Ukraine: What started as realpolitik could end as a clash of civilizations

By Anastasia Borik

Think Tank Review: In June, Russian experts analyzed the underlying motivations for the Ukraine crisis and pondered the consequences of the current escalation in Iraq.

The Ukrainian crisis shook Europe and the world. Photo: Reuters.

In Russia, the political discourse in June surrounding the Ukrainian crisis acquired an unexpected aspect: Commentators at the country’s leading think tanks decided all at once to analyze the situation through the prism of the theory of international relations.

Some, in particular Alexei Arbatov (Carnegie Moscow and the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy), came to the conclusion that the Ukraine situation is most conveniently viewed from the standpoint of classical political realism.

In contrast, others such as Fyodor Lukyanov, the head of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, believe that ideology and civilization are more suitable “lenses” through which to scrutinize the crisis.

For instance, Arbatov writes:

“Despite all the tragedy of the situation, there is nothing out of the ordinary: Such conflict is absolutely typical and as old as the world itself. This approach is based on the controversial, but highly instrumental doctrine of realpolitik. In line with this school of thought […], at the heart of international politics lie not high principles, but national interests, geopolitics, and the balance of forces between the major powers.”

Lukyanov talks instead about the stronger ideological component in world affairs born out of the crisis in Russian-U.S. and Russian-European relations.

He thinks that the new antagonism is different from the one that preceded it due to the lack of any ideological foundation. However, the confrontation will inevitably become ideological. “The logic behind the face-off, which began as a local conflict, is nudging the Kremlin towards heading a new ‘antiglobalistic Comintern’.”

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Whatever concepts political scientists referred to this past month, they all agree on one thing: Relations between Russia and the West are in deep crisis, with no sign of improvement.

Alexander Ermakov of the Russian International Affairs Council, notes: “It remains to be hoped that the crisis in relations between Russia and U.S.-NATO does not worsen, and that the Cold War, either real or phony, does not return.”

Seeing the new phase of Russia-US relations as a second Cold War Lukyanov writes: “Washington perceives Moscow as an interfering force in its cherished international system. For Russia, the annexation of Crimea marks a Rubicon from which retreat is not possible without risking the collapse of the entire political edifice.”

Looks like the Ukrainian crisis shook Europe and the world as well as significantly damaged the relations between Moscow, Washington and its allies. This damage might be severe and long-lasting, thinks Arbatov.

If this mutual resentment and misunderstanding continues and the talks on cooperation are put off, the situation might “descend into what some adroitly describe as a clash of civilizations and others more bluntly as World War III,” adds Georgi Bovt, an expert from the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy.

Iraq: Time to gloat or lend a hand?

This would seem a perfect time for Russian experts to indulge in some spiteful gloating and finger-wagging: Dear Americans and Europeans, did we not warn that nothing good would come from the operation in Iraq?

But Russian experts have been restrained: The escalation of the conflict in June resulted in many articles, but all were devoted to analysis of the threats emanating from the new balance of power, as well as to how the stronger Russia that emerged after 2003 should now respond.


Regarding the threats, analysts tend to agree: The current surge of violence and energizing of radical Islamism in the region threatens to destabilize the entire Middle East — something that is definitely not on the wish list of anyone in the U.S., the EU, or Russia.

This thought was most fully expressed by Veniamin Popov of MGIMO University: “The situation is very dangerous. We are essentially witnessing Iraq and the entire region being drawn into a large-scale civil war with unpredictable ramifications and very probable bloody consequences.”

It is from here that Russian foreign policy will proceed, experts believe.

Lukyanov explains: “Despite the Russian-U.S. confrontation over Ukraine, there is no possibility that Moscow will try to aggravate America’s problems in the Middle East. The risk that the entire regional system could collapse is too high, and the action is not far from Russia’s borders.”

Yet, as the expert further points out, “Active assistance for Washington is unlikely to be forthcoming. For the Kremlin and Russian public opinion, the chaos in Iraq symbolizes the almighty failure of the supremely arrogant.”

Analyzing the current situation in Iraq Bovt stresses that Russia has no desire to hinder or help the U.S. administration: “On September 11, Putin was the first to call Bush. I do not think that this time he will offer anything to help Obama.”

[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’][/author_image] [author_info]Anastasia Borik holds BA in political science from Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO-University). She has both journalist and diplomatic experience having worked as a Xinhua News Agency reporter (Moscow Bureau) and as a personal assistant of the Ambassador of the Russian Federation to the Republic of Colombia. Anastasia currently works for MGIMO Career center and Alumni Association.[/author_info] [/author]

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