Part of the problem outlined here and over at Midrats is that many think about Russia's actions with the same mindset they think about Germany, France, China, Turkey, or worse - domestic politics. A recipe for bad ideas, worse policy, and to be perpetually wrong.
Russia is not West, nor is it East; it is Russia. You have to reset your thinking to that fact from the start or you soon find yourself on a false path towards confusion.
Geographically, culturally and historically, Russia is in many ways unique. She is also a spot-welded cluster of contradictions.
She often displays the best of our species in art, dance, music, literature, and science - but at the same time she demonstrates the worst of human nature via demographics, public health, sectarianism, ecology, economics, individual rights, and ethnic cleansing to genocide as policy.
Over at ASPI, the former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt has an article, Russia’s Imperial Instinct, that is helpful to both experienced Russia watchers and those new to the challenge.
To start to get a handle on where Russia is going, you need to look to where she has been;
Since coming to power following Russia’s tumultuous attempts at liberal and democratic reform in the 1990s, it has become increasingly clear that Putin aspires to make Russia great again, both economically and geopolitically. Despite some obvious differences between the founding of the Soviet Union and now, the historical parallel is too obvious to ignore.Read the whole thing. Bilt is a man of deep experience in European affairs combined with a national understanding of the Russian nature that is hard to get a firm grasp on this side of the Atlantic. More than worth your time to read twice.
Under Putin, Russia has invaded and occupied parts of Georgia, annexed Crimea from Ukraine, and militarily propped up two sham ‘republics’ in Eastern Ukraine. Russia has also tried—so far unsuccessfully—to establish a Novorossiya across Southern Ukraine.
Step by step, whenever opportunities present themselves, the Kremlin is ready to use all means at its disposal to regain what it considers its own. Putin may not have a firm or comprehensive plan for imperial restoration, but he undoubtedly has an abiding inclination to make imperial advances whenever the risk is bearable, as in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014.
So, what lessons can we take from the past? For starters, Russian imperialism has thrived when Europe and the West have been divided. This was the case when Hitler and Stalin entered into their non-aggression pact in 1939, and when Napoleon and Tsar Alexander entered into theirs in 1807. And we certainly should not forget the Yalta Conference in 1945.
Expanding both NATO and the European Union to include the Central European and Baltic countries has been essential to European security. In any other scenario, we would probably already be locked in a profoundly dangerous power struggle with a revanchist Russia reclaiming what it had lost.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the Russian Revolution in 1917 reshaped regional and global politics. In the immediate aftermath of each event, Russia demonstrated its historic inability to build harmonious relations with the countries along its periphery; and in the intermediate periods, it acted on its imperial ambitions at these countries’ expense.
But Russia will come to terms with itself only if the West firmly supports these countries’ independence over a prolonged period of time. Eventually, Russia will realize that it is in its own long-term interest to break its historical pattern, concentrate on its domestic development, and build peaceful and respectful relations with its neighbors.
We are certainly not there yet, but that’s no reason to throw in the towel—or throw out the lessons of history. We need a stable, prosperous, and peaceful Russia. And that can be achieved only with determined support for the independence and sovereignty of all of its neighbors.