Vladimir Putin faces dilemma over Ukraine of empire or nation-state
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Fyodor A. Lukyanov

Russia in Global Affairs
National Research University–Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia
Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs
Research Professor;
Valdai Discussion Club
Research Director


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The crash of the Malaysian Airlines liner in eastern Ukraine marks a crossroads in post-Soviet development.

The choice between two models of statebuilding – the «empire» or «great power» versus the «nation-state» – has long been a topic of discussion in Russia, but it was foremost an argument for intellectuals. Now a practical answer is need.

The prospect that under its new leadership Ukraine might once and for all turn toward the Euro-Atlantic alliance jolted Moscow into a drastic move – the takeover of Crimea in April.

For Russia, the Crimean affair combined two motivations. Strategically, it was linked to the need to preserve a base for the Black Sea Fleet to project its force in the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. And in national-cultural terms this was a territory with a majority ethnic Russian population that by historical accident had become part of another state and was afraid of violent acts from the nationalist authorities in Kiev.

Here, two conceptual philosophies coincided – the «great power» and the «national-ethnic», and the followers of both greeted the resolution in Crimea with enthusiasm. The first group saw it as a step towards the rebirth of a military-patriotic great power and the expansion of its strategic positioning. The second viewed it as an act to protect ethnic Russians.

In the next phase, however, the supporters of these two philosophies began to diverge. In the public perception, the civil war in eastern Ukraine took on a national-cultural hue. Ethnic Russians, to whose aid enthusiasts and volunteers poured from Russia, were defending their dignity and rights against a hostile nationalistic regime.

Protection of Russian compatriots was announced as a priority of the Russian state – President Vladimir Putin dedicated his address on Crimea to it in March, and repeated the idea in early July when he spoke at the ministry of foreign affairs. And for that reason, the expectation arose both in eastern Ukraine and in Russia that the Kremlin, no less decisively than it had in Crimea, would step in to help; all the more so because in Crimea Moscow had acted pre-emptively, only in apprehension of forceful measures from Kiev, while in Donbass the Ukrainian authorities were carrying out a full military operation, no matter the costs.

But here Russia chose to behave on the basis of great-power logic rather than nationalistic. The task of the empire was not to protect compatriots, but to enlarge its sphere of influence and strengthen its strategic position in resistance against other major international players. Of course, the Kremlin most likely considered the option of military intervention in eastern Ukraine. But the correlation of risks and opportunities was not in favour of the latter.

Moscow’s behaviour in eastern Ukraine is typical for major crises of brinkmanship, a testing of the opponent’s limits. If you can advance your position without great risk – good. If not, better to retreat and preserve what you have already achieved. A Great Game in the spirit of Realpolitik.

But those who are fighting in eastern Ukraine, and those who sympathise with them in Russia, expect something else from the Kremlin – a national romanticism, helping ‘your own’ not out of some concrete interest, but precisely because they are ‘your own’.

Of course, beneath this is a geopolitical subtext – giving up Novorossiya (that is how eastern Ukraine is referred to in Russia, using the term employed in the 18th and 19th centuries) would lead to Russia losing the faith of those who believe in her, and to Nato rockets being advanced yet closer to Moscow. But the primary instinct is nationalistic idealism.

The Russian state spent many years restoring the governance that was almost lost in the 1990s. And it has done much to get social processes under control. The events in Novorossiya, however, have spurred a process of self-organisation that could yet turn against the state.

The Russians who are fighting there represent a mixture of many kinds of outlook from supporters of the «White idea» (tsarist Russia) to anti-oligarch fighters, socialists and leftist anarchists. But what unites them is their understanding of a pursuit of justice, which is nonetheless expressed in nationalistic terms. That is, the defence of ethnic Russians, of compatriots, at any cost. The presence of soldiers of fortune among these resistance fighters only aggravates the situation.

The idea of an imperial great power, of a strategic Great Game of worldwide proportions, is confronted by the idea of a nation-state which defines its own borders, appealing to ethnic and national values. The events in eastern Ukraine this spring and summer are a reflection of the central dilemma facing the Russian state in the post-Soviet era. Is Russia an empire or a nation-state, and in which direction will she develop further? Both paths are potentially risky and painful. Both ideas seem outdated in the 21st century, but Russia’s model of development depends on them, since no other visions of the future are available yet.

The tragedy of Flight MH17 puts the question squarely. If the blame is placed on the pro-Russian insurgents, which is effectively already happening, then the West’s support for Kiev – likely including military backing – will grow sharply. And the Russian leadership will face a difficult dilemma – either to increase support to the de-facto separatist «peoples’ republics» in eastern Ukraine, provoking large-scale sanctions, or to distance itself from them, prompting harsh accusations of betrayal inside Russia.

But if it turns out that the Ukrainian side is actually to blame the situation is no less complicated. Then the pro-Russian forces in Ukraine will crank up their activity sharply, hoping to make use of Kiev’s demoralisation, which will once more lead to great pressure on Russia to rein them in. Because even if the West loses faith in the Ukrainian authorities, it can’t allow a rebel victory.

During almost 15 years in power (he was appointed prime minister and successor to Boris Yeltsin in August 1999), Vladimir Putin remained a hard-bitten pragmatist and a firm believer in the theory of realism in international relations. Following that line, which suits his character and life experience, has brought him not a few successes. In 2014, for the first term, he switched on to the national-romantic path and collided with insurmountable difficulties. The reasons are twofold. Firstly, this was unnatural to Putin’s character; he possesses a completely different political temperament. Secondly, the very idea of reuniting the Russian people condemns the country to solitude, because, besides Russia, no one else has an interest in such a project.

Putin is at a fork in the road. This is less about the future of Ukraine, than about Russia in search of an identity to replace the Soviet one, which is now completely exhausted. Together, these two extremely important themes – Ukrainian and Russian destiny – make the situation truly fateful.

| The Telegraph