Russian President Vladimir Putin’s remark in 2016 that Russia’s borders do not end anywhere reinforced a popular claim about the revisionist nature of Moscow’s foreign policy. Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine seems to be the ultimate validation of this belief. Various explanations of the invasion have been offered, ranging from Russia’s current military advantages over the US, to its fear of further NATO expansion and a perceived security dilemma, to its inaccurate assessment of the political situation in Ukraine and expectation for a quick and painless victory, to Putin even having gone mad. It is likely that all of these explanations played some role. Moreover, alarms have been raised that Russia will not stop in Ukraine but will extend its invasion to the Baltic states. Nothing seems impossible these days, but, as argued below, it might not necessarily be the case. Russia’s war in Ukraine is first and foremost driven by Moscow’s desire to be recognized by the West as an equal power. An attack against the Baltics – fully-fledged members of Western institutions – would not fulfil this objective, but a victory in Ukraine would seem to do so. For Russia, this war is not only about Ukraine: it is also about the West and the global order as such.
The war in Ukraine is about the West
Beginning with Peter the Great – who ‘cut a window to Europe’ – ‘Europe’ and later ‘the West’ more broadly have served as a reference point or benchmark for Russia. Russia has at times associated itself with ‘Europe’/’the West’ and at other times opposed it. For example, at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 after the Napoleonic wars, Russia co-created a new security order in Europe together with Prussia, Austria, and Britain and was thus perceived as a great power. During the Cold War, conversely, the Soviet Union competed with the United States on military, ideological, and scientific fronts and thereby acted as an architect of the international system in opposition to the West. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the arrival of American hegemony, Russia felt defeated. Ayse Zarakol offers an insightful comparison of the choices that three countries – Turkey, Japan, and Russia – made after the collapse of their empires in the aftermath of World War I, World War II, and the Cold War, respectively: ‘Each country chose a strategy designed explicitly to minimize the social status gap accrued during their outsider pasts and in their unsuccessful military bids for recognition.’ She argues that in all three cases, international status and respect were primary drivers in foreign policy choices. All three sought to signal their acceptance of the new order and the international norms that had stigmatized their previous behavior.
The collapse of the Ottoman and Japanese empires was total, but the Soviet Union’s defeat in the Cold War was more ambiguous – and certainly not accepted by many Russians. Discussions about Russia’s ‘Versailles syndrome’ were taking place as early as 2000. The recurring argument posed by Russian elites (not without foundation) that the West failed to keep its promises in the early 1990s to restrict NATO enlargement to East Germany – instead expanding to Central Europe and recognizing Ukraine’s aspiration to join the alliance in 2008 – has been grossly inflated and utilized to portray Russia’s war as preventive. If Russia had not attacked Ukraine first, it would have been later attacked by NATO, Putin declared in his speech at Russia’s Victory Parade on May 9, 2022.
For Russia, the war in Ukraine is thus a war against Western hegemony and the perceived injustices that it experienced after the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, it is a war against Ukraine itself – or rather an attempt to change Ukraine in a manner that suits Russia and its current political imagination.
Russia wants Ukraine for its civilizational project
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia’s foreign policy has exhibited all its various manifestations throughout the course of its history. The early 1990s saw the ascendance of westernizers – elites who sought closer cooperation with the West and even integration into Western structures. As Russia’s first Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev writes, Boris Yeltsin regarded Russia’s membership in NATO as ‘our long-term political objective.’ Westernizers were then followed by statists, beginning with the second foreign minister Yevgeny Primakov (1996-1998) through Putin’s presidency in the 2000s and Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency (2008-2012). Statists were not necessarily anti-Western, welcoming economic liberalization and cooperation with the West, but they emphasized Russia’s great power status, the necessity of a strong state, and the primacy of the latter over values of democracy. Putin’s third presidential term (2012-2018), the annexation of Crimea, and the beginning of the war in Donbas in 2014 prompted political observers to argue that Russian foreign policy had taken an ‘imperial,’ ‘Eurasianist,’ or ‘civilizational’ turn.
‘Civilizationists have sought to challenge the Western system of values, insisting on the cultural distinctiveness of Russia and Russia-centered civilization,’ writes Andrei Tsygankov. After the annexation of Crimea, the narrative of Russkiy mir (‘Russian world’) was promoted across Russia and the post-Soviet states. The ‘Russian world’ is constructed of a supposed naturally existing community (not restricted to a particular ethnicity) with such common markers as Russian language and culture, a particular interpretation of a ‘common’ past, and a hierarchical relationship between Russia and other members of this community. Ukraine, as an East Slavic Christian Orthodox nation, together with Russia and Belarus, is supposed to form the core of this ‘world.’ Putin’s article in July 2021, in which he claims that Russians and Ukrainians are essentially one people, is one example of the civilizationist outlook.
Russia has no attractive alternative to offer to Ukraine
Russia tried to keep Ukraine within its orbit – call it empire, sphere of influence, or civilization – in various ways. For example, its attempts to include Ukraine in the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) can be viewed through this lens: Russia has been driven first and foremost by its need to foster an independent civilizational project and be perceived as an equal power by the West, as the European integration project had proven successful. ‘Without Ukraine, the union [EAEU] was set to be Russia-centered with former Soviet nations and the outside world viewing it as a hegemonic project’, Tsygankov argues. As for Ukraine, it has faced difficulty deciding which economic project to join, with the potential benefits and disadvantages offered by the EU Association Agreement and the EAEU not necessarily economic in the first place.
Russia and the EU forced Kyiv into a situation in which it had to choose between two competing blocs. Considering Ukraine’s stark regional differences – with Western regions having a strong nationalist and pro-Western sentiment and Eastern regions maintaining strong ties to Russia – any choice would have led to a rupture within society. In 2013, Ukraine’s then-President Viktor Yanukovich was pressed by Moscow not to sign the EU Association Agreement, which prompted the events of 2013-2014, including mass protests in Kyiv, the annexation of Crimea, and the war in Donbas.
One should not be naïve about Ukraine’s political development. The country has undertaken significant democratic reforms in the pre-war years, but it is still very far from a democratic system as understood by the West. In an extensive interview with the New Left Review, Volodymyr Ishchenko from the Free University in Berlin demonstrates how different power groups have lost and won political influence as a result of multiple cycles of civil unrest in post-Soviet Ukraine. However, the nature of the political regime of the country has remained unchanged and can be characterized as a neopatrimonial state in which oligarchs secure political influence and provide preferential treatment to their clans.
Despite all the deficiencies of the Ukrainian system as well as the many ties that bind it to Russia (including cultural, linguistic, and people-to-people contacts, in addition to oligarchy and corruption), Russia’s approach to Ukraine has proved to be flawed in at least two important respects. First, Russia failed to offer Ukraine (and other post-Soviet states) a forward-looking and constructive political project that goes beyond the idea of stability. It criticized the existing global order but did not offer an attractive alternative. It has not been consistent in ideological terms either; even the ethno-nationalist rhetoric utilized by the Kremlin has not been used to create a consistent ideology but rather to fulfil specific foreign policy objectives (for example, to justify the annexation of Crimea).
Second, all internal divisions in Ukraine have been overshadowed by Russia’s invasion in February 2022. The war has diminished political and regional differences, making Ukrainians more united. By invading, Russia aimed to keep Ukraine within its orbit, but it has achieved exactly the opposite: it has lost the Ukrainian people for many generations to come. The war will reshape Ukrainian identity in ways that are still to be seen. One thing, however, is sure: the divide between the ‘pro-Russian’ East and ‘pro-EU’ West will not remain the same.
The war is also about the global order
The war in Ukraine is therefore an appalling method for Russia to reassert its international status. It was intended to keep Ukraine once and for all within Moscow’s sphere of influence (and Putin may still achieve a Pyrrhic victory at best), while at the same time showing the West that Russia is a great power.
More broadly, the war in Ukraine matters for the future of the entire international system. By attacking Ukraine, the Kremlin has attacked the liberal international order. Russia has been a part of this order – for example, through its permanent seat in the UN Security Council – but has assumed the role of a stigmatized member of this order (the global order is Western-dominated, but Russia never became a fully-fledged part of the ‘West’). Paradoxically, by challenging and breaking the rules of this order, Russia has reaffirmed them. The outcome of the war will be indicative of whether the global order has managed to survive yet another – albeit a much deeper – crack (the Russo-Georgian war and the annexation of Crimea pale in comparison to the ongoing invasion) or whether it is irreversibly broken. China and other major non-Western powers are watching the battleground in Ukraine to decide on their next moves. The West should brace itself for big changes.
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