Russia is Insecure. A Review on Russian Policy in Ukraine.

A review on the academic literature on Russia’s involvement in Ukraine.

The current Ukrainian crisis is drenched in debate; it is complicated by a long political upheaval, an ongoing social and political revolution, and a long history of competing memories and over lapping historical narratives. This review will take a more specific approach to the conflict, rather than focusing on all possible factors, it will focus primarily on the role and intentions of Russia. This review will not explore the developments of the Ukraine revolution, but will explore Russia’s involvement, actions, and interests. From exploring and analyzing many articles, writers, first hand sources, poll results and statistics, this review has narrowed down the important key factors in the academic study of Russia’s involvement and intentions in Ukraine.  Ultimately this review has determined two main branches of the academic sphere: Realpolitik VS Kulturkampf, both of which will be described and discussed.

Economics & the European Union

The first area in which academics focus on in the study of the current Russian involvement in Ukraine is within Economics and the European Union. Two different topics influence this discussion, the first is how much the former Soviet states depend and work with Russia for much of their trade. The second is how much both the EU depends on Russian oil, and how much power Russia currently holds primarily due to its export of oil and energy. “The EU as a whole relies on Russia for about 30% of its gas, although in a few countries the proportion is 100%.”1 The relationship between the EU and Russia over energy is significant because both play the power against each other, the EU needs the energy, and Russia needs the trade. Responding to the interference in Ukraine by Russia, the EU threatened, “far-reaching consequences in a broad range of economic areas.”2 These threats, while serious, also contain an empty flex of European muscle due to the significant reliance of Europe on Russian energy.

Russian President Putin takes part in a meeting on social and economic development in Moscow's Kremlin

Russia wants hegemonic control over its former Soviet States in order to ensure its economic success and to encourage trade agreements with those states. One area where we can clearly see former Soviet states moving away from Russia and choosing to integrate with the EU is with the “Eastern Partnership Community,” members of which include Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.3 Putin has shown his disapproval of this economic integration which academics argue is because of “Russia’s inability to provide anything close to its attractiveness—that has forced the Russian leadership to take unprecedented measures to halt it, measures that carry dire consequences for Russia’s place in the world.”4 Scholars have noted that previously Russia viewed NATO as the ultimate threat, but now has begun to also see EU as a direct threat, and not just due to soft power politics. “Moscow no longer saw the EU as a soft politics actor, but increasingly as a force threatening Russia’s own ambitions in its neighborhood.”5 Following the invasion of Georgia, President Medvedev declared that Russia was attempting to create a “sphere of privileged interest”6, we can see similar actions being demonstrated in Ukraine. With groups such as the EaP working to pull economic stimulation towards the EU and away from Russia, many scholars view this as one of the central causes for Russia’s military involvement in Ukraine. Dimitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, claims that, “The Russian leadership is very apprehensive about what it sees as Western moves designed to tear Ukraine away from Russia… their central foreign policy goal is to create a power center around Russia. Any move by the West towards the former Soviet republics is seen as damaging Russia’s interests.”7 Its clear that Russia wants control over Soviet States for economic reasons, it sees it as an interest for the economic security of Russia, however this branches us off into another area of the academic discussion, the broader Strategic benefits of controlling Ukraine.

Strategic Control

In regards to Strategic Control, multiple strong angles of study exist. The first is what specifically Russia wants to control in terms of Realpolitik, or in quantitative terms. We have established it wants economic control of the region, but it also wants control of the land and the military capabilities as well. Russia perceives its sovereign claim as not only its own land and surrounding territory, but also the land of the former Soviet republics. In 2008 Vladimir Putin told President Bush that “Ukraine is not even a state…part of its territories are Eastern Europe, but the greater part is a gift from us.”8 Similar talk of ownership and dominance can be viewed in regards to Azerbaijan. Aleksandr Dugin, a high up member of the Kremlin intelligentsia has stated that “the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan is in Moscow’s hands,” and that “an Azerbaijan hostile to Russia will instantly cease its existence.”9 Russia’s imposed sovereign hegemony is not a radical notion in Moscow, but a standard of operation; officials have even been quoted as saying “strong states dominate the weak, because that is what they do.”10 Putin’s ideologue, Vladislav Surkov stated that, “sovereignty or ‘samostoiatelnost’, depends on the states ‘konkuretnosposobnost’ which translates to its ‘strength’ or ‘ability to compete’.11 Putin, high up Kremlin officials, and the Russian intelligentsia perceive the surrounding former Soviet states as military and political interests, furthermore they feel they not only deserve, but can claim sovereign hegemony over these states because they are more powerful and are historically aligned. Andreas Kalleler writes “Russia regards Ukraine as a part of its own strategic orbit, while many Ukrainians want to liberate themselves from the Russian hegemony and advocate a closer cooperation with the European Union.”12 The invasion and occupation of Crimea echoes this desire for protecting its own interests. Crimea is home to Russia’s “Black Sea Fleet”, Russia’s strongest naval assist in the region. Upon viewing the instability of Ukraine and its potential to lean towards the EU, Russian annexed its military interest. “The case of Crimea and the ongoing struggle for Ukraine proves that Moscow is determined to defend its hegemonic position in the Russian-speaking world using all means possible.”13 Academics have noted two key areas of military strategic interest for Russia: the Ukraine, and the South Caucus. Without Ukraine, Putin lacks the full involvement of his dreamed “Eurasian Empire.” The Slavic part of Eurasia is crucial to create not only a political and land barrier between Russia and the West, but also to demonstrate the broader strength of Russia’s envisioned social and ideological superiority.14 The second region, where we have seen conflict already, and some scholars argue we will again, is in the South Caucus. The South Caucus faces even more complications due to the United States also wanting control over the region for its own military ambitions, primarily as logistical support, and also for NATO airspace leading into Afghanistan.15 Russia deeply is opposed to this military interest of the US and explicitly has spoken against it. Former Russian President Dimitry Medvedev claimed the main reason Russia began military conflict in Georgia was to stop US interests and NATO expansion, “If the war against Georgia had not happened several countries would join NATO.”16 It is understood that both regions serve military significance to Russia, and that losing either will show weakness and may even potentially result in losing both. When viewing a map, it’s clear to see Putin’s concerns of being surrounded by NATO, and at a strategic level, its hard to blame him. Ukraine, and especially Sevastopol in Crimea where the naval base is, are surrounded by NATO.

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Both the economic concerns of losing the Soviet States to the EU, as well losing key military strategic states, are both stressed by many academics as the key reasons for Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. This understanding of Russia’s desire to maintain its tangible international and regional hegemony can be understood as “realpolitik.” This is the first branch of the academic study towards Russia’s intervention, to maintain its “realpolitik” interests. The second branch can be understood as the ideological dominance, a desire for political and cultural supremacy, and a goal of creating a “Greater Russia” – this can be understood as its “kulturkampf.”

Greater Russia

One of the key academics in the study of Russia’s intervention in Ukraine is Svante Cornell, he claims, “The crisis has been created entirely by Russia’s hostile behavior towards former Soviet states and its leadership’s pursuit of a Eurasian empire.”17 The main reason, many academics argue, is not so Russia can maintain its economic or military interests, which are of major importance as well, but to sustain Russia’s presence as the hegemonic and cultural overlord in the region. To reestablish its ideological presence as had formerly existed in the USSR. Cornell continues, “The Putin regime views the stabilization and democratization of these countries as a threat not only to its foreign policy ambitions, but to its domestic system of governance.”18 Founding board member of the European Council of Foreign Relations, Ivan Krastev argues, “It is Putin the conservative and not Putin the realist who decided to violate Ukraine’s sovereignty.”19 Russia’s leadership and Putin want to sustain their hegemonic dominance of other countries, have Russia be the almighty superpower in the region, and have no one question the domestic practices in Moscow. Putin views Russia as a beacon of culture, as the center piece of Orthodox Christianity, as “Holy Russia”, and views the Ukraine as part of this cultural and social “Greater Russia” or “Eurasian Empire.”20 Julian Lindley-French states, “Ukraine has a special place in Russia’s abiding self-narrative: to ‘lose’ Ukraine would be to lose Russia’s soul.”21 Michael Rywkin further argues this standpoint, he claims that Putin’s intervention in Ukraine and his desire to make the Ukraine not join the EU is a matter of restoring the superpower status to Russia, “No Empire without Ukraine”22, and in this statement Lindey-French solidifies this idea, “There can be no doubt that the idea of a Greater Russia is central to Putinism. However, beneath the bluster and manipulation, fear lurks in Moscow. The Kremlin is afraid that the many contradictions that plague Russia will coalesce to accelerate the country’s decline, with pressure growing on Russia’s western, southern and eastern borders. Such a loss of face, power and prestige would probably, over time, mark the end of Putinism.”23

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Internal Affairs & Population Control

In order for Putin to keep up the “kulturkampf” he has taken quantitatively measurable and analyzable actions in order to control media and influence public opinion. Through multiple statistical agencies such as VTSIOM and Levada we are able to view the public perception of the Russian population. After the 2008 financial crisis hit Russia, public opinion fell heavily, however after the annexation of Crimea in March 2014, poll results showed that imperial nationalism had soared and Putin had regained significant support of the Russian people. “According to the VTSIOM polling agency, 91 % of Russians supported Russia’s policy, and Putin’s positive ratings soared to 82 % from about 60 % at the beginning of the year.”24 The Levada Center also posted higher ratings of opinion on Putin in the same time period.25 Former British Ambassador to Russia, Rodric Braiwathe stated in response to the Russian peoples’ support, the “Russians wondered why such a non-country should be separated from the heartland.”26 While Russia does have major dissent and protests, an engaging topic for another paper, a strong portion of the public also believes that a Greater Russia is right, and that supporting this ideological and cultural hegemonic dominance in the Ukraine is right. “If Ukraine, in particular, were to develop into a modern, stable and democratic state on the European model, this would have enormous reverberations for Russia itself. If the closely related Ukrainians were living in such an environment, why would Russians accept the kleptocratic authoritarianism of the Putin regime?”27 It’s also evident that Russia is diligently trying to control the public opinion of the former Soviet States. The Russian Foreign Policy Concepts of 2008 and 2013 included pledges to “develop effective means of information influence on public opinion abroad.”28 A research study carried out on Ukrainian television stations shows that the Russian government and key Russian franchisors strongly affected what the Ukrainian population saw on TV, and due to this the influenced media tended to lean towards a pro-Russian narrative.29 The results and effectiveness vary and are debatable, but ultimately what is clear is that there was a direct Russian attempt to influence and control Ukrainian public opinion, so much so that following the Ukrainian revolution, cable transmissions of Russia’s main federal broadcasters had been banned by the new Ukrainian government in the interests of “information security.”30

This “kulturkampf” can essentially be understood as Putin’s goal of establishing an ideological hegemonic social framework which wraps over all of the former Soviet republics, especially Ukraine and the South Caucus, but importantly also has the goal of stabilizing domestic support and reaffirming the internal Putanist power circle in the Kremlin.

The academic literature therefore can be broken up into two categories that this review has labeled as, “realpolitik”, or the economic and quantitative strategic goals of Russia, and the “kulturkampf” which are the cultural, social, and civilizational goals of Putin’s ideological “Greater Russia.” Those are the two main branches and reasons typically given by academics as to why Russia is involved within Ukraine. While difficult to be impersonal as a Western writer, some concerns can be viewed as rational. The encroachment of NATO, the ongoing establishment of US military bases, and the implementation of US weaponry in the region is a valid and rational concern to Russia’s national security. The aggressive nature of the American military complex is without doubt a factor in Russia’s hostile reflex and violent grab of Crimea, however this alone can not explain the crisis. The greater fear for Russia is not the loss of one strategic naval port, but the risk of losing domestic support, the risk of crippling the kleptocratic mafia elite in the Kremlin, and the risk of ending the ongoing Putanist power establishment. The aggression into Ukraine was not an act of strength and conviction, but rather it was a move of increasing insecurity, it was desperation.

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End Notes

  1. The Month in Brief: Brent Rises on Continuing Ukraine stand‐off, EU Seeks Cut in Russian Energy Imports, and Russia Considers Ditching Dollar.” Pg. 1
  2. The Month in Brief: Brent Rises on Continuing Ukraine stand‐off, EU Seeks Cut in Russian Energy Imports, and Russia Considers Ditching Dollar.” Pg. 1
  3. “What is the EaP?” June 2014. Eastern Partnership Community.
  4. Cornell, Svante E. “Underestimating yourself: The EU and the political realities of the eastern neighborhood.” Pg. 115
  5. Cornell, Svante E. “Underestimating yourself: The EU and the political realities of the eastern neighborhood.” Pg. 118
  6. Cornell, Svante E. “Underestimating yourself: The EU and the political realities of the eastern neighborhood.” Pg. 188
  7. Marson, James. “Putin to the West: Hands off Ukraine.”
  8. Cornell, Svante E. “Underestimating yourself: The EU and the political realities of the eastern 9. neighborhood.” Pg. 115
  9. Goble, Paul. “Dugin Says an Azerbaijan Hostile to Russia Will ‘Instantly Cease to Exist.’”
  10. Wilson, Andrew. “The Ukraine crisis brings the threat of democracy to Russia’s doorstep.” Pg. 68
  11. Wilson, Andrew. “The Ukraine crisis brings the threat of democracy to Russia’s doorstep.” Pg. 68
  12. Kappeler, Andreas. “Ukraine and Russia: Legacies of the imperial past and competing memories.” Pg. 107
  13. Rogoża, Jadwiga. 2014. “Russian Nationalism: Between Imperialism and Xenophobia.” 81
  14. Cornell, Svante E. “Checking Putin’s Eurasian Ambitions.” April 2014. The Wall Street Journal.
  15. Cornell, Svante E. “Checking Putin’s Eurasian Ambitions.” April 2014. The Wall Street Journal.
  16. Cornell, Svante E. “Checking Putin’s Eurasian Ambitions.” April 2014. The Wall Street Journal.
  17. Cornell, Svante E. “Underestimating yourself: The EU and the political realities of the eastern neighborhood.” Pg. 115
  18. Cornell, Svante E. “Underestimating yourself: The EU and the political realities of the eastern neighborhood.” Pg. 119
  19. Krastev, Ivan. “What does Russia want and why?” March 2014. Prospect Magazine
  20. Kappeler, Andreas. “Ukraine and Russia: Legacies of the imperial past and competing memories.” Pg 111
  21. Lindley-French, Julian. “Ukraine: Understanding Russia.” Pg. 36
  22. Rywkin, Michael. 2014. “Ukraine: Between Russia and the West.” Pg. 124
  23. Lindley-French, Julian. “Ukraine: Understanding Russia.” Pg. 39
  24. Rogoża, Jadwiga. 2014. “Russian Nationalism: Between Imperialism and Xenophobia.” 83
  25. Levada-Center. “Vladimir Putin: trust and evaluation.” Oct 2014. Yuri Levada Analytical Center
  26. Braithwaite, Rodric. 2014. “Russia, Ukraine and the West.” Pg. 63
  27. Cornell, Svante E. “Underestimating yourself: The EU and the political realities of the eastern neighborhood.” Pg. 119
  28. Szostek, Joanna. “Russian and the News Media in Ukraine: A Case of Soft Power.” Pg. 465
  29. Szostek, Joanna. “Russian and the News Media in Ukraine: A Case of Soft Power.” Pg. 469
  30. Szostek, Joanna. “Russian and the News Media in Ukraine: A Case of Soft Power.” Pg. 483 

Work Cited

Agarin, Timofey.”Russia.” 2014. Political Insight 5 (2): Pg. 26-29. DOI:10.1111/2041-9066.12059.

Blank, Stephen. “From Eurasia with Love.” 2014. American Foreign Policy Interests 36 (3): 162-174. doi:10.1080/10803920.2014.925338.

Braithwaite, Rodric. “Russia, Ukraine and the West.” 2014. The RUSI Journal 159 (2): 62-65. doi:10.1080/03071847.2014.912805.

Cornell, Svante E. “Checking Putin’s Eurasian Ambitions.” April 2014. The Wall Street Journal. Web. http://online.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702303532704579476972067682740

Cornell, Svante E. “Underestimating yourself: The EU and the political realities of the eastern neighborhood.” May 2014. European View 13. Pg. 115-123. DOI 10.1007/s12290-014-0300-z

Goble, Paul. “Dugin Says an Azerbaijan Hostile to Russia Will ‘Instantly Cease to Exist.’” April 2014. The Interpreter. Web. http://www.interpretermag.com/dugin-says-an-azerbaijan-hostile-to-russia-will-instantly-cease-to-exist/

Kappeler, Andreas. “Ukraine and Russia: Legacies of the imperial past and competing memories.” March 2014. Journal of Eurasian Studies. Vol 5. Pg. 107-115 Web. http://journals1.scholarsportal.info.libaccess.lib.mcmaster.ca/pdf/18793665/v05i0002/107_uarlotipacm.xml

Krastev, Ivan. “What does Russia want and why?” March 2014. Prospect Magazine. Web. http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/politics/what-does-russia-want-and-why

Levada-Center. “Vladimir Putin: trust and evaluation.” Oct 2014. Yuri Levada Analytical Center. Web. http://www.levada.ru/eng/vladimir-putin-trust-and-evaluation

Lindley-French, Julian. “Ukraine: Understanding Russia.” 2014. The RUSI Journal 159 (3): Pg.36-39. DOI:10.1080/03071847.2014.927997.

Marson, James. “Putin to the West: Hands off Ukraine.” May 2009. Time. Web. http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1900838,00.html

Rogoża, Jadwiga. “Russian Nationalism: Between Imperialism and Xenophobia.” 2014. European View 13 (1): 79-87. doi:10.1007/s12290-014-0295-5.

Rywkin, Michael. “Ukraine: Between Russia and the West.” 2014. American Foreign Policy Interests 36 (2): 119-126. doi:10.1080/10803920.2014.908048

Szostek, Joanna. “Russian and the News Media in Ukraine: A Case of Soft Power.” August 2014. East European Politics and Societies and Culture.Vol 28 No 3. Pg.463-486. DOI 10.1177/0888325414537297

“The Month in Brief: Brent Rises on Continuing Ukraine stand‐off, EU Seeks Cut in Russian Energy Imports, and Russia Considers Ditching Dollar.” 2014. Oil and Energy Trends 39 (5): Pg. 5-6. DOI:10.1111/oet.12155.

VCIOM. “Putin’s Rating: New Height.” March 2014. Omnibus ARCSPO. Web. http://wciom.ru/index.php?id=459&uid=114759

“What is the EaP?” June 2014. Eastern Partnership Community. Web. http://www.easternpartnership.org/content/eastern-partnership-glance

Wilson, Andrew. “The Ukraine crisis brings the threat of democracy to Russia’s doorstep.” May 2014. European View 13. Pg.67-72. DOI 10.1007/s12290-014-0302-x

Written by: Daniel Govedar (Oct 2014)
Last Edited: December 18 2015

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