Retrieval of Russian Great Power Image Key to Ukrainian Crisis

With the ongoing crisis over the Crimea the most serious example, Ukraine has borne the brunt of many undulations in Russian foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. Giving little indication of what was to lie in store over the following two decades; Ukraine was to initially benefit from the fast moving change that led to the Soviet Union’s disintegration. In December 1991, as he famously signed the Creation Agreement deep in the reclusive Belovezhskaya Pushcha Nature Reserve bringing into effect the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and with it the sovereign independence of Ukraine and Belarus, it was Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s belief that the non-Russian Soviet Republics had burdened Russia as the Union’s foundation to a point of political and economic exhaustion. During an era dominated by ‘new thinking’, Moscow thought itself better served by cutting loose the states that traditionally acted as its immediate buffer zone in tandem with seeking the West as a partner in replenishing its political and economic fortunes.

Fairytale Gone Bad

While the achievement of Ukrainian independence was facilitated in part by this reformist stream of thought, the increasingly militarised crisis currently surrounding Ukraine is one bi-product of the ultimately unsuccessful post-Cold War partnership attempted by Russia with the West. With American and European officials providing much of the advice, Russia’s attempted transition to liberal democracy and economics was to descend into chaos by the mid-1990s. Formal unemployment was rife, pensions remained unpaid. Self-serving oligarchs, rather than elected politicians, pulled many of the strings within the country’s government. As popular optimism turned to disillusion and blame, Yeltsin and his Westernising circle were denounced as fools. Western actors, the US in particular, were charged with the more sinister motive of seeking to humiliate Russia during a time of weakness. The geopolitical front seemed to provide further justification for these accusations, cries of Western betrayal began to flow from Russian nationalists following the Clinton administration’s action to enlarge NATO eastwards after 1999.    

Disillusion from events at home and abroad reinstated an appetite for strongman rule. It was under this pretext that Vladimir Putin first assumed presidential office in 2000. Reigning in the chaos meant re-establishing a strong central authority. The state reasserted firm control, much of the power held by the oligarchs and corrupt provincial elites was robustly dismembered. Seen as an efficient stabiliser at home, Putin’s muscular approach soon earned domestic praise for reviving Russia’s fortunes abroad.

The image of a strongman, who would not see Russia humiliated again, gained popularity among a substantial section of society perceiving slight by the West during the 1990s. Discarded by Yeltsin for a time, under Putin, a Russian dominated post-Soviet area is an indispensible concept for rebuilding a Russian great power image. However, attempting to re-establish dominance over the post-Soviet area, the Kremlin was to find its objectives challenged by civil society and statesmen favouring alterative political choices in other states of the region. ‘Coloured revolutions’ swept the post-Soviet area during the early 2000s, most notable being Ukraine’s ‘orange revolution’ during the winter of 2004-2005 which ultimately saw Viktor Yushchenko take presidential office above the Kremlin favoured Viktor Yanukovych as well as Georgia’s earlier ‘rose revolution’ of 2003 which elevated Mikheil Saakashvili to power. To Moscow’s loathing, both Saakashvili and Yushchenko were elected on the basis of unambiguous mandates to strengthen ties with both the EU and NATO.

Seen as deliberately inhibiting Russia’s ambition in a region of privileged interest, Putin was infuriated by the West’s role in these events. Depicted as agents of Western manipulation, the financing of pro-democracy NGOs and foundations by Western governments drew particular ire. However, in making promises that proved difficult to substantiate in day-to-day diplomacy thereafter, both the US and the EU overplayed their card. For Yushchenko’s Ukraine, a failure to produce tangible reform and weed out widespread corruption as well as Western procrastination in delivering its roadmap for an alternative development trajectory gave Putin an opportunity to take full advantage.

Bolting the Door

Solidifying his domestic reputation through the narrative that his rule had retrieved Russia’s dignity as a great power from the clutches of Western humiliation, a counter-strategy striving to bolt the door on unwanted Western influence in the region was always an option likely to be pursued. As the political scientist Thomas Ambrosio outlines, this strategy came in the form of ‘insulate, bolster and subvert’. Putin’s administration first sought to insulate itself from democratic contagion likely to put regime security at risk; the state greatly obstructed externally sponsored NGOs within Russia. Moscow then bolstered its network power within the post-Soviet area, promoting authoritarian sustainability in Belarus and Central Asia through cheaper oil and gas prices among other items. Finally, Moscow was to use a number of diplomatic and economic instruments aiming to subvert governments elected through ‘coloured revolutions’.[1] Putting Yushchenko’s economic policy on the back foot, one punishment doled out to Ukraine was the doubling in price of Russian natural gas from 2006. Russian support was also central to sustaining the Kremlin favoured Yanukovych and his Party of Regions as credible forces in Ukrainian politics following the ‘orange revolution’, eventually aiding Yanukovych mount his successful bid for the Ukrainian presidency in February 2010.

Attempting to intensify Russia’s region-building project was a major objective as Putin began his third presidential term in 2012. Starting out as a customs union, it is the view of many analysts that the proposed Eurasian Union is an effort to institutionalise Russian power in the region. Indeed, with membership candidates of the Belarusian and Central Asian stature and with Russian oil and gas incomes subsidising integration, a support network for authoritarian regimes is likely to be the organisation’s core purpose. Evolving the counter-‘coloured revolution’ strategy, the Eurasian Union will likely be an attempt – on a regional scale –to firewall against any meaningful liberal influence that civil society or the West may wish to instigate.

Far From Watertight

Given Ukraine’s comparatively favourable economic potential in tandem with historical and cultural linkage, it was indisputably Russia’s most important strategic partner for this project. A zero-sum initiative, Yanukovych’s abrupt decision to decline an Association Agreement with the EU last November may have lifted Russian hopes to a point where the lynchpin of their region-building effort was in place. However, as well as being the catalyst behind Yanukovych’s removal from power, the remarkable resilience of the Euromaidan movement over the last ten weeks shows that, despite Russian efforts, the post-Soviet area is far from watertight with regard to social movements wishing to invoke political change. With Yanukovych’s overthrow leaving Russian region-building plans in unexpected disarray, borne out of pride as much as strategy, the Kremlin’s reaction was not surprising. Given its large and likely sympathetic Russophone population, Ukraine’s Crimea was a relatively risk-free place to fire the warning shot of limited military intervention. Just as momentum was slipping away from Moscow, this gives Putin a potent bargaining tool to unsettle the likely alliance between Ukrainian liberals and the West during any multilateral talks debating Ukraine’s political future. For EU and US diplomats, negotiations with an individual who has built his political career by using uncompromising foreign policy positions to galvanise his domestic and regional support bases should, once again, prove very difficult indeed.

[1] Thomas Ambrosio (2007) ‘Insulating Russia from a Colour Revolution: How the Kremlin Resists Regional Democratic Trends’ Democratization, 14 (2): 232-252.

Publicēts 13. marts, 2014

Autors Eoin Micheál Mcnamara