By Scott Novak
A Guide to Understanding Russia’s Annexation of Crimea
Putin, the Semi-Delusional Autocrat
Even though it’s been a year since Russia first occupied Crimea, Western leaders and media still can’t seem to figure out the troublesome international relations anomaly that is Russian President Vladimir Putin. In a column published on September 5, 2014, The New York Times wrote that Putin is “a reckless and unpredictable provocateur in creating the worst conflict with the West since the Cold War,” referring to the Russia’s invasion of the Crimean Peninsula. In a March 2014 episode of The Daily Show, Jon Stewart called the man a “semi-delusional autocrat.” During a conversation with President Barack Obama, German chancellor Angela Merkel stated that Putin may have “lost touch with reality” and is “living in another world,” and Obama himself has chastised Putin for perceiving the situation in Ukraine as part of “some Cold War chessboard.” Secretary of State John Kerry expressed similar remarks on Face the Nation, stating, “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading an- other country on completely trumped-up pretext.” In 2015, these views certainly don’t seem to have changed, nor have they been critically analyzed.
So, is Putin really the semi-delusional autocrat who has lost touch with reality that so many influential public figures in the West claim he is? Did he really invade Ukraine on a completely trumped-up pre-text? While international politics is rarely clear-cut, the motivations behind Russia’s actions aren’t nearly as mysterious as people like Secretary Kerry have made them out to be. But what are these motivations? First, the Westernization of Ukraine via attempted North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and European Union (EU) expansion efforts are direct threats to Russian geopolitical and economic security. As recent events have proven, it was absurd to think that Russia would quietly accept such initiatives. Second, the cultural importance of Ukraine, which contains a large Russian-speaking population, is also an important factor in motivating Putin to invade the state and annex Crimea. Finally, there exist among the Russian elite complex feelings of betrayal by the West and fear of revolution. In Russia’s view, the eastward expansion of NATO broke past promises made by the United States. The 2014 revolution in Ukraine could have also sparked revolutions against Putin’s rule in Russia, so he has an interest in making sure the revolution fails to produce a stable government. Hence, Putin’s actions are much more strategic and calculated than many in the West portray them to be.
Given these fairly obvious Russian interests, the language used to describe Putin by the West serves only to further escalate conflict rather than resolve it in a rational, peaceful manner. Tellingly, when Merkel was asked in an interview to explain “what Putin wants,” she couldn’t give an answer, focusing instead on the need for some sort of political solution, whatever that means. As Vice President of the Diplomatic Academy of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Alexander Lukin recently wrote in Foreign Affairs:
In annexing Crimea, Moscow decisively rejected the West’s rules and in the process shattered many flawed Western assumptions about its motivations. Now U.S. and European officials need a new paradigm for how to think about Russian foreign policy – and if they want to resolve the Ukraine crisis and prevent similar ones from occurring in the future, they need to get better at putting themselves in Moscow’s shoes.
That is exactly what this essay aims to do, for there will never be a lasting peace between Russia and the United States so long as one side does not accurately understand the other’s grievances.
II. The Westernization of Ukraine
One of the most obvious reasons for Russia’s inva- sion of Ukraine is the United State’s very clear attempt to align Ukraine with Western powers. In the 2008 summit held in Bucharest, the NATO alliance released a statement that endorsed Georgia and Ukraine’s hopes of joining NATO, declaring, “These countries will become members of NATO.” Putin called this a “direct threat” to Russia, and Russia deputy foreign minister Alexander Grushko said that the alliance was “a huge strategic mistake which would have most serious con- sequences for pan-European security.” Additionally, during a television broadcast in April, Putin stated, “If we do not do anything, Ukraine will be drawn into NATO sometime in the future…and NATO ships [will] dock in Sevastopol, the city of Russia’s naval glory.” Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 should have made clear to the international community that Putin was willing to back his words with military action. Yet despite this, NATO has continued its eastward expansion, with Albania and Croatia joining the alliance in 2009.
Russia has viewed with similar hostility the EU’s Eastern Partnership initiative, a program that “enables partner countries interested in moving towards the EU and increasing political, economic, and cultural links to do so.” Notably, the EU decision to sign its Association Agreement with Ukraine has fundamentally undermined Putin’s vision for a Eurasian Union. The Russian government made no secret about how it felt about this agreement. In February 2014, just before Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted from office, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that the EU was attempting to form an eastern European “sphere of influence.” In light of such a statement, Russia’s attack on Ukraine shouldn’t have come as a surprise, nor can Putin be labeled as completely irrational.
“The reason russia feels threatened by the expansion of both nato and the eu to ukraine can largely be explained by basic geopolitics. States are always wary of secruity threats on their borders.”
The reason Russia feels threatened by the expansion of both NATO and the EU to Ukraine can be largely explained by basic geopolitics. States are always wary of security threats on their borders. As John Mearsheimer wrote in Foreign Affairs, “Did Cuba have the right to form a military alliance with the Soviet Union during the Cold War? The United States certainly did not think so, and the Russians think the same way about Ukraine joining the West.” Of course, there are other factors to Ukraine’s geopolitical significance to Russia beyond mere proximity. For example, Russia’s Black Sea Fleet has been located in the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol since 1783. Ukraine also hosts pipelines through which Russia supplies natural gas to Europe. Notably, Europe receives 24 percent of its gas from Russia, half of which (80bcm a year) passes through these pipelines. Aside from all of this, there is also the issue of Ukraine’s new economic deal with the EU. Originally, Ukraine under Yanukovych signed an agreement accepting $15 billion in loans from Russia. This agreement ultimately led to the protests that resulted in the ousting of Yanukovych, and the pro-Western government that replaced him signed a similar agreement with the EU instead of Russia. To Russia, these events strongly demonstrate the West’s influence on Ukraine and are a clear violation of its interests.
III. Dreams of Novorossiya
Besides the aforementioned geopolitical and economic facets concerning the importance of Ukraine to Russia, one should not forget the substantial cultural and historical significance Ukraine poses to Russia as well. Moscow’s political history goes back to Kievan Rus, the medieval state of the Eastern Slavic people located in what are now the nations of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine. Additionally, the Tsarist Russian Empire ruled much of what is modern-day Ukraine, and Ukraine spent decades as part of the Soviet Union.
Because of these factors, many Russians do not perceive Ukraine to be a separate nation from Russia. The Russian elite perpetuates such ideas. For example, Putin once told President George W. Bush that Ukraine was not a real country, and while talking with reporters in May 2009, he read approvingly from the diaries of an imperial general who labeled Ukraine as “Little Russia.”
Another instance that illustrates the Russian elite’s perspective on Ukraine came to light on August 31st, 2014, when Putin called for talks to discuss “statehood” for Eastern Ukraine. Soon after he made this statement, as an article from the Centre for European Policy Studies by Steve Blockmans noted, “Putin’s spokesman was quick to clarify that this should be understood as a change of status within the ‘domestic’ context of Ukraine. The terminological confusion by the Kremlin has (intentionally?) created the implication that Russia is a supporter of the idea of a ‘Novorossiya,’” a historical for Eastern Ukraine. Soon after he made this statement, as an article from the Centre for European Policy Studies by Steve Blockmans noted, “Putin’s spokesman was quick to clarify that this should be understood as a change of status within the ‘domestic’ context of Ukraine. The terminological confusion by the Kremlin has (intentionally?) created the implication that Russia is a supporter of the idea of a ‘Novorossiya,’” a historical term used to refer to the Black Sea coastline when it belonged to the Russian Empire. The Russian media has also recently been discussing the important historical significance of Novorossiya. Blockmans theorizes that these references to Novorossiya serve as inspiration for continued Russian support to the separatists in Ukraine and motivation for Kiev to form a peace agreement with Russia by giving up part of Ukraine’s territory. Related to this idea of Novorossiya is Russia’s conviction that oppressed Russian-speaking populations in Eastern Europe must be protected. In his previously mentioned Foreign Affairs article, Lukin wrote, “The West’s lopsided support for pro-Western nationalists in the former Soviet republics has encouraged these states to oppress their Russian-speaking populations—a problem to which Russia could not remain indifferent.” Although Russian speakers compose the majority of the population in Crimea, determining whether or not they are really oppressed is less important in understanding Russia than the fact that this notion of oppression exists and is used for political purposes.
IV. Feelings of Fear and Betrayal
On top of all of Russia’s geopolitical, economic, and cultural claims to having an interest in Ukraine, the matter is further complicated by a perceived history of betrayal by Western governments and the threat that a successful revolution in Ukraine could present to the power of the Russian government.
The betrayed feelings the Russian elite are currently expressing stems from the aforementioned eastward expansion of NATO. Lukin highlighted this issue in Foreign Affairs, writing, “Forgetting the promises made by Western leaders to Mikhail Gorbachev after the unification of Germany—most notably that they would not expand NATO eastward—the United States and its allies set out to achieve what Soviet resistance had prevented during the Cold War.”
However, as Mary Elise Sarotte points out in an article written in response to Lukin’s, this idea of betrayal is not entirely rooted in historical accuracy. It is true that President George H.W. Bush’s advisers debated about whether or not they should promise Russia that NATO wouldn’t expand eastward in exchange for allowing Germany to reunify and join the alliance. It is also true that the knowledge of the possibility of such a promise helped draw Gorbachev to the diplomacy table. However, by the time the Camp David summit came around, Bush’s team had agreed not to include this promise in the final deal. Instead, they offered a deal in which West Germany would give Russia financial assistance, an agreement that Gorbachev ultimately accepted. Despite this, for the purposes of understanding Russian perspectives on foreign policy, it is important to note that the historical truth of this claim of betrayal is less important than the fact that the claim exists. Even if the Russian government perpetuates such claims in a knowingly false way, this does not stop Russia’s perceived betrayal by the West from influencing the state’s policy decisions.
The threat of a successful revolution in Ukraine is perhaps an even more relevant motivating factor behind Putin’s recent foreign policy decisions. A West-leaning Ukraine could set an example for the rest of the region to follow and possibly inspire a similar revolution in Russia. International Crisis Group proposes that, for this reason, “Putin is rapidly creating an avowedly conservative ideology that consciously rejects many of the principles and concepts of Western democracy.” Although there are multiple reasons why Russia may have chosen to annex Crimea, at the very least, the Russian government used the annexation to attempt to destabilize the new Ukrainian government and demonstrate to the Russian people “the undesirability and high costs of mass upheavals,” especially upheavals that orient themselves toward the West.
V. Conclusion: Aggressive, But Far From Crazy
Given this brief reflection on Russia’s interests in the current international crisis with Ukraine, it is clear that Putin, while certainly aggressive in some of his policies, is far from crazy. The incorporation of Ukraine into NATO and the EU is entirely against Russia’s interests, as is the country’s current pro-Western government. This factor, combined with the cultural/historical significance of Ukraine and the fact that a successful revolution there could start a similar one in Russia, gives Putin a case for invading Ukraine that is far from delusional. However, one should note that understanding Putin’s motivations behind the annexation of Crimea does not make this annexation any less of a violation of international law. This essay has aimed only to provide insight into Putin’s perspective on Crimea, not to legally or morally justify his actions.
“The united states-supported regime change in ukraine has done nothing to put to rest the accusation that the United States seeks to further contain Russian power. Russia has responded accordingly.”
Additionally, it matters little when the United States contends that Russia should not feel threatened by NATO expansion. As report from the Brookings Institution stated, “Our big problem to this point has been our proclivity to substitute our reading of the threats to Russians’ national security for theirs, and when they do not accept our reading, we label them as ‘bad.’” Unfortunately, the United States-supported regime change in Ukraine has done nothing to put to rest the accusation that the United States seeks to further contain Russian power. Russia has responded accordingly.
Of course, the Russian media often talk about America using similar techniques of propaganda that make it seem as if America’s foreign policy is just as insane and power-hungry as Jon Stewart thinks Putin is. The image of an American that the Russia media projects, as an article in the Harvard International Review so eloquently puts it, is “an all-hating, greedy, and cruel moron seeking to dictate, mock, and kill.” However, if American and Russian governments truly want to resolve their issues instead of starting another Cold War, they must realize that the propaganda perpetuated by both sides will only further complicate and obstruct future peacemaking efforts.