Near Abroad: Putin, the West and the Contest Over Ukraine and the Caucasus
Russia’s foreign policy has been under scrutiny for a number of years, as its penchant for foreign interference only seems to grow. Two works, Near Abroad, written by political scientist Gerard Toal and The Near Abroad penned by historian Zbigniew Wojnowski give insights into Russia’s post-soviet foreign policy and the deeply ingrained belief systems driving its diplomacy on the world stage. These motivations, often oversimplified by western political analyst as merely power plays, often have deeply ingrained historical and cultural roots. These two books provide a balanced perspective, both of Russia’s world view and its continued desire to influence post-Soviet space.
Toal revisits Russia’s interference in the two most recent conflicts, the war over South Ossetia and Abkhazia with Georgia in 2008 and the Crimea/Donbass Crisis of 2014 in Ukraine. He carefully explains the significance of both regions to the Russian Federation and the political leanings of the populations living in these areas. He also delves deeply into the reasons why a majority in certain segments of the population, such as those living in South Eastern Ukraine and Crimea supported Russia’s cause. The ties to Russia in some regions, not just social, religious, cultural, or linguistic, but also economic and political, were too strong to reject and abandon. In this analysis, Toal claims that the US projection of its values onto other cultures contributes to a misreading of the intentions behind Russia’s policies. To a question posed in the book – “Why does Russia invade its neighbors?” – he offers an analytical answer that empathizes with the Russian perspective. Russia, much like the United States, and many other present and former great powers, sees itself entitled to protect norms and behaviors that it itself creates. In a post-Cold War World, this behavior took the rest of the West, including the United States by surprise. The overall tone is mildly sympathetic to Russia and critical of the post–Cold War US neoconservative perspectives that he views as damaging to US interests. And he provides ample backing for his views.
From the start, Toal outlines the history of Soviet geopolitics in contrast to US perceptions of the same. Russia’s great-powers view is less liberal than the US perspective, and this results in numerous misunderstandings. The book then explores the nuances of both into the Georgia crisis of 2008 and the Ukraine crisis of 2014. While Toal does not exonerate Russian actions in these conflicts, he does point out, that Russia, cannot be fully blamed for either conflict. For example, the EU admitted that then Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili began the offensive in the Ossetia crisis: “It was obvious to us from the start that Saakashvili started this. There was no doubt.” Similarly, Toal describes the tensions brewing in Eastern Ukraine prior to the intervention in Crimea and Donbass. Dysfunctionalities were brewing in Ukraine prior to the Crimean annexation, and perhaps as many as 50 percent of people in Eastern and southern regions in Ukraine rejected the ousting of former President Viktor Yanukovich in 2014. Such observations extend depth to a conflict receiving largely black and white media coverage in the West for a limited period. In addition, Toal reiterates that when the Berlin Wall fell in 1991, the West guaranteed Gorbachev that NATO would not expand any further. Yet by 2004 most Eastern European countries were members. Soon, the United States was looking to add Ukraine, Armenia and Georgia. NATO had, in fact, crept up to Russia’s borders without considering Russian preferences or thoughts on the matter. Toal characterizes much of EU and US action as more careless and thoughtless than threatening or malicious. He suggests that the EU took little consideration of how Russia could and did react to an expansion of both NATO and the EU.
In addition, Toal sees complex sociocultural, ethnic and geopolitical realities in the post-Soviet space which are often overshadowed by simplistic American rhetoric of freedom versus authoritarianism. He warns that the United States would benefit from taking a more nuanced perspective of the realities on the ground and that a poor understanding of the region’s values and priorities is partly to blame for Russia’s aggressive actions.
Zbignew Wojnowski’s work complements much of Toal’s writing. While Toal focuses on the last decade, Wojnowski’s The Near Abroad is a thoroughly researched historical monograph exposing a window into the political and social dynamics of Soviet Ukraine. Though the case of Soviet Georgia is absent in Wojnowski’s work, one could easily extrapolate how the Soviet government participated in similar identity-building projects elsewhere. Through his analysis of Ukraine’s Soviet society, readers can see how pro-Soviet and pro-Russian identities emerged and then persisted across the post-Soviet space long after the Soviet Union’s collapse.
The Near Abroad painstakingly traces public opinion of various elites as well as the general public in Ukraine between 1956 and 1985. Wojnowski describes how the Soviet public relations machine managed and controlled the flow of information between Soviet Ukraine and neighboring socialist states such as Czechoslovakia, Romania, Hungary and Poland. Soviet apparatchiks had the difficult task of balancing a flow of information from the “friendly” socialist states while sanitizing and making it appropriate for general consumption by Soviet citizens. Often these efforts were futile, and citizens of Soviet Ukraine, especially in the western section, received a dose of “free information” more than intended.
Information flows from neighboring countries on the borderland made western Ukraine, already a politically volatile place, a breeding ground for ideas that strayed from Soviet orthodoxy – including religious, social and other freedoms not afforded to Soviet citizens. One examples showcased by Wojnowski – the western Ukrainian response to the 1968 Prague Spring crisis. Despite the USSR’s official line, numerous people in western Ukraine supported the Czechs and enthusiasm waned elsewhere in the republic, as detailed by his analysis of the 1981 Polish Solidarity protests. At that time, many people in western Ukraine supported the Poles while many in Central and Eastern Ukraine were extremely hostile to any “unorthodox” or reformist views. Divergent opinion proliferated near the borderlands, official Soviet ideology was influential over a majority, especially those people who lived further away from the borderlands.
Though Wojnowski’s last chapters are concerned with the late Soviet period and Soviet Ukraine’s internal struggle with reformist ideas, it is easy to connect the social movements of the 1980s to Russia’s modern struggle for political and social influence among its neighbors. Having been under Soviet rule for 70 years, many parts of the post-Soviet space retain populations which experience strong emotional, cultural, ethnic and linguistic ties to Russia while sharing Russia’s world views. Russian media even now, does much to reinforce emotional connections established decades ago. Populations in the “near abroad” absorbed the orthodoxy preached within the Soviet space, and lacked alternative views afforded to some periphery populations. Russia’s politicians, for their part, feel protective towards their “former subjects” and worry that Western influences negatively impact the post-Soviet world. So much like Soviet apparatchiks, they strove to protect borderlands from foreign influences.
Desire for Russian protection is sometimes reciprocated by the populations within the conflict zones. Like Toal, Wojnowski concludes: “the widespread belief that Russia has a moral right to control and protect former Soviet republics from Western domination helps justify Moscow’s aggressive foreign policy in the post-Soviet near abroad.” This coupled with missteps in US foreign policy identified by Toal create a recipe for geopolitical disasters. Russia will likely never just be a disinterested neighbor, but these two works indicate that a deeper understanding of the region’s history and sociocultural legacy is required for a comprehensive understanding of Russia’s strategic actions.
Julia Sinitsky is a recent MA graduate from the European and Russian Studies Program at Yale University.