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Expansionism: The Core of Russia’s Foreign Policy

Vladimir Putin’s Russia is becoming increasingly expansionist on the international arena. The annexation of Crimea, the naming of Ukraine’s eastern regions as Novorossiya (New Russia) using tsarist terminology, revival of Soviet symbolism and mythology, the sponsorship of terrorism and separatism in Ukraine, the organisation of frozen conflicts in Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, coercive creation of the Eurasian Union, aggressive use of Gazprom as a political tool, and the formulation of a right to protect Russian speakers abroad – it is not hard to find examples of Russia’s aggressive expansionism.

August 12, 2014 - Volodymyr Valkov - Articles and Commentary

Russian expansionist foreign policy is clearly marked by anti-Americanism. Russia seems to be particularly interested in issues that have a high potential of breaking coalitions between the United States and its European partners. One of them is Russian facilitation of activities that expose American intelligence practices. Perhaps symbolically, Russia is reviving the direct geographical rivalry with the US as might be seen from the cancellation of Cuba’s Soviet era debt, Putin’s Latin American tour and the creation of the BRICS development bank, opposition to the US on Syria and repeated attempts at intensifying Russian-Chinese relations.

Russia is still a backward country in the political, social and economic aspects. Russian politics is run mostly by a network of former communists and ex-KGB officers. Russia continues to dwell on the glory of the Soviet Union, uncertain as it may be, and victory in the Second World War. Human capital is underestimated and human life in general is one of the cheapest, most undervalued resources in Russia. Human rights do not exist in Russia and Russia’s budget and export consists mainly of oil and gas revenues. Most of the budget is spent on arms acquisition. 

The list of Russian backwardness continues, but at this point from what we have seen happening in Ukraine due to Russian actions compellingly indicates that Russian expansionism is a very dangerous development in the international system. The downing of Malaysian flight MH17 also demonstrates Russia’s extremely poor judgment in creating, equipping and using terrorist groups for achieving dubious foreign policy objectives. 

Russian expansionism is directly opposed to the spread of democracy, especially in the former Soviet republics and even more so in Ukraine. Russian current leadership views Ukraine as part of its own “original” territory and considers Ukrainians as part of the same Russian people. This position was presented clearly by Putin during a state-organised live TV call-in show in April 2014 as well as on many other occasions. 

The EuroMaidan is now being vilified by the Russian puppet media as a fascist coup d’état. The Russian government is using every available opportunity to smear Ukraine’s growing commitment to democracy. One of the most disturbing examples of such government-sponsored Ukraine bashing was performed at the open-air show in Crimea on August 9th, where Ukraine was theatrically portrayed to the audience as a having been overrun by fascist forces and later gloriously liberated by Russian troops.

Until the Maidan protest that united most Ukrainians in their choice for a democratic future, Russian expansionism was not clearly visible. Now, as Ukraine is making another attempt to leave Moscow’s authoritarian geopolitical orbit, overcome Soviet-era corruption and build democracy, Russia is desperate to use force in order to prevent a successful democratic transformation of Ukraine. 

Ukraine’s resistance to Russia has led to the greatest conflict in the post-Soviet area, surpassing the fighting during the Russo-Georgian War of 2008 in terms of infrastructure damage and casualties. Today Russia’s militarism has reached its highest level. Putin’s territorial claims, distortion of history, incitement of inter-ethnic hatred, provocative preludes to war, invasive military and foreign policy doctrines, anti-democratic, anti-European and anti-American rhetoric all suggest the following: Putin’s dictatorship is Europe’s greatest threat.

Ukraine’s resistance to Russia’s unprovoked aggression demonstrates that the dissemination and spread of democratic values works. Democracy has succeeded in Poland and it is now changing Ukraine. Democratic and European aspirations are transforming Georgia and Moldova. They will eventually work in Russia, but never under Putin’s regime and only if Ukraine does not fail as a democracy. After the economic misery of the 1990s, the Russian people are distrustful of democracy. That is the fear that Putin has exploited so far to steal their liberties in return for his “effective management”.

Putin offers a minimum standard of living and “stability” in exchange for the curtailment of individual freedoms. Another national fear that the Russian government is manufacturing to intimidate the society is that of democracy itself. The Kremlin seeks to show that democracy is incompatible with the Russian tradition of government, incapable to meet the needs of the Russian people, and – citing the Ukrainian example – that democracy in a weak state can bring fascists to power.

Without a successful example of democracy in a country that most Russians can most easily relate to, the corrupt Russian ruling elite will continue to promote xenophobic and anti-democratic fears in the Russian society, enticing the people to accept dictatorship as a preferred model. The democratisation of Ukraine is the most pragmatic, realistic and affordable long-term strategy against Russia’s expansionism and authoritarian values.

The West must double its support for the democratisation of the former Soviet countries that are showing their interest in such values. Almost 70 years of Soviet communism and 44 years of Cold War did not suddenly end in 1991. It must be clearly understood by the western countries, many of whom have little or no experience of the Soviet system, that some parts of the population in the former Soviet republics, including Ukraine, still feverishly hope for the restoration of some semblance of the Soviet Union. This is the section of population that is being used by Putin in eastern Ukraine in order to sustain his expansion.

While the core of Russia’s foreign policy is expansionism, the essence of its internal policy is isolation. The most recent example of the disappearing freedom of expression in Russia is the law adopted in April 2014 that requires a registration of bloggers who have more than 3000 subscribers. Another law adopted by the Russian parliament in May 2014 prescribes criminal responsibility for saying that Crimea is a part of Ukraine. Clearly, Putin’s regime is intent on blocking ideas and shutting down criticism not only from outside but also from its own people. The internal restriction of political and civil rights provides an important insight. It illustrates that Russia is not only at war with the West, but also at war with itself. And it also means that the Russian-Ukrainian War is not simply a war of military muscle, but a war of values.

The toughest European and American sanctions are absolutely justified and necessary to stop Russia from acquiring control over Ukraine, or parts of Ukraine, including the illegal annexation of Crimea, which must be reversed. The occupation of eastern parts of the Ukrainian territory is evidently on the Kremlin’s immediate agenda, as seen from the Russian earlier unaccomplished efforts on August 9th to send “humanitarian aid” escorted by Russian troops to the areas controlled by the Russia-sponsored terrorists and separatists.

The repeated attempt on August 12th to deliver humanitarian aid from Russia, which is said to consist of a convoy of 280 trucks, this time presumably cleared of any Russian military supervision and the process of its distribution is also highly likely to become a source of provocation with the potential to create a pretext for the deployment of Russian military forces in Ukraine.

If Russia succeeds in swallowing Ukraine, or any of its parts, by imposing its own vision of order, it will subsequently enable Russia to impose its decision-making authority over other post-Soviet states, continuing to change the map of Europe, inflaming conflict areas in other parts of the world and professionalising terrorism.

Volodymyr Valkov is a human rights activist, researcher, and political analyst, as well as a project manager at the American Jewish Ukrainian Bureau for Human Rights “UCSJ” in Lviv, Ukraine. He holds an MA in International Affairs from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva.

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