For nearly three weeks the world has been guessing what exactly President Vladimir Putin’s plan for Crimea and Ukraine was. Now we know: he has annexed Crimea and wants firm control over the rest of Ukraine and its geopolitical orientation. But he also wants a world order based on different principles. And it is this that makes Putin’s previous actions logical and understandable and makes all the pieces fall into place. This missing piece completes the puzzle of Moscow’s actions.
For a long while conventional wisdom suggested that Russia wanted to fuel separatism in Crimea in order to keep it in a Transnistria-style legal limbo that to use as a leverage over Kyiv. But this did not make sense. Russia could have gained leverage easily without ever engaging in any activities in Crimea. The government that came to power in Kyiv in late February is weak. It is as legitimate as it can be under the circumstances, but it still does not represent the whole of society in the ways that a government should. In theory, it would have been easy for Moscow to gain leverage over some of these people by using a mixture of legitimate and shadier means. But Moscow did not even make the attempt to approach them.
After the de facto takeover of Crimea, this became harder: the new government’s willingness to make any deals with Moscow and its room for manoeuvre both probably shrank. Still, for a while Moscow might have counted on the West as an ally – scared by Moscow’s military build-up and not knowing how to respond to it, the West might have been happy to put pressure Kyiv to accept some compromise with Moscow just in order to make the problem go away. But Moscow did not try to do that either. It became evident that Moscow was not interested in gaining leverage that it could use to make a deal. Instead, Moscow was in the business of creating facts on the ground.
However, Moscow’s manner of creating these facts was also puzzling. It is clear that plans for a military takeover of Crimea had been made much earlier. The logistical scenario and distribution of roles to local pawns, such as the new Prime Minister Aksenov must also have been sorted out in advance – hence the swift and smooth nature of the takeover. But Moscow had not worked out the pretext. All its claims – about extremists being at power in Kyiv, Russians being persecuted – were glaring lies. This was drastically different from Moscow’s behaviour in Georgia in 2008, where Moscow worked hard to create an acceptable moral pretext by provoking Georgians to attack first and later went to great lengths to explain how its actions were in fact compatible with international law. In Crimea, it seemed as if Russia did not really care whether its pretext was believable or not. In fact, it almost looked like Moscow rather wanted it to be unbelievable.
Here’s where the big difference between Moscow’s behaviour in Georgia in 2008 and in Ukraine in 2014 comes in: in Georgia, Moscow violated the international rules of behaviour, but pretended it had not. It cheated on the rules, but did not challenge them. In Ukraine, Moscow has challenged the whole post-Cold War European order together with its system of rules.
The post-Cold War European order has rested on a few notable pillars. The majority of its principles – the inviolability of borders, the peaceful settlement of disputes, non-interference in internal affairs, respect for human rights and minorities – were part of the Helsinki Final Act in 1975. In the late 1990s, when, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO and the EU verbalised their enlargement strategies, another principle was added: European democracies are supposed to be free to choose their alliances and join if and when they qualify.
Needless to say, real-life situations tend to be complicated and confusing and hard to solve according to idealistic principles. Furthermore, some of these are bound to clash sometimes –minority rights and non-interference in internal affairs clashed in Yugoslavia and gave birth to Kosovo when the former principle carried the day. Some countries have been dragged into alliances and organisations such as the EU and NATO without qualifying, while others have been kept out for political reasons. Sill, these have been the official guiding principles whom no one who matters has tried explicitly to dispute or challenge.
Russia’s attitude towards these principles has always been selective. Moscow has been a strong adherent of the idea of inviolability of border and non-interference in internal affairs. This has been Moscow’s guiding principle throughout the post-Cold War era and most of its major differences with the West are rooted in it. Western policies in Iraq, Kosovo and Libya have in Moscow’s opinion violated this this very basic postulate. Russia opposes the concept of the Responsibility to Protect, which is used to justify Western actions.
Indeed, respect for human and minority rights – which nominally Moscow accepts as a worthy idea – are in fact seen by Russia as a dangerous guideline, as this can be used to jeopardize the territorial integrity of states. On the other hand, Moscow is skilled in using the same argument itself in its attempts to hinder other countries’ movement in undesired geopolitical direction, towards NATO or the EU.
Moscow has never liked this newest principle –countries’ right to choose and join alliances – but after Boris Yeltsin’s clumsy and half-hearted attempt to stop NATO enlargement at Norway’s Eastern border, has never publicly challenged it either. Instead it has tried to delay the relevant applicant countries’ progress towards membership, and once – in Georgia’s case – resorted to war to achieve that.
Now, however, having annexed Crimea and mounted a credible military force at the threat borders of Eastern Ukraine, Moscow is signalling that it wants to officially do away with the idea that countries are free to choose their alliances. It wants to make everyone explicitly accept and agree that some countries are not. Moscow wants to resurrect and also re-legitimise the idea of geopolitical spheres of influence that Europe thought had been consigned to the dustbin of history in the 1990s.
Today Putin said: “We are not against cooperation with NATO, not at all. But we are against a military organisation – and NATO remains in all its internal processes a military organisation – bossing us around … close to home or on our historic territories”. He has made himself quite clear. Now it is the West’s turn to answer.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.