The Russian President might not fear the west, or seek its approval, but his current imperialist policy is deeply flawedby James Sherr / March 14, 2014 / Leave a comment
Putin plays by rules his opponents fail to understand ©Utrecht Robin/ABACA/Press Association Images
Had Western governments preserved their institutional memory, Russia’s assault on Crimea would not have come as a bolt from the blue. As far back as 1992, Russia declared that it must be a “leader of stability and security in the former USSR”. Since 1993, military doctrines and foreign policy “concepts” have asserted its right to intervene in support of its citizens and “compatriots” abroad. After NATO’s Bucharest summit of 2008 (which many cite as the trigger for the war against Georgia), Putin warned George Bush that Ukraine was an “artificial state” whose existence could be “called into question”.
The triggers are different now. But Russia still believes that restricting the sovereignty of its neighbours is essential for its own security. It views the West as the architect of revolutions in its “sphere of privileged interest”, and it connects Ukraine’s fate with its own. Just over 20 years ago, the former United States National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski famously said: “Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire, but with Ukraine suborned and then subordinated, Russia automatically becomes an empire”. As the commentator Alexander Vasiliyev said in January this year, the Russian view is different: “Russia can be an empire without Ukraine, but it can’t be Russia.”
That certainly is the view of Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin has invested almost ten years in the battle against Western “messianism.” In 2012, Vladimir Putin invoked the “historically conditioned civilisational choice” of the Slavic people and claimed that this choice “had not been made by plebiscites or referenda, but by blood.” It is now no longer histrionic to claim that the end of the post-Soviet order in Ukraine could threaten the same in Russia.
In this narrative the EU is cast in an unfavourable light. During the 1990s, Russians viewed EU integration as a counterbalance to US power. Today, they accept that its purpose is indeed integration—but on the basis of rules and values starkly at odds with those observed in Russia. The Kremlin insists that the EU model can’t apply to Russia and its “fraternal” neighbours. But it still fears its success.
That fear was the motivation for a well-orchestrated policy of soft coercion against candidates for EU Association, which ran from…