The crisis brewing between Ukraine and Russia arguably poses the most dangerous affliction on European soil since the 1990s. The protests which deposed former president Viktor Yanukovych clearly unsettled Moscow, who had thought him a loyal friend, and the reaction from Russia has been swift. Moving into Crimea is a clear statement of intent; Russia will not sit idly as its neighbour pivots towards the EU. Inevitably, this behaviour has earned strong condemnation from around the world. Given Russia would have known of the potential for international isolation following this course of conduct, the question “why do this?” must be asked.
When assessing the actions of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, a common theme seems to be his focus on thumbing his nose at the West whilst maintaining popularity at home – two things that tend to complement each other very neatly. This is a possible explanation for Russia’s recent legislation outlawing ‘propaganda’ that promotes non-traditional (e.g. homosexual) relationships. These laws have been interpreted as being aligned with the views of a large number of conservative Putin supporters. Defenders of the law often remind the West it should not impose its own values on Russia. With this in mind, it is interesting to note that less than two weeks after the closing ceremony of Sochi 2014, an event that intended to present Russia in a positive light, the country has behaved in a way that so clearly raises the ire of the West. This demonstrates where Russia’s priorities lie.
Further, for much of Barack Obama’s Presidency, it has been Russia who has been calling the shots. Obama has focused on soft diplomacy in an attempt to distance himself from the trigger-happy Bush administration. While any attempt to avoid war is admirable, in spite of his drone program, this ‘tread softly’ approach adopted by Obama has arguably dented the primacy of the United States, leaving a void that Putin has been only too happy to exploit. Russia continues to drag its feet at the UN Security Council regarding resolutions on Syria, helping undermine the power of the US. Russia has been helped in this regard by China – who have been showing off the power of its navy in the Indian Ocean – an area traditionally dominated by the United States. How much Russia influenced China remains unknown, however Putin would certainly enjoy the quandary in which it has placed the US.
Russia also has a tendency to act forcefully when it believes its people are under threat. A most recent example was evident in 2008 during the Russia-Georgia War. This is important because Putin has stated he will act to ensure that the ‘Russian-speaking population’ in Crimea, an area of Ukraine with a majority of Russian speakers and the flashpoint of the conflict, are protected. The term ‘Russian-speaking population’ is very flexible and can be interpreted as appealing to the nationalistic pride that many Putin voters hold dear. Once again, an overarching logic of Putin’s behaviour seems to be the desire to protect his domestic stature.
The Crimean region also has a troubled history. Owing to its geographical and strategic importance, the land has been fought over throughout history and was a Russian territory until the USSR gifted it to Ukraine in 1954. This gesture was more symbolic than material at the time as Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union. When the Union disintegrated in 1991, however, the significance of this event grew and Russia could no longer lay claim to Crimea. Perhaps Putin believes he is merely reclaiming what is rightfully owed to Russia.
Putin’s remarkably strong action could also be explained by a perceived sense of vulnerability. Putin and Yanukovich were aligned together and the Russian sought to benefit from a stable ally in Ukraine. The people resoundingly spoke against the Russian-backed President instead, and by extension, made their distaste for Russia clear. Perhaps Putin felt weakened by the protests in Ukraine and believed that forthright action was the only way to right the ship.
Given this background, Russia’s conduct in regards to Ukraine is not all too surprising, but how best to deal with the situation remains unclear. The West will continue to attempt negotiations with Russia whilst expressing its firm disapproval of any escalation in hostilities. This is unlikely to deter Russia greatly, however, as the country does not seek an endorsement from the West (the scene in Team America where Hans Blix explains to North Korea how angry the UN seems to spring to mind). The West’s options appear to be limited. Economic sanctions could be imposed and Russia’s economy, which relies heavily on oil and gas exports to Western markets, could be damaged. On the other hand, Western markets rely on Russia for oil and gas imports, so neither side will surrender their trade relationship cheaply.
What is apparent is that all sides have a stake in this contest. The US and the EU’s desire to keep Russian power contained clashes with Russia’s desire to demonstrate its strength. Russia is unlikely to be so irrational as to completely ruin its relationships with the US and the EU, however, even if they do remain frosty for the time being. At the same time, neither the US nor the EU would profit from cutting off ties with Russia. This is a delicately poised situation and no one wants to poke the bear. Meanwhile, Ukraine is sandwiched in the middle and reduced to a political football between greater powers. Such a situation has concerning echoes of the Cold War and nobody wants a return to those days. In an increasingly unpredictable scenario, one can only hope cool heads prevail and ensure war is avoided and all countries remain socially and economically viable.
How these events play out will be heavily dictated by Russia and the world hold its breath as it waits for Russia’s next move. All of this presents Putin as an increasingly influential figure in the international arena and this is likely to bode well for the president’s popularity in his own country which might just be what he wanted all along.