Obviously, Vladimir Putin is no saint, but the Ukraine conflict is hardly as black and white as Western propaganda has been trying to make us believe.
Despite the best efforts of the IS (or ISIS (or ISIL)), Russophobia seems to be the retro-chic fashion statement of 2014. Spurred on by either the naïveté of millennials participating in the political process for the first time or the opportunism of Arab Spring, or perhaps in a phase of moralising, the West has mocked, patronised, belittled, criticised, blamed, and threatened Vladimir Putin over Russian actions in Ukraine throughout the year.
The crisis in Ukraine started in November 2013 when Viktor Yanukovych chose to accept a Russian economic aid package rather than one from the European Union (EU). Though Russia promised $15 billion in loans, lower gas prices, and did not interfere in Ukrainian affairs, Yanukovych’s rejection of the EU offer was seen as a move to take Ukraine closer to Russia. The EU offer—$815 million in loans upon a change in several Ukrainian laws and regulations—was paltry but symbolised a more transparent and less corrupt system.
In February 2014, the calm protests suddenly exploded into violence at the Euromaidan in Kiev. Rioters marched onto the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, to demand that the 2004 constitution that Yanukovych had repealed soon after coming to power in 2010 be reinstated. Yanukovych had criticised the old constitution as ineffective as it diluted the powers of the Executive to the point that the President could not even appoint his own ministers and they had to be approved by Parliament. Fearing for his life in the violence, the Ukrainian president fled to Moscow.
Although the dissatisfaction in Ukraine was over corruption and nepotism, Russia saw it as a shift towards the West. Indeed, many Ukrainians felt that reforms could be achieved only if they were forced from outside and the EU seemed the best candidate to do so. The Kremlin acted in support of its ally, demanding that France and Germany honour their earlier agreement and reinstate Yanukovych as president, under whom a new constitution would be written and fresh elections held.
To bring pressure to bear upon the Ukrainian opposition, Russia cancelled its gas subsidies to its neighbour and encouraged ethnic Russians in Ukraine to protest what it saw as a West-sponsored coup d’etat. This was most effective in Crimea, where a separatist movement had been simmering for the past 20 years. In a referendum boycotted by many and dismissed by the West as rigged, an overwhelming majority of Crimean voters chose to secede from Ukraine and join Russia.
Fear and Loathing in the West
Western powers were alarmed by the principle that ethnic Russians in former Soviet lands could vote to return to a neo-Soviet empire; applied across the former Soviet republics, it gave Russia a powerful hand in their internal affairs. To deter Russia from further adventures in the region, Washington imposed sanctions on certain sectors of the Russian economy and put selected individuals on a no-visa list. The sanctions would prove reckless as the dependence of western European economies on Russian energy and US need for Russian space services would underscore very soon. However, Russia imposed a ban on some exports to the EU in retaliation, hurting several countries in Central and Eastern Europe.
Perhaps drawing from the lessons of Arab Spring on the use of social and conventional media, an unending stream of articles denouncing Russian actions started to appear. Saved from embarrassment only by the ham-handed propaganda of outlets like Russia Today, Western journalists and analysts decried the violations of human rights in Ukraine and labelled the Russian strategy as naked aggression. Vladimir Putin, the argument ran, is a disgruntled former KGB agent who never managed to accept the breakup of the Soviet Union and was dreaming of forming a Greater Russia yet again. Putin’s heavy-handedness with his critics and disregard of civil liberties was emphasised repeatedly, his shirtless photos morphed and turned into the subject of puerile humour on social media platforms.
Despite their hypocrisy and weak grasp of Sovietology, there is little doubt that Western accusations about the authoritarianism of the Russian regime are accurate. It would be difficult to deny that Putin has mysteriously sidestepped several of his rivals and critics, or argue that he does not envision a Russia readmitted to the superpowers’ club. Yet Russian aims are no different from any other aspiring or reigning power and have been consistent over the past decade. The new batch of Western Russologists, complacent that their fathers won the Cold War, have failed to notice the consistent warnings from Moscow as the United States shifted from a mature policy towards its defeated foe in the early 1990s to basking in its own triumphalism in the 21st century as the world’s only remaining superpower.
Dreams of Past Glory
It is not just Putin who has not accepted the collapse of the Soviet Union; by any imagination, his increased popularity after the takeover of Crimea should indicate that a return to Soviet grandeur is prominent in the minds of ordinary Russians, young and old alike. Just a couple of years after the 15 republics went their separate ways, Boris Yeltsin attempted to bring back together its former countrymen in a Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). In its bilateral relations, it attempted to control the former Soviet republics by creating economic dependencies, particularly through energy politics and migrant workers, and prolonging other political and military dependencies such as the stationing of troops and support to public figures sympathetic to Moscow. In a marked departure from his predecessors, Putin is the first Russian leader to use the purse before the sword to subdue Russia’s neighbours.
Barely a year after the Soviet Union broke up, in 1992, Moscow encouraged separatists in the Georgian region of South Ossetia and the Moldovan region of Transnistria to break away; in 1993, Yeltsin extended Abkhazia similar support. All three states are recognised by only three or four other countries in the world and have maintained their independence largely through the presence of Russian forces on their soil. In 1994, had it not been for the election of a leader in Kiev that the Kremlin liked, Yeltsin may well have achieved in Crimea then what Putin has done now. Russia also intervened in the Tajik civil war (1992-1997) and helped Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov put down a democratic rebellion in 2005. In an uncannily similar set of events to those in Ukraine in 2014, Russia’s involvement in the 2008 hostilities between Georgia and South Ossetia coincided with rumours that the former Soviet republic might join the Western alliance.
What the West sees as Russia menacing its neighbours, the Kremlin sees as traditional power politics. Indeed, Russian behaviour in the sphere of influence it has carved out for itself would be familiar to leaders everywhere. The French Revolution saw British and Austrian adventurism in southern France and Italy, just as the Russian Revolution saw opportunistic manoeuvres from Britain and the United States post-World War I. Much more recently, the Iranian revolution in 1979 provided the opportunity for Saddam Hussein, backed by the United States, to invade his eastern neighbour.
The history of the Cold War is replete with Western interventions around the globe, not always on the side of holy liberty and democracy. The support to military dictatorships in West Asia, coups in Iran and Chile, political violence in El Salvador and Nicaragua, and dozens of other incidents hardly gives the United States room to act astonished and horrified at Russian involvement in Ukraine. In fact, Washington’s reaction to the communist takeover of Cuba was not at much variance with Moscow’s actions in Ukraine today. US appeals to liberty in Ukraine comes amidst Washington’s silence on the elimination of minorities in Pakistan and the brutal suppression of Shia Muslims in Bahrain and eastern Saudi Arabia.
Yet where does one draw the line between imperial vision and securing a sphere of influence? Chinese entry into the Korean War may be legitimately seen as the defence of its peripheries against Western encroachment but the US role in Central and South America over the past century smacks of an imperial complex. Is Putin safeguarding Russia’s peripheries or does he dream of reestablishing a Russian empire?
The Rise of an Autocrat
Born in October 1952, Putin grew up in the heyday of the Soviet Union with Sputnik and the Tsar Bomba. Little is known about his childhood and there have even been questions regarding who his actual parents were. After an undistinguished career in school, Putin studied law at Leningrad State University and started his career in the KGB during detente, entering politics just as the State he had grown up in and served for so long collapsed. In 1997, he was picked out of obscurity by Yeltsin and named his Deputy Chief of Staff. The Russian premier is rumoured to have been impressed by Putin’s loyalty to his mentor, Leningrad mayor Anatoly Sobchak. Putin rose through the ranks rapidly, becoming the head of the state intelligence services and then prime minister in August 1999. Within four months, Yeltsin resigned as president and appointed Putin his successor for three months until the next elections. In March 2000, Putin won the elections in a landslide.
Russia’s leader is by no means a teddy bear but neither is he as bad as some of America’s other friends. During Putin’s meteoric rise, several opponents of Yeltsin and himself mysteriously disappeared, met with unfortunate accidents, or were murdered. Though there is little to implicate the political leadership in any case, investigators, witnesses, and lawyers revealed that they had received threats from the FSB, the current avatar of the KGB. And even if the Russian premier is innocent of the suspicions about him, the open season on rights activists in Russia since the ascent of Putin has claimed many lives—Sergei Yushenkov, Yuri Shchekochikhin, Andrei Kozlov, Anna Politkovskaya, Alexander Litvinenko, Stanislav Markelov, Natalia Estemirova—and is disturbing.
Russia has, no doubt, slipped into a more autocratic form of government since Putin’s rise and there is discontent over increasing corruption in government and the muzzling of the press. However, Putin also oversaw one of the country’s greatest economic booms; during his first stint in the presidency, Russia’s real wages tripled, unemployment halved, taxes fell, and nominal GDP rose over 600 per cent. This record makes him popular with the average, politically disinterested voter. Luckily for Putin, his term in office ended just as the unprecedented decade of international growth stumbled to a halt.
During his first presidency, Putin had supported Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev’s idea of an Eurasian Union that would create a common economic space from Vladivostok to Lisbon. The proposal met with lukewarm interest in the West, whose European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) was more aligned with the economic reality of Russia being a junior partner. Putin’s overtures were snubbed.
More significantly, Putin bears a deep resentment against the United States for the eastward expansion of NATO. Although disputed by US academics, Russia believes that the West had promised not to expand east if the Soviet Union loosened its grip on Eastern Europe and its republics. In 1999, Belgrade and Kosovo were bombed against the wishes of Moscow; in 2002, the United States unilaterally withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty; in 2004, NATO absorbed Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia; proposals were considered to station missile defence infrastructure in Poland and Ukraine, and there were discussions about Georgia joining NATO. In this backdrop, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine seemed like part of NATO’s eastward creep into the Russian sphere of influence. As a result, the confrontation with the West over Ukraine has seen a huge boost in Putin’s domestic popularity.
Putin feels a deep pain, along with millions of Russians, for the loss of Russian imperial glory in the flames of the Soviet Union. However, Putin is no ideologue—as one of his former advisers, Gleb Pavlovsky, related, Putin admitted to him in 1999 that communism was a blind alley away from the mainstream of civilisation. Putin’s Rodina is a socially conservative state that derives its values and Russianness from the Russian Orthodox Church.
An European Power
There is plenty of support for a more significant role for Russia on the international stage among Russians. Still not past the generations that vividly remember the last two decades of the Cold War, the idea of an important Russia, if not Greater Russia, retains much resonance. Despite its defeat in the Cold War and frequent newspaper stories about the fragility of the Russian economy, Russia still has the sixth largest economy in the world by purchasing power parity; its advanced military technology and nuclear weapons, combined with its demographics and size make Russia a natural power even in its weakened state.
The sting of the loss of empire is not unknown in international affairs. In the 1950s, Britain and France pursued their independent nuclear weapons programmes for la grandeur. The two invaded Egypt in 1956 with the impunity of world powers, forgetting their irrelevance in the post-war world order. Putin has the same saudade for Russian glory, which nationalists like Aleksander Prokhanov, the editor of the far-right newspaper Zavtra, paint in four empires—the Kiev confederacy felled by the Tatars, the Moscovy tsardom, the empire of the Romanovs that was followed by the Bolsheviks, and finally the Stalinist state that lasted until 1991. Putin would be the author of the fifth empire.
Since the last decade, rising oil prices due to war in West Asia and greater demand from rising economies has given Moscow a new lifeline. Flush with energy wealth, the Kremlin could afford the desperately needed military modernisation drive and Putin could do what Yeltsin could not. Snubbed by Europe and with the United States snapping at its peripheries, Moscow has started to look for friends elsewhere. A rising China, hungry for energy, advanced weaponry, and mistrustful of the United States—seems like the perfect partner. The United States, which has repeatedly shown an inability to think across theatres, has pushed the Kremlin into Beijing’s arms, reversing Richard Nixon’s Sino-US rapprochement. BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) are potential avenues for the expansion of Russian trade and interests outside the framework of Western globalisation. However, Russia imagines itself as a European power and the fraternity it feels towards its west is unlikely to develop towards its east. “Russia is part of European culture,” Putin told the BBC in a 2000 interview, “and I cannot imagine my own country in isolation from Europe and what we often call the civilised world.”
Putin does not seek confrontation with the West; Russia is yet weak. However, Moscow will play a major role in shaping an alternative world order to the West. Russia’s membership in BRICS and the SCO affords it the indirect cooperation of some of the world’s largest markets and fastest growing economies. Additionally, the Kremlin has two products that have enormous demand worldwide—energy and advanced weaponry. This will make sanctions on Russia unpopular and difficult to enforce. While Moscow will refrain from repeating the United States’ mistake of lending weight to Islamists, cooperation on Syria, Iran, and other trouble spots will become more difficult. Putin will most likely withdraw Russia from the Intermediate Nuclear Force (INF) Treaty and participation in the European Court of Human Rights.
Humanitarianism was rarely, if ever, a driver of international affairs. If anything, it is another weapon in the public relations arsenal of a country. The Right To Protect (or R2P), the fancy jargon the West conjured up when they attacked Libya and were thinking of intervening in Syria, is the new humanitarian mask. But in the era of embedded journalism and social media, the impact of lofty R2P rhetoric is immeasurably higher on a public largely untrained in the ruthlessness and cynicism of international politics than in the past. Yet politics is ugly and power politics even more so.