Paul Flenley has researched and published in the areas of Russian Foreign Policy – particularly Russia-EU/NATO relations; Russian nationalism and national identity, the Russian Revolution and early development of the Soviet state. His most recent publications have been on the EU and its Eastern Neighbourhood and Europeanisation in Russia. He is a founding editor of the Journal of Contemporary European Studies.
With the war between Russia and Ukraine entering its ninth month, it may be useful to take stock and reflect on the ongoing situation. While it is not possible to cover all the nuances in such a short piece, I explore below some key themes in the causes and conduct of the war and briefly suggest some possible scenarios for the future.
From the outset, the current war ought to be seen in the context of the process of deterioration in relations between Russia and the West since the end of the Cold War. The hoped-for partnership with a new post-communist democratic Russia failed to produce a new pan-European security architecture which could have replaced the old Cold War bloc suspicion. The Russians had proposed using the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) which had emerged from the Helsinki conference in 1975, which included the Warsaw Pact and NATO states. However, a key early source of animosity was the proposal to expand NATO instead: initially to the former soviet bloc states of Poland, Czech Republic and Hungary in 1999; then the former Soviet Baltic states in 2004; and finally, the agreement in 2008 which opened up the possibility of NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia.
There has been debate about whether the West actually made explicit guarantees to Gorbachev at the end of the Cold War that in return for agreement to the unification of Germany, NATO would not expand. Much of the pressure for expansion came not from the US but from the former soviet bloc states themselves who felt that the OSCE would not provide the concrete security guarantees they needed to underpin their transitions to democracy. It was argued that a reformed NATO was no longer a threat to Russia. Madeleine Albright, US Secretary of State (1997-2001), asserted at the time that an enlarged NATO could even bring some stability to Eastern Europe to the mutual benefit of both Russia and the West. However, whether NATO posed an actual threat to Russia or not does not diminish the perception of threat. The prospect of NATO enlargement has been used by Putin as an excuse for the current war in Ukraine.
The perception of Russia under threat has a long tradition in Russian political and military thinking. From the devastation of the Mongol invasion in the 13th century onwards, the Russian state has developed in the context of the need to defend itself on all sides. Being surrounded by areas of instability and competing powers, Russian ‘defence’ has involved becoming proactively engaged in areas around its borders. The thinking was that if it does not do so, then other powers would. This has meant that throughout history the Russian state – tsarist, soviet and now ‘Putinist’ – has been at the core a militarised state, ready to be mobilised for war. As Tsar Alexander III said in the late 19th century: ‘Russia has only two allies – the army and the navy.’
An aspect of this theme of the threat to Russia has been anti-westernism. Putin has done much to present the current war as one between Russia and the West with Ukraine being used by the West. This was seen most recently in Putin’s speech in September 2022 justifying the annexation of the Eastern Ukrainian regions. From Moscow’s point of view the West has been promoting revolutions to unseat Russia’s allies: the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine; the 2014 Euromaidan ‘coup’ which overthrew Yanukovych; the colour revolutions in the other former soviet states of Georgia; and Kyrgyzstan plus the Arab Revolutions. The West’s aim, from the Russian perspective, is to deny Russia influence in its neighbourhood and ultimately destroy it. This speaks to a history of anti-western paranoia. In the late Nineteenth Century, Danilevsky, the panslavist thinker, in his book Russia and Europe, argued that the West’s goal was to push Russia out of Europe back into its muscovite heartlands.
Whether the current external threat to Russia is real or not, the psychology of threat is shared by those who came to power in the late 1990s and under Putin in the 2000s. The so-called ‘siloviki,’ people with a security, military background like ex-KGB Putin himself, have an ideology of restoring the power of the Russian state after the chaos and humiliation of the 1990s. The ‘securitisation’ of Russian politics was rooted internally in the terrorist threat from Chechnya and the need to restore order – something which Putin had used to build his legitimacy as president. These ‘siloviki’ also believe in the restoration of Russia as a great power. For them one of the key features of a great power is to dominate its neighbourhood i.e., Ukraine.
The mission of strengthening the Russian state and dealing with internal and external threat has, however, been a mask for a regime which under Putin has become increasingly nationalist, authoritarian and kleptocratic. The militarisation accompanying the current war and the ability to label any opposition as enemies of Russia has facilitated the consolidation of a dictatorship. The real threat from Ukraine does not lie in the military threat from NATO but rather in the establishment of a functioning democratic state next door to Russia which could act as an example for Russia itself. It could encourage revolt against the current system as began to occur in the Moscow protests in 2011.
Where does Russia come from?
A final cause’ resides in the question of identity. Because of shared history many Russians have difficulty seeing Ukraine as just another foreign country. A slight parallel may be with the long and difficult relationship between Britain and Ireland. Russian historians see the origins of the Russian state stemming from Kiev. In a long treatise in 2021 ‘On the historical unity of the Russians and Ukrainians,’ Putin argued that Ukraine was an artificial creation. Kirill, Patriarch of Moscow, has justified the current conflict to secure Ukraine as part of the common Rus. To see Ukraine as not only separate but potentially joining another military alliance in NATO is even more difficult to accept. While the intention is mainly to ensure that Ukraine remains part of Russia’s orbit, Putin has moved to actively ‘returning’ parts of Eastern Ukraine to Russia proper; the so-called Novorossiya plus Crimea. In his increasingly ‘historically driven’ narrative, rather than purely security motivations, Putin clearly sees himself as ‘gathering the lands.’ Just as the Romanov tsars re-gathered the Russian lands after the collapse of the Russian state in the 17th century and Stalin did so after the collapse of the 1917 Russian revolution, Putin sees himself playing this role in Russian history. If successful, he could be remembered by Russian nationalist historians long after the memory of the destruction of Mariupol has faded.
On the other side, for Ukrainian historians, the existence of medieval Kiev Rus has meant that Ukraine has a pedigree even older than Moscow-based Russia. Through instances such as the Holodmor ‘famine’ under Stalin in the early 1930s, when millions died, Ukraine has experienced deliberate attempts by Russia to destroy its identity. It may be argued that Ukrainian identity has been somewhat fractured at times. In the aftermath of the 2014 Euromaidan which took place in the Russian-speaking eastern part of Ukraine, there had been some fear of a the Ukrainianising government in Kiev. This led to a desire for greater autonomy, which Putin exploited. Nevertheless, unlike in Crimea, there had never been an aspiration for any ‘return’ to Russia as was supposedly reflected in ‘the polls’ held during the current war in 2022. A key outcome of the war, however, has been to create a greater sense of Ukrainian identity in both in the East and West. For generations, Russia will have ‘lost’ Ukraine. Interestingly, though, in return for surrendering its nuclear weapons after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the integrity of Ukraine had been guaranteed internationally, including by Russia, through the Budapest Memorandum of 1994.
Emergence of Zelensky
The conduct of the war has surprised everyone, not least Putin. He had grown used to unabashed military deployments to secure his goals while others delayed – whether it be the seizure of Crimea in 2014, intervention in Georgia in 2008 or in Syria to support Assad. In 2022, however, the Russian President’s strategy of keeping everyone guessing about an invasion before it was too late has backfired. Zelensky and his government were expected to flee within days, facilitating the instalment of a pro-Russian government. Instead Zelensky has turned out to be a skilled war-time leader. The West has also so far shown a high degree of unity on sanctions and preparedness to provide military support to Ukraine. The Russian-speaking population of the South and Eastern regions of Ukraine did not welcome the Russians as liberators as expected. Despite apparent ‘modernisation,’ the Russian military has displayed major weaknesses: difficulties in command and control; lack of weapons; problems of logistics; and above all, lack of motivation as troops failed to understand what they are fighting for. This has all been in contrast to a well-motivated Ukrainian side supplied by modern, flexible military equipment from NATO.
What then is the likely way forward?
Four scenarios can be imagined:
- An effective freezing of the conflict. Despite recent Ukrainian wins, there may be no decisive resolution. A conflict which has effectively gone on since 2014 could continue for another year or more. In this case, certain developments may follow – there could be ‘Ukraine-fatigue’ in the West, manifested in splits in the EU and change of policy from a possible republican victory in the US. Pressure may be put on the Ukraine government to ‘settle’ for loss of territory. On the Russian side, continuing militarisation would sustain Putin’s dictatorship. However, there may be more unrest and mutiny in the Russian military at the continuing loss of life and the apparent futility of sending ill-equipped troops to die for no obvious reason.
- A Russian victory. The bombing of infrastructure and civilian areas in Ukraine being pursued deliberately under General Surovikin using his experience in Syria could, over time, undermine the resilience of the Ukrainian population. It could bring the Ukrainian government to ‘negotiations’ to cede the territory held by Russia, especially if, as above, there is a weakening of support from the West.
- Continuing Ukrainian successes and Russian withdrawals. This would exacerbate the already growing criticism in Russia over the conduct of the war. Putin could seek to scapegoat the generals, but this would not solve the fundamental problems. Further Russian mobilisations could prove dangerous as troops refuse to fight in a failing war. Putin should not forget that a major element in the overthrow of the autocracy in the February 1917 Revolution was armed garrison troops who refused to go to the front in a failing war for a cause which they no longer supported. In this context, Putin, or more likely a replacement such as Patrushev, deputy head of the Security Council, might seek to strike a deal to avoid a total humiliation and at least keep some territory. A fatigued West may try to pressure Zelensky into this. It would, however, preserve the Russian dictatorship and give Russia some ‘reward’ for the war in terms of territory.
- A total Russian rout. Zelensky refuses to negotiate anything as the Russian campaign collapses and troops withdraw from Eastern Ukraine – and perhaps even Crimea. In this scenario, everything changes – including the nature of the regime in Russia itself. If Putin’s aims, as well as the whole ‘nationalist’ agenda, are seen to be flawed, the authoritarian regime unravels and its kleptocratic nature is fully exposed. In this context, the Russian regions take more autonomy as they see this as ‘Moscow’s war.’ The power struggle in Moscow turns nasty as the elite turns in on itself.
In the case of the latter scenario (4), the outcomes are challenging and uncertain for all involved and will give rise to further questions:
- Can an alternative to the nationalist, authoritarian, kleptocratic system be built in Russia, or would Putin just be replaced with a more ‘acceptable’ nationalist leader who can ‘do business’ with the West?
- Will the Ukrainian government turn out to be as democratic as expected and hold the new consolidated Ukrainian identity together?
- Will the West be prepared to help in the reconstruction of Ukraine and actually admit it to the EU?
- Can there be a new genuine pan-European security architecture which includes Russia and avoids the sense of security threat which nationalists have played on.
- Can such an architecture also include Ukraine and prevent it being squeezed again between East and West?