Dealing with Russia after Maidan

The Ukrainian people’s Maidan revolution changed the political landscape of Europe like an earthquake of great intensity. The shockwaves are still spreading, and the aftershocks are under way. The ensuing crisis in Crimea and Ukraine is now following a predictable trajectory, and no metaphor will grasp the sense of frustration of European citizens, who believed in a peaceful future of nations with political systems becoming at least compatible. “Liberal peace” takes liberal partners.

True, revolutions are hard to contain in content and outcome. Being a chaotic mass phenomena, they tend to change directions. The demonstrators in Kiev were united in their protest against a corrupt regime of cynical robber barons—a.k.a. “Oligarchs”—hiding behind a façade of constitutional legitimacy. Their views of the future, however, diverged to the extremes varying from European-type democracy to radical nationalism—all looking for support and blessing from the outside. This opened the dynamic toward violent clashes between these groups and calls for the forceful assimilation of the Russian-speaking population. A first legislative act to this extent in the deeply insecure parliament was quickly vetoed by the chairman, but the political damage was done. Since then, all kinds of intricate conspiracy theories have flourished—ranging from the United States seeking Ukrainian accession into NATO to Russian provocateurs being involved in shootings on the Maidan.

What matters, however, is the evidence of open interference by Russia under the pretext of protecting Russian compatriots in Ukraine. What might have been interpreted as a mere reaction to the convulsions of a failed state turns out to be the execution of an elaborate plan for promoting the decay: an openly revanchist propaganda that denounces the legitimacy of Ukrainian sovereignty; deliberate whipping up of emotions in an atmosphere of existential insecurity; the deployment of tens of thousands of “local self-defense forces” clearly programmed in Moscow to serve as destabilization forces; the open threat of military intervention in perfectly timed maneuvers of heavily-armed contingents along the Eastern border of Ukraine; and, not to forget the bumptious gesture of launching the prototype of a new ICBM.

This reaction to the Maidan went against the West’s conventional wisdom of Russia being on an admittedly difficult path—though one that lead eventually toward democracy and rule of law. A major crisis was not predictable as long as economic conditions in Russia’s “near abroad” remained calm or at least not hopeless, but it was possible—should socio-economic earthquakes like the failure of the Ukrainian state occur. Conservative leaders’ disposition to wishful thinking and underestimation of the authoritarian trend in Russian politics clouded their ability to accept the possibility of an interventionist Russia, because vested interests of their constituencies called for optimism over the long haul. On the other hand, American triumphalism and claims to the status of “the only superpower”—with a view of Russia as “America’s number one geopolitical foe”—only confirmed worst-case scenarios in Moscow. The U.S.-led coalition invasion of Iraq finally served Putin the ultimate model for a return to proven Soviet practices and the revision of what Putin had called “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century.”

Russian Resources: An Economic Limit to Adventurism

For the time being, nothing is more successful than success. Bringing Crimea home to “Mother Russia” and applying the brakes to international efforts to stop the crisis in Syria are bound to be followed by more of the same: specifically, the destabilization of eastern Ukraine, and broadly, more cynical machinations in international conflicts around the world. Arrogant rhetoric and spoiling international organizations’ agendas are powerful tools to resuscitate Soviet-type patriotism which, in turn, helps divert the attention of Russian citizens, who may otherwise become aware of the lack of dynamism at home. The reality of economic stagnation, lack of international competitiveness (exporting gas and guns is not enough), bureaucratization and run-away corruption, and the whole lot of issues making daily life difficult may be obfuscated by a mythology of national “greatness”—but only for a limited time.

As alternate sources of information about the true state of affairs continue to be accessible for privileged and urban populations, the design of an ideologically-driven renaissance has its limitations in the willingness of robber barons to shoulder the costs of Putin’s adventures. Vested interests are not-at-all interested in political complications for business. On the other hand, the young and educated and their parents will be frustrated to learn that prospects of free travel, learning abroad, and international careers are no longer part of the newly proclaimed “Russian dream.”

The continuity of Moscow depends upon checks and balances that are not written in the Russian constitution. Political stability is based on a “deep state,” i.e., the collusion among informal and formal actors, insiders to the political game holding copies of at least some files, and attics of too many officials filled with the skeletons of corruption and personal gain. This potential of mutual blackmail represents an instable equilibrium bound to react in unpredictable ways to random shocks. We knew infinitely more about the rules, factions, and interests in the power game in Soviet times than in the “Kremlin” of today. Intensified analytical work has to take into account the entire spectrum of factors including socio-political undercurrents, controversial narratives, and fears to be manipulated by a sophisticated machinery of public relations called “political technology.” Demonization of Putin is no recipe for containing the fall-out of the current crisis—nor is the assumption of “team Putin’s” omnipotence.

Western sanctions are appropriate, costly as they will be for both sides. They may not undo the eventual annexation of Crimea, but, after the failure of desperate last-minute efforts of diplomacy, they will convey some consistent messages: strategies of bullying smaller countries in Europe are counterproductive in more way than just the myth of greatness. Infinitely more important is the damage done to Russia’s image as a reliable and efficient partner in international organizations and for foreign investors. Greatness in isolation is bound to feel pretty lonely and it comes with considerable opportunity costs. On the other hand, recollecting and reassembling Soviet republics after having destabilized them makes victory extremely costly, considering the ensuing economic and political burdens. In a meeting with Putin, the partners to the Customs Union, Belarus, and Kazakhstan have already been warned and their presidents were obviously not amused, according to photographs of the respective press release.

Western financial support for Ukraine’s stabilization, on the other hand, will be expensive, too, and it will have to be made conditional upon stringent economic, political, and legal reforms. The recovery will be complicated not least by lack of competence, even irresponsibility, of Ukrainian elites, and public protests against Western diktat are to be expected, offering renewed opportunities for Russian interference. The Maidan revolution’s success may be elusive—to the delight of the designers of Russia’s greatness.

Implications for The European Neighborhood

One troubling aspect of Putin’s adventure in Crimea remains; the rehabilitation of nineteenth century nationalism/chauvinism as a legitimate program in European foreign policies. This represents a Pandora’s box, as it challenges the very basis of the European model of multinational integration. Angela Merkel rightly observed, “Vladimir Putin is living in a different world.” Indeed, in his view, Russia’s rightful ambition is challenged and its historical uniqueness and political cohesion are threatened by some “European model” of multinational peaceful cooperation united in common vision of human dignity, freedom, and the rule of law.

Sophisticated propaganda technologies for stirring up distrust among nations, insisting upon demarcations that have resulted from wars won and lost in the past, and upon stereotypes of superiority and inferiority defined in national mythologies now are a serious threat to the cohesion and dynamic of the European Union. Posing as the only consistent protector of nationalism and sovereignty in the Security Council of the United Nations, the Kremlin keeps promoting national authoritarianism on a global scale—suggesting the wrong answers to wrong questions at the wrong time.

The Russian invitation to representatives of the radical nationalist “Front National” of France as observers to the referendum in Crimea is an early warning and reason to ring the alarm bells. Attempts at political destabilization of the EU from within—a real classic in the handbook of advanced AgitProp—have to be contained and countered with utmost attention and vigilance. This is no hysterical fiction of renewed ideological warfare from past times of the Cold War, but the new reality in dealing with Russia. The good news is that the political, economic, and moral resources of the European Union are infinitely greater than those at the disposition of a Russian leadership caught up in geopolitical delusions of greatness.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.