[Francisco Pascual de la Parte, The returning empire. The Ukrainian War 2014-2017: Origin, development, international environment and consequences. Editions of the University of Oviedo. Oviedo, 2017. 470 pages]
review / Vitaliy Stepanyuk[English version].
In this research on the Ukrainian war and the Russian intervention in the confrontation, the author analyzes the conflict focusing on its precedents and the international context in which it develops. For that purpose, he also analyzes with special emphasis Russia's relations with other states, particularly since the fall of the USSR. Above all, this study covers Russia's interaction with the United States, the European Union, the neighboring countries that emerged from the disintegration of the USSR (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania...), the Caucasus, the Central Asian republics (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan...), China and Russia's involvement in the Middle East conflict. All these relations have, in some way, repercussions on the Ukrainian conflict or are a consequence of it.
The book is structured, as the author himself explains in its first pages, in such a way that it allows for different ways of reading it. For those who wish to have a general knowledge of the Ukrainian question, they can read only the beginning of the book, which gives a brief description of the conflict from its two national perspectives. Those who also want to understand the historical background that led to the confrontation can also read the introduction. The second chapter explains the origin of Russian suspicion towards liberal ideas and the Western inability to understand Russian concerns and social changes. Those who wish to assimilate the conflict in all its details and understand its political, strategic, legal, economic, military and cultural consequences should read the rest of the book. Finally, those who just want to understand the possible solutions to the dispute can skip directly to the last two chapters. In the final pages, readers can also find an extensive bibliography used to write this volume and some appendices with documents, texts and maps relevant to the study of the conflict.
The Ukraine problem began in late 2013 with the protests at the place Maidan in Kiev. Almost six years later, the conflict seems to have lost international interest, but the truth is that the war continues and its end is not yet in sight. When it started, it was a shock no one expected. Hundreds of people took to the streets demanding better living conditions and an end to corruption. The international media made extensive coverage of what was happening, and everyone was aware of the news about Ukraine. Initially held peacefully, the protests turned violent due to repression by government forces. The president fled the country and a new, pro-European oriented government was established and accepted by the majority of citizens. However, this achievement was met by Russian intervention in Ukrainian territory, which resulted in the illegal annexation of the Crimean peninsula, in an action that Russia justified on the grounds that they were only protecting the Russian population living there. In addition, an armed conflict began in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine between Ukrainian troops and a Russian-backed separatist movement.
This is just a brief summary of how the conflict originated, but certainly things are more complex. According to the book, the Ukrainian war is not an isolated conflict that happened unexpectedly. In fact, the author argues that Russia's reaction was quite presumable in those years, due to the internal and external conditions in the country, generated by Putin's attitude and by the Russian mentality. The author lists warnings of what could happen in Ukraine and nobody noticed: civil protests in Kazakhstan in 1986, the Nagorno Karabakh War (a region between Armenia and Azerbaijan) started in 1988, the Transnistrian war (in Moldova) started in 1990, separatist movements in Abkhazia and South Ossetia (two regions of Georgia).... Russia usually supported and helped the separatist movements, claiming in some cases that it had to protect the Russian minorities living in those places. This gave a fairly clear idea of Russia's position towards its neighbors and reflected that, despite having initially accepted the independence of these former Soviet republics after the fall of the USSR, Russia was not interested in losing its influence in these regions.
An interesting idea that is sample in the book is the fact that, although the USSR collapsed and Soviet institutions disappeared, the yearning for a strong empire remained, as well as the distrust and rivalry with the Western powers. These issues shape Russia's domestic and foreign policy, especially defining the Kremlin's relations with the other powers. The essence of the USSR persisted under another banner, because the Soviet elites remained undisturbed. One might think that the survival of these Soviet inertias is due to the ineffective reform process sustained by the Western liberal powers in the USSR after its collapse. But it should be noted that the sudden incursion of Western customs and ideas into a Russian society unprepared to assimilate them, without a strategy aimed at facilitating such change, had a negative impact on the Russian people. By the end of the 1990s, most Russians thought that the introduction of so-called "democratic reforms" and the free market, with its unexpected results of massive corruption and social deterioration, had been a big mistake.
In that sense, Putin's arrival meant the establishment of order in a chaotic society, although it meant the end of democratic reforms. Moreover, the people of Russia saw in Putin a leader capable of standing up to the Western powers (unlike Yeltsin, the previous Russian president, who had had a weak position towards them) and bringing Russia to the place it should occupy: Russia as a great empire.
One of the main consequences of the Ukrainian conflict is that the context of relations between Russia and the Western powers has frozen dramatically. Although their relations were bad after the collapse of the USSR, those relations deteriorated much further due to the annexation of Crimea and the war in Ukraine.
The Kremlin adopted suspicion, especially of the West, as a basic principle. At the same time, Russia fostered cooperation with China, Egypt, Syria, Venezuela, Iran, India, Brazil and South Africa as a means of confronting NATO, the EU and the United States. On the one hand, President Putin wanted to reduce the weight of Western powers in the international economic sphere; on the other hand, Russia also began to develop stronger relations with alternative countries in order to confront the economic sanctions imposed by the European Union. Due to these two reasons, Russia created the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), formed in May 2014, with the goal to build economic integration on the basis of a customs union. Today, the EAEU consists of five members: Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Russia.
In addition, Russia has been extremely vocal in denouncing NATO's expansion into Eastern European countries. The Kremlin has used this topic as an excuse to strengthen its army and establish new alliances. Together with some allies, Russia has organized massive military trainings near the borders of Poland and the Balkan countries. It is also working to create disputes among NATO members and weaken the organization.
In particular, the Ukrainian conflict has also shown the differences between Russian determination and Western indecisiveness, meaning that Russia has been able to carry out violent and illegal measures without being met with solid and concrete solutions from the West. Arguably, Russia uses, above all, hard power, taking advantage of economic (the sale of oil and gas, for example) and military means to dictate the actions of another nation through coercion. Its use of soft power occupies, in some ways, a subordinate place.
According to some analysts, Russia's hybrid war against the West includes not only troops, weapons and computers (hackers), but also the creation of "frozen conflicts" (e.g., the Syrian war) that has established Russia as an indispensable party in conflict resolution, and the use of propaganda, the media and its intelligence services. In addition, the Kremlin was also involved in the financing of pro-Russian political parties in other countries.
Russian activity is incomprehensible if we do not take into consideration the strong and powerful propaganda (even more powerful than the propaganda system of the USSR) used by the Russian authorities to justify the behavior of the Government towards its own citizens and towards the international community. One of the most commonly used arguments is to blame the United States for all the conflicts that are occurring in the world and to justify Russia's actions as a reaction to an aggressive American position. According to the Russian media, the goal allegedly main U.S. goal is to oppress Russia and foment global disorder. In that sense, the general Russian tendency is to replace liberal democracy with the national idea, with great patriotic exaltations to create a sense of unity, against a definite adversary, the states with liberal democracies and the International Organizations.
Another interesting topic is the author's explanation of how different Russia's view of the world, security, relations between nations or the rule of law is compared to Western conceptions. While the West focuses on defense and enforcement of international law, Russia claims that each country is manager of its own security and takes all necessary measures in this regard (even if it contradicts international law or any international treaty or agreement ). Definitely, what we see today is a New Cold War consisting of a bloc of liberal-democratic states, tending towards the achievement of extensive globalized trade and finance, against another bloc of major totalitarian and capitalist-authoritarian regimes, with a clear tendency towards militarization.
Successes and outlook
The book offers a deep and broad view of what Russian foreign policy is today. It highlights the idea that the Ukrainian conflict is not an isolated dispute, but a conflict that is embedded in a much more complex network of circumstances. He makes it clear that the International Office does not function as a structured and patterned mechanism, but as a field where countries have different views on how the world is governed and what its rules should be. We could say that there is a struggle between a liberal vision supported by the West, which emphasizes international cooperation and the rejection of power as the only way to act in the international sphere, and a realist vision, defended by Russia, which explains foreign affairs in terms of power, state centralism and anarchy.
One of the strengths of the book is that sample presents the different positions of many different analysts, with criticisms of both Russian and Western activities. This allows the reader to examine the conflict from different perspectives and to acquire a comprehensive and critical view of topic. In addition, the text financial aid to learn and understand the real state of affairs in other countries of Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the Caucasus, regions little known in Western society.
This is an excellent work from research, which allows to examine the complicated reality surrounding the war in Ukraine and to deepen the study of relations between nations.