Strife Feature | Contemporary Russian foreign policy – Examining the Ukraine crisis

By William Moray

The 2014 Ukrainian Revolution – or Revolution of Dignity – and the subsequent Donbass War (Donbas, in Ukrainian) severely impacted the relations Russia held not only with Ukraine but also the international community. Moscow’s involvement in this conflict holds few secrets. Russian annexation of Crimea and its support provided to secessionist rebels in Donbas provinces has led the USA and its allies to impose a series of sanctions against Russia, in March 2014. Furthermore, the Western press often labels this as an ‘invasion’, which suggests the Kremlin is solely motivated by territorial expansionism. This article will argue that such limited views reflect a lack of understanding Russian politics. This article uses the Ukrainian crisis as a case-study – to examine key factors that arguably drive contemporary Russia’s foreign policy.

The role of ideology

Putin justified Russia’s annexation of or ‘reunification with’ Crimea on 18th of March 2014. Source: Creative Commons BY 4.0 license

According to mainstream Western media and politicians, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its intervention in Eastern Ukraine allegedly serve a renewed Russian nationalism. Such a claim is as easy as convenient. A referendum took place in Crimea on 16th March 2014, during which 96% of the participants voted in favour of a ‘reunification’ with Russia.[1] Subsequently, President Vladimir Putin gave a speech two days later, and the language used has been qualified as ‘legal rhetoric’[2] as it provides a perfect illustration of the multiple Russian national identity narratives. Vera Tolz argues that there are five definitions of the Russian nation: the Union identity, the Eastern Slav identity, the Russian language identity, the racial identity, and the civic identity.[3] Several of these key concepts can be found in Putin’s speech.

For instance, given that Crimea shares a lot with Russia, Putin emphasised the vote’s result as logical. Religious Orthodoxy allegedly provides a basis for ‘culture, civilisation and human values’ which are shared by Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. This claim alludes to the Eastern Slav identity concept, the ‘community of Eastern Slavs’,[4] that people from these three countries allegedly have in common. Putin also qualifies ‘Kiev [as] the mother of Russian cities. Ancient Rus is our common source and we cannot live without each other’.

Secondly, he describes Crimea as ‘blend of different peoples’ in the same way as Russia itself. This fits in well with the ’Union identity’ which emphasizes the multinational and multi-ethnic dimension of the country.[5] Richard Sakwa also suggests that the word ‘Rossiyanin’, one possible label of a Russian, designates a community of all nationalities living in the ‘Russian Federation and beyond’,[6] a reference to former Soviet states.

Another argument put forward relates to the threats faced by Russian minorities. Putin insists that the Russian community in Crimea became endangered following the Euromaidan Revolution, perpetrated by ‘nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites’. Consequently, it was the duty of Russia to defend this community, in accordance to the ‘Community of Russian speakers’.[7] The Russian diaspora constitutes ‘an inseparable part of the Russian nation’[8] and defending them is a moral obligation. Russians abroad can be designed as either ‘Russian-speakers’ (‘Russkoyazychnye’) or ‘compatriots’ (‘sootechestvenniki’).[9] Putin also uses this argument to threaten Ukraine, as he underlines that ‘Russia will always defend their interests [Russians living in Ukraine] using political, diplomatic and legal means.’ Therefore, Moscow’s support for the pro-Russian rebels was a matter of protecting fellow Russians.

Another element of Russian nationalism is present in Putin’s speech. He blamed the 1954 unification of Crimea with Ukraine as a ‘personal initiative’ made by the then head of the USSR, Nikita Khrushchev. This gesture was made at the time to consolidate the union between Russia and Ukraine, on the 300th anniversary of their union. Although Sakwa adds another element, arguing that the Soviet Union’s ‘inside borders’ were administrative and thus held no political or ethnic logic.[10] Nonetheless, even at the time, ceding Crimea to Ukraine had been a source of controversy.[11]

These national identity narratives offer an explanation to Moscow’s policy in Crimea and subsequently, Eastern Ukraine. Based on these claims, Russia did not ‘annex’ any foreign territory. Rather, it merely allowed the ‘reunification’ of a region that historically has been part of the Russian empire since the late 1700s. However, this nationalistic rhetoric is insufficient to properly grasp the motives behind Russia’s foreign policy on this matter.

 The limits of the nationalist agenda

Providing support to the Rebels allows Russia to control any resolution of this ‘frozen conflict’ and prevents Ukraine from joining NATO. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Marlene Laruelle argues that the protection of Russian minorities argument is taken from a nationalistic concept – the ‘divided nation’.[12] However, the true influence of the nationalist ideology in shaping Russia’s foreign policy is profoundly debatable. For instance, Laruelle is adamant that far-right organisations ‘have never directly participated in decision-making processes on foreign policy’.[13] Consequently, the nationalist ideas were ‘a tool of Russia’s foreign policy, not its engine’.[14] Luke March similarly argues the Kremlin’s objective ‘is not the expression of nationalism per se, but its control and utilisation for regime goals’.[15] About Ukraine, Laruelle argues that the Kremlin’s actions were not ideology-motivated. Had ideology been an overarching factor, according to her, Russia would have annexed the secessionist provinces.[16] Instead, the rebels established the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). These self-proclaimed entities, in the likes of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, or Transnistria, can be qualified as ‘de facto states’, as they possess all the classic attributes of a state whilst lacking international recognition. This process results in a given conflict either to remain frozen, as with the Abkhazian-Georgian example;[17] or to fester, such as in Ukraine. Russia is able to use this situation as a lever to maintain pressure against Kyiv. Therefore, the ‘Divided Nation’ narrative remains a justification used by Putin and will not be applied on all countries which include Russian minorities. For instance, Laruelle is adamant that Moscow will not intervene if states such as Kazakhstan, agree to its rules, i.e. stay under its influence.[18]

In other words, the Russian expansionism witnessed in Eastern Ukraine serves a very different purpose. The next part will demonstrate it is their will to be recognized as an equal partner by the West.

Equality as the ultimate objective

From Moscow’s perspective, NATO and EU enlargement, as well as the ‘Color Revolutions’, are tools used by Western powers to expand their interests in Russia’s sphere of influence, namely the Former Soviet Union (FSU), also known as the ‘Near Abroad’. Yevgeny Primakov – the then Minister of Foreign Affairs – qualified in 1997 the first post-Cold War wave of NATO expansion as ‘the biggest mistake in Europe since the end of World War II’.[19] Similarly, Margot Light states that NATO expansion is viewed after 2000 as ‘a fundamental threat’ to Russia.[20] Regarding Euromaidan, Putin was similarly convinced that it ‘was the result of a US-led operation’. This line of thinking was reinforced by the support provided to demonstrators in December 2013, by US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and Senator John McCain during a visit to Kiev.[21] The rhetoric used by Russian officials serves the same purpose, to portray NATO as an aggressive alliance against which Russia legitimately needs to defend itself. For instance, Colonel General Nikolai Bordyuzha, the secretary general of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a military alliance between Russia and five other FSU states, recently accused NATO of wanting to transform the former Soviet space into ‘another Syria’.

The point here is that one could argue Russia genuinely believed it was ‘the victim, not the aggressor’, in regard to the Ukraine crisis, and that its intervention was an act of self-defence.[22] Laruelle takes a slightly different approach in suggesting that Putin’s objective was to punish Ukraine for two reasons. First, she argues that the new post-Revolution government in Kiev attempted to ally with the West and move away from Russia. Secondly, she claims that during the 2014 Revolution, Ukraine demonstrated poor governance and instability, as proven by the ‘Maidan’, which is defined here as demonstrations resulting in regime changes.[23] Laruelle’s theory is more convincing than the ‘victim, not aggressor’ stance as it also takes into consideration the fact that Russia views Ukraine as a part of the Near Abroad. Therefore, Russia is not just a victim, it also defends its status of great power. These two elements are not in opposition but need to be understood as two pieces of a larger picture – the actions Russia feels it must take in order to prevent a perceived Western infringement in the FSU, its traditional sphere of influence [24].

Russia sees this matter as a question of survival, which requires preserving – or rather re-establishing – its status of great power. Indeed, from Moscow’s perspective, the NATO/EU enlargement does not just pose a threat. It also proves the hypocrisy of the international order the West has been imposing since the end of the Cold War. Russia wishes to be considered as an equal, thus it defends an alternative international order. This disconnect between Western and Russian views of international order was underlined on 28 September 2015, when both the then American President Barack Obama and Putin gave speeches before the United Nations (UN) General Assembly. Obama insisted that ‘liberty’ and ‘democracy’ concepts should be the new pillars of international order.[25] Whereas Putin defended a rather conservative approach, as he insisted on the value of ‘equality’; he also criticised that ‘after the end of the Cold War […] a single centre of domination emerged in the world’.[26] Indeed, Putin has constantly accused the West of imperialist views. This reproach was evident after the wars in Kosovo, Iraq [27] and more recently Libya. The defence of ‘liberty’, according to this view, is merely an excuse to justify aggressive expansionism. By contrast, Russia’s alternative international order seeks to respect sovereignty, promote equality and consequently, to preserve international law.  Ironically, this approach to international order does not apply to Russia’s Near Abroad. Hence Ukraine is in Russia’s view as FSU states are its sphere of influence.


Based upon a nationalist-like rhetoric, Russia’s actions were however not necessarily ideologically-motivated, nor based on a desire to acquire territory. Instead, fear of NATO’s enlargement constituted a more important driving factor, and relatedly, the need to stop Ukraine from moving closer to the West, in order to protect its historical sphere of influence. Russia’s also hoped its Ukraine intervention would serve a greater strategic objective: to restore an equal status vis-a-vis the West.

William Moray is the BA representative for Strife Blog and he has just graduated in War Studies BA from King’s College London. He will read the Intelligence and International Security MA at King’s next September onwards. His research interests include intelligence and the history of intelligence, terrorism, nuclear proliferation and the relations between Russia and the West. You can follow him @WilliamMoray


[1] Putin, Vladimir, Speech on the annexation of Crimea (18 March 2014) This speech is referred to several times in the first part of this essay

[2] Roy Allison ‘Russian “Deniable” Intervention in Ukraine: How and Why Russia Broke the Rules’, International Affairs, 90:6 (2014), pp. 1258

[3] Vera Tolz, ‘Forging the Nation: National Identity and Nation Building in Post-Communist Russia’, Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 50, No. 6 (Sep. 1998), p. 995

[4] Ibid, p. 999

[5] Tolz, Forging the Nation, op. cit., p. 996

[6] Sakwa, Russian Politics and Society, op. cit., p. 218

[7] Tolz, Forging the Nation, op. cit., p. 1000

[8] Ibid, p. 1001

[9] Sakwa, Russian Politics and Society, op. cit., p.219

[10] Ibid, p.230

[11] Stephen White, Understanding Russian Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), p.297

[12] Marlene Laruelle (2015) ‘Russia as a “Divided Nation,” from Compatriots to Crimea: A Contribution to the Discussion on Nationalism and Foreign Policy’, Problems of Post-Communism, 62:2, p. 88

[13] Ibid, p.89

[14] Ibid, p.90

[15] Luke March (2012) ‘Nationalism for Export? The Domestic and Foreign-Policy Implications of the New ‘Russian Idea’ ‘, Europe-Asia Studies, 64:3, 402

[16] Laruelle, Russia as a “Divided Nation”, op. cit., p.95

[17] Dov Lynch, ‘Separatist States and Post-Soviet Conflicts’, International Affairs, Vol. 78, No.4 (Oct. 2002), p. 834

[18] Laruelle, p.95

[19] White, Understanding Russian Politics, p. 284

[20] Margot Light, ‘In search of an identity: Russian foreign policy and the end of ideology’, Journal of Communist Studies and Transition Politics, 19:3, p.50

[21] Mikhail Zygar, All the Kremlin’s Men, (NY: Public Affairs, 2016), p. 263

[22] Zygar, All the Kremlin’s Men, p. 292

[23] Laruelle, Russia as a “Divided Nation”, op. cit., p.94

[24] Ruth Deyermond, ‘What are Russia’s real motivations in Ukraine? We need to understand them’ The Guardian, 27 April 2014,

[25] Remarks by President Obama to the United Nations General Assembly (28 September 2015)

[26] ‘Read Putin’s U.N. General Assembly Speech’, The Washington Post, (28 September 2015)

[27] White, Understanding Russian Politics, p. 281

Share this

Copyright © 2019 Strife Blog. All Rights Reserved.

Designed by Kris Chan