Published 2-03-2014, 11:15
Vladimir Sarkisyants, an MSc Candidate in Russian and Eastern European Studies at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford.
Today’s crisis in Ukraine was triggered by a combination of two factors. Internally, it was actions of the regime itself that antagonised the large sections of the population. Yanukovich’s corrupt practices created a profound sense of insecurity and injustice on part of many regular Ukranians, and eventually lead to the unprecedented level of disgust with the regime. This created a tense situation within the country. To this a second, external factor was added when Eastern Partnership programme offered potential for a much wanted reforms of Ukraine’s sistema. All was needed is the leaderships’ rejection of the nicely wrapped but inadequate in light of Ukraine’s economic troubles offers from the EU, and population rose up in protest. On its own, then, revulsion with Yanukovich regime would unlikely to have resulted in a popular uprising starting as it did in November. Its timing was ultimately conditions by the rejection by the Ukrainian president of the EU Association Agreement that was popularly perceived as an alternative to the unsatisfying status quo. It is the reaction to government’s volte-face on the EU agreement that proved to be the final straw triggering mass protest and ultimate ousting of Yanukovich.
Arguably, Yanukovich sistema brought this upon itself, thanks to mismanagement and arbitrary rule it established. Yet without the role played by the external actors such an abrupt end of Yanukovich rule could hardly have been conceivable. And this brings in other players that have greatly contributed to the current crisis. Russia – a country that many of today’s Ukraine watchers care more about than Ukraine itself. It is in connection with Russia that much of the interest to what is unfolding in Ukraine is generated. However, it was the EU that played a crucial role in triggering the events and what we see happening in Ukraine could also be viewed as a part of greater process: "Poland’s Unfinished Revolution in Eastern Europe.”
It is the so-called neo-revanchist policies advanced by certain states within the EU that spearhead the attempt to draw "new separating lines” across the continent. These policies, veiled as they are in a promise of greater democracy and prosperity often associated with the EU, also have an important geopolitical angle to them. The main aim is, unsurprisingly, to minimise Moscow’s footprint in its periphery. Given the military toothlessness of the EU, and cautious stance of the war-weary US, success of this new "containment light” policy is far from assured. Indeed, its result can be observed today: the general disarray in which resurgent Russia appears to be moving in and there is little that can stop it.
An important point that needs to be clarified here, is that however threatening the Russian actions may seem, they are in fact counter-actions – Moscow’s reaction to the perceived threat in one sphere it is prepared to go the greatest lengths to defend. It is widely recognised that Ukraine forms a centre piece in Russian policies in the post-Soviet space. Given the very close links between the two peoples, outlined recently by no other than former peace-maker Mikhail Gorbachev, Russian response was to be expected by anyone with some knowledge of the region. Arguably, it matters little who occupies the Kremlin at the time of the perceived attempt to push Russia out of Ukraine. Fundamentally, reaction of any Russian leader would have been the same – fight back. This outcome were either not considered or simply ignored in the Western capitals. Instead, the policies followed only added to the increasing sense of insecurity on the part of Russian leadership, and indeed, the latest European Neighborhood Policy offered Russia little but to watch its influence in the participating states wither away.
Western policies of Russian exclusion in former USSR are counterproductive; they set Russia and the West on a collision course, and can escalate the situation to the dangerous levels that could erupt into military confrontation not dissimilar to the 2008 Georgian war. Furthermore, policies of Russian isolation have an adverse effect on the situation inside Russia and provide Putin’s sistema with powerful ammunition it uses to strengthen the domestic perception of the West as intrinsically hostile to "legitimate” Russian interests. It also contributes to regime’s tightening the screws at home, by again using a familiar spectrum of aggressive West and its ostensibly omnipresent agents.
Thus far the Russians have largely approved Putin’s foreign policy course. The Kremlin’s response to the Ukrainian developments is likewise supported. Current crisis over Ukraine is a good illustration of the overdue need to re-evaluate a common Western perception that creating democracies next-door will affect change within Russia. In reality, the effects of unilateral Western undertakings in the Russian periphery seem to prove the exact opposite.