Making sense of Russia’s international politics: applied legacies

by Patrick Truffer. He graduated from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich with a Bachelor of Arts in Public Affairs and completes a Master of Arts program in International Relations at the Freien Universität Berlin.

Last Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered the annual Presidential Address to the Russian Federal Assembly. With regard to the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, to the conflict in Eastern Ukraine and more general to Russia’s international politics, Putin didn’t say more as he did with his speech about the situation in Crimea and the Crimean parliament’s request to join Russia, held in March 2014. On the contrary, in this regard, Putin’s address in March was of more importance to the understanding of Russia’s behavior, which seems to be based on a growing paranoiac world view. This understanding of the behavior is important because even when we think an actor in international politics is irrational, from their perspective, their decisions are perfectly rational (see also Nick Ottens, “Rational Actors Don’t Always Make the Decisions We Would“,, 03.04.2014). In November, I wrote this short essay, which tries to identify and contextualize legacies in today’s political discourse in Russia, which I like to share with you. It shows that Putin’s use of historical legacies and the selective choosing of emotionally loaded arguments complicates an objective assessment, makes the Russia’s foreign policy appear enigmatic and from an outsider’s perspective irrational.

The Baptism of Saint Prince Vladimir in Chersonesus about 988 (fresco by Viktor Vasnetsov, 1890).

The Baptism of Saint Prince Vladimir in Chersonesus about 988 (fresco by Viktor Vasnetsov, 1890).

In the course of the political crisis and the unrest in the Ukraine that started on 21 November 2013 after the population received the surprising news that the Ukrainian government would not be signing of the association agreement with the European Union, Crimea was separated from Ukraine. The Crimean parliament called for a referendum on the peninsula’s status to be held on 16 March 2014. The results led to a declaration of independence and subsequent application to join the Russian Federation. Putin’s speech on 18 March 2014 was given a few days before the State Duma and the Federation Council were to decide on Crimea’s request. Since the integration of Crimea into Russia was not a matter of dispute in Russia, Putin’s speech should not be understood as an attempt to sway the vote in his own parliament. Instead, it was an attempt to justify the move to an international community that was largely rejecting Russia’s planned move, a sentiment confirmed when the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 68/262 on 27 March 2014 with a vote of 100 to 11 (with 58 abstentions and 24 absentees), which condemned the change in Crimea’s status.

Putin invoked the witness of several historical eras to justify his move. Building on the legacies of the Rus’, he references the ancient city of Chersonesus, near Sevastopol, “where Prince Vladimir was baptised”, to invoke the shared origins of Orthodox Christianity and the common cultural heritage of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. He then emphasizes Russia’s position as “first among equals” by referencing those Russian soldiers buried in Crimea after being killed in the wars to integrate Crimea into the Russian Empire. The death of these soldiers, the Russian majority on the peninsula and the predominance of the Russian language, culture and identity are presented as legitimate grounds from the Russian perspective for the annexation of Crimea. Nikita Khrushchev’s decision in 1954 to assign Crimea to the Ukrainian SSR was not only unconstitutional, but without consideration of the ethnic identity of Crimea’s population. From Putin’s perspective, such a change in Crimea’s status had only been feasible because at that time it seemed impossible that a sovereign Ukrainian state would emerge. Putin argues that Russia, having declared itself the successor state to the Soviet Union after the end of the Cold War, considers the loss of Crimea as “robbery”.

Decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR "About the transfer of the Crimean Oblast from the RSFSR to the USSR".

Decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR “About the transfer of the Crimean Oblast from the RSFSR to the USSR”.

Putin bases his arguments on the self-determination of people and the equality of ethnic groups. In contrast, the revolutionary forces behind the fall of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych are labelled as “Nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites”, who emulate the ideology of Stepan Bandera. Before and after the Second World War, Bandera was the leader of the revolutionary segment of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, whose paramilitary wing (the Ukrainian Insurgent Army) fought for at least part of the war alongside the German Nazis against the Soviet Union for an independent Ukraine. Parts of these organizations participated in ethnic cleansings and the massacres of Jews, Poles and Russians in western Ukraine. Celebrated as heroes in western Ukraine, the leaders of these organizations represent from the Russian perspective the disastrous consequences of nationalism (Andreas Kappeler, “Ukraine and Russia: Legacies of the Imperial Past and Competing Memories“, Journal of Eurasian Studies, vol 5, no. 2, July 2014, p. 107–15). As an example of National Socialist tendencies in Ukraine, Putin references the new Ukrainian government’s intention to allow only Ukrainian to be used as the official language, even in regions where more than 10% of the population speak a different language and regional official languages had already been officially approved. According to this argument, Putin ostensibly bases the status change for Crimea not only on Russia’s legitimate territorial right to the peninsula, but also the need to protect the Russian-majority population:

Those who opposed the coup [in Kiev] were immediately threatened with repression. Naturally, the first in line here what Crimea, the Russian- speaking Crimea. In view of this, the residents of Crimea and Sevastopol turned to Russia for help in defending their rights and lives, in preventing the events that were unfolding and are still underway in Kiev, Donetsk, Kharkov and other Ukrainian cities. — Vladimir Putin, March 18, 2014.

Putin’s speech makes clear whom he holds responsible for the chaos in Ukraine, the instability in the Russian sphere of influence, and at the international level: primarily, the United States, followed closely by the European Union. In contrast to Russia, which claims to follow strictly international law in regard to International Relations, the United States and Europe would have weakened international institutions, exploited them for their own purposes, or simply ignored them. This started with the eastward expansion of NATO, which Russia considers a betrayal (cf.: Michael R. Gordon, “The Anatomy of a Misunderstanding“, The New York Times, May 25, 1997) and then continues with the wars in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, the intervention in Libya, the “Colour Revolutions” and the Arab Spring. Not only does this confirm the predominantly negative discourse in Russia about revolutionary currents as the source of bloodshed and terror, but it also reflects a world view marked by mistrust, conspiracy and a fear of instability that influences Russia’s decisions at the international level.

Putin’s speech shows how the historical legacy starting with the Rus’ in the 9th century to the modern day, the Orthodox Church, the Russian language, culture and identity are being exploited to justify his policies. Selectively choosing emotionally loaded arguments makes objective assessment difficult. Moreover, such arguments are difficult for observers without a background in Russian history to understand, which in turn can make Russia’s foreign policy appear enigmatic and irrational particularly from a Western perspective.

More information
Robert Legvold, “Managing the New Cold War“, Foreign Affairs, June 16, 2014.

This entry was posted in English, Patrick Truffer, Russia, Security Policy.

2 Responses to Making sense of Russia’s international politics: applied legacies

  1. JIM MC SEATON says:

    Thank you for: A simple explanation that brings much clarity. I wondered how current events were interpreted so divergently in the Western vis-a-vis Russian media. Of course! Filtering by historical context(s) & self-referential, heroic narratives; existential paranoias and blatant appeals to nationalism – all used by politicians everywhere and in every country to justify whatever policy or adventure is currently being proposed. But on what grounds can (any)one make principled, thoughtful decisions and take appropriate action(s)?
    Thanks again.

  2. Pingback: Lagebericht 2015 des Nachrichtendienstes des Bundes |

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