Russia, Ukraine, the West and the Rest

Making sense of one of the most important world events in recent years


Shreerupa Mitra-Jha | April 29, 2014

Fifty-eight years after Winston Churchill made the famous Iron Curtain speech on March 5, 1946, Russia ‘annexed’ Crimea on March 8, 2014. Churchill, known also for his witticisms, had described Russia thus in a 1939 BBC broadcast: “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.” However, considering that international diplomacy is hinged on the principle facteur de motivation of national interest, it does seem a touch harsh to single Russia out on that count.

The Russia and Ukraine-EU-America faceoff has been one of the most important events in recent times. Understandably, reams of analyses have occupied print space. Barring a few, most writings emphasise on the Waltzian ‘first-image’ analysis, a focus on the personality type of the perpetrator, in this case ‘the bully’ called Vladimir Putin. Though such preoccupation may produce an interesting psychoanalytical subject, it makes for bad understanding of geopolitical dynamics. It renders illegitimate the fundamental relationship of the present with the past and the fact that most world leaders, whatever their personality inclinations, work within contexts. While decrying Putin’s revanchist ambitions, it is thus prudent to give history its due for the sake of a more informed discourse.


After Putin came to power in 1999, the first few years of his tenure saw sound growth rates. The economy picked up largely from surging oil fortunes. He looked for strategic partnerships with Europe and the US. Russia supported the so-called War on Terror after the 9/11 attacks. However, the unilateral withdrawal of the US in 2003 from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABMT) struck a sour note in the relationship. ABMT was a treaty between the US and Soviet Union for limiting anti-ballistic missiles meant for defending areas against nuclear missiles. Further, Nato forces were extended closer to Russia’s borders. The situation was reminiscent of the US’ Machiavellian tactics during the Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin regimes. The West won Gorbachev’s support for the razing of Berlin Wall with the assurance that Nato forces will not expand. However, Nato expanded after the Berlin Wall fell with Gorbachev’s support. Likewise, Yeltsin was assured that the eastward expansion of Nato will not bring the forces close to Russia’s borders but bases were expanded nonetheless. The relationship with US reached an all-time low with the 2007 Munich Conference on Security Policy where Putin called for a new architecture of global order, denouncing unipolarity in global relations and the hegemony of America in international affairs. He had disagreed with the White House on the second war in Iraq. Putin said, “…no one feels safe! Because no one feels that international law is a stone wall that will protect them. Of course, such a policy stimulates an arms race.”

Buffer zone

The Ukrainian national identity has deep tensions rooted in geography. Ukraine has not had much of a history of independent existence. It was the first seat of the Slavic empire, Rus. It was also the site of clashes between Orthodox and Catholic churches. Ukraine has vast swathes of agricultural land and was the bread basket for Greater Russia. Ukraine has always been used as a buffer zone for countering Russia since World War I. It won its independence from Russia with the help of Germany and thus remained dependent on Germany. But with the Bolsheviks emerging victorious in Russia in 1921, Ukraine lost its independence again and was partitioned between Soviet Russia and Poland. The part that went into the Stalin-run Soviet Union had a particularly tough going.

Ukraine suffered severely under Stalin, the worst being the induced famine of the 1930s, Holodomor, in which millions of Ukrainian peasants died. The Tartars, descendants of Mongols, were also banished from Soviet Russia under Stalin. The Ukrainians and the Tartars have since carried a deep suspicion of the Kremlin.

History further entangled itself when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, a native Ukrainian, ‘gifted’ Crimea to Ukraine in 1954. Crimea is 60% ethnic Russian and still harbours a nostalgic identity with its parent nation. Ukraine has a predominately ethnic Russian east and south and a Ukrainian centre and west. About one-fifth of the total Ukraine population of 46 million describe themselves as ethnic Russians. More than 40% in Ukraine are Russophones. The findings of a public opinion poll conducted by the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation together with Kyiv International Institute of Sociology between February 8 and 18, 2014 run along expected results: the supporters of the idea of unification with Russia are in the east (26%) and south (19%), while the smallest part are in the centre (5%) and the west (1%) of Ukraine. Region-wise, Crimea (41%) had the highest respondents for unification and Kharkiv (15%) the lowest. But even the regions with lowest percentage wanted to maintain friendly relations with Russia.

EU/Nato or EEU?

Leveraging the affinity of western Ukraine with Europe, America and Europe have been trying to get Ukraine to join EU and Nato and use Ukraine as a Nato base. Putin on his part has tried to form a Eurasian Economic Union with Moscow as the centre. Ukraine is of prime strategic importance to the Kremlin. The Black Sea Fleet, a large operational, sub-unit of the Russian (and formerly Soviet) Navy has been operating from various harbours in the Black Sea, including  Sevastopol at Crimea, since the 18th century. Viktor Yanukovych, the ousted Ukrainian president, after coming to power in 2010 tilted in favour of Russia against the West and in exchange for major oil subsidies, extended the lease for the Sevastopol naval base with Russia till 2042 and signed the non-bloc status. From 1991, the oil subsidies that have been extended by Russia range between $200 billion and $300 billion. This sat uncomfortably with the US. America, along with the Weimar Triangle of Germany, France and Poland which have been at the  diplomatic forefront of the Russia-Ukraine issue, gave its full support for Kiev’s maidan-politics, thereby ousting a very corrupt but nonetheless democratically elected leader, Yanukovych, in February 2014.

The story of the ouster goes thus: Putin, who was requested by the West and was instrumental in convincing Yanukovych to withdraw the riot police, soon found that the opposition took over in quick time and in its stead a pro-Western coalition government was installed. This would have brought the Nato forces within breathing distance to Russia. The situation was a revenant of the Gorbachev and Yeltsin mishap.

A matter of illegality?

The West, however, realised that it had participated in the civil war on a credit card. The situation boomeranged. Putin quickly annexed Crimea (the fact that Russia already had the Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol bolstered expediency), held an “illegal” referendum on March 16 and declared Crimea a part of Russia from the St George Hall on March 18. The Kremlin portrayed it to be a moral imperative for protecting the Russian-speaking population. Whether Putin believes in the Eurasian ideology or not, it did come in handy at a time when jingoistic instincts needed to be ruffled. Eurasianism as a political ideology believes that though Russia has unique civilisational contents it partakes of both European and Asian features. Post-Soviet intellectuals who believe in reclaiming lost territory of Greater Russia draw from this tradition. There are 24 million Russians living across post-Soviet states. Alexsandr Dugin, the most notable neo-Eurasianist in Russian public domain, applauded the annexation.  This made the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia with large Russophone minorities scramble for alliances. The fact that after the annexation, Putin’s popularity ratings which were flagging at home quickly picked up, also helped, keeping in view the 2018 Russian elections.

Adding an interesting tint to this story is the composition of the coalition government at Kiev. Svoboda, an ultra-right political party that idolizes Stepan Bandera, a Nazi collaborator, has seven members out of the 21-member coalition forming one-third of the government. Along with the Right Sector, they control the key departments of Armed Forces, Police and National Security. It is interesting to note that the European parliament which had taken the unusual step of passing a resolution against Svoboda had no qualms accepting the illegitimate coup government with Svoboda as a major partner. One of the first steps the coup government took after seizing power was ban the use of Russian, Moldovan, Hungarian and Romanian in any official capacity. The bill was vetoed after the European parliament passed a resolution to respect the rights of its minority population.


The Balts with Moldova who fear the revanchist zeal of Kremlin now look to Nato for support. Poland, Lithuania and Latvia have invoked Article 5  that  says, “if a NATO Ally is the victim of an armed attack, each and every other member of the Alliance will consider this act of violence as an armed attack against all members and will take the actions it deems necessary to assist the Ally attacked.” However, like Ukraine, the Baltic States are wholly energy-dependent on Russia and depend for agriculture, food-processing, transport etc. on Russian business. EU, on its part cannot absorb Ukraine owing both to the latter’s size and tattered economy. The Ukrainian hryvnia has lost 20% of its value in the last month itself. America has issued sanctions against 20 people, mostly powerful oligarchs in the Russian elite. But that is about as far as it can go. Russia after all is the eighth largest economy in the world on nominal value. According to a survey by Pew Research Center, 52% of Americans feel that America should mind their own business internationally. America is also dependent on Russia for feeding its soldiers in Afghanistan. IMF has shown its disinclination of using its coffers as a geopolitical tool.

Europe can do even less by way of retaliation: it has drawn up a list of 33 people for sanctions. It has suspended Russia from G8 and has cancelled the EU-Russia summit scheduled for June 3 at Sochi. Russia has hit back with a sanction list of nine people against America and Canada. The European business interests in Russia far outweigh those of America. According to The Economist, about a third of the gas and oil in Germany comes from Russia and that understandably makes Angela Merkel wary of any further sanctions. On the part of Russia’s dependence, most Russian elite park their money in Europe and send their children abroad which makes their economy weak. However, capital flight was countered by foreign direct investment up until now. Even though Putin has advised his oligarchs to refrain from business with Europe, he is a geopolitical realist who knows the importance of maintaining engagements with the West. In the General Assembly voting on the territorial integrity of Ukraine, 58 countries including China, Brazil, India and South Africa have abstained. India’s deep ties with Russia especially in the defence sector make it imperative for India to guard its  manoeuvrability space in case of any conflict between Russia and the West.

Another Cold War?

The situation is not reminiscent of the Cold War as it has been made out to be by some observers of this still unfolding drama. In areas like the Iranian negotiations, P5+1 talks on nuclear enrichment, inspections under the START treaty the cooperation between Russia and the Western powers is still on. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has said that the Kremlin wants a federated Ukraine that extends broad rights and representation to Russian speakers and other minorities. Ukraine is in a tough spot and needs support of the West while maintaining friendly relations with Russia. Empathy in international relations is no worse for the wear.

In his classic book, Man, the State and War, Kenneth Waltz writes, “The peace wish, we are told, runs strong and deep among the Russian people; and we are convinced the same can be said of Americans. From these statements some comfort is to be derived, but in the light of history and of current events as well it is difficult to believe that the wish will father the condition desired.” As the Kremlin-Kiev narrative has descended into a score-keeping record of Bigger Mistakes, it is perhaps prudent to remember that the art of tactical warfare puts a justifiable premium on restraint. 



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