The ongoing crisis between Russia and Ukraine has attracted extensive news coverage and political commentary in the United States. Reading the commentary, one often gets the impression that Russia has gone much further than other countries in flouting international norms. No doubt, the cynical brutality of Russian President Vladimir Putin can be infuriating, but the notion that Russia has been behaving in ways that other great powers normally eschew is not borne out by a perusal of the academic literature on international relations and the history of revolutions.
Far from being an anomalous event, Russia’s coercive military pressure on Ukraine in the aftermath of the Maidan revolution is typical of the way great powers, including the United States, have behaved in the past. Russia’s actions are also typical of the way leaders in Moscow have been treating neighboring countries from the time the Soviet Union broke apart. Even though Western governments tacitly accepted Russia’s imperiousness vis-à-vis the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) before 2014—the Russian-Georgian war of August 2008 was a notable exception—Moscow’s domineering behavior toward Ukraine and other CIS countries began long before 2014.
Overall, one can see the current Russian-Ukrainian conflict as an example of enduring patterns of behavior in the international system and in post-Soviet Russian foreign policy. Scholars have long understood the reciprocal linkages between revolution and war. Revolutions by their nature are bound to have international political repercussions. A revolution is often followed, at least temporarily, by internal disarray and a “hollowing out” of certain state functions, including the maintenance of public order. A large external power, especially one with irredentist claims, may seek to take advantage of this period of vulnerability by intervening and carving off a disputed territory. Opportunistic intervention is what happened in 1918 when Imperial Germany sent troops into Soviet Russia just after the Bolsheviks came to power. The Germans used the opportunity to annex territory from Russia—acquisitions that were promptly reversed after Germany was defeated in the First World War. Saddam Hussein in 1980 tried to exploit the disarray and administrative weakness in Iran in the aftermath of the Islamic revolution. His hopes of seizing oil-producing regions in Iran were eventually thwarted, but not before he sparked a savage war that cost hundreds of thousands of lives.
Other motives for external great powers to respond to revolutions include a deep political hostility to revolutionary change. An authoritarian regime may fear that a revolutionary upheaval in a neighboring state will have a “demonstration effect” that could inspire people in the regime’s own society to rise up. The external power thus deems it essential to intervene against a revolution and undo its effects. This is the function that Tsarist Russia performed in Eastern Europe in the nineteenth century, and it is also the function that the Soviet Union performed in Eastern Europe from the 1950s through the 1980s, when Soviet troops acted several times to crush popular revolts against oppressive Communist regimes. Saudi Arabia has played the same role on the Arabian Peninsula, sending troops to protect Bahrain’s monarchy against revolutionary encroachments. Nor is the practice limited only to authoritarian great powers. Both before and during the Cold War, the United States often sought to prevent revolutionary upheavals and to undo them if they occurred, notably in Cuba, Central America, and Southeast Asia.
A counterrevolutionary dynamic has been crucial in shaping Russia’s response to the Maidan revolution in Ukraine . Under Putin, Russia has been a deeply counterrevolutionary power since at least 2004 (after the so-called Orange Revolution in Ukraine) and particularly since December 2011, when mass protests erupted in Moscow and some other Russian cities after fraud marred the parliamentary elections. Having initially been caught off guard, Putin successfully countered the protests in Russia, but the mere fact that unrest broke out at all—and that it quickly took on distinctly anti-Putin overtones—instilled in him a counterrevolutionary obsession, which, combined with his determination to remain in power indefinitely, has been the primary driver of almost everything he has done both at home and abroad since returning to the presidency in May 2012.
Putin’s counterrevolutionary posture reflects the way Russian politics has changed during his nearly 15 years in power. The Russian political system when he came into office was partly democratic, but during his tenure it has become increasingly ritualistic and authoritarian, and elections have been of very little importance because the results are controlled by the authorities and arranged in advance. The main thing Putin has feared since returning to the presidency in 2012 is a mass protest movement that could bring down his regime. The protests in Russia in December 2011 provoked a brief scare in the Kremlin, but Putin moved aggressively after early 2012 to ensure he would never again face such a challenge. Through a combination of selective prosecutions, vigorous crackdowns on attempted protests, and draconian laws and regulations, the Russian authorities ensured that would-be protesters would be stymied at every stage.