March 02, 2014

Kremlin Words Versus Deeds, A Gaping Chasm?

Kremlin Words Versus Deeds, A Gaping Chasm?

It is worth copying and pasting here two paragraphs from my editorial in the current issue of Russian Life, written a few weeks ago about people's reactions to press coverage of Russia in the buildup to the Sochi Olympics:

...there were some during this fracas who wondered to me out loud if it was not rather difficult having to “defend Russia and all it has become.” To which I replied rather simply: “At Russian Life we don’t defend Russia. That’s not our job. And neither is attacking Russia.”


As I have noted in this space before, there is no such thing as “objective” media and we make no claim of impartiality. But our bias is not one that leads us to say that all about Russia is either good or ill. Our bias is our tendency to be more interested in, more drawn to things Russian. And we do our best to present all sides of this complex country in the most balanced way we know how.

This, I feel, is an important preamble to a very clear statement: Russia's occupation of Crimea, part of the sovereign nation of Ukraine, is wrong. It is wrong under international law, it is in violation of several treaties Russia has with Ukraine and the West, and it is even wrong according to Russia's own foreign policy "principles," which I will get to in a moment.

This is hardly an earth-shattering statement; it is in fact the prevailing conclusion of the international community. The implications of this situation will be up to diplomats and politicians to decide. (Indeed, the Republican member of the House Foreign Relations Committee, 35-year-old Adam Kinziger, who admits that his favorite movie is the original Red Dawn – in which Russians invade the US, said this morning on ABC This Week, that "the reset with Russia is over.")

We helpless but concerned observers can only hope that peace and cooler heads prevail.

What I would like to look at is how this came about.


Risk Assessment

Let's begin with the obvious:

  1. This did not just happen. The speed and smooth coordination of the Russian action, from stooges taking over local administration, to the unmarked Russian troops, to the naval movements, suggests that the Russian reaction has been in the planning books if not in the works for quite some time. Russia has had a naval base in Crimea for 200 years and clearly has had plans for many contingencies. The months-long boil of the crisis in Kiev certainly has given plenty of time for event-specific planning as well.
  2. Russia (i.e. the Kremlin) knew full well what the reaction in the West would be. Given the 2008 precedent of Georgia, Russian policymakers surely knew the sort of political reaction that would arise from their actions (notably, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called the western response to the war "a pathetic debate in the United Nations and elsewhere"). In fact, in response to the Russo-Georgian War in 2008, several G8 meetings were cancelled or delayed, much as is being discussed now as rather limp reactions to the current crisis.
  3. The Kremlin clearly judged their action to be low-risk, militarily speaking. Ukrainian military forces on the peninsula, all bluster aside, were never a concern (just 3500 lightly armed troops), and Ukrainian forces as a whole, to put it mildly, have been subjected to a bit of turmoil of late. And there is no Western tripwire across the isthmus that connects Crimea to Ukraine. Yes, there are ships from the US Sixth Fleet lingering in the Black Sea – having been sent to sit off the coast of Sochi during the Olympic games, "just in case." Oh, and there was talk of some Ukrainian-NATO military exercises set to take place in March... But neither the US nor Europe could claim to have any legitimate security interests in Crimea that would lead one to expect military brinksmanship.
  4. In most cases, most foreign policy decisions stem from domestic causes. Thus, Russia is not acting because of any actual threat to Russian citizens, but because of what the Kremlin feels is its "responsibility" to its citizens. Yes, Russia's specific recent actions were precipitated by events on the ground – most notably the ouster of their man in Kiev. But the source of the Kremlin's actions should be sought in Russia, first and foremost.


Policy Background

As I noted above, Russia's action in Crimea is wrong in light of the stated principles of Russian foreign policy. Yet it is also justified by these principles, as you shall see. These principles were laid down in September 2008 by then President Dmitry Medvedev, in the wake of Russia's war in Georgia over Ossetia. Here is a summary:

1. International law "Russia recognizes the primacy of the basic principles of international law, which define relations between civilized nations. It is in the framework of these principles, of this concept of international law, that we will develop our relations with other states."

2. Multi-polar world "The world should be multipolar. Unipolarity is unacceptable, domination is impermissible. We cannot accept a world order in which all decisions are taken by one country, even such a serious and authoritative country as the United States of America. This kind of world is unstable and fraught with conflict."

3. No isolation "Russia does not want confrontation with any country; Russia has no intention of isolating itself. We will develop, as far as possible, friendly relations both with Europe and with the United States of America, as well as with other countries of the world."

4. Protect citizens "Our unquestionable priority is to protect the life and dignity of our citizens, wherever they are. We will also proceed from this in pursuing our foreign policy. We will also protect the interest of our business community abroad. And it should be clear to everyone that if someone makes aggressive forays, he will get a response."

5. Spheres of influence "Russia, just like other countries in the world, has regions where it has its privileged interests. In these regions, there are countries with which we have traditionally had friendly cordial relations, historically special relations. We will work very attentively in these regions and develop these friendly relations with these states, with our close neighbors."

Thus the rub: while it is clear that Russia's actions in Crimea are in violation of the points above highlighted in red, they are in concert with the points highlighted in green. Given the low-risk, manageable, understandable risk of intervention outlined in the Risk Assessment section above, green trumped red.

Theoretical Background

But there is more to it than that. Russia also clearly felt it had something to prove.

Here is a revealing statement made by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on September 24, 2008 (during a Q&A at the US Council on Foreign Relations), soon after the above principles were released (ironically, he was able to recite the first four of Russia's new principles, but forgot what the fifth one was until prompted):

...We must admit that there are several civilizations in this world. And we must admit that unipolarity based on the insistence that it's only the Western civilization which is right is absolutely a dead – a dead end.


And we must also admit that we must not pretend that the European civilization – and there are three branches of this civilization, European Union embodying the Europe proper part of it, the American branch and the Russian branch – we must not pretend that the European civilization is going forever to be the leader in this world.  And to remain a leader you must be competitive. We all must be competitive. It's only together that we can be competitive. And in competing with other civilizations, we can only prove – we can only find out who is the leader.

In the wake of the grand staging of the competition of the winter Olympics, where President Putin promised to show the world the face of "the New Russia," the conception of a global competition between civilizations is telling, as is the notion of three branches of European civilization (which would be interesting to hear ethnographers and historians chime in on).

The Kremlin, led by the rather competitive judoka Vladimir Putin, may see the world in multipolar terms, may not want Russia to be isolated, and may feel necessary to give a nod to international law, but the rules of the "competition" be damned when it comes to protecting the security of "ethnic Russians" (presumably those who speak Russian and have certain types of last names), be they in Georgia, Ukraine, Riga, or Sevastopol.

Now, let's be clear: Crimea is not Ossetia. In 2008 you had South Ossetian self-defense forces attacking Georgian villages, which led to a massive Georgian invasion of Ossetia (where Russia had granted large swaths of citizens Russian citizenship, in a manner since deemed not binding under international law), which led to the even more massive Russian counter-invasion and the obliteration of the Georgian military. Provocations and retaliations were coming from both sides for months.

An important parallel, however, is that in Georgia Russia cited the "responsibility to protect" its citizens under Article 51 of the UN Charter as the basis of its actions. Which of course a bit of a stretch, because Article 51 actually refers to "the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations." Georgia did not attack Russia, only a province that some would like the world to think is part of "all the Russes," but which is, in fact, part of Georgia.

What Crimea might be more like is Panama. Indeed, some of the parallels are eerie: presence of a large US military base, falling out with a local leader, coup attempts, international outrage (the US invasion was condemned by a vote of 75-20 in the UN General Assembly) contrasted with overwhelming domestic (US) support for the invasion. And of course there is the ostensible reason for the invasion: the first of four cited causes of the invasion by then President George Bush was "Safeguarding the lives of U.S. citizens in Panama." There were then some 35,000 American citizens living in Panama.

Yet here we have another rub. And the reason why this analogy is very far from adequate.

In the 2001 Ukrainian census, over 8 million citizens (17 percent) of that country identified themselves as "ethnic Russian" (the term "Russophones" might be more accurate, since the primary distinction seems to be linguistic). But these are not Russian citizens. These are persons for whom Russian is their first language. I cannot find a reliable figure for how many actual Russian expats are resident in Crimea or other parts of Ukraine, though I suspect it is not large. But no matter the number, there is no reason to suspect that either Russian citizens visiting or residing in Crimea, or even Russophone Crimeans were under any imminent threat. In fact, in the wake of the Russian occupation, it is proponents of an independent Ukraine that have been beaten up in Crimean streets.

That said, even were Russian citizens somehow at risk, international law and precedent clearly does not support the notion that one can invade another country to protect one's expatriate citizens.

So where does this leave us? Well, we have some pretty good inklings of what may have led to the Russian decision to intervene. And we are seeing a pretty strong international reaction to this "event" in the global "competition among the three branches of European civilization" that Lavrov described: to wit, the Russian branch is not showing itself as the sort of leader worthy of respect in the twenty-first century.

It is not a podium-worthy performance by any stretch of the imagination.

That leads nicely into a final quote, again from Sergei Lavrov at the same 2008 Q&A:

We have no intentions to claim anybody's territory.  We want everybody to reiterate the principles which have been guiding us in Europe and in the world, including the principle of territorial integrity, sovereignty, mutual respect for each other, non-use of force, non-interference in domestic affairs of others, in internal affairs of other states, indivisibility of security.

To which the Russophile observer in the West can only pose the question: "Which are we to believe, Sergei Viktorovich, Russia's words or Russia's deeds?" 

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