Different Realities
No. 2 2014 April/June
Igor Yu. Okunev
Ph.D. (Political Science)
Center for Spatial Analysis in International Relations,
Institute for International Studies, MGIMO University, Moscow, Russia
Professorial Research Fellow & Director

ORCID: 0000-0003-3292-9829
RSCI Author ID: 565228
SPIN RSCI: 7633-0618
Scopus Author ID: 56433053800
Researcher ID: E-4038-2012


Tel: +7 945 433 3495, ext. 1501
Address: 76, Vernadsky Prospect, Moscow 119454, Russia

The Crimean Сrisis Exposing the Decline of the World Order

The Crimean events have revealed the falseness and hypocrisy of the metaphors used to describe the world order: “a post-bipolar world,” “the supremacy of international law,” “the decreasing significance of territory as strategic resource,” etc… The phraseology of the liberal unipolar system no longer sounds convincing because it actually deprives the world of relative certainty and stability.

The West’s reaction to the Ukrainian crisis largely stems from an obsolete paradigm for viewing Russia and its leadership. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia considered itself a country which had overcome authoritarianism and isolation, and made attempts to keep pace with the developed world. In the meantime, the West interpreted the breakup of the Soviet Union not as Russians’ victory over the Communist regime, but as their defeat in the Cold War. Moscow’s attempts to remind the West about equitable partnership were basically dismissed with a polite smile of the winner. Yet the internal reasons that made Russian society change the perspective through which it looked at the world would be more important.


During his first two terms in office, Putin was a perfectionist bureaucrat trying to be above the ideological disputes of the elites and society. He talked at length with people, reasoned with opponents and would act as a referee. Yet already in the first days of his tenure, he cherished a different image of Russia: that of a power that emerged victorious from the most terrible war in world history and that was betrayed by external partners/rivals and domestic foes. Hence, national unity and Russia’s victory in World War II became the central idea of his presidency. Russia’s self-sacrifice for the sake of peace – liberation of the world from Nazism – is now the country’s key fetish which, as new ideologists believe, is uniting the old and contemporary Russia. It is the lost national idea that is consolidating people and marking new boundaries between “us,” as a new post-Soviet community, and “them,” as our enemies. This paradigm makes Russians become aware of their unity (including with peoples of former Soviet republics) through a common view on history.

It is only now that the West has suddenly realized that Putin and Russia are living in a different reality (in this sense, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was right as she was complaining about it to Barack Obama after her telephone conversation with the Russian president). What do Russians mean when they demand that one group of Ukrainians be protected from another? Some analysts explain the developments in Ukraine by ethnic hatred: Russians are protecting ethnic Russians living in Ukraine from Ukrainians. But it is not an ethnic, religious or some social split that is plaguing Ukraine, it is the attitude towards the past which causes the confrontation between the “Soviets” and the “Banderovites,” the followers of Ukraine’s nationalist leader Stepan Bandera.

In his third term in office, Putin got tired of being “an ideal official.” The necessity to consolidate the elite around the leader which the Kremlin plans to achieve using anti-Western rhetoric, the permanent and increasing misunderstanding with Western partners, and the desire to go down in history as a “gatherer of the Russian world” induced Putin to seek a new image. He quickly transformed from the father of the nation standing above the scuffle to a leader of a conservative majority who is dependent on that majority. The elements of the new ideology were found easily. They were anti-Westernism (as a reaction to the haughtiness of the Cold War winners), traditionalism (as an anti-thesis to the European ideological pendulum that had swung too far to the liberal side), and national unity based on common historical memory.

The Ukrainian revolution undermined all the three elements of this ideology. The country which was a borderline between Russia and the West could have been a neutral bridge, a link, or a stronghold for one of the parties. That is why war (in the literal meaning of the word ) in Ukraine began when both Europe and Russia put it in the “He-who-is-not-with-us-is-against-us” situation, thereby undermining the only possible concept of integrity of the state, that is, the idea of a zone of contact between the West and the East. The Maidan opted for the West and its values, broke the taboo on people’s distancing from the authorities, and got associated with the forces that appealed to Nazi symbols, leaders and ideas.


Political scientist David Easton believes that a political system’s response to society’s demands is no less important than its institutional structure. If the demands are properly met, the roles are duly performed and government bodies function as they should, the political system is in a dynamic equilibrium. In this case, it is not very important what kind of political regime or governance a country has.

In political science, the best known attempt to analyze the dynamics of a political crisis was the so-called Stanford project by Gabriel Almond. He used the term “synchronization” to describe the state of equilibrium of demands and results in a political system.

In Ukraine, we have been witnessing typical de-synchronization of the political system, when an open society with a legitimate democratic government encountered a mishap involving an Association Agreement with the European Union. Ukrainian society had been looking forward to it even though it had not been aware of its implications. The government itself had prepared the ground for a tentative national consensus on the document. The last-minute refusal to sign it without a clear explanation was a direct challenge to the public opinion. It was a product of non-transparent political decision-making which sharply contrasted with the expectations.

In response to systemic de-synchronization, there appeared agents for mobilization of the systemic demands. In an evolutionary political process, every disputed issue is discussed separately, with society trying to find a point of compromise. If the system’s reaction is not adequate to the demand, society’s specific demands evolve into systemic ones. If one is stripped of his retirement benefit, he does not demand a review of the pension system’s operation: he’d rather question the legitimacy of the authorities. The agents of mobilization were the Yatsenyuk-Klitschko-Tyahnybok trio and the Right Sector leaders. Systemic demands are aimed at replacing the government or complete revision of its policy, rather than at a search for public consensus. In this sense, they are always revolutionary and do not fit into the public dialogue to which the authorities have been used.

Ukraine’s society got polarized. It switched from evolution and search for compromise, characteristic of a “synchronized state,” to extremist demands, making their leaders hostages of the mounting tensions. Maidan’s leaders understood the harmful effect of radical moves, yet they were aware that they were legitimate as long as they were implementing the overheated will of the masses. It is polarization of society and, as a consequence, radicalization of the political process that is the key reason behind the Ukrainian protracted and pernicious political crisis.

Polarization reanimated the idea of Crimea’s Russian identity. It would be wrong to assume that 97 percent of Crimeans have always dreamed of reunification with Russia or that they have been ready to take up arms in order to achieve it or defend this right. Also, it is ridiculous to claim large fraud at the referendum or compulsory voting at gunpoint. Polarization quickly changes public conscience and maximizes the demands. True, if the process had been delayed and Russia had not moved quickly to meet the public demand, Ukrainian society would have returned to synchronization and search for compromise. The referendum would not have delivered the results as they were, most likely it would never have taken place at all.

Apparently, the Crimean situation was a surprise even to Putin. The secessionist idea that emerged on the surge of polarization was nourished by the ideology of anti-Westernism, confrontation with the neo-Nazis and preservation of the Russian world. There were not many options to choose from: either bring Crimea into Russia and face all imaginable consequences in the relations with Ukraine and the West or betray one’s own ideology, and hence be prepared for quick political oblivion.

The polarization of the Ukrainian society is likely to continue in the near future. Ukraine may consider withdrawing from the Commonwealth of Independent States, applying for NATO membership, reclaiming the status of a nuclear power, giving ethnic Russians the rights of a diaspora, rather than an indigenous people’s rights, and lionizing Banderovites. Each of these moves would only prolong the crisis. Any revolution involves a generation of those who begin it and those who wrap it up. It is started by agents of mobilization of systemic demands, and is ended by victorious coalitions of national compromise. We should expect the emergence of political forces and leaders capable of offering national reconciliation ideas and identifying points in the public opinion that can help consolidate society.

In this sense, the Crimean referendum brings Ukraine closer to the end of the revolution, as protection of territorial integrity has chances to become one of such national ideas. However, any compromise in society will be only temporary unless Ukraine understands that the guarantee of its integrity and development is not a union with the West against Russia, but a neutral status of the state that is located at the crossroads of Europe and Russia. No enduring compromise is possible as long as Ukraine builds a nation based on the ethnic principle, not a supra-ethnic community as in Switzerland or Belgium, and regards itself as a mini-empire with colonial eastern regions and Crimea.


Enhanced authoritarian trends in the Russian political system are the main risk generated by the Crimean crisis. Authoritarianism is normally associated with a low level of society’s involvement in the political life of a country which enables a certain part of the elite to monopolize power. Sometimes it happens because the authorities have an ill design to freeze political society’s participation by shrinking freedom space for the media and courts, watering down the election process and political polemics in society, and taking punitive actions against the opposition.

In Russia’s case, of no less importance was society’s unpreparedness for democratic processes, which manifested itself in servile political culture where individuals had no opinion of their own and supported the opinion of the majority. In other words, people set no demands to the political system yet take a keen interest in the results of its operation. Hence constant public dissatisfaction with the government combined with the unwillingness to replace it, and the election process which turns into a competition of promises rather than programs.

On the one hand, it is advantageous for the authorities to have servile political culture, as it guarantees monopoly on politics, yet society’s unwillingness to formulate demands results in the authorities’ inability to share responsibility with society unlike in developed democracies. Such a society remains extremely apathetic and weak-willed, unprepared for mobilization and social changes, which has been Russia’s predicament in the past decade. That society does not formulate the demand does not mean there is nothing to formulate. In a servile political culture, the demand is very simple: don’t change anything, leave everything as it is. Making changes in such a situation is nearly impossible; suffice it to remember the public flogging given to any proposal to carry out reforms in education.

By reducing political participation in a country with servile political culture, the government always gets a society with conservative/traditionalist views. This is precisely what happened in Russia in the early 2010s. An active part of society, the fledgling middle class, or the so-called “angry townsfolk,” staged protests, and the authorities decided to lean on the center-right majority.

Yet the risk of society’s shrinking political participation is not new to the Russian political system, nor is it related to new tensions in the foreign policy. Looming on the horizon is another kind of problem.

It was assumed until the 20th century that democratization was directly linked to increasing society’s political participation, i.e. the more citizens were interested in the political process, the more chances democratic transit had. Each revolution was generated by inconsistency of the political system with an increasing level of political participation. The 20th century changed this view. It turned out that government control over society could be achieved not only by reducing society’s political participation, but also by increasing it. When people are ready to approve resolute measures against opponents, the activity maxes out and enthusiasm often rises, though democracy is nowhere near.

Populations’ “unnatural” political participation became possible due to the emergence at the beginning of the 20th century of radical ideologies and instruments for manipulating peoples’ minds in world politics. Both led to political mobilization: radical ideologies – unlike their counterparts offering evolutionary development – were based on the need to dismantle the old order, and consequently, required special political involvement; the media (radio in the first place, followed by television) became vehicles to deliver radical ideologies to the population. In the early 21st century, the crisis of previous ideologies gave rise to new ideological trends, which were largely more archaic in spirit and ethnically and religiously motivated. Brainwashing reached the global scale thanks to the appearance of the Internet.

Therefore, the new post-Crimean risk for Russia’s political system is not so much in putting political participation on freeze as in forcing this participation, which might push the country onto the road to ideology-driven authoritarianism backed by popular wishes. The idea of such a regime is that democratic procedures are vested in a certain group which makes up the pillar of state power.

The first months of the existence of Soviet Russia were an example of class-based democracy which quickly degraded to totalitarianism. Portugal’s New State model (1932-1968) would be a crude approximation. The Portuguese regime, called “corporatist authoritarianism,” was based on complete prevalence of a majority (the Portuguese still regard Salazar the greatest fellow-countryman in history). But this system is only possible in societies with developed economic and social pluralism, where mobilization of citizens has reached the required level for their effective involvement in politics. Both regimes were authoritarian, yet neither showed low political participation; on the contrary, ideologization and mobilization secured the elite’s staying at the helm as it tried to preserve its monopoly and own privileges.

As Russian public space degrades, it is necessary to avoid slipping into authoritarianism, be it bureaucratic or ideology-driven. The risk of the second option became particularly obvious during the period of the Crimean euphoria. Servile political culture had generated a traditionalist majority. It was this majority – identified as sharing a certain pattern of historical reflections rather than based on ethnic or class principle – that during the crisis opposed the neo-Nazis and the West allegedly helping them. Ukraine is facing the same two dangers – the Scylla of oligarchs and the Charybdis of nationalism.

International isolation of Russia can become a factor augmenting the threat of the regime’s transformation into authoritarianism. The sanctions used by the West could be effective in a politically apathetic society, because they could awaken it and force into putting pressure on the ruling elite. In an ideologized society, these sanctions would only consolidate the majority, making it even more confident that the country is encircled by enemies hatching a conspiracy against it.


The Crimean crisis did not break up the international system, yet it exposed its obvious crisis. This system was based on the right and commitments of the World War II victors to work out an international order and act as its guarantors. However, the role of great powers is not only in sustaining the world but also in perfecting it. They are responsible for changing the world system. That was the case with de-colonization, and, in the recent past, with the fight against international terrorism. Over time, it turned out that everybody was equal in the world, yet some were still more equal than others. This is not the main cause of the crisis of the international system though.

The liberal paradigm of international relations established in the post-bipolar world envisions – unlike the school of realism – that a country’s foreign policy, together with its domestic policy, gives top value to the will of people, not to the ruling elite. This explains the tremendous appeal of the U.S. as “the world’s policeman”: under the slogan of promoting freedom, the United States even went as far as violating international law, deposing dictators and splitting countries. In line with this logic the West supported the coup in Ukraine: it was illegal, yet legitimate if legitimacy is understood as the will of the majority. (The issue of whether the Maidan was supported by a majority is extremely moot, but from the West’s point of view, broad masses confront the corrupted and ineffective regimes by definition. And again, an ideological approach is dominant here). Russia’s role as “Gendarme of Europe” after the Vienna Congress of 1815 was the exact reverse: it protected monarchs’ power from peoples.

At present, the West, without realizing it, is undermining the strength of the liberal idea which has maintained its dominance in the post-bipolar world. Unipolarity cannot rely on military or economic power or attractiveness of the pattern of thought and actions by the hegemony country. In the present-day global system, where peoples tend to strive for independence and those who used to play passive or secondary roles are being emancipated, the West still thinks there is no place for equality. In the eyes of the U.S. or European political elites, the world is divided into “civilized” nations and “barbarians” who must be made cultured, and into winners and losers in the Cold War. The right to interpret people’s will and protect it belongs only to the “civilized” winners. Hence the unwillingness even to assume that the Crimean residents could be earnest in expressing their wish to reunite with Russia, contrary to Western states’ opinion that they should remain loyal to Ukraine.

A new system of a world balance of power, upheld by international law, cannot emerge in the days of wars or crises; it is hammered out at international conferences and meetings in the wake of wars and crises. The modern world needs Helsinki-2, or completion of the first Helsinki talks, if you like. Those decisions only worked in the specific environment of the Cold War, but after the breakup of the Soviet Union they just became figures of speech, as the Soviet collapse destroyed the global balance and made the West the sole interpreter of their meaning. One thing is clear: trying to see the world in black and white has always boded ill to Russia and the world at large.