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Research Synopsis

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السياسة الخارجية الروسية في السياقين التاريخي والحالي

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Research Questions

  1. Is Russia defending long-held strategic interests put at risk by an aggressive Western agenda?
  2. Was it fear of the potential economic repercussions of Ukraine's partnership agreement with the European Union (EU) that drove Russia to annex the Crimean peninsula and intervene in Eastern Ukraine?
  3. Is Russia's government just trying to keep domestic public opinion on its side and distract the public from other problems?
  4. Is this simply a matter of President Vladimir Putin himself, divorced from Russia's interests and goals, pursuing a personal agenda?

This Perspective provides an overview and analysis of sources of Russian foreign policy to help explain Russia's actions in Ukraine in 2014 and 2015. It evaluates arguments based on Russian historical strategic interests, economic policy, and domestic policy to determine which explanations, alone or in combination, stand up best to Russia's actual choices and actions. The authors conclude that Russia's general attitude toward Ukraine is largely consistent with historical Russian (and Soviet) thinking about security interests and foreign policy, which have focused on buffer states, influence on its neighbors, and a perception of continued competition with the United States. However, these historical patterns alone are insufficient to fully explain Russian actions. Neither can public opinion, elite interests, or the pursuit of economic growth be defined as key drivers of Russian behavior. Moscow has sought to shape, rather than respond to, public opinion, and has done so with great success. Decisionmaking in the Kremlin has become highly centralized, obviating the possibility of elite group influence. Finally, economic growth goals have been jettisoned, rather than pursued, in this crisis. This said, the authors argue that an important component of the Kremlin's decision calculus also stems from how Russia's leaders, particularly Russian President Vladimir Putin, have interpreted the implications of the Maidan uprising in Ukraine for their own country. As a result, Putin's fear that popular opposition and unrest will threaten his power has led him to endanger many of the things he has worked to build over his tenure.

Key Findings

Russia's Attitude Toward Ukraine Is Consistent with Historical Thinking and Influenced by Its Current Situation

  • Russia has traditionally sought "buffer states" on its borders.
  • Russians historically have tended to view Ukraine as fundamentally Russian by culture and background.
  • Russia seeks a great power role and influence, and perceives itself as being in competition with the United States.
  • Longstanding beliefs about Russia's rights within its region are exacerbated by a consistent post-Soviet view that Western efforts at integration are a mechanism of controlling and weakening Russia.

Neither Elite Nor Public Views on Specific Issues Appear to Drive Russian Policy, Although the Regime Is Deeply Fearful of Elite and Public Opposition to Its Actions

  • The Russian government has sought to shape public opinion, not respond to it. It has done so successfully by silencing political opposition and independent media.
  • The Kremlin saw the Maidan uprising as dangerous because if such protests could happen in Ukraine, they might happen in Russia as well.

Russia's Behavior in Ukraine Is Evidence That Russia Puts Its Economic Interests Second

  • It is difficult to find a sound economic argument for the Eurasian Economic Union. Its purpose appears to be primarily political.
  • Although the extent of sanctions was unexpected, Russia's willingness to endure them underlines its priorities.

Putin's Personal Leadership Style and Viewpoints Were Likely Critical to the Specific Actions Taken, Although Not to the Attitudes That Drove Them

  • Decisionmaking in the Kremlin has become highly centralized, with few alternative viewpoints aired.
  • The Kremlin attributed the Maidan protests to Western "interference" in Ukraine and saw them as a challenge to Putin's personal belief in a strong state at the vanguard of society.

Research conducted by

This research was conducted within the Strategy, Doctrine, and Resources Program, a part of the RAND Arroyo Center.

This commentary is part of the RAND expert insight series. RAND Expert Insights present perspectives on timely policy issues. All RAND Expert Insights undergo peer review to ensure high standards for quality and objectivity.

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