When Russian armed forces began appearing in Crimea this week, international attention turned to Moscow at breakneck speed. Questions regarding Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intentions and motivations abounded, including the tongue-in-cheek assertion that just maybe he was trying to get the old Soviet band back together. The media was already all over Ukraine following widespread public protests that ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, freed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, and made very clear that Ukraine wants to align with the European Union rather than Russia.
As tensions appear to be softening and negotiations between Kiev and Moscow continue, the lingering question regarding Russian intervention in Ukraine remains … why? Sure, the image of Vladimir Putin riding a literal bear into other countries for the sake of former Soviet glory is appealing, particularly in the west. But the crisis in Ukraine highlights a great number of foreign priorities for Russia, not the least of which is an ongoing rivalry with the European Union. From where Putin’s sitting, Ukraine isn’t just Ukraine. It’s myriad other issues intersecting, which could be why Russian soldiers are in Crimea, no matter what he says.
Russia vs EU
Remember back to November, when protests broke out in Kiev. The catalyst for the unrest was President Yanukovych’s backing out of a trade deal with the European Union and instead opting to sign on to the Eastern Partnership, a Russian led trade bloc. It became a question of whether Ukraine would pursue membership in the EU or become more closely aligned with Russia, and the people spoke loud and clear when they began taking to the streets. For many it may seem like a no brainer — the EU has been slowly accepting former Soviet states and offering financial assistance. Meanwhile, Russia’s Eastern Partnership is still relatively new and states in the Eastern Bloc have a sordid (to say the least) history with Moscow.
Now, consider Russia. Russia is a country with an imperial history and big time interest in projecting power. So how does one such as Russia react when the European Union is crowding in on their sphere of influence? Or rather, the countries Russia believes to rightly be their sphere of influence? The perceived threat of the European Union, much like that of NATO, is seen by Russia as something that must be countered through economic and military agreements with neighboring states. Essentially, Russia wants to create a bloc to challenge the continental dominance of the EU, which could in the future be on Russia’s doorstep.
It may seem a bit aluminum-foil-hat-conspiracy-theory of Putin and his team to throw shade at the European Union, but let’s not forget that Europe and Russia have had extremely tense relations for decades. Russia is the odd world power out, while the European Union has been able to (haphazardly and with many issues) throw together an influential bloc of powerful states. Add to the already existent tension the fact that the EU and the US are by and large a united front, and Putin wanting some balance to the equation isn’t entirely insane.
Russia’s Near Abroad
When we’re talking about Russian foreign policy and the hand wringing that occurs over the EU creeping in on their borders, we need to understand that for Russia it’s not as simple as “Russia and states that aren’t Russia.” For Moscow, there’s Russia, states that aren’t Russia, and then what is called the near abroad, or states that aren’t Russia but Russia feels belong in their immediate sphere of influence.
In these states, Russia takes special interest. It’s not too strange to imagine why a powerful state would take particular interest in neighboring, weaker states — I mean, look at the US and South America. We messed with them for a long time, and in some ways most likely still are. It’s a bit different for Russia, as the states that are of interest are those that once belonged to the Russian Empire and later the Soviet Union, closest to the Russian border.
Take the case of Georgia, where Russia was so interested they kind of fought a war in 2008 over breakaway regions along the border. Georgia moved in to keep South Ossetia from breaking fully with the country, and Russia moved quickly to back the South Ossetians by bombing and invading Georgian territory. To this day Russia recognizes South Ossetia as a sovereign nation, along with a few other states. It was a case of Russia not letting things go against Russian interests in a bordering, near abroad state, kind of like we’re seeing now.
Where Ukraine Fits In The Mess
Now, consider Ukraine. It’s a border country, considered near abroad by Russia, where the EU enjoys strong backing by the people and is actively trying to bring the country into the fold, offering a $15 billion aid package. Things in Ukraine are going decidedly against Russia’s favor, so what is Putin to do? Perhaps through his lens of needing to keep influence out of the hands of the EU and maintain influence in the near abroad, intervening in Crimea, where a great number of ethnic Russians reside, seemed like the most surefire bet. Maybe he hoped protests there would develop into a separatist movement, and Russia could maintain influence over the energy pipelines that flow through the country to the EU.
Whatever the rationale of Moscow, the actions taken by Russia constitute a breach of sovereignty, and the US and EU are right to stand behind Ukraine at this critical juncture. Where all parties must be careful, though, is in exerting too much influence over a state during an instable time — whether that means Russia intervening militarily or the US and EU leveraging economic influence to sway the government. The coming months will be crucial for Ukrainian democracy, and the people of Ukraine deserve the chance to do it right on their own.