international analysis and commentary

How Russian stereotypes help Putin outwit the West over Ukraine


As the Ukraine crisis has been unfolding for six months now, we can see that many widely accepted notions about the post-Cold War international order were, in fact, illusions. That order, especially in Europe, has changed to an extent that it needs to be redefined in the eyes of policymakers, observers and the wider public.

Despite two world wars and the ultimate defeat of communism, Europe today remains divided with Russia able to exert enough influence to constitute a separate pole of power. It is clear now that without Russia, Europe will be unable to manage the Ukrainian situation as the country’s west and southeast divide is the fault line between two spheres of influence.

Moreover, it is evident that Europe will be much better off both economically and politically if it includes Russia as an independent center of power. Unfortunately, today we see politicians pursuing policies that are strictly based on their own immediate self-interests and, in some cases, emotions. The truth is that, as Henry Kissinger put it, “For the West the demonization of Putin is not a policy; it is an alibi for the absence of one.” Very rarely do policy makers see the bigger picture and, as a result, it is the people of Ukraine who suffer the most.

In this context, it appears that President Vladimir Putin is able to outwit his counterparts in the West exactly because of their highly stereotypical and value-laden vision of today’s Russia. While policy makers in the West seriously suspect that Putin is a fanatic, who is driven by the desire of self-aggrandizement, in reality Putin seems able to catch his opponents off guard by making moves that were not expected of him.

For example, Putin recently called on Ukrainian separatists to postpone referendums in Luhansk and Donetsk. The separatists defied the move and proceeded with a questionable vote that resulted in a confirmation of a substantial pro-Russian, or rather anti-Kiev sentiment, in these regions. Nevertheless, instead of sending troops to Ukraine’s East and recognizing the region’s self-proclaimed authorities, the Kremlin issued a statement on Monday saying that the referendum’s result must only be the basis for dialogue between Ukraine’s diverse regions.

The truth is that no other country is more naturally interested in a stable and prosperous Ukraine than Russia. If Moscow were to absorb areas in the eastern part of Ukraine, there would be no state more anti-Russian than the remaining regions of Ukraine. If Ukraine remains destabilized, the Russian economy will suffer further from unrealized opportunities and the Russian leadership will be driven by its own public opinion and domestic pressure to intervene. Today Russia badly needs technology and expertise to shift its economy to a new paradigm of development: while eastern countries, especially China, are willing and able to purchase Russian commodities, only Europe and the US can provide crucial innovation.

Therefore, it is not in Russia’s interest to be on bad terms with the West. At the same time, Putin has demonstrated that there are certain red lines that cannot be crossed – Russia will not accept a West-friendly regime change in Kiev, as it will never accept Ukraine’s complete departure for the EU. Moreover, it is not only Putin himself who will not accept this, but Russia’s public opinion and many people in eastern Ukraine as well.

The Crimean peninsula was, of course, a unique case for at least two reasons. First, the majority of its population is ethnic-Russian and associates itself with the Russian state. Second, it has an incommensurate symbolic and historic value for Russia. Putin himself has repeatedly said that Ukraine’s southeast is not comparable and the Crimean scenario is not possible there. Today Russia wants to create a stable political force in Ukraine’s east that will balance the Western aspirations of the new elite in Kiev. It would be better for Russia if this balancing would be formalized in a form of constitutional federalization. Russia’s reluctance to recognize the so-called People’s Republic of Donetsk and accept its plea to join it has confirmed this analysis.

Russian policymakers believe that the 23 years of struggle between east and west in Ukraine, during which one side would not make a viable compromise with the other, has led to the violence and chaos that we observe today. In order to change this situation, Ukraine must have a strong regional elite in the future that can contain the central government in Kiev and stop it from applying a “winner takes all” principle.

The problem is that the West and Russia have already invested so many emotional, political and financial resources in the Ukraine crisis that it will be difficult for both sides to reach a compromise without losing face. With Crimea, Russia has certainly broken the rules of the game that, previously, only Western states were allowed to cross. At the same time, Russia is not part of the West and will potentially become even less “Western” as a result. This represents a major drawback as Europe and the world were arguably more stable when Russia was part of European great power club after the 1815 Congress of Vienna. 

What we see today, as the crisis could potentially reach its peak during the May 25th presidential elections, is that the new international order in Europe has arrived without anyone noticing it. Unlike Western states, Russia has come out of the crisis that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. This makes it resurgent, which legitimizes many of its moves in the eyes of the domestic public opinion and contributes to Putin’s popularity. As a result, the world will have to adapt to a new multipolar architecture. Otherwise, the “clash of civilizations” argument can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.