The series of events in Ukraine, the Kremlin’s reactions, and the escalation to the point of Russia’s armed intervention in Crimea have progressed with bewildering speed. Most confounding about the escalation of events is the seemingly irrational nature of it all. On the face of it, there was no necessary reason that this escalation had to occur, nor was there any clearly rational motive for Russia’s game of brinkmanship. In fact, it was much easier to enumerate the many reasons for Russia not to intervene. Of course, this is not the first time in the present crisis that expectations of rational behavior failed to match reality. Many experts on post-Soviet politics believed Viktor Yanukovych held all the cards when protests began in November. Likewise, nothing about the present crisis was necessary, and much was unexpected as a result of our tendency to overestimate the regime’s shared understanding of what we consider to be rational. Now that explanations have shifted to accounting for Putin’s seemingly “irrational” behavior, the variety of explanation that takes root as the accepted narrative for the conflict will undoubtedly shape future interpretations of each side’s actions and limit the range of policy options available to each, as well as those available to the U.S., the EU, and other international actors. In this sense, some explanations clearly hold greater value than others.
The dominant explanations for Putin’s “irrational” behavior in the Crimean crisis are framed within various narratives about Russian nationalism. In the first and most commonly encountered narrative, primordial attachments of Russian nationality link the Russian people with ethnic Russians in Crimea. The Russian state’s willingness to intervene is understood as a felt obligation that is naturalized by the observation of co-ethnicity. This narrative is commonly found in the mass media, which naturalizes the connection between Crimea’s ethnic Russian population and Russia’s military support, and is circulated extensively via social media.
Despite its wide circulation, this is the weakest of all possible explanations. In the last two decades, Russia has never intervened outside its borders on behalf of the ethnic Russian diaspora (it is worth recalling here that the intervention in South Ossetia was officially justified first on behalf of Russian peacekeepers, and only later on behalf of “citizens” – i.e., those holding Russian passports). Putin’s request to parliament to support armed intervention was articulated on behalf of Russian citizens and “our compatriots.” Even the decision by the Federation Council to support intervention was not expressed in terms of aiding the russkii narod (the ethnic Russian people), but the rossiiskii narod (or, roughly translating, Russian citizens). In short, the notion of primordial attachments provides no explanation for today’s intervention, much less past non-interventions. It further yields no prescriptions for resolving the situation other than the territorial partition of Ukraine or ethnic cleansing of Crimea.
The second narrative related to nationalism describes Russia as a neo-fascist state driven by an ideology of Eurasianism. In general, Eurasianism denies the sovereignty of Russia’s neighbors and calls for the re-acquisition of empire. This narrative posits that empire is in the Kremlin’s genetic code, but the loss of Ukraine is an impermissible blow to Putin’s pet project for a Eurasian Union. In a particularly strong version of this narrative, the historian Timothy Snyder even likens the West’s tolerance of Russia’s imperialism with Holocaust denial. Similar to the primordial attachments narrative, the neo-imperialism narrative provides no clear explanation for decisions not to intervene. Even with regard to Russia’s policy towards Ukraine during the Maidan crisis, it is difficult to square this narrative with Putin’s muted response and the lack of overt support for Yanukovych (aside from the promised aid package of $15 billion in purchases of state bonds—which, it is worth noting, was presented as a jibe at the EU rather than a building block for empire). It has even been suggested by Poland’s foreign minister that it was Putin who persuaded Yanukovych to step down.
Though Putin is given to quoting nationalist philosophers, this narrative also overstates the influence of Eurasianism in the Kremlin. Alexander Dugin and Gleb Pavlovskii—two figures most often associated with Eurasianism—have not held Putin’s ear for some time, and one suspects the majority of state and quasi-state actors actually involved in foreign policy are more interested in rent-seeking and asset stripping than empire. Finally, the effect of such a narrative is to silence observations of the complex factions in Kiev and render them simply as democrats, and particularly to justify and smooth over violence committed by the nationalist fringe. None of this will reduce tensions, engage the Kremlin, or facilitate democratization.
There is a third narrative that links the Crimean crisis with nationalism that emerges from the Russian press. From the start of the crisis in Kiev, Russia’s government condemned the Maidan protestors as bandits, terrorists, and extremists who sought to undermine constitutional order and then to overthrow Ukraine’s legitimate government with violence. This media narrative draws almost exclusive attention to the role of the nationalist party Svoboda and the role of nationalist militants in Pravyi Sektor. After Yanukovych fled, the Russian media emphasized the new government’s subordination to extremists. Having identified the new government in Kiev as nationalizing and militant, it would have been impossible for the Kremlin to suddenly portray Kiev as actually quite reasonable and capable of negotiating the peace. In short, the narrative of events in Russia’s state media that justified the Kremlin’s stance on the protests also authorized (if not required) intervention in Crimea after Yanukovych’s government folded.
This perception of Ukraine as a nationalizing state, Crimea as an ethnic minority, and Russia as an external national homeland for Crimean Russians bears a striking resemblance to the “triadic nexus” described in Rogers Brubaker’s Nationalism Reframed. Understanding the dynamic producing the triadic nexus of nationalizing state, national minority, and external national homeland, however, can suggest ways that such a crisis might be de-escalated. If Russia has, indeed, boxed itself into a corner, then the upcoming referendum in Crimea could conceivably provide a way out if it demonstrates the inaccuracy of characterizing Crimean Russians as co-nationals, or if it demonstrates that they do not desire Russia as a patron. Alternatively, the depiction of the new government in Kiev as nationalizing could be changed when new elections are held for Ukraine’s parliament and president. Popular protests against armed intervention in Russia could also weaken the Kremlin’s claim to represent an external national homeland. Russia could also redefine its role as external national homeland to mean security guarantees to Crimea without annexation.
There are, of course, other narratives in play, including those focusing on perception and misperception, incomplete information, confirmation bias, and lessons of history (especially with regard to the Russian-Georgian war of 2008, or Russia’s invocation of Kosovo as an alleged historical precedent). Yet nationalism continues to mediate public understanding of the Crimean crisis. Without coming to grips with the valence and trajectories of nationalist narratives in the current crisis, we are likely to continue assuming too much about the rationality—and the irrationality—of Russia’s and Ukraine’s leaders.
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