Russia: the beginning of the end?

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The Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 plunged Europe and the world into a full-blown crisis. Russia is seeking to regain the power of its former empire, acting with a sense of impunity. Both the violence of the conflict and Vladimir Putin’s rhetoric are challenging the world while putting Russia at the heart of ongoing debates concerning its place in the world as potentially impacting. Could Russia’s ambitions spell the beginning of the end for the rest of the world?

Russia and soldiers
What are the main consequences of invasion of Ukraine ?

Russia’s decades-long policies

Russia and the ongoing conflict dates back to 2014 and earlier

To discuss Russia is to discuss its policies, including the ongoing war with Ukraine. The latter is not a recent development however, as tensions have been rising for several years. These tensions have been fueled by two decades of tensions between Russia and the West.

History of Ukraine

Ukraine, born from the break-up of the USSR in 1991, is a late-coming state on the map. Historically, the present-day Ukrainian territory has been coveted and dominated by empires. Ukraine subsequently inherited a post-Soviet territory, which was not intended to function as an independent state. The geographical significance of this balance of power in history reflects the current war. Step by step however, Ukraine has demonstrated a will to eradicate Russian influence. The Russian language in particular – to become an independent country.

The outbreak of the Orange Revolution in 2004 marked a change in Russian-Ukrainian relations. Russia saw this movement as a challenge to its position in the region where it is trying to re-establish its influence. For instance, pro-European Yushchenko’s campaign for president stood in opposition with Russia, which therefore implemented a strategy of circumvention.

2014 : the beginning of « Euromaiden »

Yet, the election of pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych as president in 2010 was an apparent rapprochement towards Russian politics. Ukraine decided to amend its constitution, move closer to the Russian Eurasian Union (UEEA) project. It suspend the cooperation agreement signed with the EU, though all these decisions sparked a new protest movement in February 2014, called «Euromaidan». Euromaidan comes from the name of Independence Square – Maidan Square – in the center of Kiev, where opponents of Yanukovych’s regime gathered. Viktor Yanukovych’s escape and ousting marked the end of this revolution. In that same year, Crimea was eventually annexed.

Not only did Moscow challenge the territorial integrity of Ukraine through its actions in Crimea and Donbass violating the 1994 bilateral agreement. It also ignited a deadly conflict. As a result, Volodymyr Zelensky became the Kremlin’s new pet peeve due to his commitment to Ukraine’s membership of NATO.

The Russian ambition and Putin’s policies

Between strategy and nuclear power

Vladimir Putin was shaped by the Cold War. The Russian leader was fascinated by the strategic border, called the Iron Curtain, which the USSR had until 1989. Hence Putin’s determination to rebuild a union around the “Slavic heart” (Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine), acting as its new czar. Putin has claimed the fall of the USSR to be “the greatest geopolitical disaster of the last century”. The very disaster Putin intends to overcome with a goal to restore Russia’s rightful power rank.

While Russia is a nuclear power with a seat on the UN Security Council, Vladimir Putin’s actions have been credited with allowing Russia to reassert itself as a global power, while instrumentalizing its more offensive foreign policy for domestic policy purposes. This approach is aimed at distracting from the lack of actual political pluralism, the muzzling of the opposition and the growing economic instability affecting the Russian population.

Because of its territorial vastness, Russia borders about fifteen states including major world powers. The United States is indeed located across the Bering Strait and the Arctic Ocean, while Russia shares borders with China and the European Union. This influences the way Russia perceives the world, as well as its foreign policy. Some States are referred to as the « near stranger » by Russia.

Russian policies : tensions and wars

Russian policies are also based on tensions with the West, most notably the EU and NATO.

The 2022 war in Ukraine exposed the common threat posed by Russia to the 27-nation bloc. The Ukrainian request for NATO membership further escalated tensions with Russia. Putin’s original rationale for operations in Ukraine was Russia’s rejection of the Ukrainian membership of NATO.

This conflict highlighted the significance of both the EU and NATO. With Europe on the brink of war, the invasion of Ukraine led the 27 to overcome internal divisions in a bid to avoid war.

The confrontation with the West thus became a structuring factor under Vladimir Putin, both in foreign policy and on the domestic scene in the form of the alleged struggle against Western influence. In the military field, Moscow has accused Washington of setting up missile defense systems in Poland and in Romania, in violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty). The tense relations with the West have led the Kremlin to deepen its ties with China.

Russia has demonstrated a pragmatic conception of diplomacy, playing both sides all the while exploiting the weaknesses of the West. In Russian policies, “any game is fair game” when it comes to restoring its empire.

The world in the face of war: Ukraine, a boundary between two worlds

Following the Minsk agreements (2014), Russian-Ukrainian relations have entered a new era. The ceasefire has given way to an intricate and ambiguous relationship. Why did the latent conflict between Ukraine and Russia, which had been simmering since 2014 or 2004, erupt in February 2022? And what are the consequences?

The Russian invasion of Ukraine : what can we say about Russia ?

Vladimir Putin is pursuing a goal of “freeing Ukraine” from alleged Nazis. Russia initially sought to lead a “blitzkrieg” (“lightning war”) to capture Kiev, in order to overthrow the government of Volodymyr Zelensky and to set up a pro-Russian, Belarusian-style regime.

From a territorial perspective, the Russian army first began with the conquest of the entire Donbass basin, of which the two self-proclaimed separatist republics controlled only a fraction. Subsequently, the takeover of the Azov Sea coast was intended to ensure territorial continuity between the separatist Donbass and Crimea. Due to its key strategic importance, Russia then proceeded to take over the city of Mariupol. This takeover deprived Ukraine of most of its trading ports filled with large stocks of grain. Another objective was to reach the lower Dnieper in order to get hold of two strategic infrastructures: the Zaporijia nuclear power plant and the Crimean Canal.

By the summer of 2022, Moscow had achieved all three goals. However, the push to the southwest targeting the city of Odessa and the Russian-speaking separatist region of Transnistria failed.

The Kremlin eventually held a referendum in all four regions of south-eastern Ukraine. The four regions were officially integrated into the Russian Federation following a “yes” victory for Russia. As a result, Russia now considers that the fighting is taking place on its own territory.

The consequences of the Lightning War in Europe : Russia against the old continent

Inflation has been one of the most serious consequences of this war for European states and more broadly for the world. The war triggered a disruption in trade flows because of the economic sanctions against Russia. But the blockade of the Black Sea, which is the transit zone for cereals and other agricultural products in Eastern Europe, has created disruptions in the supply chain of certain products. As a result, inflation has skyrocketed, affecting all Member States, with public aid serving as the only means of depreciation (particularly in France).

In addition to the applications for EU membership submitted by Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, Sweden and Finland’s applications for NATO membership were accompanied by a historic decision to join the European Defense Policy. Sanctions against Russia have forced the EU to accelerate its energy diversification and transition process while reflecting on ways to dispense with Russian oil and gas. But the new sanctions have impacted the post-pandemic economic recovery by accentuating inflation and affecting the energy sector.

Reactions of states and public opinion

Lastly, it is worth mentioning that Ukraine has already won the information war. The country has garnered widespread support from the public opinion, especially across Europe. A majority of citizens have approved the EU’s response to this crisis, overwhelmingly expressing the views that the invasion of Ukraine poses a threat to the security of the EU (83%). In Russia however, the blocking of information by the authoritarian power still prevents the population from protesting the invasion.

Most of the international community has taken a stand for Ukraine. When a United Nations resolution was voted on March 2, 2022, a few days into the conflict, only five states opposed the condemnation of Russia: Russia itself, Syria, Eritrea, North Korea, and Belarus.  This resolution nonetheless remains symbolic since Russia has the right to veto the Security Council. Yet, it is a reflection of Russia breaking off with the international community, joining the small group of pariah states.

In a way, Vladimir Putin’s ultimate failure lies in the consolidation of Ukraine’s national consciousness while inciting hostility towards his country. Is Putin’s government thereby exposing its limits? Is this not rather about the end of another beginning? One page from the Russian era closing for another to open?

Russia : the end of the beginning ?

Nation far behind on human standards

Vladimir Putin has been pursuing a strictly conservative and reactionary policy towards the democratic West in the field of human rights. In contrast to the West granting increased rights and visibility to women, Russia only has 12% women sitting in the Duma (the Russian parliament), as opposed to an average of 32% in the EU. This shows a gap reaching far beyond political considerations, while embracing the standards of Russian society. This gap is accentuated by the notion that Russia remains a firmly conservative country and that Vladimir Putin wields power over the people.

Little has been said about another social issue in Russia: the issue of drugs. In large cities and small towns alike, Russia has experienced increasing drug use, especially opioids. This phenomenon can be explained by an economic decline generating poverty in some cities on the one hand, while on the other hand, opium, from which heroin is derived, comes directly from Afghanistan and transits through Russia before supplying Europe.

Siberia is yet another issue as a real demographic and economic vacuum. Torn between extreme climate, obsolete infrastructure and demographic decline, Siberia remains an isolated territory within the Russian Federation, even though it accounts for 13.12 million square kilometers of the country.

Is there too much at stake for Russia?

Additionally, the Kremlin may lose it all in its war with Ukraine. Over the past few years, Moscow has been faced with unprecedented domestic challenges. The socio-economic stability for which Putin is highly regarded has recently become elusive. COVID-19, economic stagnation and the rise of dissent and political opposition with figures such as Alexei Navalny (a popular figure among the middle class and the Russian youth), are all upsetting the balance of power within the Kremlin – the scales seem to be tipping already.

This Russian expansionism is losing credibility while drawing increasing criticism. In addition, Putin’s political rigidity, especially regarding the West, has seen him further marginalized on the international scene. The president’s deteriorating health is even more damning. Then, what is Russia without the great Putin?

Just as clear is the fact that the country has very few opportunities. Most of the economic contributions come from insecure markets such as the energy sector (oil and gas), and farming, hence the nickname “the breadbasket of Europe” to define Russia. In this respect, the Russian economy lacks diversity and is therefore not a major factor in global dynamics.

Ultimately, Putin’s weakening Russia is facing increasing criticism. But wouldn’t this end provide fertile soil for a new Russia more aligned with the world of tomorrow?

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Lou Chretien, geopolitics writer