The footage of the Russian troops controlling all the key hubs and military facilities in Crimea might well lead one to believe that Vladimir Putin calls all the shots in the strategic Black Sea peninsula. Yet the truth is that the Russian leader’s reckless Crimea gambit is the reflection not of his strength but of deep-seated insecurity.
The Kremlin is deeply concerned (if not outright frightened) by the ousting of the kleptocratic Yanukovych regime and by the ripple effect the Maidan Revolution might have on the other authoritarian states in post-Soviet Eurasia – including Russia itself. Ironically, Russia’s bullying of Ukraine seems to be flying in the face of the Kremlin’s grand design in the realm of foreign policy. In Moscow, Ukraine has long been seen as a lynchpin of Putin’s pet project of the Eurasian Union. Yet Putin’s aggressive moves that effectively undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity seem to be the surest way towards the burying of the Kremlin’s ambitious “Eurasian vision.” As Putin seeks to arrest Ukraine’s revolutionary process and bolster anti-revolutionaries in the country’s south-east regions, his gross interference in Ukraine’s domestic affairs is sending alarming signals across Eurasia. The pretext Moscow uses for its meddling – the “protection of Russian citizens and compatriots” – makes Russia’s neighbors even more nervous. Ultimately, the contention that the Eurasian Union is a voluntary and mutually advantageous association of sovereign states similar to the European Union proves to be a big lie: not a single EU member state can complain that it was pushed into the Union by the rifle butt under the threat of partition. The bottom line here is this. Putin’s vision of post-Soviet Eurasia’s future rests on the necessity to preserve post-Sovietism as a specific type of state and society. Ukraine’s attempt to exit post-Soviet stage and the intent of its new political and civic leaders to start building a democratic state based on the principle of competition and an inclusive civic nation have thrown a gauntlet to Putinism. Moscow responded to Kiev’s challenge with reckless brinkmanship.
The Ukraine crisis is often interpreted as a result of the “struggle over Ukraine” between geopolitical titans. Yet a better epistemological optic for analyzing Ukrainian developments is not a “West vs. East” paradigm but a “Withering away of Post-Sovietism” paradigm. In a macro-historical perspective the disintegration of the USSR should be understood as a protracted process. True, the Soviet Union as a state (or, in a memorable phrase, “as a geopolitical reality”) did indeed disappear overnight, but in the fledgling post-Soviet states, the decomposition of Soviet institutions, practices, and mental frames have taken decades, and the process is still going on. Among the characteristic features of most post-Soviet states are a huge spillover of the old (Soviet) elites, the establishment of “hybrid regimes” with strong authoritarian component, and the resultant barriers to genuine economic and political competition. As most regimes regularly rig elections and produce little in terms of public goods, their legitimacy is questionable. Eventually, their rulers come to face a perennial dilemma: reform or revolution.
Ukraine’s post-independence history is a good illustration of a post-Soviet regime’s trajectory. 1991 marked the birth of Ukrainian independent state which in the beginning was effectively an empty shell, not a full-blown nation-state (or rather state-nation) with its distinct identity. This shell was filled largely with post-Soviet content: authoritarian political practices, crony capitalism, and the merger of politics and big business that was stifling competition. The 2004 “Orange Revolution” -- the first attempt to open up the space for contestation – failed miserably among the petty political bickering between the “Orange” victors. The establishment of the brutal Yanukovych regime has been one of the major outcomes of this failure.
The current crisis is Ukraine’s second attempt to break out of post-Sovietism. The confrontation in Kiev took a revolutionary, and eventually violent, form precisely because the ruling regime proved incapable of and unwilling to reform.
Remarkably, the Putin propaganda tries to justify Russia’s interference by portraying what has happened in Kiev as a triumph of the far right nationalist and “fascist” forces whose coming to power threatens the lives and security of the Russian and Russian-speaking population in Ukraine. Yet neither language nor ethnicity has been a serious political issue in Ukraine’s post-1991 history. These have been politicized regularly (particularly during election campaigns) and the results of such politicization are reflected in a relatively stable voting pattern across Ukrainian territory with its putative east-west divide. But in real life ethnicity and language are not big issues; sociological surveys demonstrate that ordinary folks are much more concerned with the issues of personal security, rule of law, corruption, etc.
The real political divide is not between Ukraine’s regions but between, on the one hand, the host of newly emerged and assertive identities (including liberals, champions of Ukrainian civic nation, radical and less radical nationalists, and others), and, on the other hand, the lingering post-Soviet identity (characterized by political passivity and reliance on state paternalism). This type of identity is spread unevenly across Ukraine, being concentrated predominantly (but by no means exclusively) in the east and south regions. Arguably, Crimea has the highest concentration of people who would characterize themselves as “Russians” but in Ukraine’s current socio-political context it would be more correct to define the bulk of them as being post-Soviet (or simply Soviet) rather than “Russian” or combining both these identities.
The toppling of the Yanukovych regime has created basic conditions for a bold historical experiment in societal self-organization aimed at accommodating Ukraine’s multiple identities and building a democratic state and a civic nation. Kiev’s success in this daring endeavor which is essentially an open-ended process would mark its exit from post-Sovietism. To block this exit, Putin’s Russia appears to be prepared to go as far as splitting a neighboring country – first culturally, and if need be, physically.
At the moment, Russia seems confident as its troops appear to be in full control in Crimea and as Ukraine’s prime minister acknowledged that his country is “on the brink of disaster.” At the end of the day, however, Putin is likely to lose as he is engaged in the race against time. Post-Sovietism will be increasingly becoming passé not just in Ukraine but in the other countries of Eastern Europe and Eurasia, including Russia. Thus Putin’s Crimea adventure, as the wily and cynical Talleyrand would say, “is worse than a crime; it is a mistake.”
Igor Torbakov is Senior Fellow at the UCRS and Södertörn University (Stockholm).