David J. Meadows holds a PhD in Political Science (Dalhousie), with expertise specializing in the politics of Eastern Europe, Russia and Eurasia, and is also a Research Fellow at the Centre for Foreign Policy Studies at Dalhousie University. You can follow him on Twitter @David_J_Meadows.
Since April, 2014, Russia had been waging a proxy war in eastern Ukraine. Although no war was officially declared, Russia’s covert and overt support was crucial in financing, equipping, providing personnel, and supplying intelligence to the pro-Russian separatist proxies.
Still, even with such support, pro-Russian separatists proved unable to counter Ukraine’s military advances. As a result of the near potential defeat of their pro-Russia proxies, Russia has made the fateful decision to undertake a direct military invasion, by sending upwards of 5,000 troops into southeastern Ukraine, turning what was previously only a proxy war into something undeniably real.
Even with units of the Russian army invading and occupying parts of eastern Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly denied any Russian involvement, and cynically played himself off as being a peacemaker. Most recently, Mr. Putin even had the audacity to suggest that the Ukrainian government in Kiev needed to sit down and seriously discuss ‘statehood’ for the Russian occupied regions of eastern Ukraine.
In reality, Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and current invasion of eastern Ukraine, illustrates that historical patterns of Russian imperialism never went away after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Indeed, Russia’s tactics only serve to show the extent to which Mr. Putin and other officials in Moscow disregard the sovereignty of Ukraine.
Yet Russia’s actions in Ukraine appear to have come as a surprise to many policymakers, analysts, and media commentators in the West. Part of the problem is that many in the West were lulled into a false sense of security after the end of the Cold War, stemming from the widely accepted “triumph of liberalism” thesis popularized by Francis Fukuyama, where it was taken for granted that Russia and the other post-Communist states would transition into democracies and liberalized economies.
The triumph of liberalism largely proved to be illusory and false, as Russia is far from being either a democracy or liberalized economy. But this has not been so much a reversal of reforms. Even a cursory glance at political patterns in Russia compared to the relative rates of transformation in leading liberal reform countries, such as the Baltic States, Czech Republic, and Poland would have revealed that Russia was actually a laggard in putting in place significant democratization and economic liberalization. Consequently, during the crucial years of the 1990s, there was backsliding on most of the tentative reforms, and increasing reversion towards authoritarianism, where many of the political and economic practices from Soviet times continued to persist.
While often overlooked by many Western analysts, Russian political culture simply lacks the historically rooted liberal-democratic traditions that often underpin democratic consolidation. Instead, Russian political culture tends to have an overtly anti-Western and authoritarian bent, and still contains large amounts of positive historical memories that are nostalgic towards the Soviet Union.
Russia’s failure to democratize, and its reversion to authoritarianism, was also matched by historical continuities in foreign policy reminiscent of Soviet times. Although underreported and often ignored by Western media, this has happened more and more throughout the 1990s, where Moscow supported separatists in proxy wars in Transnistria in Moldova, and in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia. Additionally, it also attempted to coerce and bully the governments of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania away from their desire to return to Europe and move away from Russia.
However, it was not until the Russian cyber attacks on Estonia in 2007, and the Russian invasion of Georgia in the summer of 2008, that many in the West began to wake up to Moscow’s revanchist behaviour – even if such attention proved to be short-lived. Sadly, it was not until Russia’s recent illegal annexation of Crimea, the tragedy of MH17, and Moscow’s current invasion of Ukraine, that many Western leaders began to realize that Russian interests are increasingly out of sync with the commonly shared liberal-democratic values found among members of the EU and NATO.
However, with increasingly clear evidence of Russia’s direct support and invasion, it appears that current Western sanctions have done little to sway Moscow’s belligerent behaviour. Instead of targeted sanctions, another step to get Moscow’s attention would be to extend sanctions more completely to the Russian oil and gas sector, which the Russian economy is dependent on for export revenue. Here, Russia is more vulnerable than the EU members that are heavy importers of Russian energy products. Another key step would also be to cancel all current military weapons contracts with Russia including France’s Mistral-class ships. More military material and financial support for Kiev is also required from the members of NATO and the EU.
It’s also time for the EU and NATO to extend an invitation of eventual full membership to Ukrainians in a show of solidarity. Membership prospects would offer encouragement to the democratic leaders of Ukraine. They would have something tangible to offer the Ukrainian people that would justify added liberal reforms, which Ukraine badly needs.
Indeed, what most seriously threatens Vladimir Putin is not the relative military threat that NATO and the EU pose, but the fact that the expansion of these clubs into Eastern Europe has historically brought a general trend towards both democratization and economic liberalization. Such trends directly threaten the authoritarian order in Moscow. This is why Moscow is fighting so hard to keep Ukraine destabilized, because Mr. Putin views this as his best chance of keeping Ukraine from moving Westward.
The time for action is now. Any failure of EU and NATO members to act decisively and cohesively will surrender the initiative to an anti-democratic and authoritarian Russia, and will further appease Mr. Putin’s imperialistic agenda.
Author’s note: This is a revised version of a piece that was first published in the SSR Resource Centre's The Hub blog of the Centre for Security Governance.