Tony Wood in the LRB argues that the catastrophe in Ukraine comes down to Russia acting defensively:
For Russia, the basic goal has until recently been a symmetrical pushback: to keep Ukraine out of Western security and economic structures, at the very least as a neutral state, if not as an active member of a ‘Eurasian Union’ dominated by Russia.
With Yanukovych ousted and his Party of Regions crumbling – 77 of its 200-odd MPs deserted before February was out – Moscow no longer had any political leverage in Kiev. At this stage, its goals correspondingly shifted: to force the US and EU to take Russian interests into account, and ideally agree on a new government for Ukraine that it found more congenial.
I agree with one strand of this. Russia’s aggression is defensive. Annexation is just a means of reclaiming influence that Russia had, and believes it deserves. Nobody expects that, when the storm passes, Russia will have more influence in Kiev than it did last year. The past — a mostly unified state mostly subservient to Russian needs — was ideal for the Kremlin. Now they are just hoping to cobble together some inferior replacement for that power, through federalism and rebellion.
I disagree, though, that the West is Russia’s primary antagonist. Far from cunningly establishing control through Soft Power, Western policy has mostly run on autopilot and disinterest. Yes, there are wonks still playing out strategies of Cold War geopolitics. But real attention and resources have only turned up at times of crisis, namely the Orange Revolution and today. Eurocrats seem as nonplussed as anybody to see EU flags turn up as symbols of protest.
And if the West is only half-heartedly pulling Ukraine into its sphere of influence, those ‘pro-Western’ Ukrainians seem far more interested in escaping Russia’s influence than in joining the EU’s. The real drive — and Putin’s real fear — is a truly independent Ukraine.