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Mainstream, VOL LX No 26-27, New Delhi, June 18 & June 25 2022 [Double issue]

Russian Supranational Civilisationism and the war on Ukraine | Musaib Rasool

Friday 17 June 2022


by Musaib Rasool *


The current full scale war by Russian forces over the Ukrainian territory is not the result of only a single foreign policy failure on the part of a particular state in a given time period. Rather, a number of historical as well as contemporary factors have contributed to the present crisis, even escalating it beyond the control of the key players involved in the conflict. Richard Sakwa traces the systemic root causes of the conflict and argues that the confrontation in Europe’s borderland is a result of three separate crises: the turbulence in the system of European security, the internal conflict in Ukraine, and the crisis of the Russian developmental model1 [1]. Some other factors that have contributed to the present crisis can be broadly identified as the rise of authoritarian and neo-Soviet political forces; the pattern of western-supported popular protests; NATO and EU enlargement; as well as nationalism and revisionism in Russian foreign policy. The framing/designing of foreign policies and management of international relations is a complex venture to undertake.

The current crisis started in February 2022, after Putin claimed that “modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia and Ukraine never had a tradition of genuine statehood”. He accused Ukraine of being dominated by neo-Nazis and announced plans to undertake a “special military operation to demilitarize and de-Nazify” Ukraine. He also recognized the independence of two separatist enclaves in Donbas (Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic). International law and many agreements reached so far, like the Helsinki Charter(1975), the charter of European security (1999), Minsk 1(2014) and Minsk 2 (2015), have been openly violated by Russia. The immediate ostensible reason that Russia popularized was to stop Ukraine from attacking the separatist regions of Donbas and to stop the far right neo-Nazi government from attacking Russia. Putin also wanted a formal agreement preventing Ukraine from ever joining the NATO. The failure of adroit diplomacy by Western, Russian and European leaders added to Putin’s muscular politics and lead to another war on Ukrainian soil.

Blame Game Politics, Narratives and Counter Narratives

The West-Russia relationship was prone to deterioration due to competing interests, opposing views and values, and layers of historical mistrust. The cold war has formally ended with the disintegration of the former USSR but the rivalry and antagonism of ideologies is still a reality of our times. The politicians and whole of the state machinery on both sides have started a robust smear campaign to blame their rivals for the war. In September 2013, before the annexation of Crimea and Ukraine by Russia, Carl Gershman, the president of the National Endowment for Democracy, said that "Ukraine’s choice to join Europe would promote Russian democracy and might eventually topple Putin from power”. Similarly, recently, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken argued that Ukraine, like any sovereign nation, has the right to decide who it aligns with and NATO will defend its “open door” admission policy. This muddled decision- delaying a membership plan while promising membership (NATO offering Ukraine a Membership Action Plan) could perturb and provoke Russia, and it really did. On the other hand, Russian response has been the same, with Putin and his cohorts issuing irresponsible and provocative statements, adding fuel to the fire and then finally invading Ukraine. Both the leaders have delusions of grandeur with Jo Biden thinking of himself as some pompous mogul king of a (faded) unilateral world, while Putin imagines himself as the self-proclaimed Tsar of the Russian world in a multipolar era. The Ukrainian (puppet) government has no say in the grand power tussle (refer to Jenne and Bieber’s (2014) use of the concept of situational nationalism) as it has been/is controlled alternately by Russian and Western regimes.

Even the academic and intellectual elites view the Ukraine crisis very differently and come up with contending narratives about the proper understanding of the conflict. Elias Götz, (2016) argues that “At one end of the spectrum, observers argue that Russia pursues aggressive policies in the post-Soviet space, harbors expansionist ambitions, and is the main culprit in the Ukraine crisis. At the other end are those who say that Moscow’s policies are mainly defensive and aim to protect Russia against aggressive encroachments from Western powers, whose reckless actions led to the crisis over Ukraine.”2 [2] The proponents of the former view include Braun, Gressel, Socor, Stephen Sestanovi, and Michael McFaul, while the latter group is represented by some influential scholars like De Ploeg, Neil Kent, Henry A. Kissinger, John J. Mearsheimer, S.Walt, Shleifer, and Treisman. Gerald Toal, Rutland, Charap, and Colton strive to be neutral in their criticism of Western policies towards Russia and of Russian hostility towards Ukraine and the US. Also, Ploeg’s book “Ukraine in the Crossfire”, published in 2017, is an authoritative and influential leftwing critic of US foreign policy that, together with realist accounts, blames the West for the crisis. The other side claims that Russia’s urge for regional dominance is part and parcel of its ambition to challenge the prevailing Western-led international order and to recreate an empire. As a result, there is no unifying or single narrative in international relations scholarship, but rather a plethora of narratives and counter narratives that make any viable solution to the Ukrainian war difficult, if not impossible.

The Fake and Manufactured Narrative of Civilizational Clash

As we try to understand the conflict in Ukraine, one finds the ostensible motivation behind Russian aggression is to preserve its own Orthodox civilization against western civilization’s influence and NATO enlargement. It wants to curtail the influence of western encroachment within its so-called “region of privileged interests.” It sees the West moving into Russia’s backyard and threatening its core strategic interests. Moscow’s leadership, particularly Putin, envisages Ukraine as an artificial and a failed state, two denigrations that are staples of Russian nationalist thought. Hence, the spirits of the past are summoned up, and the concocted narrative of a threat to the Orthodox Slavic Civilization is manufactured by the Russian state machinery with the active support of the media, oligarchs and other vested interest groups.

Putin has repeatedly described Russians and Ukrainians as Odin Narod (one people), with eastern Slavs understood as being the same as the Russian people. Russian speakers (compatriots) in Ukraine are assumed to be pro-Russian and pro-Putin, supporting the civilizational choice of living in Russkiy mir (the Russian World) rather than Europe. For Tatiana Zhurzhenko (2014), Russkiy mir (launched in 2007) refers to “a supranational community united by the Russian language and culture, by a specific memory and related values, by Orthodox Christian religion and loyalty to the Russian state (which includes the Russian Empire as well as the USSR). The interpretation of the Russian Orthodox Church is that the three East Slavic nations - Russia, Ukraine and Belarus - constitute the core of Russkiy mir, with its spiritual and cultural foundation going back to Prince Vladimir’s baptism in Kyiv. From this perspective, Ukraine is part of a thousand-year-old Russian Orthodox civilization with ties far deeper than any recent ‘artificial’ construction of national identity.” In recent years, with Russia’s growing ideological confrontation with the West, Russkiy mir has developed into a conservative project based on the idea of an alternative Russian civilization devoted to containing and counteracting the expansion of alien Western values. In addition to anti-Americanism, a new anti-European discourse has gained prominence. The Russian media also invented the concept of Novorossiya (New Russia), which reduces the east and the south of Ukraine to historical region of Russia. Far from a harmless territorial branding, the creation of Novorossiya represents the construction of a new (geo) political reality (Snegovaya, 2014). So the argument goes like this, “Russian history began in what was then called Kievan-Rus. The Russian religion spread from there. Ukraine has been part of Russia for centuries, and their histories were intertwined before then”.

The project of depicting the whole of the Ukrainian state as a natural part of the Orthodox Christian civilization has been challenged on various fronts. Firstly, as Taras Kuzio argues “Russia’s annexation of Crimea 60 years later is viewed by Ukrainian nationalists as undermining the basis for this fraternal brotherhood”3 [3]. Toal’s book shows a better understanding of the failure of Novorossiya.4 [4] The hope that the predominantly Russian-speaking Novorossia, encompassing Ukraine’s entire south-east, would break away from the new revolutionary authorities and form a federation, did not materialize. Only Donetsk and Luhansk held referendums in support of regional sovereignty (Dmitri Trenin). Also as Petro Sivers’kyi (2014) notes: "The Maidan certainly enlarged the audience of the nationalist movements in Ukraine. The slogan “Slava Ukraini!”(Glory to Ukraine!) which had been the trade mark of the Banderists is now repeated by everyone except for odious Ukrainophobes." In Ukrainian society today, nationalism is widely seen as an instrument of de-Sovietisation and is justified by the foreign aggression of the neighboring country. Toal (p. 234) provides polling data showing overwhelming negative views of Putin in eastern and southern Ukraine, reflecting the collapse of support for the Soviet myth of the ‘fraternal peoples’.

Paradoxically, Russian President Putin has greatly contributed to national consolidation in Ukraine by providing the perfect embodiment of an external enemy. According to a sociological survey conducted by the Kyiv International Sociology Institute (KMIS) the incidence of positive attitudes to Russia among Ukrainians fell from 80% to 48% after the annexation of Crimea (Kirichenko 2014). Having poisoned Ukrainian-Russian relations for decades, Moscow has also contributed to national consolidation in Ukraine, albeit on an anti-Russian basis. At the same time this consolidation is also largely pro-Western and supports the long-term trend of growing pro-European aspirations in Ukrainian society. “This new pro-European consensus is reflected in the outcome of the early parliamentary elections in October 2014: both the Communists and the far right failed to enter the parliament, and the Party of Regions is now in the opposition, while pro-European and pro-Ukrainian democratic forces won the overwhelming majority of seats”, shows Tatiana Zhurzhenko (2014).

The ongoing assault on Ukraine by the Russian military was the last nail in the coffin. The resistance by Ukraine, except the small separatist region of Donbas which is pro-Russian proved that the project of Russkiy Mir and Novorossiya has failed. The framing of the conflict and the war over Ukraine as the "Clash of Civilizations", where Russia tries to preserve its own civilization and its civilizational kin from the onslaught of Western Civilization, has miserably failed.

So, in the classic case of rivalry between the East and the West, the Ukrainian state has become a pawn at the hands of the two powers, while at the same time, the Ukrainian soil has become a battleground to satisfy their egos. To treat Ukraine as part of an East-West confrontation would scuttle for decades any prospect to bring Russia and the West —especially Russia and Europe —into a cooperative international system.

Recently Tom Mctague wrote in the Atlantic, “In the crisis he has created, Putin has an obvious escalatory dominance over the West. He has the means and potentially the will to invade Ukraine. The West will simply not fight a war for Ukrainian independence, though it will exact an extremely high price from Putin for any incursion.” Overall, Russia wishes to lead a block with an Orthodox heartland under its leadership and with the invasion of Ukrainian on 24 Feb. 2022, any prospects of friendly relations with the West and/or Western Europe has been safely consigned to the dustbin of international history. Now, the Russia’s foreign policy ideal remains, a ‘Great-power concert’ with Russia part of it, rather than a bipolar world or global domination. Besides China, Russia will be reaching out to other non-Western players to diminish U.S. global power and influence and to help build a more (balanced) international system.

Way Forward

It is too soon to know how this saga will end, but there is good reason to think that Putin will achieve his primary aim- preventing Ukraine from becoming a Western bulwark. If so, he wins, although there is no question that Russia will have paid a steep price in the process. The real losers, however, will be the Ukrainian people. The US has nothing to lose as the United States and its European allies do not consider Ukraine a core strategic interest, as their unwillingness to use military force to come to its aid has proved. Both the West and Russia should acknowledge their mistakes. The United States and its allies should abandon their plan to westernize Ukraine and instead aim to make it a neutral buffer between NATO and Russia, akin to Austria’s position during the Cold War. Russia should uphold the sovereignty and political independence of Ukraine and reaffirm the inherent right of each and every state particularly Ukraine, to be free to choose or change its security alliances. The goal should be a sovereign Ukraine that falls in neither the Russian nor the Western camp.

* (Author: Musaib Rasool is a Junior Research Fellow at the School of International relations, Department of South and Central Asian Studies, Central University of Punjab and can be reached at musaibmirkmr[at]


1. Zhurzhenko, Tatiana 2014. ‘A Divided Nation? Reconsidering the Role of Identity Politics in the Ukraine Crisis’, Berliner Wissenschafts-Verlag.
2. Götz, Elias 2016. ‘Russia, the west, and the Ukraine crisis: three contending perspectives’, Taylor & Francis.
3. Kuzio, Taras 2017. ‘Russia–Ukraine Crisis: The Blame Game, Geopolitics and National Identity’, Europe-Asia Studies
4. Toal, Gerald. Near Abroad. Putin, The West, and the Contest over Ukraine and the Caucasus. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.
5. Kissinger, Henry. ‘How the Ukraine crisis ends’. The Washington Post (March 5, 2014).
6. Huntington, Samuel. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. Penguin Books, 1996.
7. Mearsheimer, John 2014. ‘Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault. The Liberal Delusions That Provoked Putin’, Foreign Affairs.

[1Zhurzhenko, Tatiana 2014. ‘A Divided Nation? Reconsidering the Role of Identity Politics in the Ukraine Crisis’, Berliner Wissenschafts-Verlag.

[2Götz, Elias 2016. ‘Russia, the west, and the Ukraine crisis: three contending perspectives’, Taylor & Francis.

[3Kuzio, Taras 2017. ‘Russia–Ukraine Crisis: The Blame Game, Geopolitics and National Identity’, Europe-Asia Studies

[4Toal, Gerald. Near Abroad. Putin, The West, and the Contest over Ukraine and the Caucasus. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

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