Understanding the Kremlin’s new found aggression towards Ukraine requires an understanding of Russia’s history, and President Vladimir Putin’s foreign-policy motif. An understanding is essential in avoiding the frigid hostility of the Cold War.
In 2008, Russia invaded Georgia. The world turned a blind eye, partly because Georgia is an insignificant state on the fringe of Europe but mostly because the costs of cutting Russia adrift would be too high. Days after the Sochi Olympics, Russia annexed Crimea. The world accepted it because Crimea should have been Russian all along – the territory had been transferred to Ukraine by Khrushchev in 1954. If the Soviet leader were alive today he would likely admit that in hindsight the transfer was a mistake. Now the Russian army is infiltrated eastern Ukraine, albeit subversively. Putin denies any such action, however this is highly implausible. The attacks were co-ordinated, and in strategically useful places that had seen few prior protests. Ukraine is a part of Europe, it was moving towards EU membership, and despite Moscow’s perception it is a sovereign state. Disregarding minor sanctions, why is the West standing by while Russia destabilises its neighbour? The answer is that ultimately, Ukraine remains within Russia’s sphere of influence and the land matters more to Putin than it does to any Western leader. Those two reasons are what the whole conflict is over, after all.
Its all about geography – the vast Russian landmass and its foreign policy
The Russian foreign-policy paradigm is one I have examined many times; recent events make the explanation relevant once again. The Russian landmass is incredibly large, flat, and thus vulnerable. Throughout history, the peoples that populated this landmass secured their frontiers aggressively. This is true of the Scythians, the Huns, the Mongols, the Russian Empire of the Czars, the Soviets, and the modern Russian Federation. Throughout Russia’s history, it has acted as “a land power that had to keep attacking and exploring in all directions or itself be vanquished.” We see this in the 1800s when Russia pushed into Eastern Europe in an attempt to block France, and again in 1945 when Moscow used Eastern Europe as a buffer-zone against a resurgent Germany. Russia has also pushed into Afghanistan to block the British during the Great Game, and conquered the Far East to block China. These same motives were at play when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Moscow again felt vulnerable when the Soviet Union dissolved and it lost the buffer-zone it gained in 1945.
Today Russia is the most vulnerable it has been in centuries
During the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow gave up much of its influence of both the Warsaw Pact and the former Soviet Republic states. Many of these states subsequently joined the EU and NATO. This left Russia even smaller, and in Moscow’s eyes even more vulnerable as a result than it was in the aftermath of the First World War, when it was bitterly defeated by the Central Powers. Indeed, Russia holds a similar amount of territory today as it did under Peter the Great.
Expanding EU integration is seen by Moscow as an attempt to install Russia-hostile political regimes in Russia’s former sphere of influence. In contrast to the EU’s value-driven foreign policy, Russia’s government places importance on stable governance, it believes the promotion of democracy and the rule of law risks regional stability. Thus, Moscow remains very wary of the EU’s Eastern Partnership, an attempt to deepen EU ties with the post-Soviet republics of Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. To Moscow this is an attempt by the EU to contain Russia by removing the legitimate authoritarian regimes and installing Russia-hostile governments. This is why today Putin believes the European Union is a threat, and why the Ukraine is of utmost importance. If the country were to slip out of Moscow’s sphere of influence, Russia would be left that much more vulnerable. The nation feels cornered.
The man with the plan
Putin has stated that “the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” He sees the world as in a state of transition from an American dominated power balance that began with the fall of the USSR to one that is made up of several global powers. As such the Russian President’s goal is to re-establish Russia as a great-power, if not in a bipolar state system than in a multipolar state system. Allowing Ukraine to drift westwards is in direct conflict with this goal, and thus the overthrow of Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovych in favour of a European oriented interim government is anathema to the Kremlin. The Ukraine is in particular a more personal-desire to the Russian national narrative, as it was in Kiev that the modern Russian state was born. Furthermore the country borders Russia, cutting deep into its southern flank. To the Kremlin, a western-oriented Ukraine is likely even more undesirable than a western-oriented Poland.
So what does Putin hope to achieve in the Ukraine? It is unlikely that the intention is to annex Ukraine’s east, occupation would come at heavy costs, both politically and militarily. It is more likely that the Kremlin hopes to incite civil conflict to erode the authority of the new pro-Western government in Kiev. In Putin’s eyes, a destabilised Ukraine is better than a Western one.
The West’s Balancing Act
With this in mind, how best can the West counter Russia’s new found aggression? Both sanctions and NATO military exercises are certainly necessary, the latter to assure the Baltic states that they are not second-class NATO members, and can count on NATO to come to their defense. However, the West must be very careful not to overact, thereby plunging the world back into a Cold War, or worse. A complete isolation of Russia would be devastating to Europe’s economy, a distraction to America’s “Asian Pivot,” and destructive to overall global security. A cornered bear is a dangerous one, and West must understand where it can act, and what is outside of its own sphere of influence. Henry Kissinger eloquently described the balancing act the West must achieve in order to counter Moscow without ostracising it, and it all comes down to understanding Putin’s motives.
“Paradoxically, a Russia is a country that has enormous internal problems … but it is in a piece of strategic real estate from St Petersburg to Moscow. It is in everybody’s interest that it becomes part of the international system, and not an isolated island. One has to interpret Putin not like a Hitler-type, as he has been, but as a Russian Czar who is trying to achieve the maximum for his country. We are correct in standing up to him, but we also have to know when the confrontation should end.”
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Of the nations that make up ‘the West’ in the current international state system, France has acted independently from its allies on many occasions. Most recently, on 27 November 2012, France became the first major European power to announce it plans to vote in favor of a Palestinian bid to move from ‘observer’ to ‘non-member observer’ state – a bid for true ‘state’ status would be vetoed by the United States. This may very well be to French President Frances Hollande what opposing the Iraq War very publicly was to Jacques Chirac. France’s autonomous international identity is based on a feeling of independence from the United States and Britain, a feeling that developed with Charles de Gaulle’s rise to power and the creation of the Fifth Republic.
The May Crisis of 1958 would bring Charles de Gaulle to power. This political crisis came about because of the powerlessness of the Fourth Republic combined with the embarrassingly low reputation of the French military. France was governed by the Fourth Republic after World War 2. The Fourth Republic was characterized by its weak institutions, and a political system that favored small parties, both of these weaknesses typified a politically unstable France, in fact France had twenty six governments in fourteen years. No state is able to project itself and possess a real foreign policy in such unstable domestic political positions.
The French military also had a embarrassingly low reputation entering the 1950s. French forces had just been defeated in Indo-China, frustrated by the Suez escapade, and confined to humiliatingly small areas in Tunisia and Morocco, not to mention the fact that France had suffered a German occupation lasting from 1940 to 1944. This caused further instability because of the situation in Algeria. The French army was in conflict with Algerian revolutionaries in order to keep Algeria as an integral part of France. Although the French army felt sure it could defeat the revolutionaries within a few years, it did not believe the weak French government would maintain its resolve against the rebels. Indeed as “government succeeded government” the French soldiers stationed in Algeria perceived “less and less resolve in the State whose authority they were supposed to be upholding” by maintaining Algeria as part of France. (McMillan) In frustration, the French military drafted plans for a coup d’etat to regain its honor, acts that could easily have led to civil war, such was the level of instability in France.
The May 1958 Crisis, the culmination of French Instability
Because of France’s weak government and its military’s frustration, on May 9, 1958, following enormous demonstrations in Algiers, the army issued Paris with an ultimatum – do not abandon Algeria. French military commanders drafted a plan known as Operation Resurrection. Paratroopers were to be dropped in Paris and take control of the government. This gave Charles de Gaulle an opportunity to return to politics. The army supported de Gaulle’s return to power, seeing as de Gaulle was a French general, and French forces felt de Gaulle would support their desire for Algeria to remain French. Only when French military commanders heard de Gaulle was returning to government did they postpone the operation.
Charles De Gaulle’s Reforms
Charles De Gaulle used the crisis to create a new political system that would provide France with stability. It would also mean French would project itself with a level of autonomy on the world stage. In the wake of a near revolution, President René Coty agreed to make Charles de Gaulle head of the National Assembly in order to make sweeping reforms to France’s political institutions. This action gives de Gaulle the opportunity to create the Fifth Republic in France, perhaps his greatest legacy. The new system is known as semi presidential, which is characterized by two runoff elections which forces bipolarization, depriving small parties of the advantages they had enjoyed in the Fourth Republic. The new system also gave the President sweeping new rights such as the threat of dissolution, emergency powers, and a Cabinet that is controlled by the President. The President is also personally elected by the French people, thus legitimizing his power. A system depriving small parties of power, and a President who is directly elected by the people and is granted with many political rights, added stability to French politics. A powerful President also means France’s leader could speak out on the world stage, as long as he had the backing of the people. De Gaulle’s new system was put to the French people in a referendum which passed on the 28th of September, 1958, he was elected as the first President in December of the same year. Charles de Gaulle gave legitimacy, stability, and integrity to the French government. This allowed de Gaulle project an independent France on the world stage – a move that would regain French pride.
Although de Gaulle came to power with the support of the military, because it believed he would uphold French control of Algeria, de Gaulle “did not consider Algeria to be the most important issue he confronted.” (McMillan) In order to settle the Algerian conflict de Gaulle gave Algeria on opportunity for independence through a referendum in January of 1961. This action did not please the military, and in April 1961 a military uprising takes place in Algiers. Once again plans were drafted for paratroopers to take over Paris. As President de Gaulle was now able to invoke Article 16, thus he granted himself emergency powers, causing the coup to subsequently collapse. Charles de Gaulle had saved France from a second near-rebellion of the military, however this only highlighted the remaining problem of repairing the damaged French military honour.
Restoring French military Pride through a fiercely independent policy
De Gaulle would counter the loss of Algeria and restore French national prestige as a world power by maintaining a strong individualistic foreign policy. Throughout his presidency, de Gaulle would continuously make foreign policy decisions to maintain French independence on the world stage. De Gaulle believed nuclear weapons distinguished a country as a world power. In February of 1959 de Gaulle withdrew the French fleet stationed in the Mediterranean from NATO command because the commanding admiral was British and the system commander was American, thus maintaining the French military’s independence. When the British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan met with de Gaulle in December of 1963 to negotiate Britain’s entry into the European Union, de Gaulle vetoed the application. De Gaulle was troubled by Britain’s ‘special tie’ with the United States, he believed that the United States, through a special nuclear relationship possessed more “means to bend certain orientations of English policy.” This special tie was highlighted by the fact that Britain scrapped its own Skybolt device in order to use American Polaris ballistic missiles. De Gaulle realised Britain and France had to stay under the American nuclear umbrella, however his “main concern was that France should not become a mere pawn in the superpower’s game.” (Larkin) This concern would lead to another veto by de Gaulle in 1967 when Britain again applied to be part of the European Union. By independently becoming a nuclear armed power, in addition to vetoing the British request to enter the European union because of its tie to the United States, and by taking measure to keep French forces independent from NATO, de Gaulle restored French honour in its military and maintained pride in its national sovereignty. This proud feeling of French military autonomy remains to this day.
Upholding National Interests; Independence wasn’t just for the military
Charles de Gaulle’s foreign policy did not simply focus on French military sovereignty. De Gaulle would always uphold French national interests in Europe, especially when it came to European unification. When it was proposed that the European Union would decide issues with a majority vote, de Gaulle realised French national interests and French sovereignty could be at stake and flatly refused to agree. If issues went to a majority vote, France could lose out to the other European nations. This sparked the Empty Chair Crisis when de Gaulle withdrew his ministers from the Council of Ministers in June of 1965. De Gaulle’s action worked, in January of 1966 the Luxembourg Compromise was agreed upon. This compromise agreed a majority vote would not be taken in the event that one member of the council claimed a ‘very important’ national interest was at stake. De Gaulle realised France and Germany were the centre of European co-operation, and knew France benefited greatly from this, both economically and politically. France benefited economically because the European Union was founded upon the European Coal and Steel Community (an economic agreement) and politically because it could have influence over other EU members. Therefore, if Britain was allowed to join, this would further divide France’s influence upon Europe. As previously mentioned, De Gaulle bitterly opposed British entry into the European Union, he twice vetoed its attempts to enter, in 1963 and 1967. Although de Gaulle stated this was because of Britain’s ‘special tie’ with the United States, the fact that France would lose its economic and political advantages within the EU also influenced his decision. This same realisation also influenced de Gaulle to sign the 1963 Elysée Treaty with the German Chancellor, institutionalising the French-German ‘motor’ of the European Union. This cemented French influence in the Union; the idea of a French-German ‘motor’ remains to this day. De Gaulle’s foreign policy did not only focus on France’s military, de Gaulle would ensure France remained an integral part of the European Union, safeguarding and furthering French international political and economic influence. De Gaulle’s foreign policy would always be for the good of France, further restoring French national pride. The France that was created by de Gaulle would remain a country that would act with autonomy on the international stage.
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