Greater Russia: how Moscow exploits and misunderstands history


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Julian Lindley-French
Julian Lindley-French

Director of Europa Analytica in the Netherlands, Distinguished Visiting Research Fellow at the National Defense University in Washington D.C. and a Fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute

As Crimeans went to vote in a referendum which the West and many Ukrainians regards as an illegitimate justification of Russia’s February 2014 land grab, a new patriotic song extolled Russia’s 1944 liberation of Ukraine from Nazi occupation. For many of them, the new government in Kiev is just as illegitimate for Moscow and Russian-speaking Ukrainians as the 16 March referendum is for the West.  But is it really that simple?  Peer through the smog of propaganda and one sees hard strategic calculation and miscalculation by the Russians.  For Moscow, the invasion of Ukraine-Crimea is really about Sevastopol, Russia’s Black Seas Fleet and the myth of a new ‘Greater Russia’.

Hard though it is for some in the West to accept, Russia has some genuine interests regarding the fate of Ukraine.  The enlargements of both NATO and the EU over the past twenty years is seen by many in the Kremlin as a post-Cold War zero sum game that humiliated Russia.  Moreover, as the EU takes on an ever more German hue, the tendency of Russia and its leaders towards romantic views of history becomes irresistible and Ukraine is the crucible of Russia’s past – both far and near.

The Putin regime has made a conscious effort to re-create Greater Russia built on a cult of the past.  This cult is a strange amalgam of the Great Patriotic War, Peter the Great and Alexander Nevsky, the thirteenth century Grand Prince of Kiev who many see as the founder of Russia from his defeat of German and Scandinavian invaders.

The timing of Russia’s invasion was dictated by the overthrow of President Yanukovych and the threat of losing of Ukraine to the EU.  However, the fact that Russia could contemplate the use of force is a consequence of European disarmament, American retrenchment and the strategic opportunism of the Kremlin.  In the aftermath of Russia’s bungled 2008 invasion of Georgia, the Kremlin ordered a major review of the Russian Armed Forces. It was not a pretty picture.  On December 31, 2010 Moscow launched a massive military equipment programme for the ten year period 2011-2020 that will cost some $700bn.  The Russian forces now present in Ukraine-Crimea are part of such a new Russian Army.

However, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine-Crimea must be seen first and foremost as a sign of the Kremlin’s growing insecurity.  According to the IMF and World Bank, Russia is a developing economy albeit one worth some $2.6tr.  Despite this, the Russian economy is overly reliant on the export of hydrocarbons to the very Western countries with whom it is now engaged in euro-strategic dispute.  Russia therefore remains very vulnerable to hydrocarbon price fluctuations and, with that, the potential for Europeans to reduce their energy dependency on Moscow via fracking and/or new US and Canadian energy exports.

In addition to this, although Russia’s population decline was halted in 2011, the country still faces some very deep demographic and societal challenges.  Indeed, Russia covers six time zones and with pressures growing around Russia’s southern and eastern borders parts of the country are fast becoming ungovernable.

It is for that reason that the Greater Russian cult is strategically self-defeating.  The only stable border Russia has is with the West and with it the most stable source of national income.  Russia’s strategy, economy and history are in contradiction with one another.  It is these contradictions that led Russia to invade Ukraine-Crimea and will, in time, need to be resolved.  Sadly, Moscow may do a lot of damage to itself and others before the Kremlin understands that.

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