Geopolitics Against Democracy: Ukraine’s Democratization and Russian Great Power Aspirations

June 2018
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Reconciliation between parties in a violent conflict usually depends first of all on an end to the violence. In her contribution to this discussion forum, Oxana Shevel raised the challenges that Ukraine faces in the attempt to end the war in the Donbas, including the lack of desire among the Ukrainian political elites to compromise with Russia on issues of Ukraine’s sovereignty and the lack of incentives for Russia to stop backing the self-declared “republics” in the Donbas. Because an overall resolution to the conflict seems currently to be out of reach, Shevel rightly emphasizes the real possibilities of an internal dialogue now, under circumstances in Ukraine’s East that remain unchanged. In my contribution, I illuminate why the overall conflict will be so hard to resolve. In the West, the spread of democracy became a central part of security strategy. That meant that as democracy spread eastward, so did Western security structures. Russia saw this as a threat to its internal stability and to its desire to regain control over Ukraine. Ukraine’s internal reconciliation is now connected with the broader need for reconciliation between the West and Russia, which itself seems to be out of reach for the foreseeable future.

In early October 2017, Vygaudas Ušackas, the retiring EU Ambassador to Russia, published a striking essay in the Guardian, expressing his pessimism about the future of EU-Russia relations. “At the heart of this clash are fundamental differences over the future of Ukraine and Georgia, and their right to choose their own alliances. This clash is also about core European values.” Russia’s road to Europe, Ušackas said, goes through Kyiv, “not through managed democracy.”1 The war in Ukraine is not just about the status of the Donbas or Crimea. It is about competing visions of Europe, and democracy is at the core of the conflict.

How did democracy come to be a source of conflict rather than peace? Answering this question is essential to understanding the roots of this war and prospects for peace between Russia and Ukraine, as well as for reconciliation between Russia and the West. While many have blamed the current conflict on decisions that were made since the mid-1990s—NATO’s decision to accept new members or Russia’s retreat from democracy—the underlying sources of conflict were the issues left unresolved by the end of the cold war.

From the very earliest days of the post-cold war era, there was a tension between the West’s and Russia’s assumptions about the emerging order in Europe. The West focused on the spread of democracy, the logical consequence of which was the expansion of the EU and NATO. Russia insisted on maintaining its role as a great power and regional hegemon. Ukraine became the battleground because it was of primary importance to Russia. But the West could not cede Ukraine to Russia without betraying its commitments to democracy and freedom of choice. In other words, democracy became merged with geopolitics, which was made clear by the Orange Revolution. “Color revolutions,” as a means of spreading democracy, posed a threat not only to Russia’s claimed sphere of interests, but to its domestic political model, and to the Putin regime in particular. When Viktor Yanukovych was vanquished by street protests for the second time, Russia decided to make the best of a bad situation by seizing what territory it could.


In May 1989, US President George H. W. Bush, speaking in Mainz, West Germany, articulated a vision for European security. The fall of the Berlin Wall was still months away, but Gorbachev’s “new thinking” already promised a new era. Bush focused not on security, but on freedom: “The path of freedom leads to a larger home, a home where West meets East, a democratic home, the commonwealth of free nations.”2 That language—and especially the phrase “commonwealth of free nations,” did not come from nowhere. It merged the Wilsonian tradition in US foreign policy, which stressed making the world “safe for democracy,” with an increasingly popular literature in the academic study of international politics known as the “democratic peace theory,” which held that democracies do not go to war with one another.

That focus on freedom rejected the hardcore realism that dominated US policy during the cold war and has guided US and EU policy ever since. Realists long maintained that the nature of domestic regimes was essentially irrelevant to international security, which was based on national interests and national power, but it has become clear that even if democracy does not cause peace, it is not at all irrelevant. It has become a central front of contention between Russia and the West, as Ušackas asserted. Democracy did not cause the war in Ukraine, but what we might call the “geopoliticization of democracy”—the merger of democratization and security strategy—created both external and internal threats to Putin’s Russia and took Ukraine from being a local problem to a European one.

During the cold war, the US always felt a tension between supporting human rights and democracy or pursuing geopolitical gains against the Soviet Union. With few exceptions, the policy was to support governments that were anti-Soviet even if they were highly autocratic themselves, examples including Iran under the Shah, South Africa under Apartheid, Nicaragua under Somoza, and Portugal (a NATO member) under Salazar. The underlying theory was captured colorfully in a quotation attributed (dubiously) to Franklin Roosevelt: “he may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” Jeanne Kirkpatrick provided a detailed defense of the policy in an influential 1979 essay, “Dictatorship and Double Standards.”3 The key point was that it was naïve to prioritize democracy and human rights if doing so created opportunities for Soviet expansion.

That policy was largely abandoned at the end of the cold war. The argument that democracies are more peaceful than other states has its roots in Immanuel Kant’s 1795 essay “Perpetual Peace.” However, in the 1980s scholars subjected this hypothesis to statistical analysis, using datasets of all conflicts from 1815 to 1980.4 They discovered an astonishing correlation: while democracies go to war just as often as other states, they had never gone to war with one another. This pattern became known as the “democratic peace” and while there was considerable dissent in the vast academic literature generated (many saw Germany in 1914 as a democracy, nullifying the argument; Poland’s wars with Ukraine and Lithuania in 1918-19 might be other counterexamples), many agreed with Jack Levy that “the absence of war among democracies comes as close as anything we have to an empirical law in international relations.”5

If post-communist states could become democratic, and if that would lead to peace, it was only logical to try to help out. And so democratic peace went from theory to policy. Rather than being distinct from, and subservient to, “national interest,” democracy now seemed entirely consistent with it. While democracy promotion broke with the cold war tradition, it recalled earlier traditions in US foreign policy, notably Woodrow Wilson’s “Fourteen Points,” and the successful effort to institutionalize democracy in Germany and Japan after World War II. Bruce Russett, one of the leading academic advocates of the theory, published a book called Grasping the Democratic Peace, which captured the prevailing thinking, and the business of “democracy promotion” was born.6

The Clinton administration put democracy promotion at the center of its foreign policy. National Security Advisor Anthony Lake, speaking in September 1993, captured the rationale:

To the extent democracy and market economics hold sway in other nations, our own nation will be more secure, prosperous, and influential, while the broader world will be more humane and peaceful.

He went on to say:

Throughout the Cold War, we contained a global threat to market democracies; now we should seek to enlarge their reach, particularly in places of special significance to us.  The successor to a doctrine of containment must be a strategy of enlargement--enlargement of the world's free community of market democracies.7

As he was making these remarks, Boris Yeltsin was violently dissolving the Russian parliament.

The “democratic peace” literature was associated with academic liberals, but neo-conservatives were equally enthusiastic. Already in 1991, Joshua Muravchik of the American Enterprise Institute published a book called Exporting Democracy: Fulfilling America’s Destiny, promoting a foreign policy of “democratic idealism.”8  Some of the earliest entrants in the democracy promotion industry, such as the National Endowment for Democracy, had their roots in projects initiated by conservatives in the US Congress to undermine Soviet power by encouraging pro-independence and pro-democracy movements in the “captive nations.” When the cold war waned, these organizations and their missions moved rapidly from the fringe to the mainstream, as cold warriors and liberal institutionalists converged on the importance of supporting democracy. This convergence explains why support for the policy was so robust, why it was often unquestioned and why it persisted into the administration of George W. Bush, who extended it to Afghanistan and Iraq.

This left-right consensus is important in evaluating subsequent criticism of NATO enlargement. Prominent analysts including John Mearsheimer have argued that NATO expansion failed because it was not based on realism, which would have recognized a Russian sphere of influence.9 Among its many problems, that argument misremembers the sources of NATO enlargement.

The expansion of Western institutions into Eastern Europe did not occur because liberalism triumphed over realism or because Democrats triumphed over Republicans. Rather, it occurred because it neatly merged liberal institution-building and realist alliance-building, combining high ideals (democracy and collective security) with the national interest, appealing to Democrats and Republicans alike. Even realists who were skeptical about the democratic peace theory supported hedging the West’s bets against potential Russian revanchism and reassuring the governments of Central Europe that they would not be left to deal with Russia on their own. NATO enlargement was supported not only by the Clinton administration but also by Zbigniew Brzezinski, Henry Kissinger, and Richard Nixon. At least in the US, the dissent was limited to critics, such as George Kennan (who had opposed the founding of NATO a half-century earlier), who believed that NATO expansion meant turning our backs on Russian democracy.10

Enlargement dramatically changed NATO’s mission to focus on democracy promotion. The 1995 “Study on NATO Enlargement” stated that only states that were committed to liberal democracy could join the organization, and the 1999 “Strategic Concept” went further, identifying the spread of democracy as one of NATO’s primary tasks. NATO enlargement became synonymous with democratic enlargement. In the West, that was obviously good, or at least innocuous. But shifting the focus to democracy inadvertently loosened the limits on NATO membership and many wanted in.

The growth of NATO was driven by demand from potential entrants as much as or even more than by the incumbents. The states of Central Europe had been traumatized by Soviet occupation and they were worried that Russian troops might return. Zhirinovsky’s triumph in the 1993 parliamentary elections and the war in Chechnya accentuated the danger. Hence, nearly all of them wanted to get into NATO. Moreover, once enlargement began, it created a momentum for its continuation, by leaving those outside (between the EU and NATO and Russia) more isolated and vulnerable than they were before, a problem that some critics had foreseen.11 NATO’s admission criteria made democracy a national security necessity as well as a goal in itself.


The eastward expansion of NATO and the EU was eventually bound to clash with Russia’s aspirations. Leaders across the Russian spectrum stated repeatedly after 1991 that Russia is and must be a great power in the traditional sense. Andrei Kozyrev, the long-time Minister of Foreign Affairs, who was generally regarded as one of Russia’s leading “westernizers” (and loathed accordingly by derzhavniki and “Eurasianists”) wrote in Foreign Affairs in 1994 that “the only policy with any chance of success is one that recognizes the significance of Russia as a world power…. If Russian democrats fail to achieve [that], they will be swept away by a wave of aggressive nationalism…Russia is predestined to be a great power.”12 Yeltsin echoed this view: “We are fond of repeating that [Russia] is a great country. And that is indeed the case. So then, in our foreign-policy thinking let us always meet this high standard.”13 The further NATO moved east, the more resistant and resentful Russia became, even if Yeltsin and even Putin occasionally said that they could accept it.

Russia in the 1990s was generally comfortable with the idea of becoming a democracy, a market economy and a more integrated part of Europe. But it was not comfortable with losing its status as a great power or with surrendering its influence in the post-Soviet region. Nor did Russians accept the idea that Russia had “lost” the cold war and was a “defeated” power. In that respect, serious differences in perspective were present from the beginning, even if few in the West recognized it. Whether this conception of Russia’s role stems from Russian history, culture, or geography or whether the 1990s represented a genuine opportunity for change, is debatable.

The eastward spread of democracy endangered Russia’s claim to a sphere of influence. The states to Russia’s west (with the possible exception of Belarus) have no desire to align with Russia or submit to its hegemony, and the harder Russia tries to promote this, the more they resist. To the extent these states can choose, they will choose to go west, as the entire Soviet bloc did when given the opportunity. Russia accepted this in the cases of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic and even, it seems, in the Baltics (though we may have cause to revisit that assessment).

In addition to heightening the external threat to Russia’s goals, democratization in Ukraine created an immediate internal danger. The Russian leadership has come to believe that a very strong state is necessary to avoid the kind of instability that characterized the 1990s in Russia, to prevent fragmentation and to protect Russia from the West. It is a self-serving argument, but many believe it, and not only in Russia. Particularly dangerous was the emergence of “color revolutions,” which directly endangered Putin and his circle and, in their view, the Russian state itself. And because many Russians see Ukraine as indistinguishable from Russia, any example set there looks especially applicable to Russia. Thus, the Russian leadership also came to believe in the connection between democratization and national security. Only where the West sees the relationship as mutually reinforcing, Russia sees democratization undercutting it both geopolitically and internally.

From the very moment of the Soviet collapse, the Russian elite has been united about the importance of retaining control over Ukraine. Some focus on Ukraine’s economic importance; others on its geopolitical importance and others on national identity. Most (including Putin) mix the three rationales freely. Only a few Russian radical democrats in the early 1990s said, in effect, “forget about Ukraine, we can liberalize faster without it,” and in the West we paid a lot of attention to these voices because they were the ones we liked. But they started out with very little power and lost it altogether by the mid-1990s.

Russian leaders in the 1990s generally felt that Ukraine would be compelled by economic circumstances and public opinion to return to the fold, but Russia adopted a range of inducements, positive and negative, often involving energy, to encourage the process. In contrast to many other states in the region, these measures were not enough to bring Ukraine back in. The problem is that very few in Ukraine want to subject the country to Russian dominance. While Ukraine is divided over a lot of things, it has not been divided about that. Ukrainians want free trade and cheap gas, not to submit to a supranational entity centered in Moscow, let alone reunification.

The problem is not just that Russia is feared, but that it is not a very attractive partner. If Ukrainians are going to compromise their sovereignty, it will be to join the EU, not Russia. Ukrainian oligarchs want access to European markets, not to have to defend their assets from being taken over by Putin’s friends. Even the most pro-Russian rulers in Ukraine, Kuchma and Yanukovych, steadfastly resisted formal integration with Russian-led organizations. Instead, they cynically extracted as many economic concessions as they could and profited as much as possible from the gas trade, without actually giving up control. For all the Russian talk of “soft power,” Russian leaders do not seem to recognize that they have not made themselves very attractive and that coercion does not help.

The great hope for Russia, ironically, was that Ukraine would be rejected by the West because of its democratic shortcomings. As the regime of Leonid Kuchma became more autocratic after 1999, the West increasingly distanced itself from him, and Kuchma turned toward Russia. By 2004, developments within Ukraine and between Ukraine and the West looked promising for Russia. Kuchma was consolidating autocracy in Ukraine, the opposition was divided and although Kuchma was not ready to accept Russia’s terms, his options were diminishing. It looked as though Viktor Yanukovych would be elected President in 2004 and Putin threw his personal support, Russian media and a team of “political technologists” behind him.

More than any other single event, the Orange Revolution made the clash between democracy and Russia’s interests vivid and concrete. The overturning of Yanukovych’s “victory” was both shocking and devastating, leading Gleb Pavlovsky, who Putin had sent to Kyiv to oversee Yanukovych’s election, to call it “our 9/11.”14 The power of “color revolutions” to nullify Russia’s strategy was scary, and even more ominous was that there seemed to be a recipe for it.

The Orange Revolution changed Russian thinking in three ways. First, Russia viewed these revolutions as externally imposed, as a tactic in substitute of war, and concluded that Russia had to learn how to do this. Russian theorists wrote much more about Joseph Nye’s concept of “soft power,” though they thought of soft power as an instrument for coercion or subversion, not as a force of attraction.15 This led to the tactics deployed in 2014.

Second, the Russian leadership sought to preempt any such revolution in Russia by adopting a range of measures that included the formation of the youth group Nashi and restrictions on foreign NGOs.

Third, Russia began pushing back against the international spread of democracy. Emphasis on the doctrine of “non-interference” increased, in spite of Russia’s insistence on interfering in the “near abroad.” Moreover, Russian leaders and theorists attacked the notion that values such as democracy are universally valid. Having invoked Nye on soft power, they now invoked Samuel Huntington on “civilizational pluralism.” Along with China and the Central Asian states, they started the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as a bulwark against democracy promotion in the region, a sort of “authoritarian international,” or Holy Alliance. The response to democracy promotion was autocracy promotion.


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Originally Published in This Issue of Krytyka