As the standoff between Kiev and pro-Russian rebels continues in light of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the world remains transfixed on Russia’s relentless role in fuelling secessionist movements in eastern Ukraine. But what are Russia’s motives, perceptions and desired outcomes with regards to this conflict? What drives Russia’s aggressive policy in Ukraine?
A few weeks ago, I had the unique privilege of attending a videoconference hosted by His Excellency Ambassador Pawel Milewski at the Embassy of the Republic of Poland in Canberra that brought together Polish and Australian think tanks to discuss global perspectives on the crisis in Ukraine.
The discussion sought to analyse two key issues: the relationship between Russia and the West in light of the crisis and the impact of the Ukraine conflict on China’s policy. Although the notion of the crisis being an accelerator and catalyst for enhancing Sino-Russia relations was intriguing, it was Dr Adam Eberhard’s insight on Russian perceptions of the crisis in Ukraine that most resonated with me. Most notably, understanding the peculiarities of the Russian perspective emphasised the significance of the role of historical memory in Russia’s foreign and security policy approaches.
During the conference, Dr Eberhard from the Centre for Eastern Studies in Poland articulated that Russian aggression against Ukraine was (and still is) perceived as a defence against Western geopolitical advances. Similarly to the Arab Spring, viewed by Moscow as a US-led effort to push Russia out of the region, the crisis in Ukraine is understood under the guise of a US-led Western conspiracy against Russia to weaken and divide the country geopolitically.
According to Eberhard, Russian President Vladimir Putin perceives the West as being in economic, moral and political crisis. The Obama administration in particular has given Russia the opening to change the status quo and to essentially shift the balance of power in Europe. Russia maintains the idea that it now has a unique and historical window of opportunity to create a counter-offensive to “take back” what Russia lost when it was weak. With a longstanding motivation to destroy the post-Cold War order and eliminate Western domination of the international system, Russia has no fixed end-goal in Ukraine. As Eberhard described, while Russia has laid out “red lines” for the West not to cross, there is no red line for Russia itself.
Indeed, Putin’s view of the illegitimacy of the post-Cold War global security order has played a significant role in Russia’s policy towards the situation in Ukraine. Russia’s determination to avoid strategic defeat and public humiliation is very much a derivative of its idealistic ambition to rise to glory and reclaim influence it had lost.
Russia’s aim is to stop Ukraine’s political reform by destabilising the nation from within. Not only does Russia want to prove that NATO is not functioning, it also seeks to demonstrate that US power and influence will progressively decline. Given that success in Ukraine would undermine Russian legitimacy, it is questionable to say the least that Russia will choose to repair relations with Ukraine and terminate its assault on the nation’s sovereignty and economic well-being.
Thus far, Russia has faced a limited (and arguably delayed) Western response to its support of the separatist armed groups in eastern Ukraine. If Russia continues to view the crisis as a conflict of potential, the Western sanctions imposed on Russia may well prove to be ineffective deterrents in the short-term. Although it can be said that Russia’s deepening economic and political isolation will invite growing aggression, prompting strong Western retaliation; it remains unlikely that sanctions will definitively change Russia’s behavior and may, in reverse, provoke the escalation of an already protective and aggressive Russian strategy.
Although the fighting in Ukraine has temporarily subsided, it may well abruptly return to pre-ceasefire levels. Given the historically embedded and symbolic nature of the conflict from a Russian perspective, Russia is unlikely to willingly surrender its levers of influence in eastern Ukraine.
Putting rhetoric aside, one must question how far the West is sincerely prepared to go in supporting Ukraine in confronting Russia’s potential military escalation. Will the West give Ukraine the aid it would need to successfully oppose Russian and separatist forces? Will Putin continue to be encouraged to make aggressive policies in order to adhere to Russia’s idealistic motivations and expectations?
As ONA analyst David Wall noted, Russia has an excessive ability to be a “geostrategic wrecking ball”. Despite this, Russia currently cannot realistically match Western capabilities and global influence. Be that as it may, even given inherent limits to Russia’s power and undeniable tension between its capabilities and idealistic vision, Russia will remain a vital player in the Ukraine conflict. In its resolve not to lose Ukraine to the West, Russian political determination cannot be undermined.
One thing is for certain; the repercussions of the crisis in Ukraine are yet to be understood and Russia’s hand in the conflict will continue to draw the world’s close attention as the crisis in Ukraine continues to unfold.
Rachelle Saad holds a Master of International Security from the University of Sydney and is currently a research intern at the AIIA National Office. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.