Russia’s present policy vis-à-vis Ukraine and Crimea builds on intellectual foundations that were laid decades ago. Already in 1992, one of Yeltsin’s advisors named Sergei Karaganov argued that Russian meddling in other countries within the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) is justified if the human rights of Russian compatriots are believed to be at stake. Soon afterwards his ideas were labelled the ‘Karaganov doctrine’. The vague description of who those compatriots were and when their human rights were at stake make it possible for Russia to use their compatriots as a tool to gain influence in its so-called ‘Near Abroad’. As Russia claims exclusive interests in the ‘Near Abroad’ and does not tolerate Western influence in this region, the Karaganov doctrine constitutes the key to understand Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Perhaps counter-intuitively, the European Union (EU) must give Ukraine the required breathing space to prevaricate between Russia and the West.
The Yeltsin period
When Yeltsin became the first president of the Russia in 1991, he attempted to address the challenge of establishing a national identity. Importantly he opted for a civic and non-territorial definition of Russian nationhood. By doing so, the Russia could claim the protection of Russian citizens living outside the Russian territory (also called ‘compatriots’). A series of events occurring in 1992 effectively forced Yeltsin to address the issue of the Russian compatriots in Russian foreign policy. These events included the Estonian refusal to grant Russian citizens in Estonia automatic citizenship and the onset of Russia separatism in Abkhazia and in the Dniester region of Moldova. Shortly after Karaganov made his case, Yeltsin in January 1993 issued the first ‘Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation’. This document heralded the development of the Russian ‘Near Abroad’ policy. Yet the economic reforms by means of which Yeltsin sought to introduce a free market system met with the strong domestic opposition. The chaotic state Russia found itself in soon pushed the Karaganov doctrine and the Near Abroad policy into the background again. Domestic turmoil and a weak Russian economy effectively prevented the implementation of an aggressive foreign policy.
Russian minority protection under Putin
Economic growth under Putin enabled a more assertive Russian foreign policy. In this context, the Karaganov doctrine became an important underpinning for a more active stance towards the Russian Near Abroad. Frome the Russian point of view Ukraine is of crucial importance for the realization of the Russian interests and Russian sphere of influence. Kiev was the first capital of Kievan-Rus, the roots of the Russian empire. This shared cultural heritage is an important reason why Russian influence in Ukraine is a priority in Russian foreign policy. Western influence in Ukraine is therefore perceived as a threat to the Russian national interest. Consistent with the Karaganov doctrine, any Western move in Ukraine should trigger Russia to use the Russian citizens in Ukraine as a pretext to re-establish their exclusive zone of influence in Ukraine.
This is exactly what happened after the Maidan revolution in Ukraine. Protecting the human rights of Russian compatriots in Crimea served as the perfect excuse for the Russian annexation of Crimea. In early March Sergei Karaganov wrote a commentary entitled ‘Russia needs to defend its interests with an iron fist’. Unsurprisingly, the article seeks to justify Russia’s intervention in Ukraine’s politics.
Putin’s meticulous preparations for this move made a smooth annexation possible. Russia distributed passports and sponsored Russian media in Crimea to ensure the constant dissemination of Russian ideas. Russian investments (through the leasing of Sebastopol and cheap Russian gas) underlined the importance of collaborating with Russia. The strengthening of the ties with the Russian compatriots is an important precondition to make their protection an effective tool to undermine the state sovereignty in the Russian Near abroad. On the 31st March, Russian Prime Minister Medvedev announced the creation of a Russian Ministry for Crimean Affairs. This illustrates that the development of Crimea is a priority for the Russian government.
In this light, the proposal by the interim-government to abolish the status of Russian as a regional language was not a clever move, especially because the use of the Russian language is not limited to ethnic Russians in Ukraine. Following the proposal, Crimean Prime Minister Sergej Aksenov officially asked for Russian support. Although interim-president Yatseniuk refused to enact this legislation, Aksenov’s official request made it possible to appeal to the Karaganov doctrine as well as to international law to justify the Crimean invasion. The appeal to international law illustrates the very selective (even creative) interpretation of international law by Russia because the annexation of Crimea was beyond the scope of merely protecting the rights of Russian citizens abroad.
The EU enters the arena
The EU’s offer to sign the Association Agreement at the Vilnius summit in November 2013 forced Ukraine to choose between the European and the Russia-dominated Eurasian integration project. The Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) coupled with the Association Agreement is not compatible with the legislation of Russia’s Customs Union. The imposed choice transformed Ukraine into a battleground of clashing European and Russian interests, norms and identities. Furthermore, Russia has started a propaganda war claiming that the Maidan Revolution was – just like the Orange Revolution – the result of Western influence in Ukraine. The hostile attitude towards Western influence in combination with the use of Russian minorities as a tool for protecting Russia’s exclusive interests in Ukraine, make the EU’s activity in its Eastern neighbourhood a delicate matter. The only way for the EU to promote the European values of democracy, human rights and rule of law is to leave Ukraine enough room for manoeuvre to balance between the EU and Russia. The EU’s decision to split the Association Agreement into a political chapter and postponing the signing of a more far-reaching DCFTA is an example of a more cautious approach. This is an important development because an imposed choice between EU and Russia will undoubtedly trigger Russia’s aggression under the pretext of protecting the Russian compatriots. Crimea is the first case in which Russia actually annexed the territory, but it set a dangerous precedent for other regions with a significant Russian minority like Eastern and Southern Ukraine, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Vol. 6, No. 31 (2014)
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