Russia: Saving Face, not Regaining Empire

Throughout the Crimea crisis, there have been two competing theories on Russian motives: (1) they are regaining their empire; (2) they are saving face, in the wake of their worst geopolitical setback in decades. While the former got lots of airplay for its drama, and for its consonance with the consensus view of Putin as rageful autocrat; in the end, the latter was correct – the crisis is passing, and Russia seems not to be planning to move into Ukraine’s ethnically Russian eastern provinces.

Crimea’s annexation complete, Putin is once again collegial. When commenting on new US sanctions against Russia, he said explicitly that Russia would nonetheless permit the US military to use Russian airspace in support of operations in Afghanistan, as they have for the past decade. Putin tacitly accepts that there had to be consequences for annexing Crimea – he’s likely appreciative that US sanctions have been so anemic. He likewise expects the US to accept the annexation as the price of the swiping Ukraine out of the Russian sphere.

Unlike Britain and France, Russia’s empire survived World War II stronger than ever, with Moscow as the seat of power of the USSR and its satellites in Central and Eastern Europe. As recently as 1989, Berlin was the line of demarcation between the US and Russian spheres. Since the Berlin Wall fell, the US sphere has moved steadily east, absorbing former Russian allies along the way. Remarkably, except for Russia herself, EVERY former member of the Warsaw Pact is now a member of NATO, and of the EU (except Albania, whose application is pending). Russia accepted this advance, relinquishing its former holdings without a fight.

It didnt have to be this way. The US could just as well have stood by its promise to Gorbachev to respect Central and Eastern Europe as a buffer between Russia and the West. Russia might have forcefully protested Poland’s accession into NATO – and might have responded militarily when the Baltics followed. Russia did not.

President Clinton set an expansionist agenda, effecting it through his brilliantly-conceived (if innocuously-named) “Partnership for Peace.” His successors have followed his winner-take-all approach. In 25 years, the line demarcating the Russian and American spheres has moved 800 miles east, from Berlin to Kiev. To appreciate how far that is, consider that if the line had moved that much in the opposite direction, Russia’s sphere would now reach the Atlantic, and US influence would end at Iceland. While Moscow is more than 1100 miles from Berlin, it is fewer than 600 miles from Riga or Vilnius and only 300 miles from the Ukrainian border.

Crimea is the modest price for another remarkable victory for the US’ aggressive, expansionary foreign policy, which has successfully gambled that Russia would not (much) resist. With the addition of Ukraine, and the exception of Russia and Serbia, the US sphere now encompasses the entire Western World. For 25 years, Russia has lacked the resources and-or political will to fight back against what it reasonably perceived as American aggression – until now.

Ukraine, for Russia, is very different from the rest of Eastern and Central Europe. Ukraine and Russia have been integrated as a single polity for most of the past 300 years, sharing a common history, culture and religion. Ukraine is also far more populous than other countries in Eastern Europe – its 42 million+ inhabitants are comparable to the combined population of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Belarus, Bulgaria and Romania.

When the US aided protests against Ukraine’s democratically-elected pro-Russian government, it crossed a line. Welcoming that government’s overthrow and recognizing Ukraine’s revolutionary pro-West leadership was an outrage that’s been politely ignored in the media, recalling the attempted coup of Chavez in 2002, during which the US also seemingly blanked on its commitment to democracy and the rule of law – when the opportunity to be rid of a nuisance head-of-state presented itself.

A Russian president could look away as the rest of its former empire was swept up by the victorious West – but to suffer the loss of Ukraine without a fight was unthinkable. The good news for US interests is that Putin, dealt a bad hand, misplayed the little he had. By seizing Crimea, he’s effectively ceded the balance of Ukraine and ruined Russian-Ukrainian relations. He’s also validated the concept of popular secession – which Chechnya and Russia’s many other ethnic enclaves will not fail to notice.

However the US media’s demonization of Putin should end, along with the name-calling (“autocrat”, “bully” and “thug”), which only thwarts popular comprehension of the issues. For more than a decade, Putin has been a good partner in the war against terrorism. He has enabled US policies in Iran, Syria and Afghanistan, and promises to continue to do so. The most unfortunate effect of Crimea’s annexation is that it will be a sticking point in Russian-Western relations – as Cyprus is for Turkey, and the West Bank is for Israel.

To close with an audacious long-term prediction: we arent yet in the end game of NATO/EU expansion. That process will not conclude with Ukraine or Georgia or Belarus – it will end with Russia’s accession. “Russia” as opposed to “The West,” after all, are only plied as terms of art. Russia is, and has always been, an intrinsic, historic part of the West; and according to the logic of the European Coal and Steel Community, Russia will ultimately assume her natural place within NATO and the EU alike, against their common adversary, China; and as well against religious fundamentalism and irredentism.

2 excellent articles from scholars of Russian-American relations:


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