From influencing their close neighbours to supporting far-flung military efforts, understanding Moscow's policies today requires a look back at the course the country has taken over the past several decades.
The news that Russia is providing passports to residents of Ukraine’s two breakaway regions in the Donbas region came at an inopportune moment for the Ukrainian leadership.
The current president, Petro Poroshenko, was defeated in a landslide in the second round of the Ukrainian presidential elections on April 21, and his successor, the TV comedian Volodymyr Zelensky, had not yet been sworn into office. Why did Russia choose this moment? Is it a signal of further Russian ambitions to undermine Ukraine?
The end of imperial ambitions
When assessing Russian actions in 2019, one needs to go back in time to find the root cause, which is tied to the end of the Cold War in the late Soviet period.
In 1989, Mikhail Gorbachev’s Perestroika program had reached an impasse but in foreign policy his leadership was receiving lavish praise. No other leader had done so much to alleviate the tension of the Cold War through disarmament and agreements with the American president Ronald Reagan, and subsequently with his successor George H.W. Bush.
Thus, as the countries of Eastern Europe removed their communist leaderships at the end of that year, the USSR took no action.
The Brezhnev Doctrine, introduced during the Prague Spring of 1968 to justify a Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, was no longer applied. In fact, Gorbachev had attended the 40th anniversary commemorations in the GDR and warned leader Erich Honecker that reforms were essential.
A year later, the question of German unification caused Gorbachev much more stress, but his bargaining power was minimal.
The United States provided an assurance in February 1990 that having united Germany in NATO—a move to which Gorbachev objected strongly at first—there would be no further NATO expansion eastward in the future: as Secretary of State James Baker phrased it “not one inch eastward.” In fact, debates were taking place in 1990 whether NATO had fulfilled its mandate and could be disbanded.
In the following year, after the rise of the national republics and a bitter feud between the two main leaders in Moscow—Gorbachev and the new Russian president Boris Yeltsin—the Soviet Union disintegrated, ending some seventy-four years of communist rule.
Ostensibly, the Cold War was over. For some analysts in the West, it was a triumph of exceptional proportions, but the shouting was muted since Bush and other Western leaders had sincere respect for Gorbachev and were starting to place trust in the Russian leader, Yeltsin.
In addition to foreign policy, Western experts were encouraging the new Russian Federation to transform its ailing economy through shock therapy. That experiment, pioneered by Yeltsin’s Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, was in Russian eyes a catastrophic and costly failure that impoverished the majority of the population in the 1990s and culminated in the financial collapse of 1998.
In the meantime, Yeltsin had consolidated his power with a brutal army attack on his opponents in the Duma in 1993, killing over 150 people and ensuring that the presidency would remain intact. The West stood by and watched, virtually without comment.
In the early 1990s, Yeltsin and his Foreign Minister Andrey Kozyrev followed a pro-Western policy that confined Russia to a geopolitical region while the United States commanded the world stage.
NATO was not disbanded; on the contrary, plans were announced to expand eastward to include the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland, the former heartland of the Warsaw Pact (it occurred in 1999).
Yeltsin grew increasingly unpopular at home, so much so that the chances of his reelection in 1996 appeared slim. The disastrous war against the breakaway republic of Chechnya, which ended in defeat in this same year and the return of capital Grozny to the rebels, featured regularly on television. It symbolized the ineffectual and declining power of the Russian state just as the war in Afghanistan had underlined Gorbachev’s Soviet Union.
Yeltsin’s main rival in 1996 was a moderate communist called Gennady Zyuganov. The United States stepped in and helped introduce a sophisticated electoral campaign with the support of some major Russian oligarchs who controlled Russian TV stations (RTR, NTV, ORT).
Zyuganov was portrayed as a dangerous communist who wished to restore the Soviet Union. Miraculously, Yeltsin’s popularity rose from a polled 8% to 35.8% in the first round and a run-off victory of 54.4% compared to 40% for Zyuganov.
The degree of US interference in this election is often discussed. Most important was the acquisition of a timely IMF loan and TV advertising well beyond the permitted norms.
Spending on Yeltsin’s campaign also exceeded electoral rules. In the short term the danger had passed; Russia could continue along the democratic path.
In his second term, however, Yeltsin was a pathetic figure. In part that was a result of problems with his heart, but also his general apathy, drinking bouts and constant absences from the capital.
A successor rises
Instead, he relied on a succession of prime ministers who moved away from the pro-Western path begun by Yeltsin and Kozyrev: after Gaidar (June-December 1992) came Viktor Chernomyrdin (December 1992 to March 1998), Sergey Kiriyenko (March-August 1998), Yevgeniy Primakov (September 1998-May 1999), Sergey Stepashin (May-August 1999) and ultimately Vladimir Putin (August 1999-May 2000).
Putin, a low-level KGB official had risen to prominence in part though his role as the aide to the mayor of St. Petersburg, Anatoly Sobchak. Yeltsin likely selected him because of his demonstrated loyalty to Sobchak (who died in February 2000) and as the figure most likely to shelter him once he stepped down from office.
There was little indication that Yeltsin was choosing a future president or that with Putin as Prime Minister, there would be any significant changes.
In Putin, however, Yeltsin had selected a figure who was deeply offended by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the imperial power it had wielded.
That is not to say that Putin was messianic or had a fixed agenda when he won the presidential elections of March 2000. During the campaign he was as silent on future policy similar to Volodymyr Zelensky in the Ukrainian presidential elections of March-April 2019.
Putin took part in no debates and did not hold mass rallies. The one thing that had positioned him to take over was the renewal of war in Chechnya following a series of apartment bombings in Russia that were blamed on Chechens. In March, Putin won a majority in the first round, with Zyuganov second and the liberal reformer Grigoriy Yavlinsky in third.
Pieces of the puzzle
The lengthy history of Putin’s leadership is beyond the scope of this paper. But there are certain milestones that need to be emphasised to explain why Russia today has become an aggressive power that has intervened and continues to intervene in the affairs of neighbouring and even some distant states.
The first is the expansion and belligerence of NATO, particularly the bombing of Belgrade in 1999, the 2004 inclusion of the Baltic States and the Membership Action Plans for Georgia and Ukraine in 2008.
In August of 2008, Russia opted to respond militarily to prevent Georgia reasserting control over South Ossetia and Abkhazia while developing plans for the invasion of Crimea should Ukraine fulfil the program of President Viktor Yushchenko to join the European Union and NATO. Once Yushchenko was defeated in the presidential election of 2010 and replaced by Viktor Yanukovych, the problem appeared to be resolved, but it reappeared after the Euromaidan protests.
While there are several aspects to Russian foreign policy priorities, the geostrategic questions loom largest.
Moreover, Russia is far more sensitive about the “Near Abroad” (the former Soviet states) than it is about Eastern Europe. And within the Near Abroad, the most critical elements are the two Slavic republics Ukraine and Belarus, which constitute a proverbial red line that cannot be crossed. The only question is the degree to which Russia should intervene in each case and the nature of the intervention: military, peaceful, propagandistic, inter-state programs, etc.
As Yaroslav Hrytsak pointed out in a recent article, the Russian intervention in Ukraine succeeded in Crimea but failed in most of eastern Ukraine other than the Donbas.
Subsequently, Russia’s role has been to ensure the survival of the breakaway republics by providing military hardware rather than the acquisition of territory.
In the meantime, Russian propaganda on social media continues a militant and frenzied anti-Ukrainian campaign. Whether this campaign will be moderated or ended with the Zelensky Presidency remains to be seen but observers such as Lilia Shevtsova perceive Russian concern about Ukraine as obsessive.
The situation in Minsk
Belarus is another area where Russia has stepped up propaganda. In this republic, Russia has the decided advantage as the Belarusian public, which is predominantly Russophone, is dominated by Russian media.
In general, Belarusians are sympathetic to Russian goals as well as to the annexation of Crimea in 2014. The Russians also have conducted a series of military exercises with the Belarusian army under the framework of Zapad (the most recent were in 2017), and Belarus is a confirmed member of several Russian-led organisations such as the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation.
Belarus has only had one president in its independent history, and Alexander Lukashenko, who came to power on a pro-Russian platform, has retained a hardline image by stifling opposition and trampling on human rights.
More recently, however, he has taken steps toward conciliating western powers and the EU in particular by opening state borders to short-term visa-free visits and developing a dialogue with the West.
The relationship between Lukashenko and Putin is not close: the two leaders cooperate but appear incompatible as personalities.
In August 2018, Mikhail Babich was appointed Extraordinary Ambassador and Plenipotentiary of Russia in Belarus, and he promptly staffed the Russian Embassy with GRU officials as well as others who gained a reputation for their presence in events in Ukraine after the annexation of Crimea.
Babich himself has wasted little time in serving as a powerful figure at liberty to intervene in Belarusian political and economic life and his actions have been perceived by some Belarusians as unacceptable.
At once, Russia began to speak of enhanced integration through the Russia-Belarus Union, an agreement originally signed during Yeltsin’s presidency but essentially moribund until recently. The first step advocated is a common currency, an experiment that failed in the 1990s but has more chance of success today.
Russia is starting to set up media in Belarusian cities propagating the Moscow line. Putin has arranged a number of summits with Lukashenko, who has responded cautiously but at times with genuine concern about his future and that of the independent republic.
Belarus is a state of 9.4 million people; Russia has 146 million after the annexation of Crimea. This is not a contest of equals. Unlike Ukraine, it is feasible for Russia to absorb the six provinces of Belarus, even though most Belarusians prefer to live in an independent state.
All is not what it seems
Russia is multi-faceted, it has an opposition—albeit of a strongly nationalist orientation—and its regions also have demands of their own. Russia, in short, is not simply about the foibles of Vladimir V. Putin, but at present his is the decisive influence.
Putin’s goal is to establish full control or a decisive influence over neighbouring states. It is fair to say that the Russian leadership as a whole has scant regard for the independence of Ukraine or Belarus, which are regarded as linked to Russia through history, culture, religion and language.
That statement pertains even to Russia’s first president Boris Yeltsin and the last president of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev. No Russian leader has expressed support for and full recognition of the independence of the two neighbours to the southwest.
In asserting such pressure, however, Russia is moving beyond a geographical power in its neighbourhood: under Putin it wishes to be a major player on the world stage, intervening in international conflicts in Syria, sending mercenaries to the Central African Republic and Venezula, interfering in the 2016 US presidential elections, while encouraging closer contacts with trading partners in the EU.
It cannot operate on the same scale as the Soviet Union at its height in the mid-1970s, but as a powerful nuclear power, it can upset the post-Cold War equilibrium, using the argument that it is
merely pushing back after the humiliations of the 1990s and a unipolar world dictated by leaders in Washington.
For Lukashenko and his successors, and for Zelensky in Ukraine, refusing to deal with Russia is not an option. Both republics have key trading and economic links with the larger state—something that Poroshenko tried hard, but unsuccessfully, to ignore.
The bigger question is the extent to which they can assert an independent course and whether the United States, China or other powers will support such actions. Zelensky’s success, coincidentally, may serve as a warning to Putin that grassroots protest can have genuine consequences for the existing political establishment. It is not a question the 66-year old Russian leader can afford to ignore.
As for the West, many of today’s problems are self-created, but many are not. For too long, the only response from the Western powers to Russian actions has been that of sanctions rather than direct engagement or—not necessarily contrary—committed support to preserve the smaller powers through NATO membership or supplying them with offensive weapons at critical junctures.
Since 2014, Russia has been suspended from the G8 as a result of its annexation of Crimea and kept on the outside. It has responded to international alienation like an angry child by ignoring post-Cold War agreements about the territorial integrity of its neighbours. But the logical consequence of exclusion—closer links to Russian neighbours—has not been a Western priority.
The matter can be put more simply: Western democracies have to decide whether they are prepared to witness the dismantling of reformist states like Ukraine and Georgia, and others like Belarus that have demonstrated a will to develop democracy through the European Partnership Program and maintain independence.
The post-war order is unstable; borders are changing, and the options open to the United States and its NATO allies back in 1991 have largely disappeared.
Indeed, there appears a distinct lack of interest from the White House in the achievements of the late Cold War period, including the progress of democracy in Central Europe. Such complacency could be fatal to the future of these states.
For more information on the author’s work with iSANS, click here to see their Facebook page.