The Putin Era

Three key interrelated factors in the Putin era shed light on Russia’s increasingly strained relations with the West, each one linking domestic and foreign policy developments: Chechnya, terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism; increased authoritarianism in Russia, legitimised through the notion of “sovereign democracy” and connected to resistance to “regime change”; and emphasis on the former Soviet space with the aim of reintegrating it economically.

Putin rose to power on the back of crushing Chechnya. Although the renewed war resulted in more terrorist atrocities across Russia, the pretext for the invasion in 1999 was the apartment bombings in Moscow and Volgodonsk as well as incursions by Islamic fundamentalists from Chechnya into neighbouring Dagestan. After the interim peace agreement in 1996, Chechnya had been de facto independent, but was ruled by warlords and fundamentalists intent on trying to expand their control. Hence, Putin’s rhetoric in the early 2000s linked the threat of separatism, Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism, and he saw these as connected across an “arc of instability” spreading from Afghanistan across the Middle East (and Russia’s southern tier) to the Balkans (Headley 2005). He argued that Russia and the West shared a common interest in resisting this threat, and justified military action on this basis. In early September 2001, one of the major international news items was the rising tension between Russia and Georgia as Russian airplanes conducted strikes against Chechen fighters based in the Pankisi Gorge, an area of Georgia neighbouring Chechnya. When the terrorist attacks occurred in the United States on 11 September, Russia offered sympathy and support against a “common enemy”, including allowing transit of goods by the US military across Russia to support the war in Afghanistan. The common threat was used as a basis to repair relations severely strained after the Kosovo conflict and NATO enlargement and to divert criticism away from Russia’s conduct of its operations in Chechnya (although two years later, Russia, like other states, rejected the claim that Iraq was linked to terrorism, and as we have seen, the Iraq invasion led to a renewed crisis in relations).

Chechnya laid the basis for Putin’s rise to power but also contributed to the authoritarian shift in Russian politics (Headley 2005). First, there was the indiscriminate attack on Chechnya with little regard for loss of civilian lives, and the subsequent repression there under President Kadyrov. Second, outspoken critics of the Chechnya campaign, and individuals who have investigated the questionable actions of the Federal Security Service (FSB) in the apartment bombings preceding the second Chechen war have been silenced (Alexander Litvinenko, Anna Politkovskaia). Third, the Chechen war has been used by Putin to consolidate and centralise power (e.g. after the Beslan massacre in 2004, governors of federal entities were appointed rather than elected, and Duma election rules were changed to favour larger parties).

These measures fed into the broader trend towards authoritarianism, which was couched in ideological terms as “sovereign democracy”, the assertion of the right of each sovereign state to its own form of democracy against pressure from the West and international organisations in promoting universal human rights and liberal representative democracy (Headley 2015b). As a result, a normative gap arose between Russia and the West, including between Russia and the European Union over the degree to which pan-European norms should be developed to shape the domestic and international behaviour of all European states, over who should develop such norms, and how (Headley 2012a). Increasingly, the Russian authorities clamped down on non-governmental organisations based in Russia that were portrayed as agents of Western states, contributing to the narrowing of civil society. Such organisations were accused of promoting “regime change” in Russia itself, so that the idea of a domestic threat to the Putin regime became tied to Russian foreign policy in resisting “regime change” in the Middle East and particularly in the former Soviet space.

Increasing emphasis on the former Soviet space as the priority area for Russian foreign policy was a feature of the more assertive approach in the 1990s after the initial “liberal Westernizing” phase. Under Putin, it became more than a declaration of intent, as signified by his famous statement in his 2005 address to the Federal Assembly that the “collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century” (Putin 2005). Putin acknowledged that the former Soviet space remained highly integrated in many ways - movement of people and goods, for example - particularly with the Russian economic boom in the 2000s. But by the early 2010s, Russian policymakers were actively pursuing regionalism (the deliberate policy of developing intra-regional ties) through specific integrationist projects (Putin 2011). This has been accompanied by rhetorical emphasis on the idea of a “civilizational identity”, although this is in tension with the simultaneous promotion of specifically Russian language and culture and support for ethnic Russians in the “near abroad” (Headley 2012b, 2015b).

Such developments have contributed to recurrent crises with the West during the Putin era. First, the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine in 2004 challenged the apparent manipulation of the election there, including direct Russian interference in support of Viktor Yanukovych, while Russia accused Western states of engineering “regime change” and overturning democratic results in order to get pro-Western forces into power. This crisis prefigured the 2013 crisis and prompted similar fears of a new Cold War. Then, in 2008, Russia fought its first war in the post-Cold War era outside the borders of the Russian Federation, against Georgia. Russian actions were clearly intended to protect perceived interests in the former Soviet space: to block the pro-Western Georgian President Saakashvili’s attempt to reclaim South Ossetia and Abkhazia and to show the credibility of Russian commitments to breakaway regions (Russia had explicitly stated that Russia would prevent any forceful attempt by Georgia to reclaim them). They were also tied to the wider issue of NATO enlargement, as Ukraine and Georgia were pushing for NATO membership, encouraged by the Bush administration (Mearsheimer 2014).

Although the subsequent report by the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Conflict in Georgia (2009) held Georgia primarily responsible for initiating the conflict,3 Russia’s willingness to use force and apparent incitement of Georgia confirmed for many Western commentators and policymakers that there had been a major shift in Russian policy under Putin and that his Munich rhetoric was now being applied in practice. Furthermore, when Russia recognised the breakaway regions as independent states it seemed to signify a major departure: after all, in rhetoric at least, Russia had previously insisted on the territorial integrity of the former Yugoslav and former Soviet republics. This remained the basis of Russian objections to Kosovo’s declaration ofinde- pendence in February 2008 and its subsequent recognition by most Western states, as well as the legitimation for Russia’s own reabsorption of Chechnya into the Russian Federation.

Nevertheless, these developments again need to be understood within the context of longer-term developments in Russian foreign policy. It is true that by recognizing South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Russian policymakers abandoned any real claim to consistency of defence of such principles (though, like Western powers with Kosovo, they portrayed it as a unique case that had no implications for those principles), but they had warned repeatedly that Western recognition of Kosovo against Russia’s (and Serbia’s) objections would have implications elsewhere (Headley 2012a). They had also warned that they would uphold their role as peacekeeper in “frozen conflicts” in the former Soviet space (although Russian troops have in fact provided support for de facto states since the early 1990s). In addition, Russia had had to accept NATO enlargement as a fait accompli, including the accession of the Baltic states, but Russian policymakers have repeatedly warned against any further NATO encroachment into the former Soviet space, viewed as an area of vital and special Russian interests.

The war with Georgia showed that Russia was now prepared and able to back up its rhetoric of standing up for its interests, especially in the former Soviet space. So, although the rhetoric and overall outlook had not changed, Putin was more willing to implement it in practice even if it meant a deterioration of relations with the West. This was partly because, as a result of the economic recovery, Russia was now more capable of doing so and less dependent on economic ties with the West (the reintegration process within the former Soviet space was also designed to reinforce the economic revival and Russia’s independence from the West). However, as with previous crises, there was a subsequent attempt to emphasise shared interests with the West and to promote a rapprochement. One move in this direction was the proposal to develop a European Security Treaty that would help resolve the disputes over Kosovo and Georgia (Russian MFA 2009). As with earlier attempts to invigorate the Conference/Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE/OSCE) as the key security institution in Europe, the Russian initiative fell on deaf ears in the West. By now, Russia was seen as acting against European norms rather than as an equal participant in European affairs, and although there was more caution about further NATO enlar- gement,4 alternative ways of bringing former Soviet states into the Western fold were now pursued (the Eastern Partnership). Such a rebuttal merely contributed to further Russian resentment and assertiveness.

Hence, the cycle of crisis and rapprochement between Russia and the West seemed to be developing into a spiral of deepening mutual distrust.

Ukraine and Syria, 2013-

The developments outlined above came to a head with the Ukraine crisis. There is no room here to go into detail about internal Ukrainian politics;5 I will focus instead on how the crisis there turned into a wider clash between Russia and the West, and specifically on the Russia-EU dimension.

For much of the post-Soviet period, Russian policymakers viewed the European Union as the benign West in contrast to the United States and NATO (there are echoes here of Cold War wedge driving). Russia was fairly positive about European Union integration and did not object in principle to EU enlargement, unlike NATO enlargement. Nominally at least, Russian policymakers hoped that EU enlargement would also promote closer ties between Russia and the EU, and insisted that Russia was a European power. As suggested above, there were clashes over norms, however, and specific tensions as a result of EU criticism of Russia’s Chechnya campaign, over certain issues related to enlargement (Kaliningrad; the rights of ethnic Russians in the Baltic States), as well as between Russia and individual EU Member States such as the United Kingdom and Poland. These tensions were a prelude to the dramatic clash over Ukraine which resulted from an assertive Russia seeking reintegration in the Soviet space meeting an EU that was emboldened to act in its neighbourhood and regarded Russia as a disruptive influence.

in one respect, the Ukraine crisis was the result of two contradictory integration projects (Headley 2012c, 2013). Although Ukraine was not being offered actual membership of the EU, the Association Agreement (AA) incorporating a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) was designed to extend many features of membership and incorporate Ukraine into the wider EU orbit, tied to conditionality in a way that was familiar from the enlargement process. The AAs grew out of the EU’s

Eastern Partnership, developed partly in response to the Georgia crisis. Ukraine was key for Russia, however: Putin believed that Ukrainian membership was vital for the success of reintegration initially as a Customs Union and more ambitiously as a Eurasian Economic Union; Russian oligarchs were intimately involved in Ukraine, and Ukraine was central to Russian energy exports; culturally and historically, eastern Ukraine at least was considered part of a common space with Russia, and ethnic Russians lived there in large numbers; and Sevastopol in the Crimean peninsula, controversially leased from Ukraine, was the home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.

Both sides made it clear that Ukraine could not be a member of the Customs Union and sign an FTA with the EU. This points to problems with the narrative of EU integration as a peace project, since a deep integration project of this sort creates similar issues to those that emerged with the nation state: breaking up existing common economic and cultural spaces and making borders more significant. Furthermore, the EU’s foreign policy was conducted in a way that did not promote peace: it ignored Russian concerns about the agreement, and, convinced ofits own inherent goodness and the benefits an FTA would bring to Ukraine, equated a pro-EU orientation with democracy, neglecting legitimate concerns among many Ukrainians about the proposed agreement (these problems with the divisive effect that integration could have, and with EU foreign policy, echoed aspects of the Yugoslav conflict in the early 1990s; Woodward [1995]).

Furthermore, the AA also required Ukraine to align with the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy, which Russia increasingly perceived as a way to build close ties with NATO and as being antagonistic towards Russia. Combined with US support for the Maidan protestors and its apparent attempt to engineer the removal of President Yanukovych and replace him with Arseniy Yatsenyuk - whose “Open Ukraine” organisation ( was sponsored by, among others, the US State Department, the National Endowment for Democracy, the Polish Embassy, Chatham House and the NATO Information and Documentation Centre in Kiev - such policies led Russian policymakers to perceive events in Ukraine as a Western attempt to push Russia out of an area of vital interests, implemented through the now familiar method of regime change - in this case the removal of a democratically elected president through a popular protest campaign orchestrated in part by anti-Russian Ukrainian nationalists.

Consequently, when Yanukovych fled (apparently against Putin’s wishes) and the future orientation of Ukraine became clear, it is perhaps not fully surprising that Putin moved surreptitiously to annex Crimea - an opportunistic move to solve once and for all the Sevastopol issue (Mearsheimer 2014). Once again this was a blatant violation of the norm of territorial integrity that was supposedly still central to Russian foreign policy. Although arguments could be made, as with Kosovo, that Crimea is a special case (it has a majority of Russian speakers, and it was only part of Ukraine due to its arbitrary transfer from Soviet Russia to Soviet Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev in 1954), Russia had clearly come a long way from its stance of 1991/1992 - that the constituent republics of the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia and of the Soviet Union were now independent states entitled to their territorial integrity. Subsequently, Moscow played Belgrade to eastern Ukraine’s Republika Srpska, again in stark contrast to the Yugoslav wars when Russia had voted for sanctions against Serbia for supporting Serb secessionists in Bosnia - even if, unlike with Crimea, Russia formally claimed not to support independence or accession to the Russian Federation for the self-declared Donetsk and Lugansk “republics”, urging instead substantial autonomy within Ukraine.6

The Ukraine crisis is the culmination of Russia’s more assertive attitude - especially in its “near abroad” - now backed up with a willingness to stand up for its interests even with force, despite the isolation and economic repercussions it entails. At the same time, Russian policymakers still attempt to defend their actions in terms of shared principles, and to accuse the West of abrogating those principles (in manufacturing a coup against an elected leader by those who threatened the rights of the Russian minority) and displaying double standards; and they object to the lack of consultation with Russia or consideration of Russian interests. For example, Putin (2014) told the Duma in December 2014:

... in the case of the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement, there was no dialogue at all. We were told that it was none of our business or, to put it simply, we were told where to go. All the arguments that Russia and Ukraine are members of the CIS free-trade zone, that we have deep- rooted cooperation in industry and agriculture, and basically share the same infrastructure - no one wanted to hear these arguments, let alone take them into account.

Similarly, with Syria, Russia refused to back down from its support of Assad and then, later, provided direct military support to his regime. This was a demonstration of the assertiveness and geopolitical thinking

(supporting an ally) that has been the mainstay of Russian rhetoric, including in relation to the Middle East where it displays the influence of the former Foreign Minister Evgenii Primakov, a Middle Eastern specialist. Theoretically, it does not signify a reversal of Russia’s opposition to Western intervention in 2013 (and subsequently), or its earlier anti-interventionist position, because Russia was invited to join the campaign by what it sees as the legitimate government. However, as in Ukraine, Russia seems prepared to risk a confrontation with the West, this time by openly entering the war, thereby going beyond supporting a proxy, which is a far cry from the caution in Bosnia in the 1990s. This willingness can be explained in part by two developments discussed previously: the vision of Russia as a fighter against Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism, tying the Syrian conflict to Russia’s own struggle internally,7 and the attempt to match great power rhetoric with action, backed by renewed military capability. In this context, the multifaceted intervention in the Syrian war serves as a demonstration of Russia’s “return” to military “greatness” (Myers and Schmitt 2015). Yet, it is still justified in terms of existing international principles: support for a legitimate government that Russia portrays as the most effective bulwark against Islamic extremism, offering also the potential for cooperation with the West against Islamic State.

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