The views of the author are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Kennan Institute. The author's comments and others can be heard at the page for our recent Ground Truth Briefing: Ukraine and Europe: A Turning Point?
What does Russia want in its Ukraine policy, and how rational, offensive, or predictable is this policy? These questions are important since there is something deeper at stake in Ukraine – whether domestic conflict would further alienate Russia from the West, or if they would ultimately be able to find a common language in Eastern Europe as a key part of a EU-Russia common neighborhood.
There are at least three points that have to be made to understand the driving forces of Russia’s policy toward the Eastern Partnership, in general, and Ukraine as its biggest country, in particular. First, Russia’s preferences lie somewhere in between 'spheres of influence' and a contemporary version of 'great power management' (or a "concert of great powers"). It seems that the Kremlin duly comprehends the price it will inevitably pay for the first option, and only struggles to be recognized (mainly by the EU) as a legitimate actor in a wider Europe or Eurasia.
Secondly, it is not only Realpolitik that Russia is fascinated with; Moscow also has its own normative messages to convey to its neighbors. These messages may be either hypocritical or vulnerable, but they are part of the Russian discourse.
Thirdly, Russia is not only unilaterally imposing its policies in a neo-imperial way — it also explores those structural niches and opportunities that are objectively available.
Against this backdrop, Russia is applying several counter-strategies in Ukraine, which Russia thinks are defensive rather than offensive. First, it intentionally and consistently reduces the normative arguments (the attractiveness of European values) to purely material issues (how costly is the integration with the EU for Ukraine, who gets what, how generous is the EU offer to Kyiv, etc.). Second, Russia used its security trump cards, which are particularly evident in the case of Armenia. Third, Russia refers to a legal argument: according to the Russian-Ukrainian treaty on strategic partnership, the two parties have a legally binding obligation to refrain from actions detrimental to the other party. Fourth, Russia has launched its own normative campaign, incorporating in its policy a set of conceptual arguments, like portraying Ukraine and Russia as bound by civilizational ties, or referring to the conservative tenets of politics, with the principles of sovereignty and non-intervention at their core, or reactivating Soviet mythology.
It is noteworthy that some of these policies are consonant with local discourses in the neighboring countries. For example, material concerns about the price of accepting the EU regulatory standards are widely shared by the Yanukovych government. Likewise, blackmailing Armenia is only possible because of Yerevan's intransigence on the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh, a territory that means more for Armenia than association with the EU. Besides, Russian troops were deployed in some hot spots adjacent to Russia because in the 1990s neither the EU nor NATO wanted to engage militarily. This is another example that Moscow tends to only exploit the opportunities that come its way.
In the meantime, the weakest aspect of the Russian discourse is that Russia loses its soft power resources, indispensable for any possible kind of hegemony. Even if Russia makes some valid points, its positions do not resonate broadly in a wider Europe. The recent events in Ukraine make clear that as soon as it comes to public protests, normative arguments trump financial ones.
As for future Russian policies, there are two possible scenarios and, unfortunately, both are bad. One would be to interpret the mass-scale protests in Ukraine as a new edition of the Orange Revolution, with all previous negative connotations of this term in the Kremlin’s political narrative. Along these lines, Moscow will either have to reject the identity-based dimension of the protest or, what is even worse, to reformulate Russian identity as un-European or even counter-European. This is how the Kremlin TV propaganda works nowadays. Yet by voluntarily distancing itself from the EU, Russia invalidates its own idea of “moving together to Europe,” which – though highly hypothetical – could constitute the basis for a new, non-confrontational Russian foreign policy.
In the second scenario, Russia would see in the Ukrainian situation a chance to intervene. The current political mess and the decomposition of the ruling regime in Ukraine make this country even more vulnerable to external pressures. Given the EU reluctance to engage in zero-sum-game power struggles, it is Moscow who might wish to use the current instability to impose its economic and political conditions on Ukraine. It seems that only the enormous costs of this scenario might prevent Russia from considering it seriously.