How do we explain Russia’s actions towards Ukraine? A historical perspective

By Salem Qatami 


Historically, Russia’s foreign policy had two main objectives, one to be a dominant regional power and secondly that Russia gains European recognition of its power capabilities. Taking into consideration Russia’s vast territory, acting as a regional power thus entailed a sphere of influence from neighbouring Far East, Central Asia and Eurasia. Geographically, Russia shares its borders with Europe, and thus aimed to be a recognised European great power. These objectives were achieved, to some extent, with the creation of the Soviet Union. The USSR maintained its global position as a ‘super-power’ through the ideology of ‘global socialism’. However, the Soviet dream did not last, and Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union suffered major setbacks which threatened its status as a regional power. Throughout the 1990’s and the beginning of the 21st century, Russia was recovering economically. In the same period, Russia’s foreign policy was developing around balancing the Western unipolar system by introducing the notion of ‘soft power’. The case of Ukraine is a good case study for a critical examination of Russia’s foreign policy in the 21st century. Ukraine is important for Russia both culturally, and geopolitically. The main argument of this essay is that Russia’s intervention in Ukraine was better understood as an act of maintaining regional dominance. Russia therefore is neither an emerging nor a re-emerging power, as its foreign policy did not challenge the existing international system. Rather, Russia’s foreign policy was more concerned with “what is possible in the current configuration of power in the system” (Macfarlane 2006, 56).

Shift in great power status from USSR to Russia

Russia’s recent history indicates that it had never fully achieved a ‘great power’ status. In the 19th century, Russia suffered a setback from obtaining ‘great power’ status after the Crimean War; similarly it suffered the same setback after the demise of the Soviet Union (Neumann 2008, 128). Nevertheless, Russia did not aim to achieve great power as much as it aimed for a regional dominance “until the Bolshevik revolution” (Tsygankov 2010, 43). For Russia to act regionally, we should bear in mind its geopolitical sphere of influence. Russia’s sphere of influence, if acted regionally, will include a mass of land stretching from the Far East to the Eurasian zone and Eastern Europe; which will compel Russia to act regionally “by acting globally” (Tsygankov 2010, 43). From this perspective, it is hard in some instances to distinguish whether Russia was pursuing a global position of great power or acting solely as a regional power that tried to maximise its full influence. Thus, we should not homogenise the acts of the Soviet Union during the Cold War and the Russian Federation. Ultimately in the latter, what is obvious is the absence of an ideological struggle with the West. Rather with the Russian Federation, its foreign policy’s long-term goal with Europe was a relation of “partnership rather than on balancing” especially with the United States (Macfarlane 2006, 53).

The best term to describe Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union is a humiliated great power (Macfarlane 2006, 45). In this sense, Macfarlane is comparing China’s growing relative power in the 1990s, with Russia suffering a loss in its global position which it held during the Cold War. Russia’s socio-economic powers during the Cold War were humiliated and destroyed in almost every possible way. If Russia was to recover from its retreat from power, it had to make political as well as economic reforms, which were “incomplete” from the Western perspective (Koldunova 2015, 380). In terms of the economy, Russia lost relatively half of its economy with the collapse of the USSR (Tsygankov 2010, 45). The outcome of such a catastrophe to Russia’s economy was evident in rising unemployment, increase in poverty and most notably the creation of centres of power in Russia. This situation put more pressure on President Yeltsin to improve Russia’s relations with the West in reviving Russia’s economy and its ‘liberal elites’ (Kanet 2015, 505). Yeltsin’s presidency thus was characterized as being over-reliant upon the West to overcome Russia’s economic burden at the expense of Russia’s interests and security, whereas Russia had gained nothing out of this close cooperation with the West (Kanet 2015, 505). Critique of Yeltsin’s first-term presidency as being over reliant on the West to help integrate Russia’s economy into the global market could be traced back to the lack of ideological foundations of Russia’s foreign policy, (1991). Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, promoting socialism was a key factor of Soviet’s foreign policy as well as how the USSR was governed. As Weber asserts that culture is a key factor in “shaping power” (Neumann 2008, 131), which Russia lost in the 1990s and therefore lost its distinctive feature in the international community.

In the late 1990s, Russia achieved unprecedented success in improving its economic and social problems. By the late 1990’s and the beginning of the 21st century, the Russian middle class formed 25% of the population as well as statistics revealing that some 20,000,000 people had been lifted out of poverty (Tsygankov 2010, 45). Tsygankov further argues that improvement in living standards was essential towards improving Russia’s foreign policy which would then make it more transparent (Tsygankov 2010, 45-46). The steady increase in the Russian people’s satisfaction could not have been accomplished previously because of the problematic nature of centres of power (Macfarlane 2006, 47). This problem meant that power in Russia was centred around the elites that surrounded President Yeltsin, who usually challenged the implementation of law and order. This group of people were evident in Putin’s second presidency as he aimed to “remove all centers of power but his own” (Macfarlane 2006, 47). Thus we can argue that since Putin’s rise to power, he was aware of the domestic difficulties that prevented Russia from pursuing its own national interests. Therefore, he strived to   eliminate some of these problematic issues.

Putin’s foreign policy

As a result of Russia’s humiliation at the beginning of the 1990s, the best way for Putin to revive Russia’s international position was through the development of ‘soft power’ as an instrument of foreign policy. In an unipolar world after the Cold War, soft power played a more prominent role in the interactions between states rather than what ‘hard power’ used to play in the Cold War era (Sergunin and Karabeshkin 2015, 347). For Russia, soft power in the conduct of foreign policy is an essential asset. Nevertheless, Russian officials adherence to the implementation of soft power as an integral part of Russia’s foreign policy did not “exclude the use of hard power tools; if necessary, and quite often, Russian authorities have tried to combine them” (Sergunin and Karabeshkin 2015, 348). Here, it is worth mentioning that Russia’s interpretation of soft power, alongside hard power as a last resort, is essential to understanding Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

Soft power can be generally defined as the use of “economic, socio-cultural, institutional and legal instruments” which are more effective tools of foreign policy rather than the use of “military strength or direct political and economic pressure” (Sergunin and Karabeshkin 2015, 347). In this sense, Russia’s soft power had deep roots that led to its evolvement. For Russia, the notion itself appeared around 2004-5 as a tool for a more assertive foreign policy in its sphere of influence or “the near abroad” (Sergunin and Karabeshkin 2015, 349). Therefore Russia’s soft power is centred on the so-called term of ‘soft security strategy’, from which Russia could secure its influence in the ‘Russian World’ through “socio-cultural integration in the post-Soviet space” (Sergunin and Karabeshkin 2015, 349). More broadly, as we argued previously Russia did not intend to balance the existing system as much as it aimed to be more active as a reformist regional power; its soft power emphasized the same notion. Through its adoption of a distinctive and selective soft power based on multilateralism, (Makarychev and Morozov 2011, 353), Russia, therefore sought to enhance its international image (Sergunin and Karabeshkin 2015, 349). Moreover, Russia’s foreign policy was ambitious and was keen to extend its influence in Post-Soviet Europe. In order to accomplish this, Russia was relying on its exportation of gas to Europe and was being selective in its approach to the open market (Tsygankov 2010, 46). This meant that the state would have increased capabilities to interfere in the market however this was not an absolute nationalistic approach towards Russia’s oil and gas sector. Rather the Kremlin aimed to “shape the policy outcomes” (Tsygankov 2010, 46) of the market to reinforce its influence in Eastern Europe as Russia became the primary supplier of energy for Europe in 2011 (Sergunin and Karabeshkin 2015, 354).

Russia’s relations with the West and the U.S. had improved in 2001 after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 when Russia announced its solidarity with the U.S. in its war on terror (Macfarlane 2006, 50). In this particular case, Russia’s foreign policy pursued pragmatic relations with the U.S. Macfarlane argued that Russia would now benefit from less criticism regarding Russia’s intervention in Chechnya (Macfarlane 2006, 50). Russia’s relations with the West afterwards could be described as volatile and the hostilities between them were mutual. In this regard Russia was pursuing Euro-Asian dominance as well as the Western powers were expanding eastwards. For Russia, EU and NATO expansion derived from the unipolar system which was a direct threat to Russia’s national security (Macfarlane 2006, 48). The concept of a multi-polar system orientated in world governance seemed to be an attractive option to Russia’s policy makers based on non-interference (Macfarlane 2006, 49) and the implementation of International Law and Equality (Kanet 2015, 513). From a Western perspective, Russia was not a state that adhered to international order and therefore was seen as an obstacle to achieving democracy promotion. This issue is related to the lack of recognition by the West of Russia’s great power status due to its different governing system. More extremely, this difference resulted in categorising the West as ‘civilised’ and Russia as ‘non civilised’ (Neumann 2008, 136). Consequently, the Ukraine crisis in 2014 can be better explained by the lack of Western understanding that Russia was pursuing its goal of regional dominance instead of counter-balancing the West.

Ukraine Crisis and Russia’s security threat

Ukraine is vitally important to Russia both culturally and geopolitically. Tsygankov explains its importance by tracing the history of Ukraine’s existence as a “buffer zone protecting the Soviet Union from the West” (Tsygankov 2015, 288). The term ukrania is related to the word okrania in the Russian language meaning “borderland” (Tsygankov 2015, 288). In retrospect, Russia’s adoption of the term ‘Russian World’ is a crucial factor in understanding the actions of Russia in the Ukraine crisis. Firstly, Ukraine had a significant minority of Russian speakers consisting of 10% of the country’s population (Tsygankov 2015, 291). Also, the Ukraine crisis in 2014 cannot be understood without reference to other important dimensions such as the economy, regional context and Russia’s policies in Eurasia. Russian businessmen’s interests in Europe hugely influenced Russia’s foreign policy. This was obvious when Russia was reluctant to improve its economic relations in the East-Pacific zone due to two decades of reliance and accessibility to the European markets (Koldunova 2015, 387-388). Russia’s perception of being a European power, made the notion of Euro-Pacific cooperation less appealing, due to the fact that the East did not reflect Russian culture and interests (Koldunova 2015, 385). Thereafter, these cultural distinctions from the East facilitated the idea of a Eurasian Union in 2013 with more integration with the post-Soviet states (Kanet 2015, 517). Since 2004 Russian relations with Ukraine had gone sour in the aftermath of the Orange revolution, when Viktor Yushchenko became president. Yushchenko was opposed to Russia’s policies and he endeavoured to modernize his government by joining NATO (Tsygankov 2015, 282). To Russia, this was a blow to its influence in Ukraine; however, Russia was at the time reluctant to use military force and opted to contain Ukraine with political and economic pressures. One possible explanation is that Russia sought more cooperation with the West in counter-terrorism issues (Tsygankov 2015, 282). This is a legitimate explanation, but we should also consider the lack of ideological basis in the Russian foreign policy (in contrast to the Soviet socialist promotion) at the time. Russia also lacked material capacity to engage and to act forcefully in maintaining its national interests.

By 2007, Russia’s foreign policy was shaped by a more “ethno-nationalist” perspective (Tsygankov 2015, 279). This was evident in its military intervention in Georgia in 2008, as a defender of Russia’s values adherents (Tsygankov 2015, 281). By 2008, Russia was successful to a certain extent in reversing the effects of these revolutions and their disadvantaged outcomes. However, with regards to Ukraine, President Yushchenko’s policies towards Russia were seen as provocative. Yushchenko aimed through organised propaganda to eliminate the historical and cultural ties with Russia, especially linguistic ties (Tsygankov 2015, 289). In return, Russia used its economic leverage to put more pressure on Kiev to reverse its effects. By 2010, Ukraine had a new president Viktor Yanukovych and under his presidency relations with Russia improved substantially. Russia had substantial economic aid and convinced President Yanukovych to postpone Ukraine’s proposal to join the EU in 2013, which subsequently sparked violent demonstrations in the same year (Kanet 2015, 512). From this incident, Russia was frustrated with the Western disrespectful unilateral actions and approached them as violation of the International Law and the ‘sovereign democracy’ notion. These were the bases from which Russia’s foreign policy evolved. Moreover, Russia saw that the use of soft-power and reliance on personal relations with Russia’s policy adherents alone, was a non-sufficient tool if Russia was to pursue its national interests (Tsygankov 2015, 292). All these factors can be traced back to the idea that Russia conducting soft power to secure its regional dominance did not eradicate the possibility that hard power would be implemented as a last resort. However, due to the military interference in the Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea, Russia’s soft power popularity suffered (Karabeshkin 2015, 355). However, Russia was willing to pay a high price in order to maintain its influence in the post-Soviet sphere.

As we discussed earlier, Russia’s actions in Ukraine in 2014 cannot be approached as an act of a re-emerging power. The Ukraine crisis in 2014 was a direct security threat to Russia and it aimed to eliminate this threat through the use of hard power. In this respect, Tsygangov argues that a potential Russian cooperation with the West could only be achieved if Russia was “free from traditional security concerns” (Tsygankov 2010, 49) which would be carried out in a selective manner that served the national interests of Russia. This argument supports the Russian foreign policy’s approach to the West as pragmatic and selective. From here it can be argued that Russia was a regional power that sought to benefit the most from the international system. However, Russia’s foreign policy was peculiar as it acted globally with relatively low capacity when compared with China’s capabilities (Tsygankov 2015). Accordingly, Russia’s foreign policy as it is evident in the discussion has a flexible paradigm. Once Russia’s interests are in direct threat, its foreign policy will take a different shape and thus, Russia’s officials will stress the importance of adhering to the International Law as well as confronting in a   critical manner the existing ‘collective unipolarity’. Therefore, Russia will be seen as a reformist power. Otherwise, Russia will not challenge the relative existing hegemony to bargain from a closer cooperation with the West.


To conclude, this essay aims to illustrate that Russian interference in the Ukraine crisis in 2014 was not an action of a re-emerging power. It did so by tracing the historical context of Russia as being a European power. The short-lived geopolitical struggle with the West in the Cold War was an exceptional case in Russia’s history due to the emergence of International Socialism. Respectively, Russia lost its global influence after to the breakup of the USSR, and was seen as a humiliated great power. In the process of reviving Russia’s historical aim of achieving greater regional influence especially under Putin, its foreign policy adopted a soft power dimension. Russia’s relations with the West were far from being harmonious, as the West usually ignored Russia’s cultural and geopolitical interest in the Eurasian zone. Ignoring Russia’s pursuit of national interests only escalated and led Russia to adopt an ethno-centric foreign policy to achieve its regional dominance. The Ukraine crisis, as a consequence, is better understood as a mere security threat to Russia rather than an act of re-emerging demonstration. This is the case because Russia did not challenge the international system as much as it wished to benefit from it. Nevertheless, Russia’s foreign policy may seem awkward due to the West’s lack of understanding and mistrust of Russia’s goals. This problem can only be resolved by allowing Russia a breathing space to pursue its own national interests.


List of references

Kanet, Roger E. “The failed Western challenge to Russia’s revival in Eurasia?” International Politics, 2015: 503-522.

Koldunova, Ekaterina. “Russia as a Euro-Pacific power: Dilemmas of Russian foreign policy decision-making.” International Relation, 2015: 378-394.

Macfarlane, S. Neil. “The ‘R’ in BRICs: is Russia an emerging power?” International Affairs, 2006: 41-57.

Makarychev, Andrey, and Viatcheslav Morozov. “Multilateralism, Multipolarity, and Beyond: A Menu of Russia’s Policy Strategies.” Global Governance, 2011: 353-373.

Neumann, Iver B. “Russia as a great power, 1815-2007.” Journal of International Relations and Development, 2008: 128-151.

Sergunin, Alexander, and Leonid Karabeshkin. “Understanding Russia’s Soft Power Strategy.” Politics, 2015: 347-363.

Tsygankov, Andrei P. “Russia’s Power and Alliances in the 21st Century .” Politics, 2010: 43-51.

Tsygankov, Andrei. “Vladimir Putin’s last stand: the sources of Russia’s Ukraine policy.” Post-Soviet Affairs , 2015: 279-303.





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