Russia’s unhealthy foreign policy will come back to haunt it soon

The situation in Eastern Ukraine is turning increasingly violent and fractious, with the mayor of Kharkiv critically wounded by unknown gunmen and kidnapped observers still being held by pro-Russian militias…

For his own good. EPA/Filip Singer

The situation in Eastern Ukraine is turning increasingly violent and fractious, with the mayor of Kharkiv critically wounded by unknown gunmen and kidnapped observers still being held by pro-Russian militias. The US has announced another slew of sanctions targeting Vladimir Putin’s “inner circle” – but few observers can imagine Russia will tone down its behaviour any time soon.

Russia’s conduct in the Ukrainian crisis continues to trifle with international law, with telltale talk of “interests” – always a worrying word to hear from a great power asserting itself. This is what Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said in an interview with Russia Today on April 23:

If our interests, our legitimate interests, the interests of Russians have been attacked directly, like they were in South Ossetia … I do not see any other way but to respond in full accordance with international law.

Lavrov’s statement was a toxic mix of “ethnicism” and realism (we might call it ethno-realism), not dissimilar to the 1930s variant that ended in outright barbarism. The “interests” he describes are based on an ethnic claim; he talks of the “interests of Russians” not of the interests of Russia. This is a challenge not only to the settlements of 1991 that followed the collapse of the USSR, but to the post-war settlement of 1945, the UN charter, and the recognition (if not the practice) of collective security.

Unfortunately, over the past two decades, Western states (and the US in particular) have provided all the excuses Russia needs for its own brand of exceptionalism and unilateralism. At least three major Western mistakes have contributed to the current crisis: a limited effort to accommodate Russian concerns over its European security, the encouragement of Russian control over peacekeeping in Moldova, Georgia and Tajikistan, and repeated forgiveness for Russia’s actions, including the seizure of neighbouring territories.

This was why the Georgian parliament’s speaker Davit Usupashvili argued in Brussels this April that without NATO, Georgia could be removed from the world map by Russian aggression.

Lavrov is an exemplary practitioner of realpolitik, but on Putin’s instructions, he is now following a more radical creed. Highly emotionally charged, it contains several core notions that, taken together, justify the radical redrawing of the Eurasian map.

Ethnicity, first of all, is a legitimate basis for territorial claims. States have the right to grant citizenship to co-ethnics or co-linguals living abroad, even against the wishes of the host state (“passportisation”). Self-determination, however selectively defined, has priority over state sovereignty; and Russia has the right to use “all available means” – as Putin put it – to protect Russians anywhere in any state.

From independence to annexation

This worldview guarantees future instability in Russia’s relations with its neighbours. It extends beyond co-ethnics to include “lost” lands, like Abkhazia and South Ossetia, that are inhabited by Russian speakers rather than by legal Russians.

The new policy does not mean all Russia’s neighbours are equally vulnerable, or that Russian diasporas all want to rejoin the homeland. Russians in Estonia, who live in the EU, may feel quite differently to Russians in Eastern Ukraine; the Russian diaspora in Azerbaijan hasn’t the coherence or numbers of the diaspora in northern Kazakhstan; and for various reasons, it is unlikely Russia will risk intervention in the Baltic states as it did in Tajikistan.

Despite this asymmetry, which suggests Russia’s territorial ambitions are limited, there is a two-decade old pattern since 1991 of de-facto annexation by Russia of former Soviet territories. This began with Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the 1990s, leading up to the 2008 war and the Russian recognition of Abkhazian and South Ossetian independence.

The West should therefore not be surprised at events in Ukraine. For the past two decades, Russia’s aspirations as a regional power have been benignly overlooked. Western leaders believed Transnistria was a post-imperial casualty, and that the war with Georgia was highly specific, even personal; Saakashvili was characterized as a hothead.

Today, these quasi-states around Russia defend their sovereignty – and the Abkhazian desire for independence is genuine – but they are in the end instruments of an increasingly confident Russian policy of opportunistic expansion into weak neighbouring states. In the Crimean case, the fig leaf of “independence” was discarded in favour of outright annexation.

Sowing bad seeds

In the April 23 interview, Lavrov warned Ukrainians that the South Ossetian scenario could be repeated in Ukraine. The precedent looks something like this: with disarray and internal division in a neighbouring state, Russia encourages pro-Russian separatist movements among the “diaspora” (Edinstvo in Moldova, Soiuz in Abkhazia, the “Donetsk Republic” in Eastern Ukraine).

Russian-dominated peacekeeping, joint control commissions and/or “passportisation” follow, along with Russian military bases, leases and agreements; a crisis involving a threat to Russians or Russian citizens justifies full-blown intervention, and recognition of independence or de facto annexation completes the process. While Western squeals of outrage are to be anticipated, there will be no effective backing for resistance against intervention.

Russia’s creed works well within the context of Eurasian geography given the asymmetry of Russian size and power, the various diasporas or Russian-speaking loyalists in the borderlands, and the ease of access for Russian armies. But there is a fourth element, which will eventually undermine Russia’s ambitions and hang around Putin’s neck like an albatross.

Students of empire have long pointed to the cost of expansion, and so it goes here. Russia has a weak economy; its GDP growth is in decline, and corruption is endemic. These revanchist efforts offer only temporary relief. In the short-term, Russia’s democrats will suffer as Russia glories in its victories, but the newly acquired territories will come at a great price. Since 2008, 27 billion roubles have disappeared without trace in South Ossetia, the smallest of the acquisitions; Crimea is 40 times its size, with 2m inhabitants.

Crime, corruption, and smuggling will tarnish these victories before long. They will end up as instruments in the hands of Putin’s opponents, who will decry the leader’s follies in their appeals to citizens infuriated by economic stagnation. These expansions into weak neighbouring states are not only demonstrating the hollowness of Russia’s modernisation and growth – they are actually hastening its economic and political decline.