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Russian Views on the Ukraine's Crisis

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Read more on:  Ukraine, Ukraine Civil War, Sanctions

10:32 11/08/2014
Column of self-defense forces vehicles enter Donetsk

Western assessments of the Kremlin’s recent political course on Ukraine are predominantly critical (sometimes extremely critical and even overtly anti-Russian). Western analysts tend to portray Vladimir Putin’s current policies as solid evidence of Russia’s imperialist ambitions and aspirations to restore the former Soviet empire. Such assessments are quite simplistic and often misread the sources of Russia’s actions and intentions.

Is Russia a revisionist, status quo, or reformist state?

Western analysts often try to explain the foreign policy behavior of states, including Russia, through the power transition theory associated mainly with A.F.K. Organski. This theory identifies two types of world powers – revisionist and status quo. Russia is often labeled as a revisionist state that seeks to expand its sphere of influence. However, in truth, Russia is neither a status quo state aiming to preserve the main rules of the international system nor a revisionist state that aspires to radically change those rules. Rather, Russia (similar to other members of the BRICS states, for example) is a reformist state which differs from the two ideal types of international actors in terms of motivation and methods. Such a state is unsatisfied with the existing rules of the “game” but it does not want to change them radically. Rather, the objective is to reform these rules, to adapt them to new global realities and to make them more acceptable to all the members of the world community. It prefers to act on the basis of existing rules and norms rather than to challenge them. All changes (reforms) should be made gradually, through negotiations and to the benefit of all the parties involved.

The “coexistence” concept fits nicely into the reformist powers’ political philosophy even if it may not be part of their active vocabulary (as is the case with Russia). It can help explain the foreign policy behavior of many emerging powers, including Russia. The Kremlin believes that countries with different socio-economic and political systems can coexist peacefully. The emerging powers agree to play by existing rules but want to make them more just and responsive to changing realities. They are against one or more dominant states simply imposing the rules on the rest of the world; instead they favor a multipolar world model (the dominant concept in Russian foreign policy discourse today).

Russia’s new political philosophy – multipolar with an emphasis on soft power – was expressed for the first time in Putin’s now-famous speech at the 2007 Munich Security Conference. The fundamental problem of the post-Cold War international order, Putin argued, is the “almost uncontained hyper use of force – military force – in international relations – force that is plunging the world into an abyss of permanent conflicts”, adding that “as a result we do not have sufficient strength to find a comprehensive solution to any one of these conflicts. Finding a political settlement also becomes impossible.” Shifting to economic power, Putin noted that the combined GDP of China and India already surpasses that of the US, and that the combined GDP of Brazil, Russia, India and China already surpasses the cumulative GDP of the EU. The economic potential of BRIC, so he concluded, will doubtlessly translate into increasing political power and thus help strengthen multipolarity. According to Putin, this multipolar order will see greater openness, transparency and predictability as well as the declining use of military power.

In line with “coexistence” and the reformist political philosophy of the 2000s, Moscow has opted for non-coercive, soft power foreign policy methods. The Russian soft power arsenal includes a variety of tools ranging from the economic benefits that come with cooperation with Russia to cultural and education/research incentives. An impressive institutional mechanism has been created to this end. It should be noted, however, that the results of financial support and other soft power initiatives have been far from ideal.

Contrary to Russian expectations, Moscow’s soft power diplomacy has failed to improve bilateral relations with neighboring countries, including Ukraine. Rather, these countries became suspicious of some of the Kremlin’s tactics (for instance, its efforts to turn local Russian-speaking communities into pro-Kremlin lobbies) and tend to interpret the Russian soft power strategy as a neo-imperialist device. Russia’s soft power strategy also lacks the participation of non-governmental actors, transparency and public oversight, and is undermined by incompetence and corruption.

The attack on South Ossetia ordered by Mikhail Saakashvili in August 2008 and the subsequent Russian-Georgian “five-day war” was the first serious challenge to the Kremlin’s “coexistence” and soft power policies. Moscow had to put soft power tools aside in favor of coercive/hard power tools. Six years later, the crisis in Ukraine poses a new and probably more serious challenge to the Russian foreign policy philosophy of “coexistence.”

Russian views on the Ukraine/Crimea crisis


The West’s pressure on Ukraine and other Eastern Partnership countries to follow its course and the subsequent fall of Yanukovych have revived geopolitical/hard power thinking in Russia. According to this perspective, NATO expansion over the last decade left Belarus and Ukraine as buffers. Russia has historically relied on the depth of its interiors for protection. If Russia loses Belarus or Ukraine, it loses strategic depth, which accounts for much of its ability to defend the Russian heartland. If the intention of the West was not hostile, then why was it so eager to see the government in Ukraine changed? Moscow assumed that more sinister motives than a profound love of liberal democracy were driving the West.

Apart from the prospect of invasion, which is obviously unlikely, Russia is concerned about the consequences of Ukraine joining the West and the potential for contagion in parts of Russia itself. During the 1990s, there were several secessionist movements in Russia, including not only Chechnya, Tatarstan and the Primorye Territory but also the north-western regions of Kaliningrad and Karelia. Putin ended any talk of secession in Russia. He fostered regimes in Belarus and Ukraine that retained a great deal of domestic autonomy but operated within a foreign policy framework acceptable to Russia. If the Kremlin were to accept the new government in Kiev, it could give the appearance inside Russia that Putin is weaker than he seems and opens the door to instability and even fragmentation. Therefore, the Kremlin must respond.

Pro-Kremlin analysts fear that the “Maidan virus” might spread to Russia and threaten the Putin regime which, according to many foreign and some Russian analysts, has much in common with the Yanukovych regime. According to some accounts, the Feb. 22 coup in Kiev sponsored by the West was just a dress rehearsal for Putin’s overthrow and a Maidan-style government in Moscow with US and EU support. To protect Russia from the powerful forces unleashed in Ukraine, the Kremlin must act promptly and decisively. As a result of Putin’s policies on the Ukraine crisis, his approval ratings have risen to 85-87 %. Meanwhile, anti-American and anti-Western sentiments are also on the rise in Russia. The majority of Russians (70 %) have a negative view of the US role in world affairs, with just 10 % expressing a positive view.

Mainstream Russian foreign policy thinkers believe that by ousting Yanukovych and bringing nationalistic/anti-Russian forces to power, the EU and US crossed a “red line” in the post-Soviet space. They argue that the West violated a tacit agreement with Moscow to preference soft power over hard power in the post-Soviet space, and that Russia should respond by weakening and fracturing Ukraine and engaging in “energy blackmail” to punish the West and its “accomplices” in Ukraine.

Russian hardliners believe that Putin’s policies towards Ukraine are in line with both “historical justice” and international law. They see what happened in Kiev as a military coup, and believe the Ukrainian Parliament’s vote on February 22, 2014 to remove Viktor Yanukovych from his post on the grounds that he was unable to fulfill his duties was illegal because it lacked the required votes according to the constitution in effect at the time. The Maidan protests and coup did not move Ukraine closer to democracy and the rule of law but in the opposite direction: toward lawlessness and violence against journalists, political opponents and ordinary citizens. Furthermore, the pseudo-revolutionary authorities in Kiev were dominated by an armed, extremist minority planning a campaign of wide-scale repression against ethnic Russians and others.

According to this view, the “Kiev junta” that came to power in Kiev was not legitimate, despite its best efforts to consolidate and legitimize its power. It threatened the non-Ukrainian part of the population by adopting a series of nationalist pseudo-laws, including attempts to prohibit Russian as an official language in regions with a dominant Russian population. The new authorities also blocked Russian-language versions of government websites and most Russian TV channels, and prohibited teachers from conducting lessons in Russian. The nationalistic militants from Right Sector and other radical groups were sent to the pro-Russian regions to re-establish Kiev’s control.

Given the lack of a legitimate government in Ukraine and physical threats to Russian and other ethnic minorities, Russian political scientists believe that regions with a dominant Russian population had a legitimate right to hold referendums on their future, including on the question of secession. These experts point out that the right to national self-determination is one of the cornerstones of international law, exercised from time to time by various ethnic groups and territorial entities, most recently by the former Yugoslav republics of Montenegro and Kosovo.


In the case of Crimea, the hardliners believe Russia has special historical rights to the peninsula because it had never belonged to Ukraine before Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev illegally ceded it to Kiev in 1954. In terms of cultural identity, the Russian-speaking population of Crimea is also very close to “mainland” Russia and never stopped being part of the Russian “spiritual space.” Moreover, Crimea is home to the Russian Black Sea Fleet and a locus of Moscow’s vital strategic interests. Not to mention that the intervention in Crimea was a low-risk, low-cost way to change the appearance that Russia was hemorrhaging power.

Russian hardliners welcomed the successful May 15 referendum in eastern Ukraine to form two independent states, the Lugansk People’s Republic and the Donetsk People’s Republic. They believe that the people of these regions are closer, in terms of identity, to the Don Cossacks, who strongly differ from, say, western Ukrainians. They prefer to use the term Novorossiya (New Russia) to refer to southeastern Ukraine and its population, believing it is part of the Russian World which is united by strong historical and cultural bonds of the Slavic peoples dating back centuries. The secessionist movement in southeastern Ukraine is interpreted by the Russian neo-Slavophiles as a return to Mother Russia and the starting point of the Russian Revival and the rebuilding of Greater Russia.

Kiev has denounced the supporters of the Donetsk and Lugansk republics as “terrorists” and “separatists”, and has refused to engage in political dialogue, instead launching an “anti-terrorist operation” in which nationalist militants and regular forces were sent with heavy weapons and aviation to suppress the opposition. The new Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko has repeatedly promised to stop the military assault on pro-Russian regions and offered a ‘peace plan’ of his own, but in reality he has stepped up attacks against the self-defense forces in southeastern Ukraine. The full-scale military operation has killed numerous civilians and caused an exodus of refugees to Russia.

Hardliners want Moscow to support and officially recognize the Lugansk and Donetsk republics. They do not believe that President Poroshenko is able to implement his 14-points plan to stop the confrontation. If the self-defense forces in South-East Ukraine are defeated, neither Ukraine nor Russia achieve a more secure environment as a result. On the contrary, after a short pause, the conflict in South-East Ukraine will resume and this will inevitably aggravate the security situation in the region. They believe that the annexation of these territories should be Russia’s long-term strategic goal.

To resolve the Ukraine crisis, the hardliners propose the following measures: stop the military operation in southeastern Ukraine, disarm the ultra-nationalists and neo-Nazis of Right Sector and the Freedom Party, introduce a new model of federalism, provide constitutional guarantees for Russian as a second official language in Ukraine, and hold fair parliamentary and presidential elections where the political representation of southeastern Ukraine is guaranteed (if this region decides to stay in a new Ukrainian federation).

Russian doves – liberals, globalists and constructivists – tend to agree with the hawks that the current Ukrainian government is illegitimate. They blame the radicals and nationalists for ousting Yanukovych by force and passing anti-Russian legislation that alienated Crimea and Ukraine’s southern and eastern regions. The Russian doves consider the West’s reluctance to distance itself from the Ukrainian extremists from the very beginning as a serious mistake. But they also hold the Kremlin responsible for backing the Yanukovych regime which plunged the country into crisis.

Russian liberals think the Kremlin’s information strategy on Ukraine is akin to war propaganda, spreading myths about the terrible persecution of the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine, particularly in Crimea. The doves also note that Moscow tries to demonize its opponents, depicting the current Ukrainian government as extremist, fascist, and Russo-phobic, and the West as anti-Russian and aggressive.

The doves believe that Putin overreacted to the anti-Yanukovych “revolution” by annexing Crimea and threatening Kiev with military intervention to protect the ethnic Russians in the south-east, and in the process violating existing international legal obligations regarding Ukraine. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has recognized Ukraine as a sovereign independent state within its current borders. This recognition is codified within the framework of the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Commonwealth of Independent States, the 1994 Budapest Memorandum as well as the Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation and Partnership between Ukraine and the Russian Federation signed in 1997. Now, the liberals stress, Russia has trampled on all of those treaties, agreements and guarantees under the false premise of protecting Russian-speakers in Crimea from “persecution.”

They believe Russia’s actions will be costly both domestically (absorbing Crimea) and internationally (disrupting trade, political and military relations with the West).

For some doves, Putin’s Crimean “adventure” is a natural continuation of his recent political program, which is characterized domestically by virulent nationalism and authoritarianism and internationally by anti-Western rhetoric and clear designs to restore the former Soviet empire.

Similar to the hardliners, the doves do not believe that a peaceful settlement in southeastern Ukraine and a compromise between presidents Poroshenko and Putin are possible, but for different reasons. As the liberals note, both leaders see the situation in the self-declared Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics as zero-sum game. If Poroshenko really intends to stop the punitive attacks against these regions, he will have to start negotiations with the leadership of the “separatists” and indirectly recognize them as partners in political dialogue. Instead, Poroshenko continues the “anti-terrorist” operation and currently seeks to separate the self-declared republics from Russia by establishing a 10-kilometer cordon sanitaire on the Russian-Ukrainian border. For President Putin, dropping support for the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics, resulting in their defeat, would cause him to lose face in the eyes of Russian society. Defeat in Ukraine would also undermine the whole Russian World project, which is especially popular among pro-Putin elites.


Implications of the Ukraine crisis


Russian hawks or hardliners love to talk about how the West has crossed Putin’s “red line”, and how the West must respect those lines if it wants Russia as a partner.

As far as Putin’s “red lines” are concerned, they are as follows:


-    Ukraine, Georgia, Sweden and Finland retain their neutral status as “buffer countries”;

-    On Georgia. Moscow isn’t interested in restoring normal ties with Georgia if it means sacrificing the independent status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which Russia sees as a safeguard against NATO and Western expansion;

-    On the Baltics. In particular any effort to strengthen NATO in the region with offensive forces with high precision and a greater radius of action, which in Moscow’s view would be a violation of international agreements. In addition, Moscow would consider absolutely unacceptable any unfriendly actions by Lithuania and Poland toward Kaliningrad or toward Russian shipping and other commerce in the Baltic Sea region;

-    Any manipulation of oil and gas prices designed to punish Russia, a major exporter. However, Russian analysts believe that this line is unlikely to be crossed because any moves in that direction would boomerang on the orchestrators;

-    US or Western action against any of Russia’s allies around the world such as Syria. In this case the Kremlin will inevitably retaliate in an asymmetric way;

-    A terrorist attack on the territory of the Russian Federation bearing any trace of Western influence or involvement;

-    Further militarization of the Arctic intended to challenge Russia’s pre-eminence there. The Kremlin has already reacted angrily to the US military strategy in the Arctic published last November. President Putin has ordered the Defense Ministry to accelerate the creation of the Arctic Group of Forces to strengthen Russian military capabilities in the region in response to “aggressive plans” by the West;

-    A renewed US push for cuts to strategic and tactical nuclear weapons. Moscow views arms reductions as part of a general plan to undermine Russian power.

Finally, the ultimate red line would be Western support for a “fifth column” in Russia itself, especially by encouraging demonstrations against Putin.

If the West continues its strategy of political and economic sanctions and putting pressure on Moscow, the hardliners want the Kremlin to take a series of radical countermeasures, such as refusing to pay back all loans – private and public – to Western banks; seizing Western assets in Russia; replacing Western currencies with other foreign currencies and gold in Russia’s currency reserves and payment systems; re-orientating Russia’s trade (especially in energy) from the West to the East. This would be quite painful for Western economies and financial systems, particularly in Europe.

Russian doves/liberals believe that the annexation of Crimea and Moscow’s support for Donetsk and Lugansk will have negative, long-term implications for Russia as well as for European and global security. Russian liberals note that while the rupture will not happen overnight – the interdependence is deep enough to prevent sudden changes – we will probably see a gradual shift away from cooperation. The area of overlapping interests will shrink dramatically as a result, making it much more difficult to resume the partnership, however rocky it has been so far.

For the moment, the prospects for economic and security cooperation between Russia and the West appear bleak. According to former Russian finance minister Alexei Kudrin, an outspoken liberal, Russia’s immediate economic losses from the Western sanction will total $50 billion. He also pointed out that the Russian corporate sector holds loans from Western banks for as much as $700 billion, and if the US and EU stop lending to private Russian businesses, the consequences will be catastrophic. At the same time, declining Russian-Ukrainian relations will cause diseconomies totaling $33 billion per year for Ukrainian economy.

Since the West does not seem inclined to treat Crimea as an isolated incident, cooperation will probably suffer across the board, even though Russian participation is indispensable to a number of joint projects. For example, Moscow’s Soyuz rocket is currently the only way to take astronauts to the International Space Station. The US has been working on its own piloted spacecraft for some time, and we can now expect this work to accelerate.

As some experts suggest, the 1996 US-Russian contract to supply RD-180 rocket engines to the US Air Force could also suffer. In May 2014 Senator John McCain called for an end to purchases of Russian engines because it violated President Obama’s ban on cooperation with the Russian defense industry. Following McCain’s statement, federal judges in the United States prohibited the USAF from any cooperation with the engines’ producer Energomash. The Obama administration has asked the judge to reverse the decision, arguing that US sanctions are not applicable in this case. The outcome of this tug-of-war remains to be seen. It should be noted that this was a very valuable, commercially viable project in which Russia provided engines for most of the US military’s rocket launches. Now production is likely to move to the US, and  NASA will be looking for alternative ways to launch its payloads. Termination of the RD-180 project would be a serious setback for US-Russian space cooperation. The Russian producer of the engines, Energomash, stands to lose about 60 % of its revenue, and the United States would have to spend about $1 billion to start production.

Russia may find that its interests suffer in a number of other areas where it had started to establish itself as a reliable partner, such as the nuclear power industry. Following the Crimean crisis, some European countries which had been considering building nuclear power plants with the state-run Russian energy company Rosatom – including the Czech Republic and the UK – now have reservations about working with Moscow. And despite Rosatom’s best efforts to reassure Ukraine, its largest foreign customer, that it is a reliable supplier of nuclear fuel, Russia will likely lose this market in the foreseeable future. While these commercial losses will fall primarily on Russia, it would be wrong to underestimate the importance of projects like these for integrating Russia into the larger global framework of security and cooperation.

Liberals argue that by humiliating Ukrainian society and its political elites, Russia has created a hostile state on its western border. Ukrainians will not easily forget the loss of Crimea and Moscow’s support for Donetsk and Lugansk. In turn, other former Soviet republics are watching Russia’s actions in Crimea with great concern, as their countries also have ethnic Russian minorities, which can be used as a pretext for Russian military intervention at any time, as events in Ukraine have demonstrated. Liberals believe that the annexation of Crimea has torpedoed Russia’s plans to form the Eurasian Union. Even though Belarus, Kazakhstan and Armenia will formally join the organization, they will likely sabotage any plans to deepen integration in order not to strengthen Russia’s role as a regional leader.

The doves continue to warn the Kremlin that by annexing Crimea, Moscow has violated the principle of the inviolability of its neighbor’s borders. This will prompt other former Soviet republics to revise their own military and strategic policies and to seek additional security guarantees from countries other than Russia. With this act of aggression, Moscow has destroyed all faith in Russia as a guarantor of any other state’s sovereignty or territorial integrity. What’s more, the NATO countries that neighbor Ukraine and Russia are sure to seek additional security measures from the alliance.

As for the third faction of Russian elites – the moderates – they are particularly concerned about the aggressive stance of some Western hawks, who compare Putin’s actions with those of Hitler’s in the pre-war period, specifically the annexation of Austria in 1938 and the occupation Czechoslovakia in 1938-1939. The implication is that the West must learn from France’s and Britain’s mistake in 1938 and not ‘appease’ Russian aggression. Only tough measures can stop Putin from expanding further into Ukraine or even beyond.

As the moderates note, the ‘appeasement logic’ suffers from two important flaws when applied to present-day Russia. First, it mischaracterizes Western policy toward Russia as true engagement. In reality, the West has never tried engagement. Due to a deep mistrust of Russia, Western policies (and especially US policy) have been a combination of selective cooperation and a large dose of containment. Calls to stand tough against Putin are playing into the hands of the hawks around Putin, who would be only too grateful to have Western pressure as a justification for ratcheting up its anti-Western policies and propaganda. Both sides must be careful that their desire to show toughness does not escalate into a new Cold War.

Russian moderates believe the appeasement argument also misreads Russia’s motives in Ukraine. As in the case of Georgia, the goal is to preserve, not expand, Russia’s influence. Humiliated by the West’s containment strategy and the collapse of the Feb. 21 deal between the Yanukovych government and the opposition, Putin used Crimea as a bargaining chip to restore Russia’s influence in Kiev. Yet, while his ambitions are limited, continued Western pressure may push Putin to step up support for the Donetsk and Lugansk republics and even intervene in southeastern Ukraine.

Russian moderates argue that accusations of appeasement are meant to sabotage Western leaders’ attempts to resolve the Crimea crisis through diplomacy. In reality, the hardliners in the West want a military confrontation with Russia. They are making their case in Western media because the appeasement argument, as history shows, is more likely to convince the public to support war against a global aggressor. There is reason to believe, however, that the majority of the Western public will not fall for this tactic. The harsh lessons of military interventions learned over the past 50 years have not been lost on ordinary people in the West.

Moderates in Russia believe that the solution to the Ukrainian crisis is to work out an arrangement suitable to Kiev and Moscow, not stoke the war rhetoric. Washington and Brussels should continue to look for a diplomatic solution to the Russian-Ukrainian conflict and not yield to the pressures of anti-Russian hawks. Furthermore, the US and West in general should rethink its entire approach to relations with Russia, recognize Moscow’s many legitimate criticisms, give Russia a greater role in the international system, and provide clear assurances that the West will not expand into Eurasia. With Russia as a partner, the West can make more progress on important issues like Ukraine’s territorial integrity, European security, the Iranian nuclear program, Middle Eastern instability, and global terrorism. Otherwise, the emerging multipolar international system will become bipolar, with Russia playing on China’s side.

To conclude, the Russian discourse on the Ukraine crisis remains highly polarized. Despite the fact that the pro-Kremlin, hardline elements have the upper hand, the most hawkish views are still marginalized. Liberal and moderate voices are also present and try to affect both the expert and policy-making communities. No compromise or consensus between the competing camps is visible on the horizon.


Valery Konyshev is Professor of the Department of International Relations, School of International Relations, St. Petersburg State University.


Alexander Sergunin is Professor, Department of International Relations, School of International Relations, St. Petersburg State University.

The authors are laureates of the Valdai Club Foundation Grant Program.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

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