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Real political implications: Radnitz on Putin

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November 3, 2014

By Sarah McPhee

After Vladimir Putin’s fiery Valdai Club speech in Sochi on October 21st, it has become clear that 2014 will be a watershed year for the Russian Federation and Russia-watchers everywhere. From Euromaidan to the Olympics, from the Crimean Crisis to the support of separatists in the Donbass region, Westerners have been attempting to answer one simple question:

What is motivating Putin?

Scott Radnitz, Director of the Ellison Center, recently addressed this question at a luncheon for retired Foreign Service officers. Acknowledging the recent demand for Russia analysts and pundits—resulting in much demagoguery and bluster–he attempted to offer some explanations which are less commonly addressed in the media. Radnitz contended that the crisis in Ukraine is the “culmination of 15-20 years of events, and an accident on one day….it was an attempt by Putin to salvage victory from the jaws of defeat following a series of perceived injustices.” He conceded that Russia overreacted, but argued that the Russia believes the United States has consistently disregarded the Russian perspective.

The litany of offenses include the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia, the enlargement of NATO, the 2002 American withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the support of the Color Revolutions in the 2000s, the proposed Missile Defense System, and the UN intervention in Libya. Radnitz reminded the audience that each time Russia objected, the US “got its way.”

Euromaidan was a genuine grassroots reaction to years of corruption, but it was perceived as largely anti-Soviet and anti-Russian. A small fascist role, which was amplified by the media, only increased fears that ultranationalism would lead to a dramatic reorientation. Such events are profoundly frightening to those who recall the fall of the Soviet Union and prefer a middle ground. For many Ukrainians, distrust of the government did not necessarily mean a desire for separation.

From the Russian perspective, Euromaidan was a series of events that worked against Russia’s best interests and the United States is at fault for not considering Russian perceptions. This was a failure to appreciate complex domestic politics, and American actions were not considered benign. Russian leaders specifically feared the EU Association Agreement and the nullification of the contract which protected the Black Sea Fleet in Crimea.

On 21 February 2014, a grand bargain was struck which would have resulted in demobilization of the protests. It envisioned diminished presidential powers and presidential elections three months earlier than scheduled. It seemed like an acceptable deal for all parties, but the next day security forces abandoned their posts and the Maidan protesters took over.

Radnitz believes that when Americans see protests, they think “freedom,” but for Russians, these protests recall instability. Furthermore, such protests always seem to work to the benefit of US interests. Russia sees the Americans as manipulating geopolitical events to their own advantage. Audio recordings of diplomat Victoria Nuland (“F*** the EU”) and images of John McCain on stage with protesters sent powerful messages to Russians who suspect American duplicity.

From the Russian perspective, Americans supported the violations of the rule of law, including violent protesters and constitutional violations. The United States recognized the new Ukrainian government overnight, although eastern Ukrainians considered the new government illegitimate and condemned the actions. Russians saw how easily rules were bent based upon the orientation of the violators and condemned the American government once more as hypocritical.

Overnight, new realities seemed possible. If a new government could be installed in a former satellite state with an intertwined culture, history, and a vast Russian-speaking population, what else could happen? What if NATO was granted the Russian military bases in Crimea? Radnitz insisted that such concerns prompted Putin to respond boldly.

The Ellison Center director explained that Ukraine and Russia have shared more than history, as even their security forces were deeply intertwined. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, many well-trained soldiers were suddenly without work and identity. These individuals were potential mercenaries with experience in the Caucasus and Transdnistria, just waiting to be called upon.

Radnitz concluded that in the present civil war with the separatists in the east, Ukraine cannot win. Both sides see each other as illegitimate because they represent the intervention of a foreign power. Such zero-sum terms, combined with a weak central government, create a situation where those who can mobilize troops have the upper-hand.

The current Ukrainian government was drawn into a trap in Donbass. Radnitz insisted that Poroshenko should have reached out to the east, but his counterinsurgency operation has cost over 3,700 lives. The Ukrainian economy has obviously suffered and Poroshenko’s government is sure to lose support. Furthermore, the Ukrainian people are facing worsening conditions. They desperately require International Monetary Fund loans, which stipulate very tough conditions. They will be forced to cut pensions, their currency will take a hit, and factories will close.

So where does the United States fit into this situation? The West decided to back Poroshenko to avoid the perception of making a “grand bargain” in the style of the Congress of Vienna. Radnitz insists that the US has the obligation to uphold international norms, and that American leaders need to take stock of what U.S. national interests are in the region.

He recommends that U.S. officials urge the Ukrainian government to be solicitous of the interests of citizens in the Donbass region. The Cold War is far from settled, and nationalism is still a powerful and under-appreciated force in these regions. The media and the political class tend to be “parochial” when dealing with Russia and the former satellite states of the Soviet Union, and this has real political implications.

Scott Radnitz is an Associate Professor in the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies and Director of the Ellison Center for Russian, East European, and Central Asian Studies at the University of Washington. His research focuses on post-Soviet politics, covering topics such as protests, authoritarianism, identity, and state building.

His book, Weapons of the Wealthy: Predatory Regimes and Elite-Led Protests in Central Asia, was published by Cornell University Press in 2010.  Articles have appeared in journals including Comparative PoliticsComparative Political StudiesJournal of Democracy, and Europe-Asia Studies. Policy commentary has appeared in Foreign PolicyThe National InterestSlate, and the Washington Post.