Amid the many dangers inherent in the crisis that has erupted over Ukraine, one of the greatest, and least recognised, is that of misreading Russia. Already a Western consensus has gained hold, according to which Vladimir Putin has spent his 14 years in power just waiting for the chance to rebuild the Soviet empire, and here he is now, gleefully seizing it with both bloodied hands.
Outside Russia, the near-unanimous view of what has happened is that Putin ordered an invasion of the Crimean peninsula, to be followed by full annexation. As such, it represents a gross violation of the 1994 Budapest agreement guaranteeing Ukraine’s post-Soviet sovereignty. It is also a move, so this consensus goes, which could, unless the West hangs together and hangs tough, escalate into the reintegration of eastern Ukraine, if not the country as a whole, into a greater Russia. Emotive parallels are drawn with the Third Reich and a certain leader who annexed the Sudetenland.
The horror scenario does not stop here. If Russia “retakes” Ukraine, so the argument goes, can the other former Soviet republics be far behind? Belarus is already more or less in the Russian bloc. Then there is Moldova, for which the frozen conflict in pro-Russia Transdnestria can be seen as a bridgehead in waiting.
Armenia might be rewarded for its co-operative attitude to Russia’s Eurasia bloc by being allowed to retain nominal sovereignty, but Georgia… Well, what were the Russian mini-protectorates of South Ossetia and Abkhazia designed for after the 2008 war if not to facilitate a takeover of all Georgia? Only the Central Asian republics are exempt from Putin’s malevolent calculation – for being too much of an economic drain and too much demographic trouble.
But what if building a new Russian empire is not actually what Putin is about? Western leaders, egged on especially by those European countries that were scarred, and no wonder, by their bitter experience of Soviet domination, have created a Cold War bogey of Putin and Putin’s Russia that is lodged in their collective brain. Putin’s every move and every utterance is slotted into that logic and judged in that frame. The result is a predisposition to take literally what might not be meant literally, and all too often to discount what Putin and his officials actually say.
Where is the proof that Putin’s ultimate objective is to incorporate Ukraine into a greater Russia, or to prevent it from orientating itself towards the European Union – by force, if necessary? Ah yes, that infamous quotation: Putin’s designation of the collapse of the Soviet Union as “one of the greatest geopolitical catastrophes of the 20th century”. But nostalgia does not presuppose expansionism, even when the opportunity is there. Russia tolerated a pro-Western Ukraine under the arch-Ameriphile, Viktor Yushchenko, after the Orange Revolution. The difference this time was the brief, but total, breakdown of authority in Kiev.
So why not consider another explanation for Russia’s conduct. Putin has actually devoted a lot of his time as Russian president and prime minister to negotiating border treaties with the neighbours. The trickiest, with Estonia, was signed at the end of last year. He has said publicly that Russia recognises Ukraine as an independent state, albeit one with close ties to Russia. Russia occupies the naval base at Sevastopol on a 25-year lease; if the US has a base in Cuba, why should Russia not be able to keep one in the far less hostile Ukraine.
Anyone who cites Russia’s invasion of Georgia as a precedent for what is happening in Ukraine must also take two aspects of that war into account. The first is that an independent EU report found that Georgia “started it” and Russia’s action was a response. The second is that Russia could have taken the capital, Tbilisi, but did not, and subsequently withdrew from all but the Russian-populated enclaves. President Mikheil Saakashvili – one of Putin’s absolute bêtes noires – remained in power.
Crucially, Putin has also denied that Russia’s action in Crimea is an invasion or that the goal is annexation. His words have been met with hollow laughter and dismissed as barefaced lies. But if the purpose is to force Ukraine back into its Russian box, why quibble about terms? To us Westerners, the arrival of Russian reinforcements, the massing of ships and the securing of airports constitute an invasion. We are entitled to call it that.
But if Putin is adamant that there is no invasion, maybe this is because the purpose is not to take territory, but to secure a key base that Russia feared might be lost if a new government revoked the treaty or law and order broke down across Ukraine. Both might have looked real possibilities – as, to some of Ukraine’s Russians, did the risk of attack from far-right nationalists. Russia has never liked the UN-recognised “right to protect”, but this is essentially the principle it has invoked.
The situation in Ukraine over the past few months would have presented any Russian leader with a dilemma, not just the prickly Putin. And an alternative view of Russia’s recent action might see it less as a prelude to a land grab than a typically clumsy Russian attempt to defend its legitimate interests and an appeal not to be ignored.
Russia felt humiliated and double-crossed when Nato expanded up to Russia’s post-Soviet border. It was angered by the bombing of Serbia and, more recently, by the fast-tracked independence for Kosovo. It was worried about a possible spillover from Ukraine’s Western-backed Orange revolution. All this burst to the surface in Putin’s infamous diatribe against US arrogance and the threat of a “unipolar” world at Munich in 2007.
With Ukraine, Putin’s problem may have been less the EU’s overtures to Kiev, than the language of ultimatum that was used and the way Russia seemed to be written out of the script. Although Ukraine straddles east and west, Brussels made no attempt to consider any halfway house or slower timetable. And even as EU officials practically commuted to Kiev, Russia was accused of subjecting Ukraine to unacceptable pressure. It was only after violence broke out in Kiev that Western officials – John Kerry, William Hague and others – even mentioned the existence of Russia at all. Now its voice has to be heard.
And this may be – I say may be – all that Russia actually wants: for its voice to be heard and its interests – in terms of security and the fate of fellow Russians – to be acknowledged. The enormous risk now is that the West responds, all metaphorical guns blazing, to what it thinks is an all-out attempt to reconstitute the Soviet Union, when all Russia really wanted was to be treated as a participant, with a seat at the table.
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