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Europe is (still) failing to understand Russia’s actions in Crimea

The EU has been right to interpret Russia’s foreign policy as both chaotic and driven by short-sighted or temperamental interests. However, the EU is wrong to view Russia’s foreign policy as a monolithic bloc in the hands of President Putin.

Cristian Nitoiu
9 April 2014

The EU has been right to interpret Russia’s foreign policy as both chaotic and driven by short-sighted or temperamental interests. Its 2008 war with Georgia and its invasion of Crimea have shown that decisions in Russian foreign policy are often rash and irrational, due to the absence of a clear and cohesive medium to long-term strategy. However, the EU is wrong to view Russia’s foreign policy as a monolithic bloc in the hands of President Putin. Moscow’s move in Crimea in fact reflects a seeming consensus among the various interest groups that shape Russian foreign policy, rather than the capricious actions of a reckless leader.

If the EU, however, wants to find a peaceful and effective solution to the crisis in Crimea they have to provide separate ‘ways out’ for those competing interest groups. Only in this way can their alignment with Putin’s short-sighted behaviour be broken down. 

If the EU wants to find an effective solution to the crisis they have to provide separate ‘ways out’ for those competing interest groups.

At first glance, Moscow’s actions in Crimea might seem to be driven by the need to show the US or the EU that Russia wants to be recognised as an equally great power, and treated as such in international affairs. Yet the Ukrainian events of the past three months have not only nullified Putin’s PR triumph in the Syrian crisis, but also deprived him of the opportunity for basking in global glory following the Sochi Olympics. Above all, the ousting of Yanukovych signified a great blow to Putin’s ambitious and overriding goal of Russia becoming the centre of an effective Eurasian Union. 

On a domestic level, Putin has created a cult of personality – a strong leader who can duel ‘bare-chested’ with the West in order to regain Russia’s lost international reputation or its global and regional hegemony. Coupled with the potential for spillover into Russia of widespread street protests directed towards achieving a ‘more’ democratic system, these factors suggested that Putin was unlikely to approach the situation in Ukraine with anything like restraint.

The EU’s strategy towards finding a solution to the crisis in Crimea has been focussed on putting pressure on Putin and his inner circle through the threat or the use of sanctions. Germany offered Russia a ‘way out’ through an EU-led peacekeeping mission in Crimea; and when this initiative was rebuffed, Chancellor Merkel famously stated that Putin has lost touch with reality, and is operating in another world. 

Maybe so, but these approaches fail to understand the multilayered structure of interests that underpin Russian foreign policy. Putin’s goal during his current presidential term has moved away from an internal, national ambition that only sought to hold the balance of power between warring interest groups, to an external, international grand strategy designed to realign Russia’s place in the world. However, he has yet to achieve this goal.

Four types of influential groups have the potential to shape Russian foreign policy.

Four types of influential groups have the potential to shape Russian foreign policy. These are formed of shifting political elites, members of the secret services, military leaders, and the so-called ‘oligarchs;’ all of whom seek to serve their own interests through any means, including foreign policy. Moreover, these groups need to be further understood according to where they sit in the political spectrum – liberals, pragmatists, nationalists, and opportunists.

Liberals advocate handling international affairs according to the current rules and norms of the international community. The second group (pragmatists) is also in favour of abiding by the rules of the international community, but only on Russia’s terms.  The third group (nationalists) is bent on promoting only a Russian understanding of international relations and its exceptionalism. The last group (opportunists) has no fixed political position, and adopts an opportunistic attitude, choosing any of the three other stances according to the current situation. These four groups apply their understanding of Russia’s foreign policy in relation to four geopolitical areas: American, Eurasian, Pacific (or Chinese) and the multilateral one (BRIC). 

Consensus among the liberals, pragmatists, nationalists and opportunists is very rarely seen in Russian foreign policy.

Consensus among the liberals, pragmatists, nationalists and opportunists is very rarely seen in Russian foreign policy. It is only the occurrence of particular events and developments, which impact all four groups, that have the potential to create such consensus. 

The events in Ukraine and Crimea have dealt a blow not only to Russia’s international position, to Putin’s image and global ambitions, but also to the interests of the four above-named groups. Liberals find themselves believing that the EU has been supporting a coup d’état, and interfering in the internal affairs of a country in Russia’s sphere of interest. For pragmatists, the EU’s unwillingness to take into account Russia’s interests in its ‘near abroad,’ and recognise the legitimacy of its hegemony in the region, has only emphasised how Russia is not being treated as an equal on the world stage by the West. Nationalists, who might be thought of as wholly supporting the annexation of Crimea, have instead seen what has happened as a failure of Putin’s bid to promote a new order in Eurasia; and this last view is also shared by the opportunists who recognise the potential for spillover of the Ukrainian revolution into Russia, and the unpalatable fact that, as sanctions start to bite, they might lose their wealth and privileges.

The EU has to recognise that Crimea is not an end in itself for the four interest groups.

The EU thus has to recognise that Crimea (or Ukraine for that matter) is not an end in itself for the four interest groups jockeying for influence in Russian foreign policy, but rather a situation that has endangered their position and interests, preventing them from pursuing their goals more effectively. The EU, then, needs only to provide a ‘way out’ for no more than two of these interest groups, in order to drive a wedge between them, and so break the current consensus, for the opportunists will very likely side with the prevailing order. In this context, the most effective course of action would be to address the concerns of liberals and pragmatists. This would mean showing them (or at least creating the impression) that Russia’s interests are being taken into account in Ukraine, and that Russia does have an equal say with the EU, both regionally and globally. However, given the rapidly developing zero-sum nature of the situation in Crimea, and Putin’s dislike of compromise, reaching out to the influential liberals and pragmatists in Russia will need sustained effort; and time is running out. 

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