THE BLOG

Russia's Ukrainian Intervention in Historical Perspective

10/03/2014 13:09 GMT | Updated 05/05/2014 10:59 BST

Russia's intervention in the Crimea region of Ukraine in recent days follows a sadly familiar pattern in Russian foreign policy. There is, indeed, much in common between the current crisis in Ukraine, which has seen Russian-sponsored militia take a vice-like grip on Crimea, and the brief conflict between Russia and Georgia over the territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in August 2008. In both these instances, nationalist politicians, who defined themselves broadly as pro-Western, while thumbing their noses at Moscow, have been forcefully rebuffed by the Russian military.

The underlying basis for Russia's actions is, however, far more deeply rooted than these recent episodes alone would suggest. Russian behaviour in Ukraine, while sharply and legitimately criticised by many Western leaders, is founded upon a longstanding political doctrine, which has underpinned Russian foreign policy for the last two centuries. Hostility toward any unfriendly political movements that have the potential to threaten Russian interests, within what many in Moscow still consider to be an entirely legitimate Russian 'sphere of influence', is primarily based upon a defensive territorial mind-set that is deeply ingrained within the Russian political psyche. In 1812, and again in 1941, Russia suffered devastating invasions from Western Europe - first from Napoleonic France, and then from Nazi Germany. As a result of these two catastrophic episodes, which cost tens of millions of Russian lives, Russian foreign policy has been defined by an unshakeable determination to maintain Russia's security by preserving a cordon sanitaire of friendly nations on its western borders. Though changes of government have modulated the goals of Russian foreign policy over the years, the Russian state's fundamentally insular and defensive mind-set has survived intact.

Russia simply will not tolerate the expulsion of its military forces from Crimea because of the huge strategic significance it attaches to Sevastopol as the base of its Black Sea Fleet. Since the 17th century, possession of a warm-water port by which Russian naval forces can access the Mediterranean has been a fundamental component of Russian foreign policy, and one Russia has fought several times to maintain. The Kharkov Accords, signed in 2010, extended Russia's lease on Sevastopol until 2042; while there is also a strong demographic element at play, with 59% of Crimea's population being of ethnic Russian origin. None of this is to defend Russia's heavy-handed intervention, which many Western commentators have rightly described as unlawful; but it should, at least, help to put Russian behaviour into its proper context.

The key to understanding Vladimir Putin's Russia is to appreciate that the President, and many Russians, see themselves as a nation with unique and proud traditions, founded upon pure and unadulterated values distinctly separate from the Western world. Russians, of course, understand the importance of interacting with the West - particularly for economic purposes - but they generally wish to do so on their own terms, without sacrificing any aspect of their unique national identity. The closer Western values come to Russia's doorstep, the more threatening they appear, leading to the flare-ups we have seen: first in Georgia, and now in Ukraine.

So, what of the likely outcome? The guess here is that once the chest-thumping rhetoric of recent days subsides, a compromise solution will be reached that allows Russia to maintain its vital security interests in the region. It is likely that Crimea, and perhaps other predominantly ethnically Russian regions in Eastern Ukraine, will become increasingly independent from Kiev. While the response of the United States and the European Union has so far been fairly calm and measured, Mr Putin is aware that they are unlikely to tolerate the subjugation of the demands of a majority of the Ukrainian people for a more accountable government; nor will the West accept a significantly expanded Russian military presence in Eastern Ukraine. Therefore, a settlement that allows Russia to maintain its military presence in Crimea, while facilitating some measure of political reform in the remainder of the country, is the most likely solution. Despite the noisy rhetoric currently emanating from Moscow, Mr Putin certainly does not want to provoke a significant conflict in the region, or any form of Western intervention, which would undermine Russia's fundamental political interests. These strategic objectives, and associated Russian pride - which should never be underestimated - are, ultimately, what this episode is all about.