Perestroika 2014. The Reasons Behind Moscow’s Firm Stance on Ukraine

The old world order has become completely ineffective and should be replaced with a new one. Mikhail Gorbachev, who announced the idea back in 1986, failed to accomplish this task. Vladimir Putin has returned to the crossroads to give it another try.

The Crimean referendum has closed the door on an era that lasted almost 25 years, starting with two history-making speeches by Mikhail Gorbachev. In December 1988, he said at a UN General Assembly that global politics should be guided by the priority of universal human values. In the summer of 1989, he urged the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe to build a common European home. In fact, both statements stemmed from ideas in his book, Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and the World , which was published in two editions, in late 1987 and mid-1988.

The global political landscape has changed beyond recognition since then. “Our country” has ceased to exist, while its legal successor, Russia, mostly developed in line with Gorbachev’s philosophy, although with some detours. Its core notion is to end confrontation between different systems, to stop dividing the world into blocs and to accept a universal ideological framework.

On the other hand, when Gorbachev formulated his “new thinking,” the world was being kept in balance by two roughly equal superpowers. The ideologists of perestroika saw future cooperation as convergence, which was then a fashionable idea that provided for taking the best and discarding the worst of the two systems. The rapid dissolution of the Soviet Union buried the dreams of equal rapprochement and mutual ideological enrichment, and gave the winning side the right to interpret human values and the rules of international relations at will.

Russia was questioning these mostly unwritten rules already at the early stage of its democratic revolutionary euphoria and extreme foreign policy weakness. Its doubts grew rapidly as it regained its powers. Yet it preserved the main legacy of the Gorbachev era: the belief in the unquestionable value of constructive relations with the West, which are supposedly vital for Russia’s development, security and future. But conflicts that disrupted world peace again and again grew in intensity, starting in the Caucasus and spreading to Yugoslavia and Iraq, the color revolutions in the post-Soviet space, the war in South Ossetia and the recent bloody conflicts in the Middle East.

Russia formulated its decisions so as to minimize possible damage to its relations with Europe and the United States. Even the harshest – so far – confrontation with the West during the "peace enforcement" operation in Georgia in August 2008 was accompanied by political and diplomatic efforts to ease tensions and to reach a mutually acceptable agreement.

But that traditional model cannot be applied to the crisis in Ukraine, in particular its Crimean phase. The collapse of President Yanukovych’s regime in Kiev, which followed by a "compromise" made under the influence of European ministers, and the subsequent legal and political chaos in Ukraine, triggered a harsh response from Moscow.

The West did not understand right away, if they understood at all, that Russia sees the Ukrainian issue not simply as a red line, but as а double solid white line. The space for agreement disappeared when Russia saw a neighboring country, Ukraine, being enticed by Europe and the United States into adopting other principles, and in this case it doesn’t matter if they are more liberal Atlantic or backward nationalist principles. Moscow has acted accordingly, with no regard for the possible costs or even the danger of curtailed relations with the West.

It is both incidental and logical that this move has been taken over Ukraine.

It is incidental because no one thought 23 years ago, when Ukraine proclaimed its independence and then became an independent state, that Kiev, which had the wherewithal to become a successful and prosperous state, would be so heavily corrupted, perverted and plundered by its mediocre rulers.

Had Ukraine been stronger, the collapse of its political system would not have led to such internal chaos and external temptation.

But it is also logical because Russia has always regarded Ukraine as a vital element of the balance of forces in Europe, and of Russia’s safety.

There is one more factor that is important for understanding the actions of the Russian leadership.

The fate of the Soviet Union was sealed on December 1, 1991, when Ukrainians voted for independence at a referendum, although nine months prior the majority of them had voted for preserving the Soviet Union. Without Ukraine, the Soviet Union had no future because Ukraine was not a dependent peripheral region but the second largest (after the Russian Federation) pillar of the union state.

Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev said that when he told Vladimir Putin the planned referendum in Crimea was illegal, the Russian president reminded him that Ukraine itself seceded from the union state in violation of Soviet legislation.

The Kremlin's goal is not to restore the country that fell apart in December 1991, because it considers some of the former Soviet territories unnecessary. Rather, it wants to replay the final phase of the Cold War. People in Russia – first small groups and then the majority of society – believe that the Soviet Union did not lose the Cold War, but pulled out before it was over. They believe that the Soviet leadership did this because they naively accepted the idea of universal human values, whereas a growing number of conspiracy theorists argue that the country was betrayed.

The status of Russia as the defeated power, which has never been put on paper but is generally recognized, forced it to back off on many issues and ultimately precluded it from regaining its desired rights in the new system of global power.

In other words, Russia is not and will not be treated as an equal partner. Russia does not want to be seen as an emerging power forever, but it cannot advance step by step as China is doing, in part because its competitive advantages will decrease in the medium and longer term. It has achieved everything it could achieve in terms of international prestige and restorative growth without making harsh moves by the end of the 2000s.

The old development model has nothing else to offer it. Russia has not learned to capitalize on the benefits of global integration and has not been accepted as an equal partner. No one intends to discuss new rules of the game with it, and the leading world players believe that the post-Cold War system is good enough and does not need to be corrected.

It seems the Russian leadership has decided the country cannot make a breakthrough on this path and is destined for demise. Hence, it must either become one of the core nations, or establish a confrontational balance with a focus on non-Western partners.

No one expected Russia to demand a review of the current state of affairs so harshly and unconditionally. And no one thought that the Western threats of economic sanctions, political isolation, asset freezes and the like would have no effect on Russia. What explains Moscow’s resolve?

First, the Russian leadership believes – with good reason – that the world has become tired of Ukraine and no longer cares about its future. Therefore, the West will not stand as one, even in the current highly emotional situation. The US and Europe have many domestic problems and lack strong political leaders such as Reagan or Thatcher.

Second, Western attempts to turn Ukraine into an area of confrontation with Russia would topple the unsteady structure. Any compromise and attempts to keep the disintegrating country together would only lead to new, more radical and more dangerous crises in the near future.

Third, although 13 out of the 15 UN Security Council member states have voted against recognizing the results of the Crimean referendum (China abstained), Western opinions on the current developments differ. Of course, the West will not officially recognize the accession of Crimea to Russia without the agreement of Kiev, but many in the West are watching with great interest the first blatant challenge to the United States after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The lack of alternative in global affairs has been a major annoyance for some time, so Russia is unlikely to be left in total isolation.

Fourth, a harsher Western policy will stimulate the political innovations that Russia launched or announced before the Ukrainian crisis, such as nationalization of the elite, a turn to face the east, reducing dependence on foreign markets, ideological dissociation from liberal values and reducing the Western intellectual presence.

What are the biggest threats? The West can still unite as one against Russia, because no one has so openly refused to follow in the wake of the US since the late 1980s (Hugo Chavez was a loud-talking maverick, and Iran lacks the potential). This can be a reason for taking tough actions. The alleged “Russian expansionism” can consolidate the West, which has been fighting internal contradictions since the end of the Cold War, because negotiations of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership are very difficult and Edward Snowden’s disclosures have seriously soured transatlantic relations.

The West can put economic pressure on Russia, but no one – especially in Europe – is ready to consider truly serious sanctions, because they would cut both ways in this globalized world.

If Russia loses the Ukrainian gamble, it would be a shock of unpredictable proportions. The Crimean precedent could boomerang against Russia, which believes that achieving one’s goals at all costs is more important than complying with legal procedures when international law has become a travesty of justice. Unfortunately, practice confirms the validity of this approach, but it would be wise to adequately assess one’s strengths and weaknesses.

Moscow has started a very big game. The risk of loss is considerable, but the prize is undeniably attractive. The old world order has become completely ineffective and should be replaced with a new one. Mikhail Gorbachev, who announced the idea back in 1986, failed to accomplish this task. Vladimir Putin has returned to the crossroads to give it another try.

This article was originally published in Russian on

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