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Analyst Jeffrey Mankoff Explains Russia’s Motivations In Ukraine, Syria

Mar 31, 2016

Russia rapidly moved to the front of the world stage when President Vladimir Putin returned to power in 2012, setting off an adversarial relationship with the West not seen since Cold War tensions thawed in the 1980s.

The country’s ascendancy includes the 2014 invasion of Ukraine’s Crimea region, and a greater role in Syria on the side of the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Syria is fighting rebels opposed to Assad’s minority Alawite-led government as well as Islamic State, or ISIS, militants bent on establishing a caliphate in the Middle East.

As we’ve written before, understanding Russia’s interest in its former Soviet satellites can be traced back to the 18th century. But Jeffrey Mankoff, a senior fellow and the deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies says the tension starts 1,000 years before that in the precursor of both Russia and Ukraine – a state known as Kievan Rus’ centered on the modern capital of Ukraine – Kiev.

Slavs in the south followed a trajectory that led to the establishment of the modern state of Ukraine, and the northern region became part of modern-day Russia. Both look back to the same common ancestor.

“The idea that Ukrainians are different than Russians – that they’re a separate people, that they have a separate identity, and that they have a right to a separate historical trajectory – is just not really a mental framework that makes sense to a lot of even well-educated Russians,” Mankoff told KGOU’s World Views. “So this idea that Ukraine was going to install a democratic government, that it was going to associate itself with the [European Union], and in doing that reject its historical ties to Russia, seemed a very threatening step.”

The invasion two years ago led to sanctions, which Mankoff says affects foreign capital flowing into Russia. Even investors outside of sectors targeted by the restrictions worry about the political risk. That – paired with the global downturn in commodity prices and a shift away from modernizing the energy industry under Putin – has led to a tremendous amount of political instability.

Enter Syria.

The country has effectively collapsed, with Russian airstrikes helping buttress Assad while leaders from other countries that saw Arab Spring uprisings have stepped down, been imprisoned or killed. Syria gives Russia a beachhead in the Arab-Israeli conflict and makes it relevant in international forums on countless Middle East crises. Mankoff says Russia’s intervention allows it to build up its military capabilities with an eye on the West.

“It makes a large part of the eastern Mediterranean into a potential no-go zone for NATO,” Mankoff said. “And it allows Russia to potentially project power outwards from there as well, against a country like, say, Turkey.”

Mankoff says there’s real concern in Russia about the spread of radical Islam, given the country’s significant Muslim population.

“Maintaining Syria as a secular state dominated by a kind of secular autocrat who’s an ally in this fight against jihadist terrorism I think is also a Russian interest,” Mankoff said. “Especially when they look at what’s happened in places like Libya or Iraq when these secular regimes have fallen, and the countries have been turned into these magnets for radicalism.”

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Full Transcript

JOSHUA LANDIS, HOST: Jeffrey Mankoff, welcome to World Views. Let me start out by asking you about the economy in Russia, because ultimately so much of Russia's capabilities will hang on its economic power. Russia is one of the great oil producers - about 10 million barrels a day. But the price of oil's collapsed. How strapped is Russia?

JEFFREY MANKOFF: It's definitely feeling a pinch. I mean part of the challenge is that Russia not only is a major oil producer, but compared to a country like the United States, it gets a much higher percentage of its GDP and also government revenue from oil. Before the oil price collapse it was actually getting more than 50 percent of state revenue from oil taxes. That's come down since. But what that means is that in an environment of lower oil prices the state, as well as the economy as a whole, is taking a really big hit. Now when the oil prices started going down in 2008-2009 there was some discussion the steps that Russia could take to diversify its economy. And Dimitry Medvedev - who was the president from 2008 until 2012 - really made this idea of modernization kind of a staple of the discussion within Russia. Really pushing to do more on innovation and to bring in modern technology and foreign investment into sectors other than energy. But especially once Putin came back, which was in 2012, a lot of that emphasis on modernization just went by the wayside. Politically it was very difficult. There were a lot of people who were politically powerful who benefited from accessing energy revenues. So that effort has really kind of stalled right now. And Russia is in a difficult position where it has this unreformed economy that still remains heavily dependent on oil prices. And there's also of course the sanctions, which were imposed over the intervention in Ukraine. Which is having some effect on foreign direct investment. Even investors who are not looking at sectors that are specifically targeted by the sanctions are worried about the perception of political risk in Russia. Which means that over time, I think the ability of the country and the economy to be competitive and to develop is really constrained. And because of concerns about political stability there's just not a real push to reform right now. If there is an economic policy, I think probably the best way to sum it up would be cross your fingers and hope oil prices start rising.

LANDIS: And that could be several years. We know about that in Oklahoma.

MANKOFF: (Laughs) Yeah.

LANDIS: Why did Russia do what it did in Ukraine?

MANKOFF: Right. So I think it's helpful to step back a little bit. So Ukraine has gone through a series of political upheavals since it became independent at the end of the Soviet Union. In 2004 there was a big movement - a so-called Orange Revolution - that pushed out the existing government and brought in a new coalition of pro-western figures who really wanted to make Ukraine more into a national state and move it more politically and economically toward the west. Now they failed, but as part of their failure, the revolutionary sentiment, the nationalist sentiment that had built up was kind of pushed back into the can. So fast forward to about 2013. There's still this pent-up frustration with corruption, with slow growth, with everything else. And you have again a very explosive situation. Now what ultimately set off the explosion was a decision of the Ukrainian leadership - the Ukrainian president at the time in late 2013 - to reject an association agreement that he'd negotiated with the European Union. The Russians had put a lot of pressure on him to reject this agreement and instead to sign an agreement joining a customs union with Russia. He made an about face, agreed to do this at the very last minute when it was approaching the summit when the association agreement was to be signed. In response, this explosive material that had been built up in Ukraine for so long just, it had a spark, and it all came to the surface. There was another big outburst of energy. Anti-elite, but also increasingly anti-Russian. Now Moscow looked at all of this and it believed it was part of a kind of western conspiracy, right? They see this political unrest in the post-Soviet region as being driven by the U.S. The State Department. It's the CIA. It's pro-democracy NGOs. It's people like George Soros giving money to actors in these countries who seek to destabilize them and then overthrow their government and ultimately install pro-western regimes. It's a form of democracy promotion in the way that they understand it. Now Ukraine, of all of the countries in the post-Soviet region, is the one that's the most sensitive for Russia. Both because of its size, because of its location, and because of the very close historical ties between Russia and Ukraine. And if you listen to a lot of Russians, including President Putin, talk about it, the idea that the Ukrainians are different than Russians, that they're a separate people. That they have a separate identity, and they have a right to a separate historical trajectory, is just not really a mental framework that makes sense to a lot of even well-educated Russians. So this idea that Ukraine was going to install a democratic government. That it was going to associate itself with the EU, and in doing that reject its historical ties to Russia, seemed a very threatening step from the pers...

LANDIS: Wasn't it Catherine the Great who marched down there in her Potemkin and so forth and conquered Ukraine in the 1700s? Or was it even before that?

MANKOFF: Well, the history is intertwined going back even further that. The first state, the precursor really of both Russia and Ukraine was a state known today as Kievan Rus'. And it was centered on the city of Kiev. It was founded in the 8th-9th century. And over time the southern part of that area, the East Slavic world, followed one trajectory and led to the establishment of the Ukrainian nation and ultimately Ukrainian state. Other East Slavs who also traced their ancestry to Kievan Rus' further north followed a different trajectory and became what we call modern-day Russians. But they both look back to this same historical ancestor. That's why a lot of Russians think of Ukrainians as being part of this same Russian tribe, Russian nation.

LANDIS: So was Obama right, was the west right to not really do anything about Ukraine? Was there anything doable? Was the state more than just a corrupt edifice that if American had gotten in there it would've been a tar pit and we would've been stuck?

MANKOFF: Well, so there were different phases of the western response. Initially, of course, it was the EU that was negotiating this association agreement, which would have forced Ukraine to carry out a pretty extensive program of reforms to make its courts, its judicial system, its economy look a lot like those within the European Union. Now had that succeeded it would've had a pretty profound impact on changing the fundamental nature of the Ukrainian state and the Ukrainian economy, which I think is one of the reasons that Russia saw this development as being threatening. Now where the failure was I think is anticipating what Russia's response was going to be. A lot of Europeans, a lot of senior European officials looked at this agreement as basically a trade deal. And they couldn't understand why Russia would object to Ukraine signing a trade deal with Europe. And when Russia did respond in the way that it did, were caught completely flat-footed. And that goes for the United States as well. When Ukraine then was in the throes of revolution, and then facing a Russian invasion, I would say that the U.S. approach was to try and outsource as much of the problem-solving to Europe as possible. The point person on dealing with this crisis was never President Obama, it was Chancellor Merkel. And I think she did a reasonably good job given all of the competing interests that she faced inside Europe. Where you have countries in Eastern Europe that are very worried about Russian aggression. You have countries in southern Europe that are not, that are much more worried about, for example, the migrant crisis. And so keeping all of those cats herded and adopting a unified approach that emphasized sanctions was, I would say, a big success for German diplomacy. Now the problem, though, is that Europe as a whole and Germany in particular is good when it comes to using economic tools. But when it comes to hard power, I suppose, is not an especially potent force. And if there's ever going to be a military security response to this crisis, it was going to have to involve the United States. And here in the U.S., there was a big debate about should the U.S. provide military assistance - lethal military assistance - Ukraine. I would say even within the Obama administration there was pretty widespread support for doing so. But at the end of the day, the president himself was very much opposed. And so it never happened. Now whether that was a mistake or not, I suppose turns on your answer to the question of is it more provocative to do too much, or more provocative to do too little when it comes to dealing with the Russians? I tend to be in the camp of it's more provocative to do little. The Russians were able to go as far as they were able to go in not only taking Crimea, but also their intervention in eastern Ukraine, in part because they didn't see a robust western response.

LANDIS: Now let me stop you there and ask you...we've seen Russia as a great empire implode twice in the last century. Implode with the Russian Revolution and Lenin disgorging tons of little statelets. Of course, Austro-Hungarian Empire, German Empire collapsed in World War I, too. So you get this whole bunch of little new states cast out there in Eastern Europe. Once Stalin, Hitler regain their feet, they're going to go and suck all these little states back in and rebuild empires. Of course, the Russian Empire is dressed in red, and then it collapses in 1990 and they all get disgorged again. Clearly all of them are biting their nails thinking how am I not going to get gobbled up another time. How far is Putin going to go in rebuilding a Russian empire? What's in? What's out?

MANKOFF: I don't think anybody has a 100-percent-certain answer, and that's part of the reason that people in countries like the Baltic States and Poland are concerned. Ukraine, of course, occupies a special niche for Russians for the reasons I talked about. Of course, it's also formerly part of the Soviet Union. Now if you're talking about countries like, say, the Baltic States, which were incorporated into the Soviet Union, but were never recognized as being part of the Soviet Union, or a country like Poland. Then it's a different order of magnitude. Especially because those countries are already in NATO. If I had to guess, I would think that the Russians are probably smart enough to understand that carrying out a direct military operation against NATO members is a bridge too far. The concern that you hear in places like the Baltic States is that there are a lot of things that Russia could do - short of sending in a tank column - that could create a lot of problems. And that could leave NATO and the United States without a real good set of responses. For example, the kind of efforts that were undertaken in Crimea, where you had the so-called "little green men." Russian special forces taking over key institutions, key facilities. If you were to do something like that in say, an ethnically Russian city in Estonia, and then proclaim that this is now part of the Russian Federation, what tools would be available? How would the west respond? And that's an issue that the west is struggling with right now.

LANDIS: Well, we're struggling with a similar issue in Syria. Syria is clearly the last major outpost for Russia in the Middle East. It's an important player. Gives it a beachhead on the Arab-Israeli conflict. It makes it relevant in all of these international forums. But what is Russia's goal in supporting Assad in Syria?

MANKOFF: I'd say there are multiple things that the Russians are trying to achieve in Syria. One is inserting themselves into the conversation within the region as you described. So now not only the United States, but also the Saudis and the Turks and Qatar and everybody else in the Middle East has to deal with Russia when it comes to making decisions about the future of the regional order. On top of that, Syria's long been a Russian ally, client satellite - whatever you want to call it. Which has included giving Russia access to its military facilities. And especially now when Russia seems to be building up its military capabilities around the periphery of NATO. Having that base in Turkey, or in Syria in the eastern Mediterranean, helps advance that strategy. It makes a large part of the eastern Mediterranean into a potential no-go zone for NATO. And it allows Russia to potentially project power outwards from there as well against a country like say, Turkey. And then on top of that there is a real concern in Russia about the spread of Islamist radicalism. Russia has a big Muslim population. It's had issues with terrorism in the past, and not only in Russia but also in the neighborhood in places like central Asia. So maintaining Syria as a secular state dominated by a kind of secular autocrat who's an ally in this fight against jihadist terrorism I think is also a Russian interest. Especially when they look at what's happened in places like Libya or Iraq when these secular regimes have fallen. And the countries have been turned into these magnets for radicalism.

LANDIS: Well Jeff, it's a pleasure talking with you, and great to have you on.

MANKOFF: Thanks for having me.

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