Countries are like people: Their behavior at various levels and situations is defined by political cultures, which define how the countries will interact with the rest of the world. Russian political culture, molded as a result of the centuries of its nation-building process, stipulates its modus operandi on the international arena and makes it undertake some recent actions in Ukraine that to many would seem utterly bizarre.
Russian political culture rests upon three pillars: individual versus collective sources of domestic authority; choice of “hard power” politics on the international arena and definition of this power exclusively in terms of territorial gains.
Historically, transfers of authority happened in Russia either through royal inheritance, within smaller power circles, or by individual designation. Civil society was traditionally excluded from participation in the power (re)distribution with its roles limited to nominal “yay-sayer” in the political transitions.
Putin continues this tradition of being the alpha and omega of Russian politics. His solo decisions on national and foreign issues meet little if any opposition from the domestic political establishment. The Russian Parliament’s recent lightning-speed approval of Putin’s request to send troops to Ukraine’s Crimea heralds only one thing: that the decision to intervene into the domestic affairs of this sovereign state has already been made by Putin.
“Hard power” is in the center of the Russian political discourse. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia exercised its influence of the former republics only by military force. These include its invasions in Moldova’s disputed Transdniestria region in the early 1990s and annexation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008.
Intimidations proved the only way of persuasion even when its most loyal ally, Armenia, stubbornly refused to join the Customs Union in 2013. It took Putin’s one visit to Azerbaijan and his promises to expand military trade with the latter that forced Armenia to hastily sign.
From Russia’s perspective, the current situation in Crimea can only be solved through an open and direct military intervention. All the signs for this are in place, including deployment of well-equipped gunmen on the streets of Crimea and pro-Russian forces “calling” for help.
Annexation of a part of Ukraine closely follows the Russian historical theme of constant territorial expansion. Starting from the end of the Mongol rule in the 14th century, Russia has been waging wars with its immediate neighbors for the place under the sun in all directions.
Russian blood was spilled in 12 wars against Turkey for the access to the Black Sea as an outlet for trade with Europe and beyond, and it all started from Crimea. Possession of this peninsula, apart from military, strategic and economic gains for the Russian authorities, would mentally take them back to the period when Russia was truly the Black Sea power.
The situation around Crimea is rapidly deteriorating, and Putin is trying to further escalate it to a point of no return. He already warned President Obama of the possibility of using force in Crimea. The pretext: protection of the Russian citizens from “threats to their lives” from the central authorities in Kiev.
There are already voices heard from loyal Russian forces in Crimea to join their external motherland: a déjà vu from the 2008 war against Georgia, 1938 Hitler’s Anschluss and annexation of Sudetenland.
Europe and the United States are in a startled limbo. Ukraine’s new government has asked the European Union and NATO to consider the issue of protection of its sovereignty, but the country is not a member of NATO or any other defense treaties. All the West can do is to use its economic and diplomatic leverage on Russia to abandon its disastrous course, which repeatedly proved unsuccessful.
The conniving appeasement-type politics will not help. Russian realist political culture is impermeable to the Western neo-liberal reasoning. Russia respects only the media of political interaction — “hard power” — and the only language it understands is that of force.
The Crimean conundrum once again proved Russia’s revisionist desires to live up to the legacy of the Soviet Union. This is what Russia subconsciously wants: to be respected internationally in its political culture means to be feared and hated.
Robert Nalbandov is an assistant professor of political science at Utah State University.