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

June 2018
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After 2008, when Germany and France blocked the issuance of a NATO Membership Action Plan for Ukraine, the focus on the West’s relations with Ukraine shifted from NATO to the EU. The EU also saw its scope moving eastwards, and, in some respects, it was a more zealous democratizer than NATO. In the Copenhagen criteria of 1993, the EU established that states that wanted to join the EU had to play by its rules and that they were not negotiable. These rules, in the form of the acquis communautaire, are exceedingly detailed.

Many had hoped that the EU could deal with Ukraine and Russia together rather than separately. For Russia, the hope was that this process would cement its leadership of the so-called Slavic core of the CIS and facilitate Russia joining with Europe to form a “pole” in international politics distinct from the US. However, Russia’s declining democracy undermined its eligibility for EU integration and Europe was not eager to ally with Russia against the US. The Orange Revolution further alienated Europe from Russia while making Ukraine look more promising.

Viktor Yushchenko, Angela Merkel, and Vladimir Putin at the Munich Security Conference in 2007.

Therefore, when the EU proposed the Eastern Partnership in 2008, Russia was worried. In contrast to Russia’s notions of a sphere of influence and a veto, the EU did not accept the idea that Russia could veto or shape Ukraine’s relationship with the EU. This was a cardinal rule of internal European politics, powerfully reinforced by the reminder that there must be “no more Yaltas.” Again, democracy was dividing Russia from Europe and threatening to divide it from Ukraine.

The EU did not see itself playing power politics in offering Association Agreement to Ukraine. Štefan Füle, the EU integration commissioner, resisted thinking about the geopolitical implications of Ukraine’s choice:

I have problems to participate in the zero-sum game, as I am a believer in win-win games, particularly in dealing with such a strategic partner as Russia. I am not in the business of creating new walls—quite the contrary. Transformation is the rule of the game and Association Agreements/ DCFTAs are the most powerful instruments of that transformation.16

Russia thought it had solved the problem with the election of Yanukovych in 2010. The only potential threat to this scenario was the EU Association Agreement. Yanukovych had extended the lease on Russia’s navy base at Sevastopol by 25 years. His corruption and autocracy made him an unsuitable partner for the West and he would need aid to pursue re-election, leaving him, it seemed, no choice but to strike a deal with Russia. The danger from the Association Agreement increased dramatically when the EU dropped the pre-requisite that Yanukovych release Tymoshenko from prison, a move that looked much more like geopolitics than domestic transformation. Russia again appeared to have side-stepped the danger when, deploying a mix of threats and rewards, it persuaded Yanukovych to reject the Association Agreement.

The Euromaidan and Yanukovych’s fall were, for Russia, even more threatening than the Orange Revolution. Not only had a freely-elected pro-Russian president been ejected with the encouragement of the West, but it now looked like Ukraine would move out of Russia’s orbit permanently. And the dangerous precedent of ejecting a leader through street protests was repeated. But the ensuing chaos opened a window of opportunity for Russia to seize some territory it had long coveted, to undermine the Ukrainian revolutionaries and to defy the West.


Was democracy a fundamental cause of this conflict? Yes and no. If Russia was not going to be a democracy, there was an unavoidable question, as there was after World War II, of where the line would be drawn between the democratic and non-democratic parts of Europe. Democratization created a logic for EU and NATO enlargement that was distinct from yet reinforced the geopolitical logic, and that made enlargement appealing to a set of constituencies in the West that otherwise would have been skeptical. It also made it unthinkable for the EU or the US to accede to Russia’s demand for a sphere of influence in Ukraine. More immediately, to the extent that democracy in Ukraine posed a threat to the Putin regime, Russia needed to stop it somehow. So while democracy did not cause the conflict, it aggravated the conflict and eventually became the main front. Democracy and democratization helped merge the question of EU and NATO relations with Russia and the question of Ukraine’s relations with Russia into a single problem, making both problems harder to address.

The underlying causes, however, were not about democracy. At the European level, the underlying source of the conflict was the unresolved (and often unacknowledged) security dilemma and the competing visions of how to manage it. At the level of Ukraine-Russia relations, the underlying source of conflict was the question of whether Ukraine was going to be part of a Russian sphere of influence or be a fully independent state. Russia was willing to accept some eastward contraction of its sphere of influence and it hoped for an open and much less conflictual relationship with the West. But it insisted on maintaining a sphere of influence, especially in Ukraine. And it insisted on maintaining a veto on broader European security affairs. Those aims were incompatible with Ukraine’s own aspirations and with broader Western norms and interests. These issues would have remained even had democracy made more progress in Russia or even had the West focused on traditional Realpolitik rather than democracy.

Where does this leave Russia? Exactly where it did not want to be: isolated from the rest of Europe and decisively rejected by Ukraine. In an important sense, Russian leaders have been correct about the continued relevance of Realpolitik. A central lesson of realist theory is that our efforts to enhance our security can rebound to leave us less secure. Russia has its western sphere of influence, but at least for now, it is a pretty small sphere: Belarus, Crimea, and part of the Donbas. It may be able to keep Ukraine out of European institutions, but that is now the best it can do. Including Ukraine in a Moscow-centric integration project, which used to be the minimal goal, now seems to be out of reach short of military conquest.

Where does this leave Ukraine? Fighting a war that it cannot win and cannot end. Ukraine can neither recapture Crimea and the occupied Donbas nor let them go, meaning that it likely will be dealing with the conflict for many years to come. Ukraine is finally of real interest to the West and its opportunity to collaborate with the West is as high as it has ever been. As always, the question is whether Ukraine can seize the opportunity, and as always, the answer appears to be "no." Russia appears to be betting that Ukraine cannot reform, especially with Russia interfering, and that the West will lose interest before Russia does. In this, it may well be right. Ukraine’s inability to reform, rather than Russian policy, continues to be the biggest threat to its national security.

Where does this leave Russia and the West? In a battle in which geopolitics and democracy continue to be merged. Rhetoric will pit “civilizational pluralism” against democracy, with the change in vocabulary obscuring the fact that the disagreement is almost precisely what it was in 1989, when Bush promoted “a commonwealth of free nations” and Gorbachev a “common European home.”

This battle is both global and European. On a global scale, the question is whether the world will be unipolar or multipolar. Here, Russia has many allies, most important of which is China. But while US hegemony continues to erode, the attractiveness of the Western model is likely to endure despite its current tribulations. Chinese influence is substantial, but it is almost entirely transactional—based on concrete material inducements rather than any belief or commitment. Russia has shown its ability to make mischief and to make friends among outcast regimes, but whether these can be meaningful contributors to the kind of great power status it longs for is questionable.

On the European scale, the question is where the line between a Russian dominated zone of autocracy and an EU-led region of democracies will be drawn. Here, Russia has few allies. Maintaining Russia’s small sphere of influence will be costly, and expanding it will be costlier still. While Russia has had some success sowing divisions within Europe’s democracies, this practice takes it further from the institutionalized respect it demands.

Is there a vision of European order that is consistent with Russia’s great power aspirations? This is the basic question about European security that was never worked out after 1989, perhaps because the answer is “no.” European security is built on great power restraint in a way that many have failed to appreciate. For Russia to join Europe, it will have to model its role not on that of the US (which for geographic and historical reasons is seen as less threatening), but on Germany, which after World War II and especially after 1989, deliberately limited its military power and bound its economic power within EU institutions. Where Germany recognized that its power and history causes fear in others, which undermines Germany’s interests, Russia insists on retaining its historical role and relishes the fear it induces. One can speculate that the different approaches come out of the two societies’ reading of World War II. Defeated Germany accepted that its power was inherently threatening to its neighbors and retreated, while the victorious Soviet Union decided that it had earned the right to rule its neighbors.

With no agreement on the architecture of European order, we are left with competition. In that competition, democracy remains central to the West’s values and to its strategy. Now, as in the cold war, the West’s strategy is to wait for a friendlier regime to come to power in Russia and in particular to wait for the Russian people to demand a democratic government. Ušackas quotes Lyudmila Alexeyeva: “Please tell Brussels not to give up on the Russian people.”

The connection of democracy to geopolitics calls that strategy into question. There is no good reason, after the past quarter century, to assume that a democratic Russia will be friendly to the West. On the contrary, in the 1990s, it took Boris Yeltsin’s non-democratic power over the Russian parliament to sustain a pro-Western foreign policy. The idea of Russia as a great power is still compelling to Russian elites and citizens alike, as is the belief that Ukraine is Russian. One can only speculate on what it would take to erode those views. To the extent that democratization implies joining Europe on terms that end Russia’s status as a great power, Russians will likely reject it. This should not surprise us, as the US, too, is a democracy that cannot imagine giving up its claim to great power status, and both France and Britain struggled to do so for decades after their empires were mostly lost.

In other words, while it is unlikely to be put to this test anytime soon, it seems unlikely that the democratic peace theory would survive Russian democratization. Democracy has not transcended power politics, but rather merged with it and the geopolitical power of democratization is at least partly a reason why many will push back against democracy. Unless there is a way to detach democratization from being equal to subjecting one’s self to the West’s normative hegemony, then the spread of democracy may stall. On the other hand, if democratization does become detached from the Western normative order, then the West may lose its enthusiasm. Rather than democracy causing peace, we may need peace—by which I mean an end to great power rivalry—to cause democracy. This does not seem imminent.

  • 1.Vygaudas Ušackas, “The west must defend its values against Putin’s Russia,” The Guardian, October 1, 2017.
  • 2.“A Europe Whole and Free Remarks to the Citizens in Mainz.” President George Bush. Rheingoldhalle. Mainz, Federal Republic of Germany, May 31, 1989,
  • 3.Jeanne J. Kirkpatrick, “Dictatorship and Double Standards,” Commentary, Volume 68, No. 5, November 1979, pp. 34–45,
  • 4.The literature on the democratic peace is enormous. Among the most influential works is Michael W. Doyle, “Kant, Liberal Legacies, and Foreign Affairs,” Parts I and II, Philosophy & Public Affairs Vol. 12, Nos. 3 and 4 (Summer and Fall, 1983), pp. 205-235; 323-353, which stresses the connection to Kant.
  • 5.Jack S. Levy, “The Causes of War: A Review of Theories and Evidence,” in Philip Tetlock, Jo L. Husbands, Robert Jervis, Paul C. Stern, and Charles Tilly, eds., Behavior, Society, and Nuclear War, Vol. I (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 270.
  • 6.Bruce Russett, Grasping the Democratic Peace: Principles for a Post-Cold War World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993).
  • 7.Anthony Lake, “From Containment to Enlargement,” Address at the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, Washington, DC, September 21, 1993.
  • 8.Joshua Moravchik, Exporting Democracy: Fulfilling America's Destiny (Washington: American Enterprise Institute, 1991).
  • 9.John J. Mearsheimer, “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault: The Liberal Delusions That Provoked Putin,” Foreign Affairs, (September/October 2014): 1-12.
  • 10.Richard Ullman, “The US and the World: An Interview with George Kennan,” New York Review of Books, August 12, 1999,
  • 11.Robert J. Art, “Creating a Disaster: NATO's Open Door Policy,” Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 113, No. 3 (Autumn, 1998): 383-403.
  • 12.Andrei Kozyrev, “The Lagging Partnership,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 1994, p. 60.
  • 13."Strategicheskaia tsel’ – sozdat’ protsvetaiushchuiu stranu." Vystuplenie Prezidenta Rossii v Federal’nom Sobranii’, Rossiiskaya Gazeta, 25 February 1994, quoted in Jim Headley, “Sarajevo, February 1994: the first Russia-NATO crisis of the post-Cold War Era,” Review of International Studies, 29, 2 (April 2003): 222.
  • 14.Quoted in Ben Judah, Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell in and Out of Love with Vladimir Putin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), p. 85.
  • 15.Peter Rutland & Andrei Kazantsev, “The limits of Russia’s ‘soft power’,” Journal of Political Power, Vol. 9, No. 3 (2016): 395-413. See also Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (New York: Public Affairs, 2005).
  • 16.Štefan Füle, “Statement on the pressure exercised by Russia on countries of the Eastern Partnership,” European Parliament Plenary, Strasbourg, September 11, 2013, p. 3.


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Originally Published in This Issue of Krytyka