An Insight to Unresolved Plight of the Ukrainian Crisis and Russia’s Strategic Culture

It is almost the 7th month since the Russian Military Operation has begun in Ukraine. Despite outright condemnations and harsh sanctions on Russia, Kremlin’s resistance is unprecedented in the face of any foreign pressure. There are chiefly two reasons for the successful Russian assault: the supremacy of strategy of geo-energy and the rationale they maintain for expansion, Moscow believes, is justified and legitimate. However, it poses a question mark to Russian strategic behavior due to its medieval style land-grab that has not ceased to exist even in the 21st century. It leaves ambivalence in academic and foreign policy circles that why Russia behaves the way it behave. What rallies Moscow for expansions, and what makes Russia to have strategic preferences that are incompatible and irreconcilable from that of the West?  

The American Political Scientist John Mearsheimer claims that the Russian expansion is the result of NATO enlargement towards the east. If it is so, why Russia expanded when NATO was not established? The NATO encirclement is rather the triggering event. Yet this proposition does not answer to understand Russian strategic preferences. Understanding Russian Strategic behavior, Russian Strategic Culture, and Russian Political Conservatism help reduce the uncertainties.  

History, geography, political culture and the socialization of the state form its strategic culture. And strategic culture shapes strategic preferences. Therefore, the interaction and behavior of a state are largely contingent on the nature of the socialization of the state. Consequently, states’ socialization differs, causing diversification in foreign policy choices in a particular foreign policy scenario. Put simply, a middle-class teenager will react toward hamburgers differently as compared to a millionaire’s child due to their respective socialization and socioeconomic conditions.

Russian strategic culture is no exception to that. Moscow grew seeing several invasions from its western border by western ambitious leaders Such as Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler. Similarly, centuries before that Mongols invaded Russia and established Golden Horde. Let’s not count Crimean War and Russo-Turkish wars. That said, NATO enlargement will inevitably cause high alert in Kremlin due to its war-torn history. President Putin in his article On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians writes that the NATO enlargement is the chain of 20th-century invasions of Russia. Therefore, Moscow understands Eastern Europe as its ‘sphere of influence to avert any invasion on mainland Russia and cannot tolerate any sort of social engineering miserable to Russian interests.  

Russia also has been a victim of Western deception. In 1939, Nazi Germany signed the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact with the Soviet Union. The rationale behind this was that Adolf Hitler knew he could not fight on two fronts simultaneously. It is better to attack Russia just after conquering France. Time and space favored Germany. Having conquered France, Hitler attacked the Soviet Union breaking the pact. A similar instance can find in the demise of the USSSR where it was declared that the West would not expand NATO an inch. However, Poland, the Hungry and Czech Republic were incorporated into the transatlantic alliance. Amid these uncertainties, how can Russia believe that Ukraine incorporated in the trans-Atlantic alliance would not open the way for the Western assaults on mainland Russia from the chicken neck of Moscow: the North European Plan? Russian security issues are therefore legitimate since the West is no more credible and the international structure which sets directions for our nation-states is anarchic that permits war and incentivizes self-help 

Having considered Russia’s security concerns, it is also indispensable to note that from the epoch of Golden Horde and untill the demise of the Soviet Union, Kremlin played a decisive role in European politics. President Medvedev stated in 2008 that the end of the Cold War allowed for the establishment of equal cooperation between Russia, the European Union and North America as three branches of European civilization.

On the contrary, the Western Capitals saw an opportunity to turn this trend on the eve of the Soviet demise. Since then, Russia has been isolated from regional affairs. It is something atypical and does not comply with Russian prestige and the essence of politics. Russians believe that they saved Europe from the wrath of Mongols, Hitler and Napoleon. They gave a tough time to Ottomans and run shoulder to shoulder with the US during Cold War when all European powers were accumulating their ruins. Moscow also maintains that they are European by identity and are formidable military power which makes them to play an active role in continental affairs. Thus, the more the West isolates Russia, the harder the reaction and expansion will appear.

As part of Russian Political conservatism, it does not refer to forestalling change rather it is concerned with the problems emerging from the change. Russian conservatism is also a byproduct of Russian Strategic culture. However, it has taken a firm hold in Russian politics since President Putin has come to power, and is, therefore, pertinent to emphasize it.

Historically, the roots of conservatism emerged in Russia in the face of westernization. The process strengthened with the advent of the industrial revolution and later the free market economy. It led Russian thinkers namely Slavophiles to retrace the development of Russia in early Russian history that was based on traditions, values and orthodoxy.

Mikhail Suslov argues that Russian conservatism is based on anti-westernization, regeneration of the nation following its traditional paths of development and emphasis on traditional values. He further maintains that Russian conservatism emerged in the first place due to ‘counter-hegemonic reactions’ to Moscow by the west since Kremlin holds Messianic discourse in its long and heroic history in European affairs. It led to the idea of Russian expansion which is also deeply entrenched in the religious discourse of Russian Orthodoxy widely known as Katechon or retainer. The concept refers to the expansion of Russian land to protect Christians from anti-Christ.

In sum, it must be clear that an authoritarian leader does not run the Kremlin, rather Kremlin runs its leaders. The action Putin is exercising in Ukraine is a re-exercise of what had been exercised by Golden Horde, Russian Tsardom, the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. It is not the leader who determines the policy. It is Russian Socialization that determines the policy and will continue to do so- and this trend will also continue in the foreseeable future in the 21st century. Thus, to resolve the unresolved plight of the Ukrainian crisis, it is pertinent that West must reassess its policy and make an inclusive setup keeping in great consideration Russian Strategic Behavior and Political Conservatism.

Shah Meer
Shah Meer
Shah Meer is an independent researcher and training in statecraft in international affairs in University of Balochistan, Pakistan. He is a General Adviser to Human Rights Council of Pakistan (Balochistan Chapter). He also publishes articles and research papers nationally and internationally, and his areas of expertise are Russian Geopolitics, European Affairs, International Peace and security. He can be reached at meeshah531[at]gmail.com.