The rupture in relations between Russia and the West is discussed as if Crimea’s accession, Ukraine’s future and sanctions are the core problem. I would argue that these issues, while important, are ultimately secondary. The true cause is Moscow’s determination to change the rules that the West has imposed on it for the last 25 years. As Russia is unable and, in fact, unwilling to fit the western mold it no longer seeks to become part of the West.
By virtue of its geography, history and culture, Russia has continuously found itself in the thick of things and has challenged the post-Cold War order on behalf of all non-western countries.
The rupture with the West began in the 1990s with the rise of Asia, but it was overshadowed by the end of communism, which gave the West a powerful economic and moral boost. Let me analyze the factors that have led to the current crisis. More immediately, the rupture is due to the West’s refusal to end the Cold War de facto or de jure in the quarter century since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In that time, the West has consistently sought to expand its zone of military, economic and political influence through NATO and the EU.
Russian interests and objections were flatly ignored. Russia was treated like a defeated power, though we did not see ourselves as defeated. A softer version of the Treaty of Versailles was imposed on the country. There was no outright annexation of territory or formal reparations like Germany faced after World War I, but Russia was told in no uncertain terms that it would play a modest role in the world.
This policy was bound to engender a form of Weimar syndrome in a great nation whose dignity and interests had been trampled.
Russia’s political class was particularly irritated by the systematic deception, hypocrisy and broken promises. Western officials dismissed the very concept of spheres of influence as obsolete while steadily expanding their own “non-existent” sphere of influence. I know that many in the West believed or wanted to believe their words. But in Russia and the rest of the world, which lived by another set of rules, this glaring contradiction was met with nothing but derision and mistrust.
Moscow suggested that western organizations become pan-European by admitting Russia. Boris Yeltsin spoke of NATO membership for Russia. At the outset of his presidency, Vladimir Putin proposed radically closer ties with the EU but to no avail.
From Yeltsin to Medvedev, Russian proposals to sign a new treaty on European security or create a common human, economic and energy space from Vancouver to Vladivostok – the Union of Europe or Greater Europe – were invariably rejected.
These accords would have defined a new status quo and put an end to the battle to redraw spheres of influence. But the EU had to pretend that it was interested in expanding to Ukraine to prove to its members and the rest of the world that its project was still attractive and viable.
And there were even less noble motivations behind the EU’s Ukrainian offensive. Some Europeans and the forces that back them (I won’t mention names or countries to stay out of the war of recriminations) wanted to spite Moscow, to take revenge for past defeats and draw Russia into a crisis. They wanted to drain Russia’s foreign political capital. Russia has been riding a wave of skillful diplomacy and political will, allowing it to play an outsized role in international affairs relative to its economic power.
The victors of the Cold War were affronted by the way Moscow openly rejected some of the more recent western values and the newfound swagger of a country that was until recently humbly asking for handouts and guidance. They wanted to cut Russia down to size.
The West also wanted to frustrate Russia’s Eurasian designs, which allegedly consist of using the entirely non-threatening Customs Union and later the Eurasian Economic Union to restore the bulk of the former Russian or Soviet empire in a new, predominantly economic alliance in order to enhance the competitiveness of Russia and its partners in a global economy that is dividing into economic blocs. According to this interpretation, Russia seeks to alleviate the Weimar syndrome afflicting Russian elites and the nation at large, which has been continuously aggravated by Western policy.
Both Russian statesmen and experts warned that the effort to draw Ukraine into the Western sphere of influence with the Association Agreement (and the looming prospect of NATO membership) would only spell hardship and loss of life in Ukraine, especially since Russian resistance was guaranteed. But Russia’s warnings were ignored. The West wanted to maintain the momentum of recent decades, even if it meant using Ukrainians like gun fodder in yet another geopolitical battle.
Again, the rupture with the West is the result of an unresolved post-Cold War world and the existence of disputed territories in the heart of Europe, primarily in Ukraine but also in Moldova and the South Caucasus countries. These open wounds are extremely susceptible to infection.
Russia has always considered Ukraine – even an independent Ukraine – to be an inalienable part of its historical space, the cradle of the Russian state and Russian culture. A considerable number of Ukrainians feel historic ties with Russia. And in more than 20 years since the collapse of the USSR, Ukraine has not formed the stable elite that was invested in national development.
Most Ukrainians were fed up with the pervasive theft, corruption, poverty and despair in the country. So when Europe came with its empty offer of association, Ukrainians wanted to believe what they were promised, all the more so since the Russian model and development level are much less attractive.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych played the same game as all of his predecessors – extorting Europe and Russia for more handouts in exchange for taking steps in a “pro-Russian” or “pro-European” direction. This time Russia made the more generous offer, so he carted off the EU. Humiliated and angry Ukrainians descended on Maidan. Well-prepared militants joined them. And the rest is history. The political crisis ended in a massacre. Ukraine became even less manageable and the collapse of the economy accelerated.
The intensity and ferocious propaganda of the broader conflict surrounding Ukraine can be explained by the impasse in which all of its participants find themselves. The European Union, in its current ideological and institutional framework, is unable to overcome the profound crisis of the Euro project. The crisis afflicting the United States is different in nature but equally stark. Russia, for its part, has been unable to formulate a development strategy or national idea in the six years after the recovery period.
Ukraine has been languishing under an inefficient bureaucracy, corruption, divided and unpatriotic elites, a shrinking population and declining human capital, rendering the country unable to promote national development or even defend its long-awaited sovereignty.
All sides appear eager to find an external enemy, or some kind of an impulse from outside the crisis, whether they are aware of it or not. In 2012-2013, Western propaganda, fed by the bitter experience of the past 20 years, grew increasingly negative and all-encompassing. It reached a fever pitch during the Sochi Olympics, creating the unmistakable impression among many high-level observers that the West was steering itself for a new round of deterrence and a return to Cold War patterns. Under these circumstances, Russia concluded it had nothing to lose, which may speak to traditional Russian idiosyncrasies regarding external threats.
Russia geared up, and the results so far have been positive. Russia seized the initiative with Crimea and hasn’t let it go. Moscow has not recognized the Ukrainian leadership propelled to power by the coup and may not recognize future elections if they are held, as they almost inevitably will be, in lawless conditions and under threat from the armed far right. The upper house of the Russian parliament has also authorized President Putin to send troops into Ukraine if large-scale violence breaks out.
This time Moscow appears determined not to retreat until it achieves its goal. I hope and assume that Moscow’s aims extend beyond reunification – however inspiring – with Crimea and perhaps other regions that are temporarily propping up the legitimacy of the authorities in Kiev. Russia’s main goal is to put an end to the unfinished Cold War that the West has continued waging de facto. The best case scenario would include a peace treaty on favorable terms. At minimum, Russia will have to make it impossible or prohibitively expensive for the West to unilaterally extend its sphere of influence into regions that Moscow considers vital to its national security.
Moscow wants to preserve a united, federative Ukraine (albeit without Crimea) if possible. Only this arrangement will maintain the formal integrity of the state with its linguistic, cultural and economic distinctions, but Ukraine as a full-fledged state will be a distant historical memory.
I’m not sure that Ukraine is viable even in its current, Crimea-less, borders. The country is ruled by the same incompetent and irresponsible elite. Judging by the current presidential frontrunners, this is unlikely to change. But the disintegration of Ukraine, especially by force, poses major risks and costs to all Ukrainians, Russians and other Europeans. Ukraine is home to 15 major power units, scores of hazardous production facilities and critical infrastructure that is worn-out and vulnerable.
Moscow hopes that the existing external threat can compel Ukraine to take tough measures against bureaucracy, the offshore aristocracy and idle anti-liberal and liberal elites who have failed to chart a viable course for the country.
Some Russian elites probably have a maximalist agenda of reuniting with the bigger part of Ukraine in one form or another. I think this will remain unrealistic and prohibitively expensive until Russia becomes a wealthy, efficient state with an attractive society that a majority of Ukrainians would like to join. For the time being, it is enough to have Crimea, to see the end of the Cold War in Europe and to finally launch a new round of reforms at home, including liberalized conditions for small and medium business, independent courts that will protect private property, a war on corruption, investment in youth and education, and an emphasis on improving Russia’s human capital, which largely determines a country’s competitiveness. This is the best way to use the added legitimacy the Russian leadership gained from Crimea and to bolster the argument that Russia needs to resist “hostile forces in the West.”
This scenario will ensure Russia’s de facto dominance in east and southeast Ukraine and semi-autonomy for the country’s west. But it will be possible only when Moscow, Berlin and the EU realize that a zero-sum game is counterproductive and cease their efforts to unilaterally absorb Kiev in their spheres of influence.
On the contrary, they should work together to save Ukraine, turning it into an opportunity for greater cooperation instead of a bone of contention. This would be a humane mission. The elites of the contested countries will no longer be able to play on the contradictions between Russia and the West, alternating between “pro-Russian” and “pro-Western” lines, or to plunder and humiliate their nations. They will finally have to do the hard work of national development.
As long as the West and Russia continue to trade insults and threats, my dream of a Union of Europe that can end the Cold War and lay the foundation for the merger of European soft power and technology with Russia’s resources, political will and hard power will remain just that – a dream. Integration with Europe would prevent Russia from growing more alienated from its maternal, European civilization. This would benefit Russia as well as the European Union, which needs a new development goal to overcome the internal crisis dooming it to the status of a third-rate world power. It will be good for the world as well, creating a third pillar alongside China and the United States that will make the world much more stable.
Maybe the upheaval in Ukraine – which is far from over and almost sure to take new dramatic turns – will sober everyone up. It is clear that Russia has given up any hope of joining the West in the foreseeable future. But it has not decided whether to move in an anti-Western or anti-European direction either.
One thing is for sure: it would be a tragedy if Russia does not use the crisis in relations with the West, which Moscow more or less actively sought, to pursue serious reforms that will speed up its development and create a promising outlook for the nation and its people. It would be no less tragic if Russia’s enthusiasm over Crimea diverts the country from the task of developing the economy of Siberia and the Russian Far East as part of Russia’s long-stalled economic turn to Asia, which is already ten years late.
Russia already failed to use the 2008-2009 crisis to launch reforms. Let’s hope we take advantage of the current surge of patriotic feeling and popularity for national leaders, and avoid acting again like Aesop’s mountain in labor that brought forth a mouse.