Saturday, March 15, 2014

Ukraine: The Prism of Russian National Interest

Today many, particularly those in the US and in Western Europe, are struggling to come to grips with the actions of Russia relative to events in Ukraine.  It seems incomprehensible that in today’s world, more than 20 years removed from the collapse of Communism, that any democratic state would invade or attempt to manipulate political realities of another democratic state to the degree that Russia has done in Ukraine.  The audacity of one state to so blatantly defy international law and normal expectations of state behavior is unsettling. 

In 1939 Winston Churchill said the following about understanding Russia:

“I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia.  It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma…”

Not just for decades, but also for centuries, others have struggled to understand the rhyme and reason behind the actions of the Russian state in its various guises—the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and the Russian Federation. 

Peter the Great and Catherine the Great both sought to modernize the Russian Empire by bringing it closer to the ideals of western civilization.  In their shift toward the West, Peter, Catherine and other “progressive” Russian leaders were willing to go only so far.  They held on to many of the core concepts that made Russia, well, Russia.  Technologies, fashions, and institutions may have been adopted and adapted, but the fundamental relation between the Russian state and its people remained largely unchanged, as did the way that the Russian state interacted with its neighbors.

Josef Stalin undertook the most extreme technological modernization program in the history of the world (followed soon by the Chinese).  He forced industrial and scientific development, through brute force and blatant theft, in order to bring the backward Soviet Union and its peoples up to par with the western world.  Again, the fundamental relationship between state and people remained largely unchanged.  The Soviet/Russian view of the outside world also remained largely unaltered in principle, but perhaps magnified in its intensity.  The invasion of Nazi Germany elevated the sense of the outside world as a threat.  Years of Cold War mentality and counterbalance against the West were the result of that perception--the outside world could not be trusted.

Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin, and Vladimir Putin collectively have moved the Russian economic system toward capitalism more than ever done previously.  While not perfect, these market reforms marked a distinct break with communal and Communist based economies of the past.  Despite the most recent rounds of drastic changes in the political and economic systems, the fundamental relation between the Russian state and its people remain largely unchanged.  After a brief fling with “friendly” international relations under Gorbachev and Yeltsin, there is a sharp return to a more “normal” system of Russian foreign relations under Putin.

Let’s complete the quote from Winston Churchill:

“I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia.  It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key.  That key is Russian national interest.

This has been the challenge for the West—understanding Russian national interests.  What are the aims of Russian national interest?  From whence do they spring?  The key to Russian national interests is affected heavily by historical and cultural factors.  Absent a familiarity with Russian history and culture, their national interests can be difficult to comprehend.  American and European national interests do not coincide easily with those of Russia. 

So, what drives Russian national interest, domestically and internationally?  It requires a look back through the centuries.

In the 13th century Kievan Rus’ suffered the Mongol invasion.  Lasting over 100 years, the Mongol occupation changed the political and economic landscape of the Rus’.  These changes helped to shape the culture and history of the people.  Two primary issues stand out.  First, one must consider the effect of such large-scale invasion and occupation on the national psyche.  It solidified the perception of the outside world as a threat.  Second, it exposed them to the impact of oriental despotism.  The result was a confusing and complex mix of western and eastern political, economic, and religious philosophies.  These philosophies contribute to competing desires to be part of and accepted by the West while retaining eastern thoughts and practices.  Additionally, international relations came to be viewed as a zero-sum game where there are only winners and losers.

The Romanov Dynasty and the Soviet Union expanded and maintained their territory.  Access to warm water ports and the establishment of buffer states were established and regained as necessary.  Peter the Great worked tirelessly to expand against the Ottoman Empire, Sweden, Lithuania, and Poland.  Stalin sacrificed blood and treasure to expand and maintain the buffer zone further into Eastern Europe.   

Today our perception of the “New World Order” is clouded by our perception of the changes that followed from the collapse of the Soviet Union.  We envisioned a world in which Russia and the former members of the Soviet Union had abandoned their previous philosophies and joined with the West.  Francis Fukuyama, a renowned American political scientist posited the following after the collapse of the Soviet Union:

“What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such…That is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

Unfortunately, Vladimir Putin and his siloviki either didn’t read or agree with what Professor Fukuyama wrote.  The “universalization of Western liberal democracy” has not occurred in Russia (or in China).  Since the year 2000 Russia has tacked sharply back to its historical and cultural roots in terms of both international relations and state-citizen relations.  Putin feels that the collapse of the Soviet Union was one of the greatest geo-political disasters of the 20th century.  It is unlikely that he mourns the collapse of an ineffective economic and political system.  It is more likely that he is mourns the collapse of Russian influence and satellite states—or in simpler terms, he mourns the loss of the Russian Empire because of the national interests that are derived therefrom.

The eastward expansion of NATO is viewed as a significantly potential threat against the interests of the Russian Federation.  A former political, economic, and military adversary now stands at the door without a buffer zone in place.  Along with perception of increased risk there is a substantial decrease in Russian influence in the near abroad.  This expansion is perceived as a real threat to Russian national interests. 

This expansion has caused Russia to draw a line in the sand.  They have made a determination to stop the expansion of not just NATO but the EU as well. This line in the sand exists not just to stop the physical expansion of borders but also the expansion of unwelcome political ideology across national borders. 

So, what are the Russian national interests in Ukraine?

First, many Russians see the Ukraine and the Ukrainians as part of the same nation and state.  To lose them and any influence over them is a blow to national pride, identity, and influence.  If Russia can’t maintain strong relations and influence with their close cousins, how can they be expected to maintain or expand influence in Central Asia, Eastern Europe, the Baltics, or Far East Asia?  A loss is Ukraine could lead to a loss elsewhere.

The move away from the Russian sphere of influence is not in line with Russian national interests.

Second, the expansion of the EU and NATO represent real and physical threats as well as decreasing international influence.

The likelihood of closer Ukraine-EU relations is not considered to be in Russia’s national interests.

Third, the expansion of western political and economic philosophies into neighboring states, as well as into Russia itself, has the potential to disrupt political order.  A disruption in the political order of the post-Soviet dictatorships and neighboring states potentially will result in the rise of a democratic government which likely would decrease Russia’s influence.  Of even greater risk is the possibility that these ideologies would spread among the Russian populace and result in political disruption and change.

The 2004 Orange Revolution and the Maidan Revolution are seen as direct threats against Russian national interests.  Putin wants to stop the idea that such revolutions are desirable or effective.

Fourth, Russia sees a strong naval presence in the Black Sea as vital for national security.  The Russian people never saw the deeding of the Crimea, formerly considered a Russian possession, to Ukraine by Premier Khrushchev as legitimate.  The threat of losing a military presence there is seen as unacceptable.   

Fifth, Russia's place in the global market and their economic well-being at home are dependent on the export of natural resources.  Gas pipelines from Russia to Europe transit through Ukraine.  Any political unrest in Ukraine has the potential to disrupt the flow of gas to Europe.  Equally any deterioration of influence over and relations with Ukraine represent a threat to the current economic model.  Much of Russia's remaining influence in eastern and western Europe is founded on their supply of energy resources.

Map of Russian Pipelines through Ukraine

What is Russia trying to accomplish?

Putin is seeking to reestablish Russia as a major world pole by fortifying, expanding, and reestablishing their influence.  Political disruption in Ukraine has provided them both the impetus and, in their view, legitimates the opportunity to take drastic steps to reestablish their influence in Ukraine.  If Russia can bring Ukraine successfully back into their sphere of influence, it will win several other potential battles or struggles they may face in the future with other states.

Effectively, Putin is seeking to increase Russian national security by reestablishing a form of the Russian Empire or Soviet Union.  The approach, however, has changed somewhat from past iterations.  While Putin seeks to regain geographic influence and greater domestic control, he wishes to see Russia grow and expand as a meaningful player in the world economy.

How is Russia trying to accomplish their goals?

Putin effectively has regressed to using methods that are historically familiar.  Brute force and political manipulation are considered legitimate in the pursuit of national interests.  The first and basic goal of their current actions is two-fold.  First, to let the West know that there are limits the perceived encroachments that Russia will endure.  Second, they are making it clear to Ukraine that they will remain an influence and maintain significant ties and relations.

These first steps are being accomplished through the presence of Russian troops in Crimea, the massing of troops along the border, and the referendum.  It is likely that Russia effectively will annex Crimea.  The question remains whether or not that will be sufficient to achieve and maintain their national interests.  Or, will they feel compelled to push into eastern Ukraine as well.

Other posts relating to events in Ukraine and Russia:
Ukraine: The Delayed Civil War 
The Limits of Russian Expansion
Ukraine: The Prism of Russian National Interest

1 comment:

AE Hinckley's Boy said...

Interesting. As a freshman at Utah State, I remember that they offered a class in Russian. One of my friends who took it said that on the first day of class the professor corrected the error in the title and told them it was a class in the Ukranian language.