume dialogue and further negotiations on the matter.[ii] Later in the same month, the US and NATO responded to Russia’s proposal. Although the contents of the response were not made public, it was evident that Russian proposals were not agreed upon.
On 21 February, Russia recognised the independence of Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR)[iii] where frequent clashes had continued since the 2014 Ukraine crisis between the pro-Russian rebels and the Ukrainian authorities. DPR and LPR had declared independence from Ukraine in May 2014 but their status was not recognised internationally by any country until February 21 this year. Russia launched what it refers to as a “special military operation” in Ukraine three days later.[iv] The operation continues to this day with no signs of a ceasefire. This paper examines the recent developments in the Russia-Ukraine conflict and their impact on Russian foreign policy.
Recent Developments in the Russia-Ukraine Conflict
The first phase of the conflict began on 24 February when Russia launched a full-scale attack on Ukraine via land, air and sea.[v] Russia launched these attacks on the north from Belarus towards Kiev, form north-east towards Kharkiv, on the south from Crimea, and south-eastern Ukraine from Donetsk and Lugansk (Map 1). Russian officials justified the decision to attack Ukraine from all fronts to prevent movement of troops and military supplies. Russian General Staff Main Operational Directorate head, Sergei Rudskoi noted that “Russia did not relegate military support to the Lugansk and Donetsk People's Republics only within their borders due to the threat of constant replenishment of Ukrainian military groups” and focused on the entire territory of Ukraine initially for complete “demilitarisation and denazification”.[vi]
Map 1: Assessed Control of Terrain in Ukraine and Main Russian Maneuver Axes as of February 24, 2022
Source: Institute of War[vii]
On 25 March, Russia's Defence Ministry announced that the first phase of its military operation in Ukraine was almost complete and that it would focus on completely "liberating" eastern Ukraine's Donbass region. Russian General Staff Main Operational Directorate head Sergei Rudskoi noted in a press conference that "the main objectives of the first stage of the operation have generally been accomplished” given that “the combat potential of the Armed Forces of Ukraine has been considerably reduced.”[viii] The announcement to focus on the Donbass region only was seen as Russia’s attempt towards limiting its goals in Ukraine. During this period several round of negotiations also took place between Russian and Ukrainian officials on 28 February, 3 March, 7 March, 10 March, 14-17 March, 21 March, 29-30 March, 2022 respectively. There were some signs of a ceasefire towards the end of March, especially during the peace negotiations held in Turkey. However, following the events in Bucha (discussed below) the negotiations came to a standstill once again.
In the period following Russia’s announcement to retreat from Western Ukraine, the incident in Bucha- a city in the vicinity of Kiev, garnered a lot of international attention and backlash. Ukrainian officials alleged that over 300 bodies of civilians were found scattered on the streets of the city following the departure of Russian soldiers.[ix] On its part, Russia referred to the incident as another instance of staged “information attack” which was done after the Russian forces had already left the area. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov alleged that the “show” was staged in Bucha several days later to demonise Russia when in fact “all Russian service personnel had left the place on March 30. He also noted that “On March 31, 2022, the mayor of Bucha made an official statement that everything was all right there. Two days later, we saw the ‘show,’ organised on the town’s streets, and they are now trying to use it for anti-Russia purposes”.[x] However, the Western commentators have maintained their stance that the executions were carried out by Russian forces.[xi]
Almost four months later, in an interview with Russia Today, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov hinted at another revision in Russia’s strategy keeping in mind the ground situation in Eastern Ukraine. Responding to the question about the possible end of the military operation, he said that the country's military might venture beyond eastern Ukraine as well, as their “geographical objectives” are no longer limited to the eastern Donbass region.[xii] The following map encapulates the latest ground situation of Russian occupation in Ukraine.
Map 2: Assessed Control of Terrain in Ukraine and Main Russian Maneuver Axes as of July 28, 2022
Source: Institute of War[xiii]
Western Response to Russia-Ukraine Conflict and its Impact on Russia’s Foreign Policy
These developments since February have given way to a new phase of hostility between Russia and Ukraine. In addition, they have brought to the fore yet again the ‘competing rationalities’[xiv] in the common and contested neighbourhood between Europe and Russia. Situated in the eastern periphery of Europe and the western side of Russia, Ukraine assumes a crucial role in the geopolitical tussle for influence which also includes the US owing to its involvement in NATO. Russia has often been critical of NATO and US policy of expanding military infrastructure further to the east following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The NATO expansion, combined with EU’s eastward expansion has been viewed in Russia as the Western attempts to isolate Russia. These Russian grievances were expressed explicitly in President Putin’s speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007 where he criticised NATO’s eastward expansion.[xv] Over the years, Russia has raised this grievance on several occasions but has been more vocal especially following the events in 2014.[xvi]
Russia went a step further in December 2021 when it prepared a “draft treaty between the Russian Federation and the US on security guarantees”, as well as “a draft agreement on measures to ensure the security of the Russian Federation and NATO member states”. With these, Moscow demanded security guarantees including commitment from NATO “to refrain from any further enlargement” and to not “conduct any military activity on the territory of Ukraine as well as other States in the Eastern Europe, in the South Caucasus and in Central Asia” among others. [xvii] As discussed earlier in the paper, these security demands were not acceptable to the US and NATO to which Russia responded by attacking Ukraine in February this year.
The US, EU and others have responded strictly by extending existing sanctions (in place since 2014) and imposing new and harsher sanctions on Russia. Most prominent among the new measures is the decision to cut "selected" Russian banks out of the SWIFT global payment system; ''restrictive measures'' on Russia's Central Bank; shutting of the US and EU airspace for Russian aircraft; cutting off sales by Apple Inc. its products in Russia; halting of theatrical releases in Russia by Universal and Paramount, among others;[xviii] excluding Russia from the Council of Europe.[xix] Many international companies like Coca Cola, Starbucks, IKEA, McDonald’s, Visa and MasterCard, luxury fashion brands and several other entities have halted their operations in the country.
It is evident that the current sanctions are stricter and aimed at isolating Russia from the Western markets. The cutting off from the SWIFT system in particular has raised several complications for Russia despite the fact that the country has been working on its domestic financial system- the National Payment Card System as well as a System for Transfer of Financial Messages (SPFS), aimed towards “replicating the functions of the Brussels-based interbank transfer system since 2014.[xx] Notwithstanding the protective measures undertaken by Russia, the sanctions have had detrimental effects on the Russian economy due to their wide scope and intensity. Meanwhile, Russia has also imposed countersanctions. This dynamic has led to global repercussions such as disruption in global supply chains leading to high oil and gas prices; food (in) security, etc.
Impact on Russian Foreign Policy
Russia had pursued a multi-vector foreign policy since 2000 where due emphasis had been put on establishing strong relations with the US and the EU in order to build a “common European home”. [xxi] This trend began to reverse by mid 2000s as its disenchantment with the West grew stronger. This period was characterised by EU and NATO expansion and colour revolutions in several countries that had formerly been a part of the Soviet Union. Another key event that shaped Russian foreign policy shift in this phase was the Russia-Georgia War in 2008.
While the drift from pro Western approach in Russian foreign policy had begun to manifest during this time, a new phase of its isolation from the West followed only after the Ukraine crisis of 2014 and the ensuing sanctions. Broadly, developing relations with Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America now occupy crucial place in its foreign policy.[xxii] Within its new arrangement, Russia’s relations with China in particular have entered a new phase of cooperation since 2014. This is significant because even though Russia-China partnership had improved significantly prior to the 2014 Ukraine crisis, the scope of military-technical ties widened exponentially post the developments in Ukraine that year. This trend is likely to continue given Russia’s isolation from Western markets has increased further since February this year.
In the backdrop of this conflict, Russia’s outreach to its non Western partners assumes significance. For instance, President Putin’s recent visit to Iran has gained substantial attention. The visit to Iran has huge symbolic value as it came soon after Biden’s trip to the Middle East where he visited Israel and Saudi Arabia and also participated in the Summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council plus Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan (GCC+3).[xxiii] President Putin participated in a Russia-Iran-Turkey trilateral summit held in Tehran to discuss Syria. He also held bilateral talks with the two on the sidelines of the trilateral summit.[xxiv] Following the summit, the three released a joint statement where they “reaffirmed their commitment to Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” and reiterated their determination to resolve the Syrian conflict.[xxv] In addition, the three vouched to strengthen trilateral coordination in different sectors to promote joint political and economic cooperation. [xxvi] Russian President Vladimir Putin also held several bilateral meetings on the sidelines of the summit.
The 2014 crisis in Ukraine was the beginning of a new phase in the US/EU-Russia confrontation. While the Russian response in 2014 was a result of Ukraine’s ‘association’ with the EU, the current response is essentially targeted towards NATO and the US. Given that neither side is ready for a retreat, the crisis is Ukraine is likely to drag for some time. In this respect, the most probable scenario is that of a prolonged conflict without any decisive outcome. The West and Russia blame game would continue and no ceasefire agreements such as the (failed) Minsk accords would take place. Another related scenario would envisage limited Russian victory and further East-West divide in Ukraine. As the conflict progresses, there are also probabilities of domestic discontent within Russia itself that may emerge despite new laws to curtail criticism. In this scenario, the West would benefit from Russia’s domestic preoccupations. In terms of the impact on the foreign policy of Russia, the trend of promoting engagement with non Western partners such as India, China, Iran, Turkey and others is likely to gain further momentum in the coming years.
* Dr. Himani Pant,Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, Sapru House, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: The views are of the author.
[i]Agreement on measures to ensure the security of The Russian Federation and member States of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, MFA Russia, https://mid.ru/ru/foreign_policy/rso/nato/1790803/?lang=en&clear_cache=Y, Accessed on 21 December 2021.
[ii] Press conference by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg following the meeting of the NATO-Russia Council, North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, 12 January 2022, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/ opinions_190666.htm, Accessed on 13 January 2022.
[iii] Message from the President of the Russian Federation, The Kremlin, 21 February 2022, http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/67828, Accessed on 22 February 2022.
[iv]Address by the President of the Russian Federation, The Kremlin, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/ news/67843, Accessed on 24 February 2022.
[vi]Main objectives of first stage of special operation in Ukraine generally accomplished - Russian General Staff, Interfax, 25 March 2022, https://interfax.com/newsroom/top-stories/77393/ Accessed on 26 March 2022.
[vii] Institute of War, Ukraine Conflict Update 7, 24 February 2022,
https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/ukraine-conflict-update-7, Accessed on 26 February 2022.
[viii]Main objectives of first stage of special operation in Ukraine generally accomplished - Russian General Staff, Interfax, 25 March 2022, https://interfax.com/newsroom/top-stories/77393/ Accessed on 26 March 2022.
[ix]President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy visited Bucha, where he talked to local residents and journalists, 4 April 2022, https://www.president.gov.ua/en/news/volodimir-zelenskij-pobuvav-u-buchi-de-pospilkuvavsya-z-misc-74065, Accessed on 5 April 2022.
[x] Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s opening remarks at a meeting with Martin Griffiths, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Moscow, April 4, 2022https://mid.ru/en/foreign policy/news/themes/id/1807721/ Accessed on 5 April 2022
[xi] Ukraine: Russian Forces’ Trail of Death in Bucha, Human Rights Watch, 22 April 2022, https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/04/21/ukraine-russian-forces-trail-death-bucha, Accessed on 25 April 2022.
[xii]Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s interview with Channel One’s The Great Game political talk show, Moscow, MFA Russia, April 25, 2022https://mid.ru/en/foreign_policy/news/themes/id/1810694/Accessed on 26 April 2022
[xiii] Institute of War, Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment7, 28 July 2022,
[xiv] Derek Averre, “Competing Rationalities: Russia, the EU and the 'Shared Neighbourhood', Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 61, No. 10, 2009, pp. 1689-1713.
[xv] Speech and the Following Discussion at the Munich Conference on Security Policy, The Kremlin, 10 February 2022, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/24034, Accessed on 22 July 2022.
[xvi] In 2013, then Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s abrupt refusal to enter into an Association Agreement with the EU triggered a wave of protests at Ukraine’s Maidan which grew violent in the ensuing months. Yanukovych’s decision to abandon the EU deal was premised on the rationale of not antagonising Russia. With widespread protests over the abrupt departure from the said deal and a mounting pressure to quit, Yanukovych fled Kiev on 22 February 2014 and took refuge in Russia. Soon afterwards, Russia held a (debated) referendum in the Crimean Peninsula and occupied it. While the international status of Crimea still remains disputed and is regarded as an ‘annexation’, Russia regards Crimea an integral part of its territory. For further details refer to Ukraine Crisis and its Implications by Himani Pant , /show_content.php?lang=1&level=3&ls_id=7147&lid=4835
[xvii]Agreement on measures to ensure the security of The Russian Federation and member States of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, MFA Russia, https://mid.ru/ru/foreign_policy/rso/nato/1790803/?lang=en&clear_cache=Y, Accessed on 21 December 2021.
[xviii]Statement by President von der Leyen on further measures to respond to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, European Commission, 27 February 2022,
https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/statement_22_1441, Accessed on 28 February 2022.
[xix]Michael Emerson et al, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its impacts on Eastern Europe, CEPS, 21 March 2022, https://www.ceps.eu/ceps-publications/russias-invasion-of-ukraine-and-its-impacts-on-eastern-europe/, Accessed on 30 March 2022.
[xx]Maria Shagina, “How Disastrous Would Disconnection from SWIFT Be for Russia?” Carnegie Moscow Center, 28 May 2021, https://carnegiemoscow.org/commentary/84634, Accessed on 27 February 2022.
[xxi]Speech in the Bundestag of the Federal Republic of Germany, The Kremlin, 25 September 2001, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/21340, Accessed on 16 July 2022.
[xxii] Russia has made a decisive break with the West and is ready to help shape a new world order, Russian International Affairs Council, 6 July 2022, https://russiancouncil.ru/en/analytics-and-comments/comments/russia-has-made-a-decisive-break-with-the-west-and-is-ready-to-help-shape-a-new-world-order/, Accessed on 20 July 2022.
[xxiii] FACT SHEET: Results of Bilateral Meeting Between the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, The White House, 15 July 2022, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2022/07/15/fact-sheet-results-of-bilateral-meeting-between-the-united-states-and-the-kingdom-of-saudi-arabia/ Accessed on 20 July 2022.
[xxiv] Three unity: what the leaders of the Russian Federation, Iran and Turkey agreed on in Tehran And what conclusions did Putin and Erdogan come to regarding grain exports from Ukraine, Izvestia, 20 July 2022,
https://iz.ru/1367279/dmitrii-laru/trekh-edinstvo-o-chem-dogovorilis-lidery-rf-irana-i-turtcii-v-tegerane, Accessed on 21 July 2022.
[xxv] Joint Statement by the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the President of the Russian Federation and the President of the Republic of Turkey, The Kremlin, 19 July, 2022, http://kremlin.ru/supplement/5825, Accessed on 20 July 2022.
[xxvi] Joint Statement by the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the President of the Russian Federation and the President of the Republic of Turkey, The Kremlin, 19 July, 2022, http://kremlin.ru/supplement/5825, Accessed on 20 July 2022.