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 eighth essay in a series that seeks to answer these questions. Click this link to read part seven.The pragmatists’ explanations of the Russo-Ukrainian war too often appear like they were taken straight out of the Kremlin’s textbook. Thus, in his call to examine “a number of entrenched views—some would be called myths”—Richard Sakwa has actually engaged in myth creation himself: “There is a pervasive myth that Russia from the first sought to place Ukraine under its direct control, rather than merely trying to influence its decisions.” How is “control” different from “influencing decisions”? Is Moscow trying to influence decisions merely out of self-satisfaction or vanity, rather than a desire to control Ukraine’s development? And why isn’t Sakwa concerned that Russia is using annexation and war as its mechanism of “influence”?Sakwa assures us that Russia is “certainly not challenging the basis of international law” because “it believed the Western powers regularly flouted it.” What a hilarious logic! To support his argument, Sakwa quotes Putin and the experts who echo the Kremlin’s claims. What kind of “legal argument” uses a “belief” to justify the annexation of another country’s territory and interference in the affairs of a sovereign state? And why is “annexation” not “challenging” the basis of international law? Sakwa adds that the “federalization of Ukraine was certainly a Russian goal.” But if so, why does the Kremlin insist on federalizing Ukraine so soon after it had eliminated federalization in Russia? Maybe this code word means something else to the Kremlin?“Putin’s actions have been mostly reactive,” Stephen Cohen insists.1 Was the August 2013 customs blockade of Ukraine a Kremlin “reaction?” And “reaction” to what exactly? Was the Kremlin being reactive when in October and November 2013 when it forced Yanukovych to reconsider Ukraine’s intention to sign the Association Agreement? All of this happened before the Maidan.Are there really any justifications for the annexation of Crimea and armed intervention in Ukraine? Noam Chomsky believes there are, arguing that “Crimea is historically Russian,” and that “it has enormous strategic significance” for Russia. If one follows this logic, the Russian Far East is “historically” Chinese Manchuria and has “a strategic significance” for China. One could add other examples of places of “historical significance” that could stir a lot of grievances. We all know where this Molotov-Ribbentrop-style argumentation had led in the past.Henry Kissinger does the same, repeating the Kremlin’s thesis: “Russian history began in what was called Kievan Rus. The Russian religion spread from there.” Incidentally, Kissinger’s reference to the Kievan Rus as Russia’s birthplace is out of date. Putin now refers to Crimea and Chersonesus as a progenitor of Russian statehood and a sacred place, which undermines Kissinger’s argument from history.Another quotation from Kissinger: “The relationship between Ukraine and Russia will always have a special character…. It can never be limited to a relationship of two traditional national sovereign states, not from the Russian point of view, maybe not even from Ukraine’s.” Does it mean that Ukraine will always be Russia’s satellite?Here is one more of Kissinger’s revelations. His interviewer for a Spiegel Q&A said: “But we cannot tell the Ukrainians that they are not free to decide their own future.” Kissinger’s response: “Why not?” It’s the answer one would expect from a Russian imperialist. But let’s give Kissinger credit for being frank and not concealing his views behind a screen of ambiguous rhetoric.For fairness’s sake, I have to admit that Kissinger presents the posture popular among the European politicians of the previous echelon who still want to influence the debates, regretfully, not always in a constructive way. Thus, former French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing argues that Ukraine has to be turned into a “confederation” that would serve as “the bridge” between Russia and Europe (Kissinger’s old idea). An international conference should be convened, insists d’Estaing, that will reform the Ukrainian state (very much Yalta style). I wonder whether the French President ever thought about asking Ukrainians what they think about his plan. The former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt called Putin’s actions in Crimea “quite understandable” and the Western sanctions against Russia as “stupid.” Another former German Chancellor, Gerhardt Schroder, now a Gazprom apparatchik, is convinced that Crimea was not annexed by Russia but a voluntary secession took place. Apparently, Schroder thinks that Putin was joking when he admitted to the occupation of Crimea by Russian troops under his direct command. One could speculate whether such a posture is motivated by naivety or more mundane reasons.In May 2014 Eugene Rumer and Andrew Weiss claimed that the situation in Ukraine “increasingly resembles a low-grade civil war” and is “not a mere Russian ploy.” They recommended postponing the presidential elections, holding a “conversation involving all parties” (meaning, the separatists), and conducting a referendum on “power sharing” between Kiev and the regions. This is precisely the set of demands that the Russian side made. I have to repeat that the violence in eastern Ukraine stemmed from an act of aggression, not a civil war. While some of the residents of the eastern regions were indeed critical of Kiev’s policies, and while the new government ignored their dissatisfaction and certainly did nothing to win them over, it is hard to imagine that these people could or would have launched an armed struggle using tanks and Grad missiles without outside help. As for postponing the elections, this decision would have led to a power vacuum in Ukraine (since Yanukovych had fled Kiev) or some form of provisional government, which many would have treated as illegitimate. I agree with Thomas Graham on this issue. In March 2014 he wrote, “Ukraine urgently needs a legitimate president and Rada as the foundation for a legitimate government and the way to get there is through elections, the sooner, the better.”As far as “power sharing” is concerned, the question is: What does this term actually mean? Does it mean a loose federation (actually a confederation), which is what the Kremlin in fact demands and which may lead to the country’s disintegration? Or is it the decentralization of power, which Kiev agrees with and already pursues? If one doesn’t spell out what “power sharing” means, this argument does the Kremlin’s work.The pragmatists are chronically late with their analyses, and their predictions miss the mark. Thus some of them in June 2014 were confident that “believing that Russia is preparing to intervene militarily would be a severe underestimation of Putin’s intellectual capabilities…. Contrary to what it might look like, there is a chance for an overlap between what Putin wants and what Poroshenko wants. They are closing in on a deal.”2 Meanwhile, the next month after this forecast, Russian troops invaded Ukrainian territory (and would invade again), and there was still no evidence that Putin and Poroshenko were really “closing in on a deal.” I would agree that it is hard to predict events in the midst of a military conflict. But in the case of Ukraine, we have access to enormous amounts of information, allowing us to discern key trends more accurately—that is, if we don’t choose only the facts that fit our worldview or lend support to old assessments that have already proved misleading. At his December 2015 press conference President Putin said, “We never said that there are no people [in Donbas] who are solving some tasks, including in the military area.”The American analyst Kirk Bennett gave a persuasive (and devastating) analysis of the pragmatists’ concept (“the realist case”) regarding Ukraine and Western approach to Ukraine, arguing that it is based on “the bland assertion about the preponderance of Russian over Western interests in Ukraine” which “comes pretty close to excusing Moscow’s actions.” Bennett’s arguments are worth repeating: the Western interest regarding Ukraine “is not bilateral” but “lies in the preservation of the post-Cold War order in Europe”; “If the preponderance of Russian interests essentially excuses the seizure of Crimea and the Donbas, why wouldn’t it equally justify the imposition of Russian rule over the whole of Ukraine?”; “If the ‘Russia’s interests are greater’ argument is true, then there must be a whole raft of states that qualify for the “Donbas treatment.” In the end, Bennett concludes, “there is no basis for thinking that we can buy Russian cooperation in his fashion…because Russians see their interests as fundamentally different from ours.” So far, the practice confirms this conclusion.“We should not worry…if our arguments sometimes coincide with what Moscow is saying,” says Cohen. Actually, I would worry in this case; the Kremlin’s policies are rooted in lies and half-truths, and even unintentional overlap between the Kremlin and expert views is bound to look suspicious. But I would definitely agree with Cohen on one thing: “In a fateful crisis such as the one now confronting us, moderation for its own sake is no virtue. It becomes conformism, and conformism becomes complicity.”I support Ivan Krastev’s and Stephen Holmes’s explanation of Russia’s confrontation with the West: “The Kremlin’s aggression against Ukraine is best explained not by Russia’s geopolitical interests but by the…internal weakness of Putin’s regime…. The frantic search for a substitute legitimacy formula….” Krastev and Mark Leonard explain the confrontation in a similar vein, which I find persuasive: “Putin’s improvised Ukrainian gambit is better explained by the Kremlin’s fear of regime change through remote-controlled street protests than by its fear of NATO expansion.”At the same time, I would disagree with Krastev’s, Holmes’s, and Leonard’s conclusion that Putin’s policy is an expression of “aggressive isolationism” and has “almost nothing to do with Russia’s traditional imperialism or expansionism.” According to them, the Kremlin is intentionally doing everything “to increase Russia’s economic, political, and cultural isolation from the world.” Other analysts, including the Russian expert Sergei Guriev, support the idea that “Russia is on the road to isolation and, as a result, is rejecting globalization.” I believe that things are more complicated, that Putin is not a conscious masochist, and that he is not ready to reformat the Russian system that includes imperialism as its corner stone. True, the Kremlin is trying to insulate Russian society from Western normative influences. But no evidence points to the idea that the Kremlin is intentionally driving Russia toward economic autarky and international isolation. How do the efforts to build the South Stream pipeline and current attempts to build Nord Stream 2, and to increase Europe’s dependence on Russian gas, testify to the Kremlin’s isolationism? Do the Kremlin’s desperate attempts to convince the West to lift sanctions and attract Western banks and technologies to finance and develop the economy seem isolationist? The Kremlin’s attempts to return Russia to the Parliamentary Assembly as a full-fledged member also hardly point to a desire for self-isolation. The efforts to strike a tradeoff with Washington—“Iran in exchange for Ukraine” and Putin’s offer to the West to build a new “grand anti-terrorist coalition” in 2015—could hardly be interpreted as an isolationist policy. Finally, can the Kremlin’s actions in Ukraine be considered isolationism? To the contrary, they are expansionist. An attempt to brand the Kremlin’s policies as “aggressive isolationism”—that is, aggression channeled inward—doesn’t explain the Kremlin’s external assertiveness.The conclusion that the Kremlin’s actions in Ukraine “are part of a worldwide twenty-first century revolt against globalization” also needs comment. I would side with Michael Weiss, senior editor of the Daily Beast, and Peter Pomerantsev, senior fellow at the Legatum Institute, who have demonstrated how skillfully the Kremlin has used for its own purposes the liberal idea of globalization, which “sees money as politically neutral, with global commerce leading to peace and interdependence.” The Kremlin, they wrote, uses this “openness of global markets as an opportunity to employ money, commerce and energy as foreign policy weapons.” I would define the Kremlin’s policy as an attempt to insulate the society and guarantee Russia’s participation in the global concert. Krastev, Holmes, and Leonard did catch on to an important idea, however: No matter what goals are being pursued, the Kremlin’s actions are ultimately leading to Russia’s isolation from Western civilization, but this isolation is occurring despite the Kremlin’s wishes, and the Kremlin is trying to break from this isolation.From the very start, Russia’s behavior in Ukraine resulted from the erroneous assessment of the situation by the Russian President. The information that Bloomberg News received from three Kremlin officials reveals that, before Yanukovych even left Kiev, Putin met with his advisors in Sochi, where he was assured that Russia “has enough currency reserves to annex Crimea and withstand Western sanctions that might follow.” The officials, who talked to Bloomberg reporters on condition of anonymity, suggested that, were it not for Russia’s substantial reserves, Putin might not have dared to do what he did in Ukraine. I would also add that Putin would probably have decided against the annexation if he had thought that the West would not accept it, and that certain countries, primarily Germany, would not come to his defense. To a large extent, Putin’s confidence was fueled by the dominance of pragmatism both in the expert community and in the policies of the liberal democracies.3Today, after two years of undeclared war between Russia and Ukraine, how does the pragmatist narrative look? Reality proves that they have been pathetically wrong on key arguments (and not for the first time). Let me turn to Alexander Motyl’s analysis of the pragmatist approach. Pragmatists (Motyl calls them “realists”) have explained the 2014 “invasion in light of two supposed facts.” First, the U.S. allegedly staged the Euromaidan in an attempt to wrest Ukraine from Russia’s legitimate sphere of influence. Second, NATO has expanded its boundaries, threatening Russia’s security. By the end of 2015 the U.S. commitments, as well as its presence, says Motyl, were greater than it had been in 2014. So, too, were NATO’s. According the pragmatist logic, “Russia and the separatists should have continued, and even intensified the fighting in eastern Ukraine. Instead, Putin has deescalated….” The EU has been moving with its implementation of the Association Agreement with Ukraine. But Moscow has started to look for a way out of the confrontation (at least for the time being). So how credible is the pragmatists’ narrative?
1Stephen Cohen described how “atrocities and humanitarian disaster grow in Ukraine,” blaming exclusively Kiev and Ukraine for all of them. He attempts to prove that “after Russia annexed—or ‘reunified’ with—Crimea in March, Putin, not Kiev or Washington, has demonstrated “remarkable restraint.” At the time, he didn’t care about who started these “atrocities” and why Russian soldiers were fighting and dying in Ukraine. One has the impression that Cohen gets all of his information about the events from Russian television channels and the pro-Kremlin newspapers that he cites (Izvestiya). Cohen, “The Silence of American Hawks About Kiev’s Atrocities”; “Patriotic Heresy vs. the New Cold War”; “Thinking the Unthinkable.”2The same expert claimed in the summer of 2014 that Russia “did not send the Russian troops to protect the separatists.”3In addition to these facts, the information on the starting date for the military operation in Crimea raises some questions. The date engraved on the medal for “the Return of Crimea” is February 20. Besides which, according to some reports Yanukovych ordered the removal of his belongings from the Mezhigorye residence on February 18, 2014.In this light, we should pay closer attention to Andrei Illarionov’s conclusion that the decision to start the Crimean operation was made before the Maidan’s victory; thus, it was not a response to Yanukovych flight and the formation of the new Kiev regime. This, in turn, leads Illarionov to conclude that the February 18–21 events, including the mass shooting of Maidan protestors on February 18 and the sudden withdrawal of troops from the government quarters in the middle of the day on February 21, as well as the subsequent Yanukovych flight from Kiev on February 21, were all parts of an elaborate plan aimed at the justification of the operation to occupy Crimea that had been prepared in advance of these events. See Andrei Illarionov’s blog post.In any event, the pragmatists’ assertions that the Kremlin merely reacted to the event in Ukraine contradict the facts on the ground.