Is the conflict in Ukraine driven by Putin or the West?

As the situation in the Ukraine continues to spiral out of control and Russia appears poised to annex additional Russian-majority regions in the east of the country, the international media has by and large laid blame for the conflict at Putin?s doorstep.

Buzzwords such as ?naked aggression?, ?imperialist designs?, ?empire-building? and other phraseology reminiscent of the Cold War punctuate the Western media?s reporting on Russia?s involvement in the Ukraine.

The general conclusion that Putin?s Russia is solely responsible for what is taking place appears legitimate when Putin?s actions of the past months are isolated and viewed as unique occurrences. However, this viewpoint changes somewhat when one takes a step back and places in the equation two factors that are fundamental to truly understanding this conflict; firstly, the Russian view of history since the ?end of the cold war? and it?s interpretation of the US and Western Europe?s actions in that time. Secondly, Putin?s personal worldview, and deeply held belief, in regards to Russia?s legitimate place on the world stage.

The Russian view of recent history

While the end of the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union was unanimously viewed in the West as a positive geopolitical change for the globe, this sentiment is not shared by the majority of Russians. The collapse of the Soviet Union signified deprivation and economic ruin for over a decade, the exploitation and domination of the country?s resources by a select few, rampant corruption and criminality, the complete breakdown of basic services and worst of all to the Russian psyche, a loss of influence and power globally; being viewed and treated as a second-rate country by the US and the Western world.

Throughout the ?90?s and into the first years of the new millennium there truly was only one global ?superpower? and US foreign policy during this period included numerous actions that to Russia either clearly demonstrated that the US had imperialistic designs ? two wars in Iraq, invasion of Afghanistan, military action in the Balkans - or worse, was directly threatening Russia itself ? NATO missile shield, incorporating former Soviet satellites into NATO, US military bases in former Soviet republics etc.

On the economic front, Russia felt slighted by the snail pace with which its introduction into the WTO was conducted and that its voice and presence at forums such as the UN and G8 were not afforded the deference it felt was merited. Naturally, the West has differing views on this and feel Russia painted itself into a corner in regards to global share of voice but it?s fundamental to understand the Russian viewpoint on these matters and their sense that the West took ?victor?s rights? in these scenarios.

In the 90?s Russia was not in a position politically or economically to challenge these actions and perceived threats, which compounded the national feeling of having no voice or clout on the world stage and of being marginalized and ?disrespected? by the US and the West. The global balance of power was seen to have shifted far out of proportion in favor of the US and a desire to see that balance restored was imprinted as part of the national zeitgeist.

Putin?s Plan

Putin?s rise to power in 2000 signaled a change in the country?s trajectory; he had a definite plan to reorganize, rebuild and recapture the former status and prestige of his country, in that order, and he has implemented his plan relentlessly. During Putin's first premiership and presidency (1999?2008), real incomes increased by a factor of 2.5, real wages more than tripled; unemployment and poverty more than halved, and the Russians' self-assessed life satisfaction rose significantly. The Russian economy grew for eight straight years, seeing GDP increase by 72% in PPP.

In parallel he strengthened the military and security forces, cemented Russia?s position as a key oil and gas supplier to much of Europe, brought into line Russia?s oligarchs and mafia and crushed violent uprisings in Chechnya.

The methods used to accomplish his aims may not be considered ?democratic? by Western standards but his approval by average Russians is undeniable. In a poll conducted just after the Ukrainian crisis unfolded, his approval ratings were at 67 percent. In the eyes of Russians, Putin has recaptured Russia?s former glory and obligated the world to afford it the respect and deference it feels it deserves. The final step in Putin?s view is to restore the global balance of power militarily and politically.

The situation in the Ukraine is quite simply part of this plan. Ukraine and other former republics of the Soviet Union have always been seen as ?buffer zones? between Russia and a hostile West by the Kremlin and as such it is vital to their national security to see to it that these republics remain on friendly terms with Moscow. In years past there was little Russia could do if a former republic allied itself with the West; this has now changed.

In 2008, after a brief conflict, Moscow annexed Georgia?s breakaway territories, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, when its national security interests were best suited by doing so. Russia?s navy has it?s only warm water port in Sevastopol, Crimea so rather unsurprisingly, as soon as it became clear that the Maidan demonstrators were going to overthrow the pro-Kremlin Yanukovich government, plans were made to protect Russia?s interests and secure its position in the Crimea region.

The absence of any tangible opposition to Putin?s actions in both Georgia and the Ukraine by Western powers demonstrates that the political balance of power in the world today, for all intents and purposes, mirrors the balance that existed during the height of the Cold War; it just took a scenario such as the one unfolding in the Ukraine for the world to collectively realize it and the shock is still palpable.


To Putin himself, this assertion of Russian power is sending a clear message to the world that the final stage of his plan has been put into play and he fully intends to shape and influence the geopolitical landscape in countries that border Russia if their actions threaten Russia?s national security, economic or political interests and he is not overly concerned about what the rest of the world thinks.

In his view, this is precisely what the United States has done on numerous occasions over the last twenty years and Russia has simply come to the table to play by the same rules. Putin, and most Russians, see criticism of his actions by the US as blatantly hypocritical and from Russia?s vantage point one can see why they would take this view.

For better or worse, a global shift in power has taken place and the world?s political heavyweights will be obligated to take Russia?s demands and geopolitical views much more seriously. While the economic balance of power may not yet have equalized, the political balance has and how the powers that be react to this new reality will impact the world?s future for generations to come.

Alistair McLeish

Ian Herbison