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'If Putin succeeds, Russia will be an unquestioned great power'

Last updated on: February 25, 2022 09:27 IST

'The aim of Russian policy is to reform European security, stop NATO expansion and in a more general sense -- set up the new rules of relations between the great powers.'
'From this perspective. the invasion of Ukraine is quite pointless.'

IMAGE: Russian President Vladimir Putin signs documents, including a decree recognising two Russian-backed breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine as independent entities, during a ceremony in Moscow, February 21, 2022. Photograph: Sputnik/Alexey Nikolsky/Kremlin via Reuters

"Sanctions, not military force, will remain the key instrument of Western policies towards Russia," says Dr Dmitri Novikov, associate professor and deputy head of the School of International Relations at the National Research University - Higher School of Economics, Moscow.

In a detailed e-mail interview with's Archana Masih, Dr Novikov discusses the reasons behind Russia's actions in Ukraine, the limited effect of Western sanctions at this stage and how the Ukraine crisis will define President Putin's over two decade rule over Russia.


Russia has ordered troops into eastern Ukraine and recognised the independence of two regions. What is America's and NATO's next likely move?

The West reaction would depend on Russia's further actions. For now, the key political instrument is sanctions.

At this stage the Biden administration announced pretty limited package of sanctions: They put sanctions on VEB (the Russian Bank of Development) and another bank, which is involved in support of military industries.

The key institutions of the Russian banking system were not included in the sanction list.

The US would also expand the black list of Russian businessmen, those who are close to the government. However, the sanctions introduced, in fact, are not so severe.

The European allies follow the US line. Their sanctions would be hardly stronger -- especially taking into consideration that the European Union has a more developed economic and trade relationship with Russia.

Such a limited (relatively) answer of the West could be explained by two factors.

First, despite recognition of the two republics, which Ukraine considers as its territory, definitely escalates the situation, but it is still not a war. Russia did not invade the territory of Ukraine, but just 'legalised' Russian de facto presence in Eastern Ukraine.

Second, paradoxically, the sanctions are more effective as a threat, before they are adopted. If the West strengthen sanctions, makes them more destructive, Russia could start a real war.

From this perspective, both sides will continue their play: Russia could threaten the West with military power, the West with economic sanctions.

If one was to speak about the Western military response -- it would be pretty limited. The US focuses on the Indo-Pacific region and will hardly increase their military presence in Europe.

Of course, NATO would be more consolidated, they might increase technical assistance and political support of Ukraine. But sanctions, not military force, will remain the key instrument of Western policies towards Russia.

IMAGE: A Ukrainian soldier at the front line near the city of Novoluhanske in the Donetsk region, Ukraine, February 22, 2022. Photograph: Gleb Garanich/Reuters

How is the outcome of the Ukraine crisis going to define President Putin's place in history? What does he want to achieve internationally and domestically?

During his address to the nation on February 21, President Putin quite clearly defined his vision of the Russian/Soviet history as well as history of Ukrainian and Russian people.

He criticised Vladimir Lenin's approach based on satisfaction of some nationalistic moods and creation of autonomous Soviet Socialistic Republics.

From Putin's point of view, it led to the collapse of the USSR, rise of nationalism and serves as a basis for today's crisis.

One might say that the aim of Putin's policies is a certain revision of the USSR's collapse. However, it does not mean that he wants to reintegrate the post-Soviet space and establish a new Soviet empire.

Putin's policies in Ukraine are focused on another consequence of the Soviet collapse: The West-centered structure of European security, in a more general sense -- of the whole global order.

Escalation in Ukraine serves as an instrument to make the West negotiate on these issues. He wants to stop NATO expansion to the post-Soviet space and make the West recognise the post-Soviet space as a region of Russia's vital interest (which does not necessarily mean a 19th century sphere of influence).

If Putin succeeds, then Russia becomes an unquestioned great power for a long term.

Do you believe that Russia will invade Ukraine?

No, it is quite unlikely. Moreover, it would rather be a Russian diplomatic defeat. Russian policy does not aim to conquer Ukraine or any part of it.

Even after the recognition of Donetsk and Lugansk republics, Russian officials, including Russian representative in the UN, underlined that it does not mean refusal of the Minsk Agreements (agreements, which aimed to reintegrate these regions back to Ukraine). It means that technically Russia is ready to continue bargaining.

The aim of Russian policy is to reform European security, stop NATO expansion and in a more general sense -- set up the new rules of relations between the great powers.

From this perspective, the invasion of Ukraine is quite pointless.

IMAGE: Ukrainian soldiers at the front line. Photograph: Gleb Garanich/Reuters

How do you see Russia's journey as a nation post the disintegration of the Soviet Union? What would you say have been the high watermarks of the Russian nation State in the last three decades?

Russia faced a lot of problems typical for a collapsed empire. Rise of nationalism, post-imperial syndrome, some kind of populism.

Many Russian people still believe that the USSR was a much better country: less freedom, but equality, strong State, international respect.

Others criticise the Soviet legacy and consider market economy as the most important achievement of the last several decades.

Some people even try to refer to earlier, glorious times -- age of the Russian Empire which a tsar, strong monarchic rule and conservative, orthodox society.

If you add here the fact that Russia is a multinational State -- its population consists of more than 100 ethnic groups -- you might understand how divided modern Russia is today.

President Putin, who has ruled Russia for two decades, provides the society with a certain consensus. He argues for a stronger state, which is very popular among the 'Soviet people'.

At the same time, he refuses to question the results of the post-Soviet market reforms: Market and capitalism is an unquestionable achievement.

He is pretty conservative in politics, but a liberal in economy. He is an orthodox Christian, but respects all other religions.

Nationalism of local groups is replaced by all-Russia nationalism. Or you can call it patriotism.

From this perspective the social stability could be considered as the key achievement of Russian nationalism State-building.

The Russian economy remains weak and we can hardly find a lot of successful stories here. In this situation foreign policy remains one of the key sources of legitimacy, strengthening the existing consensus in Russian society.

For now, most of the population still supports very pro-active and anti-Western policies. Probably in some years, the economic burden of sanctions and decline of the economy might change the people's moods. That will lead to a drastic transformation of Russian foreign and even domestic policies.

But for now, it seems that the system Putin has been constructing for the last two decades continues to work.

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