By Sebastian Åsberg:
“At last, Russia has returned to the world arena as a strong state – a country that others heed and that can stand up for itself” – Russian President Vladimir Putin, 2008.
While the overall strength of the Russian state, especially in the long-term, is still a subject of debate, Russia has increasingly become a power the international community must take not of once again. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 following the end of the Cold War, Russia suffered significant economic and social hardship and a loss of power as a result. The president of Russia at the time, Boris Yeltsin, was more mocked than respected.
When Vladimir Putin took office in 1999, he resolved to improve Russia’s stature in the world. Helped by a commodity boom, the country’s economy and standard of living improved notably during his time in office.[i] With material conditions in the country improved, the Russian leadership grew increasingly assertive in its regional sphere of interest, abandoning the earlier path of accommodation with the West. Richard Sakwa, professor of Russian and European politics at the University of Kent, argues that this turn towards what he calls “neo-revisionism” came at around 2007. By this time Putin had become increasingly embolden by the country’s economic growth, while there was a heightened sense of rivalry with the EU and US over their growing influence in the states bordering Russia.[ii]
The current Ukraine crisis is the latest in a series of incidents that have led to deteriorating relations between Russia and the West. The Ukraine crisis was preceded by the wars in Chechnya in 1999-2000 and Georgia in August 2008. The Chechnya campaign was perceived as being heavy-handed, exemplified by the carpet bombing of Grozny[iii], and it has been argued that Russia deliberately provoked the Georgia conflict.[iv]
International dismay has also accompanied Russia’s backing of the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in the country’s ongoing civil war in order to protect Russian naval installations in the country.[v]
Finally, domestic policies pursued by the Kremlin, such as discriminatory laws against homosexuals and a perception that the Russian state is cracking down on dissent and opposition, has also contributed to worsening relations between Russia and significant parts of the international community.
However, the Ukraine crisis can still be been seen as a major turning point. Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula in March 2014 and its subsequent support for the Russian separatists in the Donbass region shocked large parts of the international community.
The Russian takeover of Crimea was the first annexation of another European state’s territory since the Second World War. It was met with accusations that Russia was breaking one of the most basic principles of the post-war international order – the sanctity of borders – by trying to redraw the map through force. The subsequent war in eastern Ukraine, a conflict which has killed an estimated 6000 people,[vi] where pro-Russian separatists have been aided by Russia, has provoked even further indignation in capitals across the world. Russia is seen as conducting a war of aggression by proxy. The downing of flight MH17 by the separatists, killing 298 people, added to the outrage as the conflict began to directly affect Western citizens. Comprehensive sanctions were imposed against Russia, and the United States even contemplated supplying Ukraine with arms before the Minsk II ceasefire in February.
The Ukraine crisis can arguably be viewed as sounding the death knell for the belief that Russia could be harmoniously integrated into a Western system following the end of the Cold War, like other post-communist countries in Eastern Europe.
Much has been written about the situation in Crimea and about the battlefields of eastern Ukraine, but what will be the geopolitical and diplomatic consequences of the Ukraine crisis?
Despite having declined in importance since the days of the Soviet Union, Russia remains a power of significance on the world stage. It still has a substantial population (140 million) and economy (the ninth-largest in the world) and retains close trade and diplomatic relations with other major actors. For example, it is the EU’s third-largest trading partner and many European countries rely on Russia for their gas supplies. It retains a large degree of influence in several areas of the world, in particular what is referred to as Russia’s “near-abroad”, the former republics of the USSR.
Given this, how is Russia’s relations with other states being affected by its perceived aggression in its neighbourhood and increasing revanchism? How are neighbouring states reacting to Russia’s conduct?
Over the coming weeks, Strife will examine how relations between Russia and various countries and international organisation are being affected and how they are approaching the Ukraine crisis, as well as looking at the possible geopolitical fallout of Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Mike Jones will discuss Britain’s handling of the crisis and why the Ukraine crisis has not received more attention in the UK. Conradin Weindl will look into the relationship between the European Union and Russia in the wake of the war in Ukraine. Andrzej Kozłowski will analyse Poland’s approach to the crisis and the implications for Polish security. Finally, Sebastian Åsberg, will examine the debate regarding NATO membership in neutral Sweden and Finland, which has intensified significantly as a result of the war in Ukraine.
An increasingly assertive and antagonistic Russia, with its military of 800,000 personnel and vast nuclear weapons stockpile, has been described as one of the biggest challenges facing the world today.[vii] [viii] In this four-part series Strife hopes to provide a deeper understanding of how key countries and regions are reacting to this challenge.
Sebastian Åsberg holds a BA in International Relations from Malmö University, Sweden, and is currently reading for an MA in War Studies at King’s College London. His main interests include European security and defence policy, security cooperation within the EU and NATO, and the transatlantic partnership, as well as in Russia’s foreign policy in the region and beyond.
[i] Thornhill, John “Vladimir Putin and his tsar quality”, Financial Times, 6 February 2015
[ii] Sakwa, Richard, Frontline Ukraine – Crisis in the Borderlands, I.B. Tauris, 2015, p.30-32
[iii] Human Rights Watch, “War Crimes In Chechnya and the Response of the West”, http://www.hrw.org/news/2000/02/29/war-crimes-chechnya-and-response-west
[iv] Georgia began war with Russia, but it was provoked, inquiry finds, The Independent, 1 October 2009
[v] Fisher, Max “The four reasons Russia won’t give up Syria, no matter what Obama does”, Washington Post, 5 September 2013
[vi] United Nations, “Death toll in eastern Ukraine crosses 6,000, Zeid says, as UN releases new report”, 2 March 2015
[vii] Rachman, Gideon “Russia is a bigger problem than Isis for Obama” Financial Times, 10 November 2014
[viii] The Telegraph, “What is the biggest threat facing the world today?”, 17 April 2015