by Zach Kornell
In a rather heated debate with my colleagues here at the DA regarding recent events in Ukraine, I was shocked to learn that, despite significant criticism from my peers and western media, there were some who were inclined to agree with the unification of Crimea into the Russian Federation.
It has been argued that the Russian public feels that actions in Crimea are validated due to the failure of engagement with democracy and western countries since the 1990s. Russian public dissatisfaction with western efforts made Russia more inclined to take unilateral actions and to be less cooperative in negotiations. Currently, many Russians feel ostracized and believe that Russia has not been received as a genuine political partner. These grievances contribute to the bitter image they have of West.
I wanted to understand why the acquisition of Crimea could be acceptable in the eyes of the average Russian. The state-owned All-Russian Center for Public Opinion Research showed that more than 90 percent of Russians supported unification with the Crimean Republic, while 86 percent believe that Crimea, transferred to Ukraine by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1954, is historically part of Russian territory. Though the validity of this poll has been questioned due to the unusually high numbers, the results were reinforced by another source, the Levada Centre. As an independent polling center, their poll found that Russian President Vladimir Putin has a 72 percent approval rating following the acquisition in March. To put this in perspective, US President Barack Obama is currently at 43 percent, according to a Gallup poll. So not only have Putin’s actions been seen as legitimate at home, they have also made him extraordinarily popular.
“The logic is quite simple here,” according to Alexey Yaroshevsky, a journalist with Russia Today, “[thanks to Putin] people have jobs, clothes, possibility of traveling twice a year and generally better living conditions – something they didn’t have in the ‘90s. And that spreads through all age groups and social layers.” However, this is not enough to explain the political support behind Putin.
In my research, I started to challenge the assumptions behind my critique of Russia’s actions. After having frank conversations with colleagues, journalists, and academics, my conclusion is that Russia’s actions are indicative of a worrisome phenomenon that is not entirely unfamiliar. The reason that the Crimean episode was so popular dates back all the way to the end of the Cold War, with eerie similarities to Weimar Germany. The situation is not analogous to 1938 as many Western leaders have recently proclaimed, but rather to 1919.
There are similar threads when making the comparison between the Weimar Republic and the Russian Federation. In his seminal work, The Twenty Years’ Crisis 1919-1939, historian E.H. Carr partially attributes the rise of the Third Reich to the discontent felt by the German population. Among the frustrations caused by the Versailles Treaty, two particular grievances haunted the Weimar Republic’s short existence: the belief that Germany had not lost the war, and that the Germans were not involved in the treaty negotiations. This resulted in an unwillingness within Germany to compromise or negotiate with the Allied victors. This same attitude seems to be creeping into Russian foreign policy.
Sergei A. Medvedev, reaffirmed this idea at a recent lecture at the Presseclub Concordia. Medvedv, Deputy Dean for International Affairs at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, made the comparison between contemporary Russia and the Weimar Republic. He said that the resentment Russian people are feeling is due to the lack of constructive bridge building by Western countries.
This bridge-building was hindered… since the 1990’s. According to the journalist Yaroshevsky, this resulted in a “who-are-they-to-lecture-us” sentiment among many within Russian society. The volatile years of the 1990s are still quite telling of Russia’s experimentation with and adaptation to democracy today.
There were many missed opportunities to engage with the Russian population and close the gap during the Cold War. The only real contact between the two sides was in multi-lateral organizations. Part of this blame specifically falls on the US Congress, who could no longer justify public diplomacy outreach to the old enemy. During the Cold War, the United States Information Agency (USIA) was the largest full-service public relations organization in the world, spending over $2 billion per year. One of its stated goals was to “bring the benefits of international engagement to American citizens and institutions by helping them build strong long-term relationships with their counterparts overseas.” Deemed unnecessary at the end of the Cold War, the USIA was disbanded in 1999.
While the war for the hearts and minds of the common Russian was relegated to the back burner; high-level relations were pursued. A source from within the OSCE said that many fruitful negotiations with the Russian delegation occurred during the early 2000s. This venue proved benficial for multinational states fronting extremism and the growing sophistication of globally organised terrorist movements as each member state learned to cooperate.
This cooperation was not bound only to the OSCE, however. Within the UNSC, Russia has collaborated on a number of occasions where they may not have if the USSR still existed including former Yugoslavia, Libya and even Syria. For example between 1986 and 2008, the US used the veto 36 times, while during the same time period Russia employed it only nine times. This adds to the Russian narrative that they have been the more complaint partner on a variety of international issues.
Why was the general sentiment then, according to Yaroshevsky, bitter towards the Western countries, despite the fact that Russia is willing to engage on certain issues?
Medvedev compared the discontent of the Russians during the past decade, with specific reference to NATO, to that of the Weimar German population. It seems remarkably similar to the situation in which the Great Powers during the 1920s continued to ignore and alienate a country that should not been ignored, even when it was on the losing side. Moreover, in interviews conducted by NATO Review (NATO’s internal magazine), with a variety of member delegates, the major obstacle to proceeding with further cooperation with Russia is the lack of mutual trust. As Medvedev asserts, there has been no effort by NATO to create meaningful dialogue between the two former adversaries aside from matters of security, maybe precisely because of this lack of trust between the two. This lack of trust has permeated into all aspects of the Russian society with their criticisms of the West.
The future danger lies in the creeping conservatism that is emerging within Russian domestic politics. I rarely agree with Henry Kissinger, but his words in the Washington Post are most appropriate in this matter. “Far too often the Ukrainian issue is posed as a showdown… But if Ukraine is to survive and thrive, it must not either side’s outpost against the other – it should function as a bridge between them.” Just like the interwar period taught us, now is the time we must learn to embrace our former adversary and bring them into the fold.