Porte d’Ukraine

Dmytro Natalukha analyzes Russian strategy in invading the Crimea and locates recent actions within a larger context.

The center of power in Russia - and in a wider, new Russian imperial sphere?

The center of power in Russia – and in a wider, new Russian imperial sphere?

Ukraine has been in fever during last months. When its President, Viktor Yanukovych, refused to sign the Association Agreement with the EU in late 2013, people bursted on the streets, protesting against the decision. A brutal beating of peaceful manifestators by the riot police ensued, Kyiv’s central square – Maydan, responded to this with even more protesters (up to 1,5 millions in its best day), who now demanded resignation of the President and complete reload of the state system. Peaceful for all these days, Maydan went violent in January, when the ruling Party of Regions and the Communist party pushed through repressive legislation in an outrageously illegal manner. 170 MPs out of 225 required, managed to manually vote for 11 laws in 1 minute. The counting commission managed to visually count in less than 5 seconds all the hands raised for each law. With democratic principles completely annihilated and the credibility of the Parliament lethally undermined, the Ministry of the Interior decided to test the new legislation right away and renewed the attempts to clear the streets by force effectuating mass-arrests of the protesters in between. The crisis escalated, the protesters went offensive and clashes with police became deadly – several demonstrators were shot dead by the riot police.

This turmoil could have been instantly stopped if the President prudently resigned, or at least – met some of the protesters’ demands. Instead Mr Yanukovych seemed to intentionally aggravate the crisis, undertaking absurd actions or giving incogitant orders, pulling Ukraine towards if not a civil war, then certainly a bloody local conflict. Such irrational actions push forward an argument, supported by the majority of Ukrainian analytics, that the political crisis in Ukraine has some external triggers. World media see a trace of Russian influence and impact on the Ukrainian situation. The so-called “Russian Scenario”, regarded as the most probable reason for the escalated violence, allegedly targets to provoke a full-scale bloody confrontation in Ukraine, resulting in the collapse of its territorial unity. While one could agree with such conclusion, it might seem more advisable to consider Russia’s role in such processes as systemic and not casuistic. It may be argued that the “Russian Scenario” is a not just a set of tools aimed to destabilize and disintegrate Ukraine, but rather a long-lasting grand strategy of the country, directed primarily to strengthen the political power of Russian ruling elites inside Russia itself.

Every revolution tries to preserve its accomplishments. Radical events weaken a country and even in case of success, profound alterations in the society still face potential threats, either internal (counter-revolution) or external (foreign intervention). History shows that a way to secure the revolutionary gains is to export the revolution to neighboring countries, transferring the ideas that triggered the revolutionary process in the society. France did so in 18th century, the Communists in Russia did so in the 20th century. The aim of such export is to tilt the regional balance of power, to defocus the attention and therefore – to shield itself from a foreign threat, concentrating on the internal one.

However, not only revolutions have gains to protect. Political elites, raised to power in a democratic or quasi-democratic way, also have attainments to secure, especially – if their rule degraded to an autocracy with elements of police state, abuses of human rights, outrageous corruption and unlawful enrichment of such elites as a result. That is exactly what has been happening in Ukraine during the last 3 years, but what is more important – that’s what has been happening in Russian Federation since early 2000s and in Belarus in the early 90s. Today these countries tend to be considered more autocratic than democratic. Is there a connection between their political decadence? Having in mind the idea of export of revolution, could we argue that such export is suitable for autocracies as well?

It is unlikely that an autocracy will decently exist in an encirclement of democracies. Such enclaves are mainly isolated from international trade, their economies are buttoned-up and their leaders are usually locked in their own countries having few allies and partners – mainly as autocratic as themselves. To ease their grip would mean to lose power. To lose power is to lose everything and more. Though any stiffening of the regime immediately overthrows the status quo and therefore may trigger potential internal and external threats. This seems like a vicious circle, except for a complete change of the baseline – the encirclement by democracies. It seems logic that the issues mentioned hereinabove, faced by autocracies, may be reduced if not avoided, if they were surrounded by regimes of their own kind.

It may be suggested that “export” as a tool in foreign policy or internal protection has been used in different forms during the history of the mankind:

  • export of values – starting with the abolitionism movements, suffrage, and ending at last, but not least – with rights of participation of the commoners, such export allowed to create strong internal and regional units;

  • export of ideology – being the rise of communism and fascism in Europe and the spread of democracy world-wide, strengthened inter-state blocks and reinforced ideological liaisons between their citizens;

  • export of regime – when both values and ideology are exported on the territory of a country in a form of a “government model kit”, even if completely alien for the population of that specific territory (e.g. – Soviet Union to Baltics, U.S.A. to Iraq, Russia to Ukraine)

It’s with the last example in mind that one might cast a quick look at the political map of the world and the data provided by the Democracy Index1, that reveal the following facts: a) Russia is an authoritarian regime, b) all members of the “Customs Union” (Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan) are defined as authoritarian regimes, c) twelve post-Soviet states, declared as potential zone of enlargement of the Union, either are authoritarian regimes, or balance on the brink of hybrid and authoritarian regimes (with few exceptions). This creates a “belt of autocracy” around Russia, which was downgraded in the Democracy Index from a hybrid regime to autocracy. Looking at Russia as the literal centre of regional autocracy, would it make sense to argue that if liberal values and ideas can be exported to neighboring countries, autocratic values and measures may be object of such export as well? Moreover, does this support the argument of “export of autocracy” in terms of Russia’s full-scale foreign policy?

In late 2013 Moldova and Lithuania suffered from a ban on export of their goods to the Russian Federation – a critical blow to both economies where Russia is a major export destination (~20% of overall export). Ukraine’s declaration on the intention to sign the Association Agreement was also accompanied by a Russian ban on its goods. In the same late 2013 Russia declared its intention to provide a loan of EUR 10 billion to Hungary (accused by European politicians in late 2013 for “dismantling constitutional values”), to develop its nuclear energy facilities. Presently turbulent Ukraine also received a USD 15 billion bailout from Russia for economic recovery. The failure to return this loan will most likely result in the necessity to sale the national strategic industrial assets, such as Ukraine’s gas transportation system. Given that the due date is in 2015, the Ukrainian reserves are empty and the economy draggles, it would make sense to expect an offset of liabilities with the lender. A country where the political leader is already isolated in the world community and where the economy is 100% paternalized by a foreign state is independent only by title. One may drag parallels with Belarus, they might be quite appropriate.

Such parallels may endorse the argument that Russia indeed effectuates the policy of export of autocracy and Ukraine has been infected by the latter. The outcomes seem obvious – Russia completely encircles itself with an “autocratic belt” of authoritarian regimes, leaving only the Russian-export-dependent Baltic States outside. Its political elites receive control over new industrial assets, while the Union trio (Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan) receives a new market for export. The situation with the discredited President Yanukovych, being now ultimately isolated by the world community and Mr Putin as his only ally left also reinforces this thesis.

At the same time, the intermediary victory of the protesters became a blow for Russian foreign policy developers and forced them to revise the scenario. Yanukovich does not control the country any more, while his political failure and the rise of the new government – recognized by major world powers – handed confused cards to Putin. The desired failure of yet another revolution, supposed to demoralize the political opposition in Russia and the whole region, securing the further rule of autocratic elites, did not happen. The dismantlement of the “autocracy belt” and its buckle – by destabilizing its integral parts – seemed possible for a while.

However, Putin has now invaded Crimea. While this crisis continues – it’s a win-win situation for Putin’s regime – the gains of his autocracy are still protected and a springboard for further export of instability and violence has been created. Those who think that Crimea is the final aim of the Russian army are likely to be mistaken. Being unable to chew the whole country Russia decided to nip off at least a big part of it. Crimea is just the first bite. The appointment of the convicted criminal Aksenov as prime-minister of the peninsula reminisces on the “export of autocracy” tactics. Southern regions (exit to the Black Sea) and Eastern ones (industrial basin) are likely to follow. In case this happens no presidential elections will be possible in May, as in a country which does not control 1/3 of its regions no elections will be recognized as valid. This will also conserve Ukraine as a non-aligned state – to accept it to, say, NATO in such circumstances would be a political and military suicide. The Russian propaganda machine is also at its best – constant accusations of the new Ukrainian government of alleged connections with far-right radicals pursue the same aim to discredit and isolate it from the world.

Therefore, further events might transform Ukraine into one big “frozen conflict”. Poor experience and coordination of the new government together with some, frankly speaking ignorant political management in certain sectors, does not help the situation. The “export of autocracy” might have not played out in full in Ukraine but one of its aims seems to be achievable – the isolation of a country on a global scale and Ukraine’s blockfree status. The world needs to assist Ukraine in this deadly struggle otherwise another aim might be accomplished. If the Russian forces decide to advance to Kyiv, a puppet-president might be reinstalled. Yanukovych is still alive, isn’t he?

Dmytro Natalukha is an MPhil candidate in International Relations and Politics at Cambridge University,UK. A former practicing lawyer, he holds his first degree in International Public Law and is strongly involved in social activity and public policy developments in Ukraine.

1 The Economist Intelligence Unit: Democracy Index 2012

 The image “Kremlin, Moscow” courtesy to Achilli Family / Journeys via flickr.com, released under Creative Commons 2.0. The image has not been altered.

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