During the Ukraine crisis, the Russian Federation has often been presented as the bad guy, at least by the West and Ukraine. The United States of America’s minister of foreign affairs John Kerry described Russia’s behavior as one characterizing the nineteenth century.¹ Russia’s president Vladimir Putin, however, didn’t deem his actions as inappropriate and commented that he had made necessary decisions. How come there is such great difference in the perception between the two camps?
It is obvious that all involved actors are trying to put an end to the lingering conflict in Ukraine. Yet, those actors fail to align their ideas: after multiple attempts to come to an answer, concrete solutions are still lacking. What is probably most striking, is the unwilling attitude of Russia from the Western and Ukrainian perspective. In this article, we’ll take a look through the eyes of a demonized country and give an outline of the motives of Russia. We do not claim an ultimate truth, but are simply trying to present you a new way of viewing this conflict and its actors.
Did not see NATO coming
It were rowdy times back in the nineties. Although the bipolar world was still a part of daily life, the USSR was shaking on its foundation. The Berlin Wall had fallen and soon after Germany was reunited, USSR members demanded independence. These demands were met with understanding by Gorbachev, which was shown through the implementation of the perestroika² and glasnost³. Although the Soviet president wished to remain a political bloc, all members of the Warsaw Pact had the freedom to operate autonomously. The ‘renewed’ superpower would become a group of allied states instead of Soviet marionettes.4 The Western world perceived Gorbachev’s new policy with vigilance, but his acceptance of the reunification of Germany and its membership of NATO was a first successful step towards acceptance of Western values and becoming a true pro-Western leader.5 Euphoric times followed and the future of the world was thoroughly discussed. It was then, amidst confusion, happiness and fading fear, that several political agreements were made. Now that the Cold War had come to an end, the two military blocks decided to agree on an arms reduction.6 One could see this agreement as a potential disbanding of both blocks, since a constant pressure of fear for a ‘hot war’ made place for peace.
While the Warsaw Pact disbanded and the USSR crumbled apart, NATO continued to exist and expand. The collapse of the Soviet Union was followed by Mikhail Gorbachev’s resignation, who was followed in his presidential footsteps by Boris Jeltsin in 1991.7 As the USSR no longer existed, the now ex-Soviet states could become members of any (Western) organization if they wished to do so. It is, however, believed by some that a promise was made that NATO would not move towards Eastern and Central Europe, leaving the former USSR countries alone. This assurance was supposedly given to Russia by Western leaders, yet no evidence has been found. Despite statements made by Gorbachev and NATO itself that such promises could not have been made since this subject never was discussed, popular opinion in Russia firmly believes this was the case.8 This belief is supported by Hans-Dietrich Genscher and James Baker9 who stated that Gorbachev himself did ask for assurance.10 According to this account, he was given the certainty that NATO would not lure in ex-USSR states.11 As there is no written statement and thus a lack of evidence for both sides, this remains a potential minefield in which word goes against word. But for the Russian Federation, these words are true and considered to be sacred… yet turned out to be empty.
Baltic countries started to apply as members of NATO, looking for security in uncertain times. Ukraine and Georgia were amongst those applicants, although their application has only been posted after the millennium change. Despite NATO’s reluctant behavior at first, as their relationship with Russia was deemed a priority back then12, these countries eventually did receive the prospect of becoming member states.13 This not only threatened Russia in its position of power, but could also be perceived by the Russian Federation as a direct insult coming from Western countries. Such actions were seen by the Russians as ‘proof’ of Western arrogance and attempts of the USA to rule the world whilst putting Russia, its archenemy, in a tight corner.
In such a debate, we clearly see how important perception of a situation is in the decision making process, as well as how you approach others. As Harold and Margaret Sprout theorize, the “psycho-milieu” plays a major role when forming one’s foreign policy. In this psycho-milieu, subjective perception of a situation will have a far greater impact on the final decision than the objective context.14 Robert Jervis expanded those theories by suggesting that ideas and foreign policy decisions aren’t merely based off subconscious perceptions, but are consciously created by individuals. This goes as far as to ignore or adapt information according to the decision makers’ preferred worldview. People are therefore purposefully reshaping information or denying its existence to make it fit perfectly in their perception of our globalized world.15
The U.S. did not only forcibly push them away from the international playing field, it also clearly stated that Russia was not important as an international power.
When keeping such theories in mind, Vladimir Putin may have supposedly ignored or disregarded the fact that NATO was rather reluctant to accept Eastern countries, resulting in the idea that the expansion was purposeful and meticulously planned to weaken the Russian Federation. Quotes such as Obama’s referring to Russia as nothing but a regional power acting out of weakness16, possibly fueled the rage. The U.S. did not only forcibly push them away from the international playing field, it also clearly stated that Russia was not important as an international power. It is in such a context that strong feelings of frustration and anger are easily strengthened, feeding the perception that it was the world against Russia: the federation had to reclaim its former position of power.
Flagged by Europe
Regaining this position was a difficult task, but in the aftermath of the Ukrainian protest Putin did see a chance to show the rest of the world that the Russian fire was still lit. It is, however, important to note that the Ukraine-Russia relationship was already deteriorating. There already was a bucket filled with disputes and mutual distrust; the Euromaidan movement was but the final drop that flooded this bucket. Tension between Ukraine and Russia has been high ever since the Orange Revolution in 2004, when protest arose due to suspicions that the outcome of the presidential election was only a result of corrupted authorities, who supposedly committed fraud so that Viktor Yanukovych would be elected. This revolt came to an end in January 2005, thanks to the outcome of the re-election, ordered by the Supreme Court of Ukraine, in which Viktor Yushchenko triumphed.17 Several disputes between Russia and Ukraine resurfaced after the end of the Orange Revolution, putting a strain on the previously improved relationship between the two states. Amongst those issues was the Ukrainian wish to join NATO18, whilst reaching out to the European Union as well. Despite Yushchenko’s assurance that such decisions were not meant as anti-Russia behavior, Russia did view this as a hostile act.19 The ongoing gas disputes were also part of the bigger problem, with Russia even going as far as accusing Ukraine to seek alliance with Russian ‘enemies’ and exploit its cheap gas.20
And then there was the Euromaidan movement, who successfully managed to ‘overthrow’ the Ukrainian president. When the protestors celebrated their victory, many (young) Ukrainians happily waved EU flags, overjoyed by the encouragement of some EU representatives.21 It is highly plausible that in Russian eyes these representatives therefore supported the fall of the democratically elected Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych; who during his presidency openly supported the idea of working closely together with Russia. It is this political position that caused a growing concern amongst a major part of the Ukrainian population, which peaked at Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the Association Agreement with the European Union22 and eventually sparked the birth of the Euromaidan movement. The support coming from certain EU representatives may have caused bitterness for Vladimir Putin, perceiving this as anti-Russian support. Such a perception may have aggravated Putin’s negative view on the entire situation, definitely when bearing in mind Putin’s anxious behavior regarding Ukraine’s possible prospects of becoming a NATO member, a few years prior to the conflict.23 In 2008, the Russian leader confided former American president George W. Bush that “Ukraine isn’t even a state”, explaining that the greater part of Ukraine’s territories is a ‘gift’ from Russia.24 Much to the Ukrainian people’s dismay, Russia often referred to the country as “Little Russia”.25 With such wordings, one could argue that Putin is threatening the West to stay away from Ukraine (and Crimea). It is obvious that Putin’s perception of the Ukrainian country is that of a Russian vassal and subordinate, a plausible reason for worry and fear of both Ukraine and the West. Recalling Putin’s statement that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the “greatest geopolitical tragedy”, his anxiousness that Eastern European countries might join Western organizations possibly lies in Putin’s wish to create a Eurasian Union.26 Some might say that this “Soviet Reunion” comes from a reminiscent image of the past. But, to successfully create such a union, Ukraine plays a key role. Yet, now that Ukraine installed a pro-Western government – a government that in Russia’s perspective immediately decided to turn its back on its former ally, Vladimir Putin may see this as a farewell to his Eurasian Union. By abolishing a law to allow counties to install Russian as one of the official and national languages, the ‘Kiev government’ showed its new alliance and bulged its muscles, whilst also greatly disturbing the Russian speaking civilians (who are mainly located in the Eastern parts of Ukraine, such as the Donbass region and the Crimean peninsula), next to Russia itself. 27
Ever since Crimea became part of Ukraine, a strong feeling that they actually belonged to Russia has been residing in the hearts of Crimea’s inhabitants.
Anger and frustration rose in the eastern parts of Ukraine. This eventually led to what the West refers to as the illegal referendum regarding the independence of Crimea and the following reunion with Russia, often described by Western leaders as an illegal annexation.28 According to Sergei Markov, a Kremlin analyst, the ‘annexation’ of the Crimean Peninsula was a logical step in the process of independency.29 Ever since Crimea became part of Ukraine, a strong feeling that they actually belonged to Russia has been residing in the hearts of Crimea’s inhabitants. Russia shared that feeling, and proof lies in the support of the referendum and reunification of Crimea. Markov states that this event was foreseeable, considering the unwillingness of the West (and Ukraine) to compromise and taking into account the fear of the Crimean elite to fade in the “international limbo”.30 Even now, one year later, the people of Crimea feel better off as a part of Russia, showing greater trust in the Russian government than in the Kiev one31. Even Dimitri Romanov, the oldest relative of Russia’s last tsar Nicholas II, approves of the reunification; stating that Russia respects its history and that visiting Crimea feels like arriving home32. Yet again, perception and subjective feelings were playing a major role in decisions.
Putin described his actions as necessary to assure the safety of his people and perceived what he did as a response to Western aggression and arrogance. By using the context of ‘responsibility to protect’33, Putin allowed himself to take unilateral actions.34 According to several Russian diplomats, the removal of the law regarding the Russian language showed that the Kiev government was not sympathetic towards Russian speaking minorities and might even form a danger for those citizens.35 This belief was shared by said citizens, together with the idea that the entire protest was initiated by Western actors – more specifically the U.S. This nurtured the perception of a Western world plotting against Russia, in order to make the country as weak as possible. Putin even argues that it is not Ukraine he is fighting, but America who’s controlling the country and its military.36
The Ukraine crisis still lingers, and prospects of a swift solution are rather grim. Some fear there might be a new Cold War, others fear a Third World War. It is clear how the involved parties fail to cooperate as they continue to act besides each other. Interaction is cold and distant; one could wonder why there is so little willingness to end this conflict sooner rather than later. This article contains merely a small part of Russia’s possible perspective on the conflict, in which we attempted to view the crisis through a different prism. Next month we will go into detail on other underlying issues between the main actors and how the conflict unfolded into the heavy weight on the shoulders of the international society – in particular on those of Ukraine and Russia.