Scenes of Russian troops taking control of Crimea might well lead one to believe that Russian leader Vladimir Putin holds most, if not all the cards in the unfolding Russian-Ukrainian crisis. Yet the Russian leader’s Crimea gambit should be seen as a reflection not of his strength, but of his feelings of insecurity.
The Kremlin is deeply concerned (if not outright frightened) by the ouster of the kleptocratic regime headed by Viktor Yanukovych. Specifically, Putin is concerned about a possible ripple effect that the Euromaidan Revolution might have on other authoritarian states in post-Soviet Eurasia – including Russia itself.
Russia’s bullying of Ukraine flies in the face of the Kremlin’s grand foreign policy design. In Moscow, Ukraine has long been seen as a lynchpin of Putin’s pet project of the Eurasian Union. Yet Putin’s aggressive moves in Crimea, undermining Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, seem certain to dash the Kremlin’s ambitious “Eurasian vision.”
The pretext Moscow has used for its meddling in Crimea – citing a need to protect “Russian citizens and compatriots” – makes Russia’s neighbors nervous. This is particularly true for a relatively prosperous state that has a large Russian minority, namely Kazakhstan. In addition to Ukraine, Russia sees Kazakhstan as a must-have member in the customs union, which is seen as a precursor to a Eurasian Union.
The Crimea crisis has unmasked as a big lie Russia’s contention that it would treat a possible Eurasian Union as a voluntary and mutually advantageous association of sovereign states. The bottom line here is this: Putin’s vision of post-Soviet Eurasia’s future rests on the necessity of Putinism being the governing philosophy underpinning all states in the region. By Putinism I mean a state in which power is wielded by a narrow, tight-knit group of people who cannot be easily removed from power. It’s also a system in which rule of law doesn’t exist, the legislature is rubber-stamp in nature and there is no genuine space for political and economic competition. Ukraine’s attempt to break free of the Putinist system, and build a more competitive framework in its place, poses a mortal challenge to the master of the Kremlin. Keeping this in mind, it’s not so surprising Putin responded to Kyiv’s challenge with reckless brinkmanship.
The Ukraine crisis is often interpreted as a result of a geopolitical “struggle over Ukraine.” Yet a better framework for analyzing Ukrainian developments is not a West vs. East paradigm but as a withering away of the post-Soviet foundation upon which Putinism rests. In the broad historical view, the disintegration of the Soviet Union was always bound to be a protracted process. True, the Soviet Union as a state (or, in a memorable phrase, “as a geopolitical reality”) did indeed disappear overnight. But the decomposition of Soviet institutions, practices, and the political mindset have taken decades, and the process is still going on. Among the characteristic features of most post-Soviet states is the huge spillover of the old (Soviet) elites. This enabled Putin to create the prototype for a “hybrid regime” with a strong authoritarian component and the resultant barriers to genuine economic and political competition.
Ukraine’s post-independence experience has a somewhat typical post-Soviet trajectory. Upon gaining independence in 1991, Ukraine was effectively an empty shell, not a full-blown nation-state (or rather state-nation) with its distinct identity. This shell was eventually filled largely with post-Soviet, essentially Putinist content: authoritarian political practices, crony capitalism, and the merger of politics and big business that stifled competition. The 2004 “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine -- the first attempt in Kyiv to repudiate a mild form of Putinism as practiced by a former Ukrainian president, Leonid Kuchma -- failed in large part because of petty political bickering among the “Orange” victors. That infighting paved the way for the rise of the venal Yanukovych regime.
The current crisis is Ukraine’s second attempt to break out of the post-Soviet, Putinist mold. Kremlin-controlled media outlets have sought to justify Russia’s interference by portraying what has happened in Kyiv as a triumph of nationalist and “fascist” forces whose coming to power threatens the lives and security of the Russian and Russian-speaking population in Ukraine. It’s true that language and ethnicity have been politicized regularly since 1991, particularly during election campaigns. But in real life, ethnicity and language are not the dominant issues in Ukraine; sociological surveys demonstrate that ordinary folks are much more concerned with the issues of personal security, rule of law and corruption.
The real political divide in the country is not that which supposedly separates Ukraine’s western and eastern regions. It is a fault line, where on one side stands a host of emerging and assertive identities (including liberals, the champions of a Ukrainian civic nation, radical and less radical nationalists, and others); on the other side are found those clinging to a post-Soviet identity, one characterized by political passivity and a reliance on state paternalism. This post-Soviet identity is spread unevenly across Ukraine, being concentrated predominantly, but by no means exclusively, in the east and south. Arguably, Crimea has the highest concentration of people who would characterize themselves as “Russians.” But in Ukraine’s current socio-political context, it might be more accurate to define the bulk of them as being post-Soviet (or simply Soviet) in their outlook, rather than “Russian.”
The toppling of the Yanukovych regime created an opportunity for a bold political experiment, one largely aimed at accommodating Ukraine’s multiple identities and opening up political and economic possibilities to a much broader slice of society. This desire to open up society is what strikes at the very heart of Putinism, a philosophy that needs a tight lid to be kept on political expression and economic opportunity.
Putin’s initial response to scuttling Kyiv’s breakout attempt appears to have been successful. But time is not on Putin’s side. The post-Soviet conditions that prop up Putinism will continue to erode, and Russian de facto control over Crimea won’t do anything to alter the process.
Igor Torbakov is Senior Fellow at Uppsala University and at Södertörn University, Stockholm, Sweden.