Editor’s Note: How do Russia and the West see one another? What are the experts’ views on the confrontation between Russia and the West? How do the pundits explain the Russo-Ukrainian war and Russia’s Syrian gambit? What are the roots of the mythology about Russia in the West, and why has the West failed to predict and understand Russia’s trajectory? This is the seventh essay in a series that seeks to answer these questions. Click this link to read part six.
Russia’s war against Ukraine has disproven quite a few predictions, testing the expert community’s ability to analyze the situation and foresee developments. For instance, respected Russia experts have long claimed that Russia had already become a “post-imperial” state and stressed that they saw no grounds for adversarial relations between the West and Russia, or for Russia’s neoimperialism. “The imperial longing is over…. Russia…is moving toward modernity…. The West again has become Russia’s ally”, they argued in 2012. When the 2014 crisis emerged, the pundits who had been proclaiming the end of anti-Western sentiments and Moscow’s abandonment of imperial policies found themselves in a predicament. Trying to make sense of the Ukraine conflict, they decided to turn to geopolitics. Here is their new mantra: “The key to anticipating Russia’s next moves in Ukraine is to understand that its policy has been driven by geopolitical considerations that have nothing to do with Russian expansionism or imperial nostalgia and only little with the need to win domestic political support for President Putin.” What an interesting analytical invention!
Let us ruminate over what “geopolitical considerations” could mean; and do they really have nothing to do with expansionism or imperialist nostalgia? Why have the experts suddenly returned to the ideas of Halford John Mackinder, Alfred Thayer Mahan, Carl Haushofer, and Friedrich Ratzel? Andrei Kortunov, director of the Russian International Affairs Council, offers the following explanation of the new infatuation with geopolitics:
The geopolitical paradigm, which treats the world as a stage for the inevitable confrontation between a number of ‘great areas’ or global regions, quite easily justifies the desirability, or even necessity, of the hegemony of a ‘central’ or ‘axial’ power in each region. What is more, it justifies the inalienable right of these powers to an exclusive sphere of influence. Finally, the geographical determinism of geopolitics (‘geography is destiny’) is a basis for the notion that states, nations and politicians follow some kind of unalterable, linear and preordained historical mission—a mission that cannot be chosen, but that has to be recognized, accepted and carried out, no matter the cost or what might get in the way.
So we don’t need to torture ourselves by looking for the origins or motivations in Russia’s domestic developments or roots of its great-power traditions: “This is geopolitics, stupid!”
The refrain that Ukraine has been turned into a “battlefield for geopolitical struggle” between Russia and the West has gradually become axiomatic. The Russian-Ukrainian conflict is at the heart of a great geopolitical confrontation (Russia vs. the West), Sergei Karaganov and most pragmatists claim.
But why didn’t the pragmatists warn us that the U.S.-Russian “reset” and European “Partnership for Modernization” (that many of them supported) would inevitably end according to the geopolitical logic of confrontation? Why had the pragmatists talked of “strategic dialogue” between Russia and the United States until recently (see part 5), trying to convince us that both sides can cooperate and even be partners, when, as it turns out, they subscribe to geopolitical theories that posit the inevitability of a geopolitical clash? When are the pragmatists being serious, and when are they pretending?
Let’s ask another question: Does geopolitics really exclude expansionism and imperialism, as pragmatists argue? No, these are the key ingredients of the geopolitical approach, and one should have a look at what the leading ideologues of geopolitics wrote to see the connection. I must also to say an unpleasant truth: Fascism and Nazi ideology used geopolitics as their basis. It could happen that contemporary fans of geopolitics have not read, for instance, one of the leading geopolitical minds, Karl Haushofer, and have not heard about his theory of Lebensraum, which became one of the premises of Nazi doctrine; otherwise, one would hope they would think twice before turning to geopolitics to justify their conclusions.
The German expert Egbert Jan explains the newfound popularity of geopolitics in Russia as being driven by the “sense of uncertainty” of the Russian political elite and their attempts to overcome it using dangerous mechanisms. He notes that in postwar Germany, “geopolitics as an effort to create spheres of influence or even achieve global domination is taboo, since many interpret it as the legitimation of an ideology that serves National Socialist, aggressive and destructive policies.”1 However, what has been prohibited in Germany has become a popular theory in Russia and, subsequently, in some Western states, where the Russian interpretation frequently finds its echo.
One of the most popular geopolitical arguments is, of course, about the threat of NATO expansion, which would inevitably swallow up Ukraine, thus threatening Russia’s security. Since many experts apparently realize the inadequacy of this explanation, they have begun to blame “the EU expansion” as well. Former UK Ambassador to Russia Tony Brenton says, “It is generally accepted…that the EU precipitated matters by blundering into the most sensitive part of Russia’s backyard.” His assertion is echoed by John Mearsheimer, who claims that the Ukrainian Association Agreement with the EU “sounds like a backdoor to NATO membership.”
Rajan Menon and Eugene Rumer in their book, Conflict in Ukraine: The Unwinding of the Post-Cold War Order, present a stimulating account of the factors that have triggered the dramatic developments in Ukraine and raise important questions about the crisis. However, one gets the impression that, among the factors that brought this crisis, according to the authors, one stands out as crucial: Brussels’s gamble in trying to wrench Ukraine from Russia without taking note of Russia’s sensitivity. Sweden, Poland, and the Baltics appear in this view to be playing a rather cynical role; instead of being concerned about values or democracy, they are supposedly trying to turn Ukraine into a buffer against Russia. Their narrative, despite containing many valuable observations, fits the pragmatic approach, which emphasizes geopolitical causes and Russia’s humiliation.
Andrew Weiss has also argued that Europe repeatedly refused to hear Russia’s concerns, effectively forcing a conflict by insisting on a trade deal with Europe that was incompatible with Russia’s customs union. “In some ways the EU has taken maximalist positions with the Russians and acted as if they were surprised that Russia took offense or got angry,” Weiss told the New York Times.
A question for those who believe that the EU agreement was a “backdoor to NATO membership”: Didn’t the Brussels bureaucracy prepare Association Agreements for a number of countries, including Azerbaijan and Armenia, which are neither democratic nor potential NATO members? The Association Agreement carries not even a hint that it might guarantee a path to immediate EU membership, let alone NATO membership; indeed the very idea would have been a nightmare for Brussels. The Agreement is deliberately vague to free the EU of any obligations with respect to these countries. Let us also remember that, until the fall of 2013, Moscow wasn’t particularly concerned about the Association Agreement, which was also confirmed on numerous occasions by EU leaders, specifically by José Manuel Barroso, who communicated with Putin at that time and never heard any objections. Hens, no maximalist position on the part of Brussels; Moscow had never expressed any concerns! The pragmatists may also ask themselves why Moscow began demanding that Kiev and not Azerbaijan abandon the Agreement. Perhaps the answer to the question has something to do with the Kremlin’s new survival doctrine and the special role Ukraine plays in it?
Anyway, in order to avoid further accusations the EU during 2015 did everything in its power to convince Moscow that the Ukrainian trade deal with the EU would not harm Russia’s interests. The EU’s Trade Commissioner Cecilla Malmstrom held 15 talks with Ukrainian and Russian ministers but failed to persuade the Russian side. “Russia’s continued insistence on a legally binding agreement, which would amount to a reopening of the bilateral agreement between the EU and Ukraine, couldn’t be accommodated, as has been clear throughout these talks”, the European Commission said in a statement.
Finally, what about Ukrainians’ drive for dignity and their readiness to sacrifice for being a European nation? Why dismiss them, when they played the key role in influencing the developments?
One of the most thought provoking and provocative books is Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands (2015) by Richard Sakwa. His analysis of oligarchic power in Ukraine is tough and fair, and his accounts of other Ukrainian developments are informative. I find Sakwa’s narrative especially useful because it gives the most intelligent articulation of the position that I oppose and helps me to find counter-arguments. James Sherr, an associate fellow and former head of the Russia and Eurasia Program at Chatham House, writes,
It is the author’s analysis of Russian policy that is most likely to divide his readers. Putin emerges in these pages as a reluctant and rightfully aggrieved antagonist, alienated ‘not so much from the structures of hegemonic power but from its practices,’ and determined to ‘ensure the universal application of existing norms.’ Yet these norms emphasize the sovereignty, equality and territorial integrity of states. Russia’s insistence that it be accorded a ‘privileged’ role in the former USSR was not accepted elsewhere, let alone universally, and this is the nub of the problem. Once we accept Sakwa’s imperious claim that Ukraine is ‘an issue of survival’ for Russia, we put Ukraine’s survival at Russia’s discretion.2
No further comment.
To those who are interested in reality but not in mythology I would advise you to read Ukraine: What Went Wrong and How to Fix It, by Anders Åslund, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. “My preferred interpretation is that Putin wants Ukraine to fail economically and thus politically to prove that democracy is not suitable for Eastern Slavs. This version is consistent with his interest in keeping Ukraine out of Western alliances, and it does not contradict gradual Russian territorial expansion,” writes Aslund.
I would also agree with the British expert Andrew Wilson, who, in his latest book, Ukraine Crisis: What It Means for the West, emphasizes the role of the Russian factor in the crisis. Wilson also looks at the EU but sees its role differently, describing its inability to respond to Russia’s pressure.
A few more explanations of the confrontation over Ukraine have already become part of the new mythology. For instance, both Western and Russian pragmatists continue to insist that there was a coup in Ukraine. Left and right are united on this basis. Stephen Cohen talks of an “unlawful change of government in Kiev.” Patrick J. Buchanan repeats a similar line, referring to “the Maidan coup that overthrew the elected pro-Russian government.”
That’s understandable: the pragmatists must insist on the illegitimacy of the new Ukrainian government, which points to the inadequacy of Ukraine as a state. Otherwise, it would have been hard to demand that Ukraine limit its sovereignty and allow other states to determine what it can or cannot do on its own territory. Declaring the developments in Ukraine to be an “unconstitutional coup” also allows the pragmatists to treat the country’s democratic changes, which many pragmatists are wary of, as illegitimate.
Let’s see how a group of international experts has analyzed the events in Ukraine in their report to the Valdai Forum and at subsequent discussions in Berlin and Paris in 2014–15. The outcome highlights the Kremlin’s abilities to manipulate even analysts with reputations for independence. Here are the report’s key conclusions: The Maidan was “a sort of a de facto alliance that was formed between neo-Nazis and national democrats;” the fall of the Yanukovych regime was “violence with ‘sacred victims’”; the opposition “was deliberately breaking conventions and turning the protest into a civil war”; and “as soon as Yanukovych fled Kiev, power was grabbed by extreme right radicals, who gave armed nationalists free reign.” One could only wonder at this astounding convergence between the international expert community and the Kremlin’s propaganda corps.
We should listen to the Ukrainian-American historian and writer Alexander J. Motyl, who describes a phenomenon that he calls the “surrealism of realism.” One of the biggest flaws of adherents of this approach, according to Motyl, is the “ignorance about Ukraine” which is “wide and deep, affecting virtually every aspect of American—and more generally Western—intellectual life….” The Russo-Ukrainian war “confronted realists with an explanatory and policy task for which they were wholly unprepared. Few could read Russian; my guess is that none know Ukrainian,” says Motyl. As a demonstration of the experts’ failures, he quotes Henry Kissinger and Stephen Cohen, but the list of embarrassing comments on Ukraine would certainly be a long one. I agree with Motyl that ignorance and lack of knowledge (and lack of readiness to learn and understand!) offers at least a partial explanation for the fact that the pragmatists as a rule swallow the official Russian line. The key problem is that their analytical exercises still influence both Western and Kremlin policies. In the first case, it provokes desire the follow the familiar path of acquiescence; in the second, it disorients Moscow as to the nature of the West.
1Jan, “What Is Geopolitics?” Schlangenbad Discussions Speech (April 2013).
2Sherr, International Affairs (May 2015).