Current analysis of Russian foreign policy largely depicts—whether with approbation or anxiety—a Kremlin going from strength to strength. With a grab-bag of low-cost, low-risk measures, Russia has reputedly confounded the West, exacerbating our internal divisions, interfering in our elections, and in some cases perhaps even affecting the outcome. Moscow has supposedly snatched Georgia and Ukraine from the clutches of NATO, seized the initiative throughout the Middle East, and enhanced Russian positions in virtually every corner of the globe. Ah, how quaint now sound the recent dismissals of Russia as just a regional power, or “a gas station masquerading as a country!” The Russians have risen from their knees, and we suddenly perceive with alarm that they are ten feet tall.
However, this vision of a rising—or rampaging—Russia needs a serious rethinking at least as far as Moscow’s goals in Ukraine are concerned. The assessment of Russian success in Ukraine is largely rooted in two suppositions: a) that Russian military interventions in Ukraine (as well as in Georgia in 2008) are long-overdue comeuppance for past NATO enlargement and just punishment for Western perfidy; and b) that Russian military action was required to thwart a Western plot to pull Ukraine into NATO in 2014, and prevented the emergence of a serious long-term threat to Russian security.
Neither of these suppositions makes any sense.
As measures to punish the West for its encroachments and callous disregard for Moscow’s interests, the Russian invasions of Ukraine and Georgia are like something out of the Theatre of the Absurd: “I’ll show how angry I am at you by punching him in the face!” Russia’s military campaigns have inflicted considerable damage on its neighbors while causing no material harm whatsoever to the West, the purported target of Russian ire and indignation. One is left wondering how many of Russia’s neighbors must be attacked before the Kremlin concludes that the West has been taught an adequate lesson.
However, while concluding sadly that Russian military action against its neighbors has been ill-advised and counterproductive, I don’t consider it completely illogical. Revenge is indeed a motivation, but the West is simply not the target. Rather, the Kremlin’s approach to Ukraine and Georgia makes eminent sense when understood as chastisement of bumptious former subject peoples for their shocking ingratitude for all of Russia’s kindness and generosity. It is in this context—not as some misguided, irrational lashing out at the West—that Russian military actions take on a comprehensibly punitive tenor.
The notion of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as preemption of a security threat to Russia is less silly on the face of it than the facile supposition about revenge against the West, but it is no more valid.
As I have detailed elsewhere, in 2014 there was no impetus in Washington, Brussels, or Kyiv for Ukrainian accession to NATO. Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity was about good governance, not security policy; about Ukraine rising to EU standards, not meeting the criteria for NATO membership. Russia’s military interventions—first in Crimea, later in the Donbas—were portrayed as local responses to a supposed fascist seizure of power in Kyiv. The notion that NATO was maneuvering to absorb Ukraine was a narrative ginned up ex post facto to add further justification for what Moscow had already undertaken under a different—and equally flimsy—pretense.
The allegation that NATO is eager to establish military bases in Ukraine does not bear serious scrutiny. If the alliance had been remotely interested in Ukrainian bases, then the Kremlin’s actions in 2014 would have played right into NATO’s hands. Confronted with Russian violations of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, the new government in Kyiv (supposedly a Western puppet anyway) would have had the ideal excuse—defense of the motherland—to invite in as many troops as NATO cared to send. Instead, the Poroshenko government has not even repealed the constitutional prohibition against foreign basing, which remains a legal impediment to NATO bases in the country.
Rather than congratulating themselves on the timely preemption of a non-existent military threat from NATO, Russians might usefully take a more sober, objective view of the post-2014 security situation with regard to Ukraine. Since independence in 1991, successive Ukrainian governments neglected the country’s military, which drifted on a steady glide path into corrupt decrepitude. However, the Russian campaign in the Donbas, even more than the seizure of Crimea, has impelled a deep and long-term remilitarization of Ukraine. Russia, which in 2014 faced no credible military force on its southwestern border, must now contend with a battle-hardened, increasingly well-equipped army of several hundred thousand soldiers backed by a government and populace that consider Crimea and the Donbas to be enemy-occupied territories. In any security crisis, domestic or international, Moscow would need to assume Ukrainian hostility and keep 100,000+ troops and prodigious amounts of heavy equipment tied down on the Ukrainian front just to safeguard the ill-gotten gains of the “Russian Spring.” Previously negligible Ukrainian popular support for NATO membership has roughly tripled. If NATO actually had any aggressive intentions toward Russia, the alliance could now count on an angry, militarized, anti-Russian Ukraine as a solid de facto ally.
Compare Ukraine since 2014 with the new members of NATO, every one of which has used NATO accession as an excuse to slash defense spending, troop levels, and military equipment. Strictly from the perspective of Ukrainian military capabilities and antagonism toward Moscow, Russia would have been better off if the impossible had happened and Ukraine had actually joined NATO in 2014. In a recent interview Russian foreign-policy expert Andranik Migranyan averred that “Russia will use every opportunity and every resource in order not to permit Ukraine to become a consolidated anti-Russian power.” I hope the Kremlin heeds his words, because practically everything Moscow has done since 2014 has worked precisely in the opposite direction. Far from averting a serious security problem, the Kremlin’s Ukraine policy has created one where none had previously existed.
Viewed in the cold, hard light of reality, the Russian campaign in the Donbas smacks less of triumph than of triumphalism. Which event, one must wonder, represents the greater setback for Russian security—the Kremlin’s inability to keep Montenegro out of NATO, or its “success” with Ukraine? If Russian policy in Ukraine is what passes for success, one shudders to contemplate what failure might look like.
Some analysts nevertheless point to Russia’s invasions of Ukraine and Georgia as bold demonstrations of Russian strength and resolve in blunting NATO enlargement. However, it is an indication of Russian weakness, not strength, if Moscow has so thoroughly alienated its neighbors that it must resort to military intervention to halt a perceived drift on their part toward NATO. I am left, not for the first time, with an apparently unconventional, even heretical thought—would it not be much better for all involved if Russia, rather than invading its neighbors to preclude their integration into Euro-Atlantic organizations, strove instead to curtail the Russian attitudes and behaviors that encourage its neighbors to seek Euro-Atlantic integration in the first place?
With this thought, we are getting to the real nub of the problem, as well as the reason why the patently implausible idea of a NATO military threat to Russia from Ukraine enjoys any cachet at all. There is a genuine Western threat to Russia’s perceived interests in Ukraine, but it is not military in nature. Rather, the Kremlin’s conundrum is this: As long as Ukraine remains outside Euro-Atlantic structures, Russians can still credibly entertain the hope of dominating, directly or indirectly, their southern neighbor. It was precisely this hope that was imperiled in 2014—not by imminent Ukrainian membership in NATO or even the EU, but by a mere Association Agreement between the EU and Ukraine. To grasp the threat this banal document poses to the Kremlin’s broader, long-term strategy, one must set aside the proclivity to view everything through an East-West prism, and instead consider the Russian-Ukrainian dynamic.
When Russians converse with Westerners, NATO enlargement invariably comes up as an explanation/justification for Russian policy toward Ukraine. Tellingly, when Russians and Ukrainians argue among themselves about their current conflict (for example, on internet blogs), you find a vituperative and often tendentious airing of mutual grievances in which NATO plays virtually no role whatsoever. Leaving aside the ethnic slurs and obscenities, the argument basically boils down to divergent historical narratives.
According to Ukrainians, the Slavic inhabitants of the medieval state of Kievan Rus were an assortment of different tribes that coalesced organically over time into related but distinct peoples. Kievan Rus was, in the popular Soviet-era characterization, the cradle of three nations—Russians, Belarusians, and Ukrainians. Within this trio Ukrainians do not perceive themselves to be Siamese twins with the Russians.
In the Russian telling of the story, the Slavic inhabitants of Kievan Rus comprised a single Russian nation that was tragically and artificially sundered by the Mongol conquest and subsequent conscious efforts by enemies such as Poland and Austria to divide and weaken Russia. The fitting and natural remedy for this historic injustice is to restore the lost unity in accordance with Pushkin’s famous dictum about “all Slavic rivers flowing together into a Russian sea.” It is therefore incumbent upon Ukrainians to abandon ukrainstvo (the concept of Ukrainian nationhood) and embrace their czarist-era designation as “Little Russians,” a sub-ethnos speaking a backwoods dialect of Russian rather than a separate language of their own, with the implicit expectation that “Little Russians” will one day grow up to be “Great Russians.”
As a result, as Vladimir Pastukhov has observed, the Ukrainians in the 21st century have become for Moscow what the Poles were in the 19th—which is to say, traitors to Slavdom. By impeding the “organic” process of Russian reunification, the Ukrainian national idea is, in its very essence, irredeemably Russophobic.
There is a curious assertion in some circles that a Ukrainian national identity is somehow narrow and bigoted, failing to embrace the country’s linguistic and cultural diversity, while a “Little Russian” identity is broad and inclusive. This notion is contradicted by real life in Ukraine, where Ukrainian-speakers are nearly all fluent in Russian and thoroughly steeped in Russian culture, while Russophones—and particularly ethnic Russians—are often monoglots who disdain the Ukrainian language and culture. The supposed inclusiveness of the “Little Russian” orientation is further belied by the dismal situation in the occupied Donbas, which has seen not a glorious symbiosis of all things Russian and Ukrainian, but the forcible, even violent, suppression of Ukrainian institutions (schools, churches, and civic organizations), the virtual extirpation of any linguistic or cultural manifestation of Ukrainian identity, and thoroughgoing Russification. The Donbas is the prototype for a Russian-dominated Ukraine; as such it stands as a grim object lesson to Ukrainians who care about their national identity and heritage, and a powerful, ever-present psychological motivator for Ukrainian integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions.
The notion that Ukraine is a part of Russia’s own patrimony, and that “Little Russians” are—whether they admit it or not—a part of the Russian ethnos, is the ideological underpinning of Moscow’s Ukraine policy. As condescending as this attitude might strike many Ukrainians, it actually has a major mitigating effect on the Kremlin’s conduct of military activities in Ukraine. While Moscow might profess remorseless hostility toward the “fascist junta” in Kyiv and all its running dogs, the operative Russian assumption is that the bulk of the Ukrainian population consists of wayward brothers who must be brought back to their senses, rather than mortal enemies who must be annihilated. Moscow must woo, not simply subdue, bearing in mind the danger of alienating Ukrainian popular opinion through excessive use of force. Moreover, Ukraine and the Ukrainians are anticipated to be force multipliers for Moscow once they resume their rightful place in the Russian World. It would therefore be counterproductive for Russia to bomb and shell Ukraine into oblivion, turning “Little Russia” into yet another toxic Russian asset and producing a quantum leap in the financial burden Russia already bears for the upkeep of the Donbas and Crimea. This factor is greatly underappreciated in Western analysis and blows yet another gaping hole in the argument about Russia’s “escalation dominance” in its conflict with Ukraine.
The Kremlin’s whole approach to Ukraine relies on gaining some critical mass of traction for the “Little Russia” concept—for Ukraine as a willing, even enthusiastic, component of the Russian World, and in due course a constituent part of the Russian nation. Russia’s ultimate goal in Ukraine can be summarized, with precious little overstatement, as the liberation of “Little Russia” from the Ukrainians. The prospect of Ukrainian integration into Euro-Atlantic structures poses a mortal danger to this goal.
Despite widespread Russian misperception and wishful thinking about their fraternal southern neighbors, the long-suffering “Little Russian” masses are not waiting anxiously for Russia to liberate them from the “fascist junta.” The “Little Russia” project didn’t survive the Russian Revolution, and the last traces of it disappeared in the great Ukrainian linguistic and cultural renaissance of the 1920s. Four generations of people have now grown up thinking of themselves as Ukrainians, and even the most passionate Russian appeals and the most compelling historical argumentation will not induce Ukrainians to adopt a “Little Russian” identity. The attempt at this late date to rebrand Ukrainians as incipient or recovering crypto-Russians is frankly an exercise in futility. Admitting the hopelessness of the task would compel a serious rethinking of both the Kremlin’s Ukraine policy and the worldview of many Russians—neither of which, unfortunately, is likely to happen quickly or easily.