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LucyGransnet (GNHQ) Tue 11-Mar-14 11:45:45

Ukraine and Russia: the love of Big Brother?

As the crisis in Crimea continues, Dr Luke March, Senior Lecturer in Soviet and post-Soviet politics at the University of Edinburgh, asks - has Putin lost the plot? And to what extent has the West played a role in this conflict, by provoking Putin?

Dr Luke March

Ukraine and Russia: the love of Big Brother?

Posted on: Tue 11-Mar-14 11:45:45


Lead photo

Has Vladimir Putin lost the plot?

Has Vladimir Putin lost the plot? The German Chancellor Angela Merkel certainly appears to think so, having (allegedly) claimed that he is "living in another world"; many others have questioned the sanity of Russia’s dramatic intervention in Crimea. Not a bit of it. We can certainly question the rationale for Russia’s actions, disagree with their execution, and be justifiably worried about the outcome. But one thing that this ploy is not is irrational. Although Russia’s precise aims are buried within the secrecy of its decision-making processes, Russia’s general approach to Ukraine has been evident for years, and its actions are consistent with what it sees as being at stake in the region. Indeed, the West might well have predicted them much earlier.

This is not at all to justify an illegal intervention which breaks international law and several treaties, and a forthcoming referendum to be held under virtual martial law. Just to say that understanding Russian motivations is the first stage in resolving the conflict. These motivations are not devoid of logic, even if the Russian response to the crisis is marked by disinformation. They are far less about expanding Russia’s global reach than they are about Russian domestic politics, and they show Russia’s strength far less than its weakness.

History obviously looms large in Russian thinking about Ukraine. Kievan Rus' was the proto-Russian state, and many Russians identify the Christianisation of Rus by Prince Vladimir in 988 as a founding moment of modern Russia. Since 17% of Ukraine’s population are ethnic Russians and circa 45% speak Russian at home, and that Crimea was gifted to Ukraine only in 1954, one can understand why Russians have found it hard to envisage Ukraine as an independent state (even if their version of history neglects the role of Lithuania, Poland and the Tatars before the Russian Empire). Even under nominally democratic Boris Yeltsin, Russia continued to regard Ukraine as part of its wider "sphere of influence", with defence of Russian "compatriots" abroad as its right. Rhetorical commitments about international law notwithstanding, many Russian politicians share Putin’s patronising view that Ukraine is "not even a state".

Understanding Russian motivations is the first stage in resolving the conflict. These motivations are not devoid of logic, even if the Russian response to the crisis is marked by disinformation.

Arguably, geopolitics trumps history, because it is Ukraine’s current population (46 million) and size (bigger than France), not its past role, that underpin Putin’s quest for greater global status. Just as Ukraine’s independence vote in December 1991 marked the final act of the USSR, so the flight of the (relatively) pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovych on 22 February marked the potential end of Putin’s aim to create a Eurasian Economic Union – not a new USSR as some have said, but at least a regional power bloc to rival the EU. Not just that, but Sevastopol remains Russia’s only warm-water port.

The Russian view is also imbued with a deep suspicion of Western intentions. From the authorities’ perspective, their intervention in Ukraine is not "imperialist aggression" but a defensive reaction to a loss of their traditional status. Putin has seen the EU and NATO move relentlessly into the former communist world – an advance tolerated until it resulted in a tussle for influence in what Moscow still regards as its backyard, first Georgia, now Ukraine. Russia still sees such an advance through a zero-sum lens – the West wins, Russia loses. Moreover, it sees the West as deeply hypocritical – a concern with liberalisation and democratisation barely concealing destructive intervention in countries’ internal affairs – yesterday Iraq, today Ukraine, tomorrow Russia? Certainly, Russia grossly distorts such arguments (according to Putin, the Ukrainian revolution is a Western-backed fascist putsch engineered by the West). Yet, there is an undeniable kernel of truth: do those who supported the Iraq war now decry Russia’s intervention? Is the constitutionality of the new Ukrainian government dubious? Does it contain members of the radical right? Many Western observations dismiss such arguments reflexively. But the West has played a role in provoking Putin by turning Ukraine into a proxy East-West conflict: promising NATO membership against the wishes of the bulk of the population; presenting EU accession as an East-West choice etc.

Russia’s intervention in Crimea is thus strongly influenced by history, geopolitics, and a recent experience of Western perfidy. But rather than an aggressive attempt to rekindle a lost empire, it looks more like a panicked defensive attempt to prevent Ukraine escaping Russia’s orbit forever. Although Putin is still relatively secure at home, his popularity is in slow decline, and since 2012 he has shored up support by a combination of increasingly repressive practices and a new-found staunch conservatism, a policy that projects strength but conceals a certain isolationism and paranoia. His new Eurasian Economic Union was to be a symbol of Russia’s enhanced Eastern direction. The overthrow of Yanukovych was thus a major blow to Russia’s global standing, but also has clear implications for Putin’s domestic position. If a corrupt and repressive but democratically elected leader can be expelled, this gives obvious succour to Russia’s beleaguered domestic opposition. Hence Russia’s attempt to portray the Ukrainian protestors as paid fascists who are intrinsically inimical to Russia. Although the Russian elite has kept a united front, rumours abound that the decision to intervene was taken by a small coterie of people, was largely improvised and reactive as Moscow struggled to keep up with events.

Be that as it may, the fact that Russia has intervened so soon after its successful Olympics, shows that Putin considers the loss of Ukraine as an existential blow; for its sake he will take any reputational damage and economic sanctions to follow. It is most likely that Russia "merely" aims to consolidate control over Crimea rather than annexe it completely: a mini-Russia within Ukraine would act as a "spoiler" to pressure and if necessary destabilise any new government in Kiev, Crimea within Russia becomes just another restive region needing subsidy. Putin judges that (as with his 2008 intervention in Georgia), the West is too hypocritical and divided to risk any meaningful measures that would harm its own interests (such as targeted economic sanctions or no-strings aid to Ukraine). Putin’s critique of the West may be exaggerated and hyperbolic, but it is up to us to prove him wrong.

By Dr Luke March

Twitter: @Gransnet

jinglbellsfrocks Tue 11-Mar-14 12:47:29

Goodness me, what a lot of words!

I think Putin knows exactly what he is doing. He would n't want to miss a chance to get his hands back on what he feels should still be part of the USSR empire.

BlueBelle Tue 11-Mar-14 13:35:03

Power control, small man syndrome, about 5'6 He who shall not be ignored

jinglbellsfrocks Tue 11-Mar-14 13:46:09

Angela Merkel is right (if she really did say that) He is living in another world. A world I wouldn't want to inhabit.

jinglbellsfrocks Tue 11-Mar-14 13:48:42

" not a new USSR as some have said, but at least a regional power bloc to rival the EU"

Is there a difference?

jinglbellsfrocks Tue 11-Mar-14 13:50:24

Did Dr Luke write all that just for Gransnet? Has he read the rest of the site?

jinglbellsfrocks Tue 11-Mar-14 14:09:33

There are less aggresive ways of turning down the offer of EU status. You really don't have to shoot the people who say "yes please".

" do those who supported the Iraq war now decry Russia’s intervention?"

I can't see how they are comparable.

" rumours abound that the decision to intervene was taken by a small coterie of people, was largely improvised and reactive"

No sh-t Sherlock. hmm

" it is up to us to prove him wrong." Got that right anyway.

TriciaF Tue 11-Mar-14 17:34:34

As with what's going on in the Middle East, western countries seem to think other nations should think the the same as them - they won't!
I think Putin would love to have some of the ex-Russian states back under his control, especially those with oil and gas.
He's only just starting, and he's not going to listen to the likes of the EU and USA.

Twostep Wed 12-Mar-14 11:51:23

Agreed TriciaF Putin is a loose cannon and, dare I say, a bit bonkers. Personally I can't see him listening to the likes of us either.

The Ukrainian people h ave spoken, and Putin didn't like what they had to say so he's just doing what he wants anyway - he's refusing to enter into talks with Ukraine now.

What's even worse is that the Russian people are mostly behind Putin. Scary stuff.

1stworldview Fri 14-Mar-14 07:35:51

The invasion of the Ukraine by Russia is sending a ripple effect through out Eastern Europe. With the prospects now for possible cold war starting all over again investors brace for sanctions against Russia. And with the already falling economy of the Ukraine, investors and business are bailing out as fast as they can.

During the next few years, the Ukraine economy will be pushed to its limits. Currently, the Ukraine desperately needs 30 billion in loans to survive, and with ousted former president Viktor Yanukovich having already pulled the country out from the European Union, and the new government wanting nothing to do with Russia, the government will be in dire straits.

The US State department has issued a travel warning urging Americans not to travel to the Ukraine. Tourism is a huge part of Ukraine economy. with hotels, airlines and restaurants depending on tourism. As these businesses cut back, the ripple effect in cities like Kiev, Odessa and Yalta will have devastating consequences on the economy. Just as when the housing market died in the US, the effects were felt world wide. Not only will Ukraine's economy continue to decline, but most of Western Europe's fragile economy will also feel the effects.

One industry that seems to thrive on the situation is the foreign bride market, A Foreign Affair operates four office in the Ukraine. Kenneth Agee the marketing director says, "In the last few weeks we have seen the biggest surge ever on women signing up. Not only have we seen the biggest surge, but we have seen the highest quality of women signing up; doctors, engineers, even some of Ukraine's most beautiful models, With the possibility of war looming over the horizon, American men are looking very desirable." A Foreign Affair 's new member Irina of Kiev says, "America is stable, American men have very good family values. These are important to Ukraine women; we want a good environment to raise our families. With Russian tanks rolling down our streets, I do not see a bright future here for starting a family.

The future does not look good for the Ukraine. Russia has no intention of letting Ukraine have complete independence. Most western Ukrainians have had a strong dislike for Russia for many generations, and will do what ever it takes to resist Russian influence or occupation. This being said, the country will have a long battle and many lines drawn in the sand, from serious economic sanctions to full out war. At this time, it looks like this struggle could go on for a decade or more.

Aka Fri 14-Mar-14 07:40:50

I don't think Russia has any interest in Ukraine beyond the Crimea.

dayvidg Fri 21-Mar-14 21:42:27

The Catalans want independence from Spain, the Venetians want independence from Italy, the Scots want independence from the United Kingdom. Given their history, is it any great surprise that the Crimeans want independence from the Ukraine. The Western governments profess a desire for democracy, yet if a country does not follow the American ideal, we are quite happy to aid rebels against that countries regime.
David Cameron is probably about as popular in Britain as Viktor Yanukovych was in the Ukraine. We seem to be going down the road of encouraging extremism in other countries as a valid alternative to the ballot. If violence in the Ukraine, Egpyt, Libya, Tunisia etc can bring about a change in government, why not Greece, Spain, Britain.
One last point. How many were killed in Kiev, in comparison to the number of deaths in the Crimea?

annodomini Fri 21-Mar-14 21:54:02

That's a poor analogy dayvidg. Crimea voted not just to separate from Ukraine but to re-join Russia. Call that independence?