What does Russia want and why?

"It is Putin the conservative and not Putin the realist who decided to violate Ukraine’s sovereignty."

March 06, 2014
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Guarding a Ukrainian pier: Russian troops have taken control of much of the peninsula in the Black Sea. © PA Images

On March 1 Russia took de facto control over Crimea—prompting the German chancellor Angela Merkel to comment that President Putin was living “in another world”. Has Putin indeed lost the plot or is he simply asserting his power over Crimea and the East of Ukraine? Why did he decide to resort to force? And why does he seem unafraid of the West’s reaction? The popular opinion is that the Russian President is a hard-nosed realist who believes “it is better to be feared than loved.” Another theory is that Putin’s approach to power has evolved and whereas before he acted pragmatically to protect his military and economic interests, now he is styling himself as a more ideological figure in the mold of Tsar Nicolas I, an ultra conservative autocrat who crushed two revolutions and went on to fight the Crimean war.

Russian officials have already declared that they view the change of government in Kiev as a coup. Their conditions for diplomatic negotiations over Ukraine are a return to the February 21 agreement between Yanukovych and the opposition, which was sponsored by the three EU foreign ministers. This is the agreement that Russia refused to sign. While Moscow is aware that Yanukovych cannot be reinstated, the Kremlin wants to see the current transitional government in Kiev replaced with one that includes pro-Russian figures from East Ukraine. Russia is also insisting that the parliamentary and presidential elections be held in December instead of May. What Putin expects are talks on the nature of the future Ukrainian constitution.

The Kremlin has always had doubts about Ukraine’s capacity to exist as a sovereign state, and over the last two decades it seems that the Ukrainians have done their best to prove them right—the level of dysfunction and corruption has been astonishing. According to the political doctrine of the Kremlin laid out a decade ago by the architect of the current regime, the former Deputy Prime Minister Vladislav Surkov, sovereignty is a capacity and not simply a legal right. In order to be sovereign a state must be economically independent, militarily strong and culturally assertive. In Putin’s opinion Ukraine is lacking all three components, and as a result is likely to always be dominated by one or more external powers. The Russian leadership needs to ensure that the dominant political forces in the Ukraine are not hostile to Russia.

So, Putin’s current strategy is not one of land grabbing but one of state-re-building. The Kremlin’s vision for Ukraine’s future is that it becomes a “Greater Bosnia”—a state that is radically federalised with its constituent parts allowed to follow their natural cultural, economic and geopolitical preferences. It means that in theory, the territorial integrity of the country will be preserved but the Eastern Ukraine’s status will be similar to that of the Republica Sprska in Bosnia and it will have closer ties with Russia than the rest of the Ukraine. Regions of Western Ukraine, while remaining part of the Ukrainian state, will be more integrated with Poland and the European Union. Kiev will be an isolated federal capital. Under such a constitution, the Ukraine will preserve its geopolitical ambiguity, as being neither part of the EU, nor the Eurasian Union.

This might be what Russia hopes to gain in terms of territory and influence, but the question of why Putin appears so resistant to the West still needs to be addressed. The popular assumption is that the Russian President behaves as he does simply because he can. He is convinced that the Ukraine is more important to Russia than it is to the West and that any Western retaliation would be noisy but ineffective. Putin is aware that the EU is crippled by its economic problems and nervous about the rise of right-wing populist parties in many of its member states. And, crucially, he has judged on the evidence of the US’s decision to avoid intervention in Syria that the American public will oppose any military adventure far away from its borders.

But Putin’s opposition to Europe and the US can’t be reduced to realpolitik arguments such as the strategic importance of the Sevastopol naval base or the need to retain control over the gas pipeline that runs through Ukraine. If prior to the crisis Putin was unhappy with the behaviour of the United States and Europe towards Russia, now his disappointment is with the decadent and, as he sees it, immoral state of modern Europe and the destabilising role he believes the United States is playing in world politics. An analysis of Putin’s recent statements shows that Russian president sees his mission not as Russia’s integration in to Europe but as a defence of traditional Russian values against the EU’s post-modernism. ”Europeans are dying out…same sex marriage cannot produce children” Putin said last September during the meeting of the Valdai Club which meets to analyse Russia’s political, cultural and economic future. The recent anti-gay and anti-lesbian legislation passed by the Russian parliament is a clear expression of the new conservatism of Putin’s elites who feel threatened by more liberal European societies.

Relations with the US have reached stalemate because Putin is accusing America of deliberately provoking conflicts to prevent its geopolitical rivals from gaining power. What Putin did with Yanukovych is what he blamed the Americans for not doing in Egypt—where their tendency to cheer on popular revolutions led to the Muslim Brotherhood seizing power and sparked further crisis. Putin's support of the ousted Ukrainian President stems not from any personal affiliation (it is well known that he despises him), but because for him propping up the president was the right thing to do in the face of a revolution. It is part of a broader attempt to align himself with the values of Russia’s imperial past and the nostalgic nationalism associated with the country’s 19th century rulers such as Nicolas I. It is Putin the conservative and not Putin the realist who decided to violate Ukraine’s sovereignty. His march on Crimea is not realpolitik it is kultur kampf.