Russian President Vladimir Putin has apparently ordered troops near the Ukrainian border to withdraw to their bases. Could this be a sign that the Kremlin is trying to de-escalate the situation? It’s difficult to say for certain, partly because Russia has made similar statements in the past, but also because Putin’s game plan has been particularly unpredictable as of late; even seasoned Russia-watchers have been finding it tricky to guess his next move. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is reported to have gone so far as to describe Mr Putin as “out of touch with reality” after speaking to him by phone following the occupation of the Crimean peninsula.
It’s certainly a challenge to justify Russia’s recent behaviour in terms of national self-interest. The annexation of Crimea has already severely damaged the Russian economy by hundreds of billions of euros – possibly even plunging Russia back into recession. But is it irrational? Mr Putin – who is fond of unusual photo opportunities (including leading endangered migratory birds in a hang glider and “discovering” ancient Greek amphorae in the Black Sea) – is certainly a colourful character, but then the same could be said of many world leaders.
Still, in international relations it pays to send clear signals and behave in a way that is easily understandable to your counterparts. Doing otherwise can risk misunderstandings and lead to a more unstable international system, to the detriment of everybody. We had a comment sent in from Peter asking if Mr Putin’s actions were rational and predictable to other governments: “Does anybody understand Mr. Putin?”
To get an answer, we recently put this question to Martin Lidegaard, the Foreign Minister of Denmark. Did he think Putin’s behaviour was easily understandable, or did he agree with Chancellor Merkel’s assessment?
Many of our commenters, however, considered Putin’s actions to be entirely rational. Tarquin, for example, suggested that Russia was simply reacting to the clumsy geopolitical maneuverings of the European Union, which had provoked the current crisis by trying to bring Ukraine into the EU and NATO.
When we recently spoke with Miroslav Lajčák, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Slovakia, we asked him to respond to Tarquin’s suggestion:
That’s not true. First of all, NATO membership has never been discussed when it comes to Ukraine. Second, when it comes to the European Union, we have negotiated the Association Agreement and this Free Trade Agreement with Ukraine for more than four years now, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise.
What provoked people and made them come into the streets was the decision of the then-President of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovich, to refuse to sign the EU Association Agreement, and this is what his people disliked and protested against. So, Europe was not pushing Ukraine anywhere – it was Ukraine’s will to have the Association Agreement signed, and when that will was overruled the current chain of actions was triggered.
However, George Vella, the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Malta, was slightly more sympathetic to Tarquin’s view when we spoke to him:
I have been on record as saying that the European Union was too naive in thinking that they could engage the European neighborhood countries and offer Association Agreements – deep and comprehensive free trade areas – and hope that Russia would not react. We know full well that when we are talking about Ukraine we are talking about a country of 46 million people that is economically, historically, demographically, socially, you name it, part of Russia – it is tied to Russia. So, anybody would have expected that Russia would react…
How would the Danish Foreign Minister, Martin Lidegaard, respond? Which of his colleagues did he agree with more?
Finally, how has the Ukraine crisis been affecting the ability of the international community to resolve other conflicts? For example, we had a comment from Emmanuel suggesting that – as one of the Syrian government’s biggest backers – Russia would be vital for any successful peace process in the Syrian civil war. Minister Lidegaard said he agreed, but added that “the status quo is not an option in Syria” anymore, and either there must be a negotiated solution or the West will be forced to increase support for the Syrian opposition Coalition.
Have Russia’s actions in Ukraine been rational and understandable according to Russian self-interest? Or is Vladimir Putin acting according to his gut instincts in an unpredictable manner? Does Moscow have a clear long-term strategy? And does the European Union know how to respond? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policy-makers and experts for their reactions.