To counter Russia, understand its motivations

Photo by Pete Souza/Wikimedia Commons

By Jelena Petrovic & Timothy Stafford |

The ongoing Crimea crisis has provoked a wave of analysis and calls for action. Within days, the focal point of the international community’s attention has shifted from the Ukrainian revolution to Russia’s ‘act of aggression.’ Politicians and analysts alike are now calling for actions that range from the application of economic and diplomatic instruments to an armed response. Yet many of these calls for confrontation misunderstand Russia’s motives and actions. When analyzing Russia’s move on Crimea, the dominate frame of mind in the West consists of several elements. Firstly, many analysts argue that Putin is impulsive and hyper-aggressive. Secondly, many see Russia’s action as a demonstration of its strength. Lastly, the supposed weakness of the West is held responsible for encouraging, if not provoking, Russia’s intervention. Each of these arguments is largely wrong.

To begin with, Putin is neither ‘crazy,’ nor hyper-aggressive. Instead, he has coldly calculated that Russia’s interests must be protected. Crimea has been considered a vital Russian geostrategic interest for centuries – even before it was finally conquered and included into the Russian realm by Grigorii Potemkin, Prince of Taurida, and his monarch, Katherine the Great, in 1783. Home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, Crimea is Russia’s gateway to the Mediterranean and beyond. Indeed, Crimea is so deeply embedded in the Russian strategic mindset that it is considered worthy of war not only by Putin, but also by the entirety of the Russian political class. This explains the strong support Putin received in parliament when he sought approval to use armed forces. If anything, Putin is one of the more moderate political voices in Russia. The far right, represented most prominently by Vladimir Zhyrinovsky, is calling for Russian military action in all of Ukraine. With the far-right gaining strength, Putin’s move may be a political calculation that stems not only from the need to protect Russia’s interest abroad, but also his domestic position.

Equally important, Russia is reacting from a position of weakness, not initiating from a position of strength. In the mind of the Kremlin, Ukraine has been lost, prompting an urgent need to protect its core interest. Its military occupation does not bring any strategic gains, only the safeguarding of influence that it previously held. Indeed, a parallel can be found in the way the Eisenhower Administration moved to retain the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base following the Cuban Revolution. Whether it holds on to Crimea or not, the events of the last week represent a huge setback. The decision to secure Crimea by force is tantamount to conceding the rest of Ukraine, whose pro-Western elements will only be emboldened by Russia’s action. Having seen Yanukovych ejected from power twice, Putin has concluded that pro-Western forces are too strong to be countered indefinitely. Thus, the occupation represents a significant downgrading of ambition, not the embrace of neo-Soviet revisionism that hawkish commentators would have you believe.

Accordingly, characterizations of Russia’s actions as the product of American weakness – either in the form of backing down in the case of the Syrian ‘red-line‘ or Pentagon defense cuts – are deeply flawed. If anything, the prompt for the Crimean occupation is America’s steady advance, not its retreat. Seen from Moscow, the revolution in Ukraine is in keeping with successive NATO enlargements, the increased willingness of countries within Russia’s traditional sphere of influence to cooperate with the West, and a rising fear of outbreaks of popular unrest that are steadily approaching Russia’s borders.

Understanding the defensive-minded motivations for the Crimean intervention offers a guide to how the West should respond. Instead of playing up the importance of Crimea, priority should be given to preserving the revolution in Kiev. Generous loans and aid can help entrench the new government, whilst pressure should be exerted to restrain it from making any moves liable to prompt a more serious Russian intervention. More limited steps – far short of a military response – should be used to deal with Russia’s occupation of Crimea. The West should discontinue the G8 process and implement targeted sanctions against Russian business interests with two aims in mind. Firstly, the West should make clear that further economic pain should be expected if Russia progresses from protecting its interests in Crimea to protecting its people in Eastern Ukraine. Secondly, the West should tie sanctions to the presence of Russian forces in Crimea, incentivizing Moscow to withdraw its forces in favor of a mutually acceptable international presence.

Crucially, a better understanding of Russia’s motivations necessitates an end to bellicose rhetoric regarding the occupation of Crimea. Allowing Putin to portray his protection of Russian interests as swift and decisive gives him an off-ramp by which he can avoid greater escalation. Ensuring the credibility of that narrative within the Russian body politic is the surest route to de-escalation of the crisis.

Jelena Petrovic holds a PhD from the War Studies Department at King’s College London, is currently affiliated with the Wikistrat Inc., and is a member of the Young Atlanticist NATO Working Group at the Atlantic Council.

Timothy Stafford is a Master’s Candidate in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University, a non-resident fellow at Pacific Forum-CSIS, and a member of the Atlantic Council’s Young Atlanticist NATO Working Group.

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