In recent years, there has been a general consensus in the international arena that Russia is engaging in aggressive diplomacy. Many assume that actions taken by Putin such as the reckless invasion of Crimea and the blatant support he offers to rebel forces in Eastern Ukraine stems from his innate megalomaniac nature. However, I disagree that Russia’s foreign policy are fundamentally shaped by the self-serving personal interests of Putin. Rather, I posit that their actions are motivated by the pragmatic goal of ensuring its survival as a sovereign nation. I would seek to explore Russia’s narrative on the specific issue of the 2014 Ukrainian conflict while delineating the motivations behind their actions.
Following the forceful annexation of Crimea, Ukraine was plunged into a further state of disarray. Expectedly, Russia’s infringement of Crimea’s sovereignty drew sharp criticism from the international community. Certain nations even went many steps further by implementing strict economic sanctions, effectively crippling the Russian economy. Yet, we still observe Russia resolute and unyielding stance that their claim over Crimea is legitimate and rightful. Why then do they remain unabashed, especially considering the insurmountable pressure they face from other nations?
To answer this puzzling question, we should first understand Russia’s “curse of Geography”. Despite its vastness, Russia is particularly vulnerable to foreign invasions from the West as its borders stretch over 2000 miles. Hence, the imminent threat of an unfriendly neighbour at this doorstep would prove to be a danger that Russia cannot ignore. We ought to recall that the trigger that led to to Russia’s interventionist actions was undoubtedly the collapse of Viktor Yanukovych’s pro-Russian Government. Before this, Ukraine had acted as a friendly buffer state that Russia could rely on for protection. This was especially critical since the threat NATO could potentially pose to Russia is devastating. The loss of a key ally in Yanukovych and the emergence of Pro-EU and hence Pro-NATO Ukrainian government is a major cause for concern. I posit that Putin had acknowledged the severe threat of a NATO-aligned nation at such close proximity to Russia and took radical actions to preserve the buffer state that exists between the NATO bloc and them. This realist approach to international relations prioritises survival as the key aim of the state. Hence, the support Russia renders to the rebels seeking to establish the Donbass Region as an independent state is ultimately pragmatic in nature.
The forceful acquisition of Crimea was also grounded on similar realist motivations. Crimea serves as one of the few warm-water ports Russia could rely on for trade. With the emergence of a potentially unaccommodating Ukrainian government, Russia’s trade routes would be in immediate jeopardy. Therefore, bearing international condemnation by invading Crimea would ensure access to the warm-water port that Russia definitely needs. For Putin, the pros simply outweighs the cons and this pragmatic approach to preserve economic prosperity and most critically Russia’s sovereignty is naturally seen as a necessary step to be taken.
The international community needs to realise that a major factor influencing Russia’s aggressive foreign policy is the circumstantial pressure Russia faces to ensure that its sovereignty remains protected. I believe that addressing Russia’s deep-lying security concerns is a good first step towards seeking a resolution to this conflict. This is fundamentally so because Russia’s resistance is the probably the only reason why this remains a gridlock issue since their veto renders any efforts from the United Nations effectively useless. By tackling the issue through seeking Russia’s cooperation and meeting in the middle, I believe we can make a significant step to solving the conflict. But then again, maybe our leaders actually do understand this. Maybe they do acknowledge Russia’s legitimate concerns. Maybe they even do sympathise with Russia. But in accordance to the grand tradition of upholding self-interest and national pride, the world might just let this become yet another unresolved conflict to lament about.