Russia's foreign policy for Ukraine has a clear logic that the West has yet to fully grasp. Moscow actually wants to stabilize – not destabilize – the situation in Ukraine.
From left, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko and German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a meeting on the sidelines of the ASEM summit of European and Asian leaders in Milan, Oct. 17. Photo: AP
The upcoming parliamentary elections in Ukraine are once again complicating the way that Russia and the West view each other. Before these elections, it was the gas negotiations between Moscow and Kiev that were the source of confusion about Russia’s true intentions. Even after the Milan meeting of Putin and Poroshenko last week – a meeting that appeared to reinforce the fragile ceasefire in place – the strategy and tactics of the main players in the Ukrainian crisis are once again open to debate.
For obvious reasons, the spotlight is now on Russia. The need for a clear analysis of Russian foreign policy on this issue is largely based on the continuing inability of the West to make any sense of Russia’s actions.
The West’s two accusations
The appraisals of the vast majority of Western experts on Russia over the past six months have begun to coincide almost entirely with the statements of Western politicians and those public figures from the former Soviet Union traditionally critical of Russia. It is clear that Russia’s decisive actions have alarmed the West, and criticism of Russia has become a leitmotif of any speech delivered by a Western public figure. Yet it is striking that even the most cautious and well-informed Western experts have also begun to voice the same criticism, and not just on the sidelines, but publicly.
What then are the accusations laid against Russia with regard to Ukraine? By and large the charges are twofold. First, Russia and President Putin have allegedly embarked on a long-standing plan to restore the Soviet Union, starting with the annexation of Crimea. Second, Russia’s supposed aggression stems from the resolve of the Ukrainian people to become part of the European Union, thereby breaking ties with its eastern neighbor.
These two propositions are a constant refrain, and in most cases trip off the tongue without any critical examination. They are the mantra of Western politicians who fear becoming a target of criticism by opponents at the next election for excessive sympathy towards Russia, and of editorialists and columnists of major Western newspapers (who even during the best of times rarely take the time to analyze Russia’s actions objectively).
But what is more significant is that in recent months these same accusations have begun to appear in the materials and presentations (often for a limited audience) of Russian experts not only in universities, but also research centers, business analysis departments, and even government agencies. Their assessments are used in critical decision-making processes, and such a hostile attitude towards Russia is not only alarming, but also rather odd.
Fallacy #1: Russia has expansionist plans for Ukraine
It is odd because even a rudimentary knowledge of Russia’s past and present, as well as the Ukrainian scenario, exposes the fallacy of these two theses. The accusation of expansionism simply does not stand the test of common sense. The search for an answer to any number of questions demonstrates the flimsiness of the charge.
Let’s address them one by one. Why would Russia want to restore the Soviet Union? As the largest country in the world, Russia is not short of territory. Even supposing the Kremlin simply wanted to increase the number of citizens, why covet Ukraine, whose troubled people over the past twenty years have manifestly failed to create an effective system of governance?
The West suspects Moscow of harboring expansionist plans in other directions too. The Baltic countries are often mentioned in that context, whereupon the fact that all three of them are members of NATO somehow gets overlooked. Do the people making these allegations seriously think that Moscow intends to unleash a third World War that would threaten the existence of humanity?
If, on the other hand, Western observers were completely sure of the Kremlin’s irrational desire for nuclear Armageddon, then why would Moscow waste time with strategy and policy in respect of Ukraine? Why continue to look for openings and opportunities? Why not just start World War III?
In other words, supporters of the idea of Russian expansionism not only fail to cite any credible reasons for it, but also are at a loss to offer a consistent explanation as to why such expansion did not begin long before the Ukrainian crisis. It is harder still to understand the rationale behind the accusation that Russia is seeking to impede Ukraine’s accession to the European Union, if only for the simple reason that one glance at the realities of modern Ukraine is sufficient to realize that the idea of such a blissful state of wedlock is fanciful in the extreme.
Ukrainians have had more than two decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union to move closer to the EU. However, that did not happen for a variety of reasons, not least the fact that a large segment of the Ukrainian population looks east. Now the situation is critical. It is clear to all that Russia, or any country for that matter, should not base its Ukrainian policy on the likelihood of the country’s integration with Europe. Nevertheless, self-styled experts in the West can still be heard insisting that given more time to put their house in order, Poroshenko & Co. will continue their journey along the road to Brussels...
Fallacy #2: Russia hopes to destabilize Ukraine
Given the abundance of deep-rooted Western misconceptions about Russian foreign policy on Ukraine, only a step-by-step analysis of Russia’s actions can help address them. It is the size of Ukraine’s territory and population – not to mention its geographical, cultural, historical, and economic proximity to Russia – that forces Moscow to keep a close eye on everything that happens there – since any Ukrainian crisis has a direct impact on Russia, as confirmed yet again by events of the past year.
In late 2013, Russian politicians and media led a campaign to try to explain to Ukraine’s government and people the numerous negative consequences of signing of an Association Agreement with the European Union. Of course, Ukraine’s rejection of the Customs Union that would have followed would have rebounded upon Russia, but nothing like it would have rebounded upon Ukraine itself.
The Association Agreement was always far more beneficial to Europe. EU and U.S. officials, backed by clamorous and well-organized supporters in Ukraine, waged an effective campaign in support of the agreement, urging the Ukrainian public that it would lead to EU membership, which in reality was entirely off the agenda. But Moscow clearly understood that the sharp deterioration in the socio-economic situation in Ukraine that would inevitably follow the signing and entry into force of the agreement would trigger a new wave of crises, which in turn would impact negatively on Russia.
The moment of truth arrived when Europe refused to finance Ukraine’s implementation of the agreement, while Moscow granted a loan to Kiev. The further escalation of the crisis demonstrated that the problems of its neighbors always end up becoming Russia’s. Moscow could not walk away from the hundreds of thousands of refugees and humanitarian disaster in eastern Ukraine. Its concerted efforts to end the fighting, support negotiations between Kiev and the eastern regions, and secure a gas agreement testify to Moscow’s desire to stabilize the situation in Ukraine.
No diplomat of sound mind would want a failed state with a population of nearly 45 million on his or her country’s borders. Moscow’s concern is sharpened by the fact that Russia’s economic development still largely depends on energy transits through Ukraine to Europe. And let us not forget the numerous other factors that make any further destabilization of Ukraine especially hazardous –from its four nuclear power plants to the influx of weapons that the country has seen in recent months.
Thus, it is clear that Russia has neither the need nor the desire to attempt any kind of annexation of Ukraine. On the contrary, given the illusory nature of Ukraine’s prospects for European integration and the lack of serious Western aid, Russia is leading the drive to stabilize the Ukrainian state and economy. If stabilization proves unattainable, Russia has every reason to expect more problems to appear.
And, although Russia will be hit first, it will not take long for the EU to feel the effects too. It is hoped that awareness of this fact in Europe’s capitals will encourage them to cooperate with Moscow in stabilizing Ukraine. However, such awareness is not possible without first acknowledging the misconceptions prevalent in the West regarding Russia’s foreign policy for Ukraine.