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The Cold War and the Cold Shoulder

TBILISI – The Ukraine crisis has shattered key Western assumptions about Russia, and many analysts and policymakers have fallen back on the belief that Russian President Vladimir Putin must be acting irrationally. But it is Western assumptions that need to be questioned. In particular, what has made Russia so keen to undermine the current international order, first in Georgia in 2008 and in Ukraine now?

On the surface, these campaigns seem like post-imperial territorial conflicts. Russia, according to this view, recognizes that it cannot get its old empire back, so it is chipping away at neighboring territories instead, justifying its actions by a nebulous concept of ethnic and historical justice. And, like Serbia’s former President Slobodan Milošević, Putin dresses up foreign aggression as national salvation in order to bolster his domestic popularity and marginalize his opponents.

Putin’s approach closely resembles the vision set out by Russian Nobel laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn in his 1990 essay “Rebuilding Russia.” Referring to the former Soviet satellite states, he suggested letting those “ungrateful peoples” go, but keeping Russia’s rightful territories, such as eastern and southern Ukraine, northern Kazakhstan, and eastern Estonia, with their ethnic Russian populations, and Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which are cultural extensions of Russia’s North Caucasus.

But it would be misleading to portray Putin as merely another out-of-control national romantic. He singled out Georgia and Ukraine not to redeem Russians’ emotional commitment to South Ossetia or Crimea, but to punish those countries for their dangerous liaisons with the West – in particular Georgia’s ambition to join NATO and Ukraine’s desire to sign an association agreement with the European Union. Indeed, Russia’s reaction is consistent with its recurrent discourse about being “squeezed out” of its own neighborhood and “encircled” by hostile Western powers.