PhD Candidate in International Relations, specialist in Russian and Eurasian Affairs, Turkey
Even after Trump was elected to the office of President, his continued positive statements about Russia has strengthened expectations that relations between the US and Russia would get better.
The winner of the last US presidential race Donald Trump’s positive messages to Russia during the election campaign, drew criticism from his opponents, but on the Russian front, it created a rarely encountered positive public perception of an American presidential candidate. Even after Trump was elected to the office of President, his continued positive statements about Russia has strengthened expectations that relations between the US and Russia would get better. However, expectations for the normalisation of relations between the two countries have been dampened due to an array of issues. One was the recent resignation of Trump’s National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, on allegations that ‘bargains’ were made during a phone call between him and Russian Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak. Furthermore, before Trump took office, the Obama administration decided to deport some 35 Russian diplomats. Finally, a recent statement from the White House that President Trump expects Crimea to be returned to Ukraine did not alleviate this disappointment. In addition, the decision to recognize the ‘passports’ of the secessionist Donetsk and Lugansk regions by Vladimir Putin against backdrop of the decision taken at the NATO summit to increase the military deployment to the Black Sea signals that new and serious tensions may be on the horizon.
Is Russia Preparing to Invade Ukraine?
Russia’s decision to recognize the ‘passports’ of the secessionist regions in Ukraine undoubtedly brought to mind the Abkhazian and South Ossetian scenario. Years ago, a similar decision was made in Russia which was also put into practice in the separatist parts of Georgia, Abkhazia and South Osetia; in the year 2008 Russia undertook a military intervention in Georgia under the pretext of saving its ‘citizens/compatriots’. By recognizing the independence of these territories, Russia de facto connected them to itself. Russia continued a similar expansionist policy in the post-Soviet space, described as ‘near abroad’, in Crimea in 2014.With promises of financial support and discounts on natural gas, Putin successfully persuaded Viktor Yanukovich, his Ukrainian counterpart at the time, to put on hold the process of signing the ‘European Union Association Agreement’ in favour of involvement in the Eurasian Customs Union (EACU), considered to the smaller format of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), a priority initiative of Moscow. Upon this development, Western powers provoked the situation in the country, promoting the ‘Maidan Protests’.
Russia and the West: the New Normal
Since independence in 1991, the problems of corruption, bribery and inefficient use of national resources, as well as the historical Ukrainian-Russian language contrast between the country’s eastern and western sides, suggested such a popular uprising in Ukraine. At the least, this rebellion led to Yanukovich’s resignation and his asylum in Russia. The West’s ‘Maidan Coup’ was seen by Russia as a violation of the ‘rules of the game’. The Kremlin organized Russian-speaking compatriots against the Western counterparts in the country in order to keep Ukraine out of the West’s orbit, and organized them in accordance with the concept of hybrid warfare, encouraging their revolt against the new administration in Kiev. At the same time, Russia held a referendum in March 2014, in the Crimea, which was legally a territorial part of Ukraine, subsequently annexing the historic peninsula itself. Russia’s organizational capability and its achievement of a very effective military resistance in Ukraine in a short period of time for the sake of asserting its national interests in this crisis doubtlessly took the Western powers by surprise. As a matter of course, the Ukrainian crisis deepened further, causing the West to apply political and economic sanctions against Russia.
It is useful to emphasize that Ukraine is not a country that can easily be abandoned by Russia to its fate. At the global level, Ukraine not only has geo-economic importance for international energy and trade routes, but also has a deep geo-cultural ‘fault line’ with its Slavic-Orthodox, Slavic-Catholic, and Muslim-Tatar elements. Located in the centre of Eurasia, along with Turkey, Ukraine has an undeniable role for internationally, politically, economically and security-focused projects. Therefore, Ukraine's geopolitical position is of great importance for regional and global stability. Lastly, contemporary Ukraine is historically Russia’s (Русь) mainland, the centre for its first state, the location of the acceptance and subsequent geographic spread of Slavic-Orthodoxy, and the ‘clearest’ starting point for roughly 1100 years of Russian historical memory. Essentially, Ukraine is a ‘touchstone’ in the construction of Russian national identity and civilization. From this aspect, it can be said that beyond the geopolitics, security and economy, Ukraine is a deeper matter, related to socio-psychological perception of Russians that evokes the origins of ‘Russian existentialism’. It can therefore be argued that the current Russia, without ‘Eastern Ukraine’, which includes Kiev in geographical terms, is not a ‘complete’ Russia under the consciousness of a Russian. It should also not be ignored that in the case of a ‘state of emergency’, a military attack on Ukraine by Russia ‘is required’. This is a perception which is engraved in most Russians’ subconscious and seriously enables Kremlin administration to ‘legitimize’ its intervention to the public domestically. The ‘Russian Federation Military Doctrine’, which was published both in 2010 and 2014, has already recognized "the right to military intervention on the grounds of protecting the rights of its compatriots living outside Russia's borders".
Need for an Enemy in American Geo-Strategy
Russia and the West, Trapped by Their Own
It would not be wrong to state that American gambits in Russia’s 'near abroad', especially in Ukraine, which provoke Moscow, is a strategic choice for Washington. NATO, established under the leadership of the United States, to combat communism and Soviet expansion in the framework of international balance of power after World War II, ‘the concept of existence cause and strategic structuring’ has become a serious uncertainty as a result of the disintegration of the Warsaw Pact, the enemy bloc, in 1991. As a matter of fact, the Russians assumed that NATO would no longer exist and that the ‘Common European Home’ that would include the new Russia, having become a market economy, would now be established. However, the US saw "the opportunity to dominate the world on its own" in the face of the unexpected collapse of the arch-rival Soviets, and restructured its foreign policy in this direction. Events in the Balkans in the 1990s also provided favourable conditions for the restructuring of NATO, and a new influential role for this organization as a 'stabilizer' was laid down by the US. Although Moscow put in place a new foreign policy concept in response to the inconvenience it experienced in the form of the Primakov Doctrine, due to the severe political, economic, social, and ethnic crises of the internal transition period, the desired effect of this foreign policy was not demonstrated until the 2000's.
The US, on the other hand, assumed that the void in the sphere of geopolitics that emerged after the Cold War could only be filled in by itself, with all political, economic, and military factors in its favour. This situation, which mobilized the strategic interests of the US on the world stage, has been formulated very clearly by the famous American strategist Zbigniew Brzezinski. According to Brzezinski, consolidation of the US's global hegemonic power depends on its domination of Eurasia, and as such, it is absolutely necessary for the US to prevent domination by another power in Eurasia either on its own, or making alliances against the US in Eurasia.
With this basic geo-strategic account, the US has made a decisive step forward in its move towards a new foreign policy towards Russia, which has aimed at becoming a central power once again in the post-Soviet space. As such, the US has ensured the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland in becoming members of NATO in 1999. Until 2001, the US, trying to follow the strategy of spreading global hegemony without an ‘enemy’, the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001 created a tremendous pretext to realize this goal. In other words, this unexpected terrorist act, creating a shock effect on both the national and international public, gave the US a solid internal and external legitimacy “in fighting against terrorism”. Thus, NATO was given the task of "fighting against international terrorism", with the definition of this new task being supported by the member countries.
Ukraine after 30 Years: Manoeuvring between
The US geo-strategic moves, beginning with the military intervention in Afghanistan after the events of September 11opened a new page in the history of international relations, on the Eurasian chess board, and have simultaneously led to the growing national security threat posed by Moscow and "the unipolar world order". Ever since, the US has been trying to prevent Russia from becoming an active force in Eurasia on the one side; and on the other side has been working to spread an American-centred economic-political order.
In this context, the US has clearly encouraged ‘colour revolutions’ in former Soviet countries, viewed as Russia’s backyard, since 2003 -- of which some were successful, such as in Georgia (2003 / “Rose Revolution”), Ukraine (2004 / “Orange Revolution”) and Kyrgyzstan (2005 / “Tulip Revolution”), but failed in Uzbekhstan (2005 / Andican events) and in Belarus (2006 / Jeans Revolution). More importantly, the US made Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia NATO members in 2004, gaining a significant strategic advantage over its ‘geopolitical enemy’ Russia. Thus, the US successfully led a wave of NATO expansion the eastwards, continuing to the present day, just for the purpose of its own geopolitical interests. Conversely, the Russians have justifiably accused the West of breaking promises made after the fall of the Iron Curtain, saying that NATO's expansion into Eastern Europe violated commitments made during the negotiations over German reunification.
In this respect, the fact that the "American unipolarity" that emerged in international relations after 1991 has been fully transformed into a global hegemony is directly related to the strengthening of the current US geo-strategic superiority. This geopolitical approach sustained by Washington made it inevitable for a conflict of interest between Russia and the US on the Eurasian axis. In other words, it should be emphasized that the ‘great strategies’ that have steadily been carried out by these two countries play very critical roles at the core of the Russo-American conflict of interest. In order to sustain American global hegemonic power in the 21st century, two basic geo-economic models based on the Euro-Atlantic and the Asia-Pacific must be built in collaboration with the American-centred economic-political world order, and NATO's legitimacy must be maintained by the US. The ideal ‘enemy’ for NATO's existence and legitimacy is none other than Russia. It can be said that the geopolitical struggle deliberately created with Russia over Ukraine allowed for the need for an ‘enemy’ in this regard to be met, which serves to reinforce the present geo-strategic superiority of the Eurasian chessboard in favour of the US.
Russia and the West: What Does “Equality”
Despite the end of the Cold War, the emergence of ‘the American unipolarity’ in world politics has led to a necessity for Washington to spread itself on the global stage on the one hand, but on the other it has paved way for Russian anxiety caused by being exposed to a new geopolitical collapse that could undermine its existence altogether. This situation inevitably put the ‘Pax Americana’ up against ‘Pax Russica’. As can be seen from an examination of the history of states in general, geopolitical struggle is based on a system that assigns only winners and losers. So this geopolitical reality soon re-established the struggle for power between the US and Russia. In this regard, Ukraine has remained in the midst of the geopolitical struggle between Russia and the US, and strengthened its geo-strategic position in the regional security equation, which served as a ‘buffer zone’ for these two centres of power. For this reason, it can be predicted that Russia will pursue a foreign policy that is even open to the hot war in this ongoing geopolitical struggle, in order to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO in the coming period. Such a scenario could trigger the new Cold War, which is, for sure, needed for the US.
* This is the enhanced version of the author's article that firstly published in Turkish newspaper "Karar"