Understanding Putin’s Russia and the Struggle over Ukraine

Pity the political scientist studying Russia. How does one analyze such a highly personalistic regime, in which key decisions are made behind closed doors and democratic elements have been squeezed out over the past decade? How should one assess the politics of a country that is a geopolitical outlier: the largest territory in the world, with borders from Norway to North Korea, and that has played a decisive role in every major European war of the last 200 years?

The current crackdown on “foreign agents,” which includes the closure of universities and NGOs and the arrest of journalists and activists, leads to more practical concerns: Is it safe to send your graduate students there? Are you getting Russian colleagues into trouble if you coauthor with them?

These challenges are tackled from different angles in the four books under review here. Three try to unpack the internal dynamics of the Russian political regime, whereas the fourth explores Russia’s relations with Ukraine. The latter issue turns out to be key to understanding the former….

Russia’s relationship with Ukraine has been a crucial factor accelerating the downward trajectory of Russian authoritarianism. This point is front and center in Medvedev’s analysis and is compatible with Sharafutdinova’s argument, although she shifts the causal focus back to the trauma of the 1990s. After the 2004 “color revolution” in Ukraine Putin was fearful that a similar mass protest against corruption and rigged elections could spread to Russia. That accelerated a policy shift toward more authoritarian controls at home and stronger anti-Western rhetoric abroad. This culminated in the war with Georgia in 2008 and the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Paul D’Anieri provides a detailed but accessible analytical narrative of the evolution of Russia–Ukraine relations since 1991 in Ukraine and Russia: From Civilized Divorce to Uncivil War. He knits together the domestic politics inside the two countries, the relationship between them, and their respective relations with the Western powers. D’Anieri also shows a mastery of the chronology of events and the ability to explain their trajectory through relevant international relations theory. He is admirably objective in his approach: were a Russian nationalist or Ukrainian nationalist to read this book, I think they would both be pleased or dissatisfied in equal measure (for different reasons, of course).

In D’Anieri’s narrative, Ukraine’s declaration of independence on August 24, 1991, in the wake of the failed hardliner coup, sealed the fate of the Soviet Union (p. 31). Although this declaration was subsequently confirmed in a Ukraine-wide referendum on December 1, 1991, many tricky questions remained: notably, what would happen to the nuclear weapons located in Ukraine and in the Soviet naval base of Sevastopol, Crimea. Even Russian president Boris Yeltsin, an advocate of strong ties with the West, said in 1992 that “the Black Sea Fleet was and always will be Russia’s” (p. 39). Ukraine was persuaded to give up nuclear weapons in 1994 in return for security guarantees from Russia and the United States (p. 52), and in 1997 it granted Russia a 20-year lease to Sevastopol (p. 82), which was extended until 2042 in 2010.

Successive Ukrainian presidents have played a balancing act, seeking favors from Moscow, Washington, and Brussels without giving too much away in return. Bargaining over natural gas supplies was particularly strenuous, because Russia’s main export pipeline to Europe goes through Ukraine. Ukraine’s semi-pluralist political system, with power lying in the hands of business oligarchs, made it porous to foreign (especially Russian) influence. There was a striking spatial polarization in voting patterns between the pro-Brussels western region and the largely Russian-speaking southern and eastern Ukraine (p. 171). The 2004 Orange Revolution installed a pro-Western president, Viktor Yushchenko: Putin adviser Gleb Pavlovskii referred to it as “our 9/11” (p. 133). However, Yushchenko’s government devolved into factional fighting, and Russian influence revived as pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych became prime minister in 2006 and won the presidency in a free and fair election in 2010 (p. 171). But 2004 was a turning point: after that, Putin was even more deeply suspicious of US and EU strategy toward Ukraine (p. 136).

Yanukovych pursued associate status with the EU, which would have lowered tariff barriers to Ukrainian exports and eased visa rules. However, signing it would have excluded Ukraine from Russia’s own new customs union (p. 192), and in November 2013 Putin forced Yanukovych to back away from the deal with Brussels. That action triggered the street protests that culminated in the February 2014 Maidan revolution.

Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014 was the first border change by force of arms in Europe since 1945. The Russian-supported insurrection in Donbas has cost 14,000 lives and caused more than 1 million people to flee their homes. Seven years later, there are no credible plans for resolving the conflict. The big questions remain: Could this conflict have been avoided? What were the reasons behind Putin’s decisions, and was it rational for him to behave the way he did?

D’Anieri adopts a position of “neoclassical realism” and attributes the conflict to deep structural factors: democratization and European integration on the Ukrainian side and Russia’s return to great power politics on the other. “This did not make war inevitable, but it did guarantee a certain amount of friction” (p. 10). The end of the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union created a vacuum in European security, and all the powers involved proved woefully inadequate when it came to crafting an alternative security architecture.

D’Anieri argues that the war exemplifies the “security dilemma,” with NATO expansion as the primary factor (p. 259). He writes, “Both the EU and Russia misunderstood how serious the other was about Ukraine” (p. 251), and “Russia’s efforts to enhance its security left it less secure” (p. 274). But was this really a dilemma, exacerbated by poor communication and mutual misperception? It looks more like a case of a direct clash of interests, what Immanuel Kant would have called a “real opposition.” The post-Maidan leadership of Ukraine did want to join NATO and probably would have tried to expel the Russian Black Sea Fleet from its Sevastopol base in due course.

Despite these deep structural tensions, Russian–Ukrainian relations muddled along throughout the 1990s and 2000s, stopping well short of an escalation to violence. Some would argue that the events of 2014 were the result of a deliberate decision by Vladimir Putin. Others— including D’Anieri—see a congeries of contingent factors coming into unfortunate alignment, with tragic consequences (p. 20). There is a sense in which every war is avoidable, and at the same time every war is desired (by some) on both sides. Certainly, President Yanukovych bears a lot of the blame, engaging in actions that amped up the political polarization in Ukraine: changing the rules of the game to accumulate more power, mishandling the 2013–14 street protests, and bungling negotiations over the EU association agreement.

D’Anieri refers to “the consensus in Russia that Ukraine was ‘really’ part of Russia” and goes on to argue, “It seems unlikely that Putin would have ordered the annexation of Crimea if it had not been massively popular” (p. 18). We know that the annexation was popular after it took place, but where is the evidence that Putin had any information about how popular it would be before it happened? In February 2014 events were moving very quickly and caught everyone by surprise. Would ordinary Russians, if asked, have had an opinion on the hypothetical of the annexation of Crimea? And does Putin really care about public opinion when he is making these kinds of strategic decisions?

There is some discussion of different factions in Moscow (pp. 68–71), but in general D’Anieri tends to treat Russia as a unified actor and does not particularly draw on Russian sources to try to unpack the decision making in Moscow. (The book has footnotes but no bibliography, which makes checking sources a little tricky.) In reality, Russian elites were sharply divided over security policy, and the aggression toward Ukraine signals the triumph of the siloviki (the security hardliners).

Polling suggests that ordinary Russians’ attitudes toward Ukraine were somewhat ambivalent but turned more negative after March 2014. In a November 2014 survey, 62% of Russian respondents thought Ukraine should cede Russian-majority districts (including Crimea) to Russia.Footnote 2 Yet only 11% thought Ukraine had no right to exist as a state. According to an April 2021 Levada Center poll, 50% of Russians had a positive view of Ukraine and 35% a negative view.Footnote 3 The same survey found that Russians were split over the prospect of renewed fighting in Donbas: 43% thought Russia should intervene with military force, and 43% thought it should not. Although Russians may regret the fall of the Soviet Union, there seems no enthusiasm for trying to resurrect it by merging with Ukraine. After the publication of D’Anieri’s book, Putin in July 2021 published a long essay on the history of Russia and Ukraine, claiming that they are a “single people,” thus implying that the Ukrainian state does not have a right to exist.Footnote 4

Few analysts expect to see regime change in Russia in the foreseeable future. Change could come through a lost war, a palace coup, or a popular revolt— or all three, since that unlikely combination of circumstances that caused the Soviet Union to collapse. One might imagine that Putin has learned some lessons from the Soviet collapse and from China’s rise—that modest economic reform is good and political reform is risky. But Putin’s harsh authoritarianism and foreign policy adventurism are strangling economic development, a formula that looks a lot like Leonid Brezhnev’s Soviet Union.

The constitutional changes pushed through in 2020 mean that Putin could stay in power until 2036, so they have suppressed speculation about the Putin succession (for the time being). Azerbaijan and Chechnya have seen father–son dictatorial transitions, and Belarus might follow suit. But dynastic succession is unlikely in Russia, because Putin has no son, just two daughters (plus some more offspring, off the books). Given the regime’s toxic hypermasculinity, it is hard to imagine one of his daughters replacing him as the ruler of Russia. That is probably the only good news to come out of this survey of the state of Russian politics.