Barely had the Winter Olympics concluded than Russia came under the global spotlight once again. The billions of dollars and seven-year-long effort Russia invested in creating a positive international image have been sent down the drain in less than a week. This seems to be a bizarre move considering how much is at stake for Russia. However, to understand these recent developments, consider how important Ukraine, particularly the Crimean peninsula, is to the former superpower.
Two decades after the fall of the USSR, Russia’s foreign policy still depends heavily on its influence over former Soviet states. Any threat to this sphere of influence could drastically reduce Russia’s leverage in the international political system—a reduction Russia cannot afford given its geopolitical interests.
Now consider the recent developments in Ukraine. The ouster of a pro-Russia president in response to his refusal to move closer to the EU spells out a clear message: The interim government in Ukraine wants to move out of Russia’s sphere of influence. Vladimir Putin’s government would obviously not be satisfied with this shift in Ukrainian foreign policy. Further, not only is the turmoil-stricken state moving away from Russia, it is moving toward the West.
Increased ties between the West and Ukraine could set an example for other former Soviet states to follow the lead. This would spell disaster for Russia’s foreign policy in that its sphere of influence would be diluted, or perhaps even removed altogether, by Western advances, and it would lose its leverage.
These political concerns aren’t the only issues troubling Russia at this point. The Ukraine crisis also brings up the possibility of significant economic detriment. A large portion of Russia’s gas passes through Ukraine before it is sent off to the rest of Europe. Having a strong influence on the Ukrainian government assures Russia’s leadership of the security and affordability of its gas lines. A pro-Europe government could well cause Russia to lose this secure position.
The third major element behind Russia’s bewildering actions is cultural. Crimea, the peninsula in Ukraine that has been held siege by pro-Russian gunmen, holds great importance for Russian society. The peninsula houses the Cathedral of St. Vladimir, a symbol of the synthesis of Byzantine and Slavic civilizations into modern Russia. In addition to the sentimental importance, Crimea is also home to many ethnic Russians, including Russian citizens and soldiers. In fact, Russians form the majority of the Crimean population. Russia has cited the protection of these individuals as its rationale behind any intervention in Ukraine.
However, even though this is Putin’s primary argument, it is probably not his biggest motivation behind the Russian approach to the situation. The possible loss of an ally, the shifting of ideologies from Soviet to Western and the grave impact this change will have on its global influence are much more pressing concerns. Viewing this from Russia’s lens clearly displays why the Putin administration is so desperate to maintain influence over the government in Kiev.