The West must accept that Russia will continue to speak for its own people in a world it considers unfair.
Russia’s relationship with Europe appears to be falling apart at a worrying pace. Events seem to be moving so quickly that it seems inevitable that the contents of this article will be incomplete by the time anybody reads it. In recent weeks, Joe Biden has ordered new sanctions on Russia, hunger-striking opposition leader Alexei Navalny is reportedly close to death, Russia has increased its military presence on its border with Ukraine, and revelations have shown that the perpetrators of the 2018 Salisbury Poisoning were also linked to a bomb blast in the Czech Republic in 2014.
None of these events have happened in isolation. It is plausible that the military build-up around Donbass serves as a domestic distraction from the protests that swept Russia at the start of the year, and new US sanctions form part of a wider wave of international condemnation of the treatment of Navalny and other protesters. Even though many analysts have interpreted the military build-up as a mere show of strength, the events on the Ukrainian border seem eminently capable of generating an international crisis. The ordering of a full takeover of the Donbass region by Vladimir Putin would invite condemnation on at least the level of the response to the annexation of Crimea in 2014, and would constitute a major test for NATO, an alliance visibly more divided than it was seven years ago.
The ongoing conflict between Ukraine and Russia is a good example of a ‘frozen conflict’. These are ongoing, low-level conflicts between Russia and other former Soviet republics, fought over territories outside Russia’s borders in which large numbers of Russians, or people loyal to Russia, still live. Other regions suffering from such conflicts include Transnistria (in Moldova) and South Ossetia and Abkhazia (both in Georgia).
The fact that Donbass is not the sole example of a scuffle between Russia and one of its neighbours is telling. Western neo-conservative commentators argue that it is indicative purely of Putin’s aggressive foreign policy. However, this is an incomplete analysis of the situation in the post-Soviet sphere.
It is impossible to separate the problems in Crimea and Donbass from the events following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990 and 1991. In addition to losing nearly a quarter of its Soviet-era territory, the Kremlin also lost substantial numbers of Russians to the new post-Soviet states; perhaps as many as twenty million ethnic Russians live in the former Soviet Union. Most of these people live in Ukraine, but millions also live in Northern Kazakhstan, an area which, were it not for Kazakhstan’s friendly relations with Moscow, might also be ripe for frozen conflict.
The potential for disorder in the former Soviet Union did not go unnoticed at the time of the superpower’s collapse. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the dissident writer and one of the last people who could be labelled a Soviet chauvinist, understood this well. In his 1995 polemic The Russian Question, Solzhenitsyn urged the international community to allow ethnic Russians to live under one roof. He argued that Russia had little interest in maintaining control over distant Central Asia or the Southern Caucasus, but that it would object to losing its own people to Kazakhstan, Ukraine and the Baltic states. A quarter of a century later, Russia’s foreign policy lines up perfectly when mapped onto the writer’s perspective.
All of this means that the West, and particularly NATO, must try to better understand that the events of 1990 and 1991 have made the post-Soviet sphere deeply unstable, creating endless possible power-kegs of violence. This does not mean caving into every one of Putin’s demands in Russia’s near abroad. Nor does it mean turning a blind eye to the President’s murderous treatment of his opponents, whether in Moscow or in an English cathedral town.
However, it does mean that the West should recognise that Russian foreign policy is not just the machinations of a Machiavellian and sinister leader in Vladimir Putin; his actions in Georgia and Ukraine reflect a real feeling of resentment and maltreatment on the part of ordinary Russians. Seeing Russian policy in this light will likely make for more constructive dialogue between Russia and the West, and might begin to make for a more stable future for the former Soviet Union.
By Thomas Leeman
Thomas is a postgraduate student at King’s College London studying International Political Economy.
Cooley, Alexander, “Whose Rules, Whose Sphere? Russian Governance and Influence in Post-Soviet States”, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 30/06/2017
Reevell, Patrick, “Russia moves troops near Ukraine: analysts explain what’s behind the build-up”, ABC, 19/04/2021
Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr, The Russian Question: At the end of the Twentieth Century, The Harvill Press: London, UK (1995)