Pomp and Circumvention: Hard Lessons for Diplomacy with Russia

By Christopher Ynclan Jr.

Russian President Vladimir Putin during a meeting March 23, 2022.
Image Credit: Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via REUTERS

On February 24th, after weeks of massing the military along the Ukrainian border, Russian President Vladimir Putin made the consequential decision to invade Ukraine. The invasion came as a shock to those in the West, as they had hoped Russia would continue high-level diplomacy to avert the possibility of a war.

To the surprise of many defense analysts, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has not been as successful as one would expect given Russia’s material and personnel advantage over their Ukrainian adversaries. 

Russia’s recent actions in Ukraine have direct impacts on European security and direct consequences for the direction of Russia as a whole. Such aggression by Moscow has cemented a role in American foreign policy circles as a rogue state comparable to the nations of the “axis of evil” described by President George W. Bush. 

The invasion is not a rash reaction. It is meant to be an intentional strategy to obtain a position of strength before negotiations. Subsequently, the Russians invaded but underestimated the difficulty of the incursion into Ukraine for a myriad of reasons.

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the European Union and its allies imposed severe sanctions aimed at providing concrete consequences for Russia. 

While these actions were meant as a quick response to project solidarity, policymakers must take a step back to fully understand the current transformation of contemporary European security architecture.  

From the onset of its status as a great power under the reign of Peter the Great, Russia has made efforts such as diplomatic reforms to be seen as a peer among other continental powers. Ever the student of history, Vladimir Putin has similarly developed a dual-purpose diplomatic strategy through his foreign minister when conducting diplomacy with the West.

Aside from its value as a ritual to signify parity among both parties, diplomacy has played an instrumental role as a norm in Europe. Achievements like the Schengen Area are attributed to careful negotiations between states.

Putin understood how deeply diplomacy is ingrained within the DNA of modern Europe and tapped Sergei Lavrov to head up the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In the theater of diplomacy, Lavrov could play the role of the elder statesman to represent Russia in a formal capacity with the West.

His suitability for playing the part was further solidified after Western media outlets covered his love of writing poetry and the respect he earned from such figures as former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan for possessing “wisdom and wit.” 

By letting the West project their idealized and lofty conceptions of him as a Western-style diplomat with the ear of Putin, the Russians were able to lower their guard in preparation for this invasion. 

While Russia’s recent actions make them seem a dishonest and irrational actor, many fail to recognize their ideological motivations to keep Ukraine within its sphere of influence. This intention is revealed when examining Putin’s writings. 

He describes the origins of Ukrainian statehood as an illegitimate creation of the Soviet Union, which sowed the seeds of their sovereignty through a provision in the 1924 U.S.S.R. Constitution that provided a right for any republic to secede. 

Putin further dwells upon how Russia brought ethnically and religiously similar Russians seeking autonomy back into their fold through the Truce of Andrusovo in 1667 and the Treaty of Perpetual Peace in 1686. This mirrors his actions in the Donbass and Crimea regions, where ethnic Russians were aided by Russia to ensure alignment with Moscow. Clearly, Putin believes in a “Mother Russia” as an institution with primacy in its perceived sphere of influence.

Given how the Ukrainian crisis has become the latest arena of great competition, there has been a proclivity for the foreign policy community to search for instances where the United States bested Russia. The most prominent example of this occurring was during the Soviet-Afghan War, where the U.S. provided financial and lethal aid to the Afghan resistance.

This previous success has prompted discussions about turning Ukraine into a new Afghanistan to frustrate the Russians without regard for long-term regional consequences. 

Should the war in Ukraine become akin to the Soviet-Afghan war, with the capital losing authority over the resistance effort, there would be a negative impact on regional stability as well as a potential post-war reintegration. 

Russian foreign policy, on the other hand, is shaped less by the Soviet-Afghan War and more by the U.S. withdrawal of Afghanistan. 

When the U.S. pulled out of Afghanistan, it sparked a debate within Europe over strategic autonomy and instability. The collapse of the Ghani-led government in Kabul reinforced the Russian belief that democracy is a decreasingly viable model of governance.  

While it is impossible for Western observers to know to what extent America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan factored into Moscow’s calculus to invade Ukraine, one must look to Russian sentiment prior to the invasion.

While there are little to no outright mentions of Afghanistan, there are parallels to be drawn when Russian experts viewed Ukraine as a failed state and regarded Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as not being capable of asserting himself as a strong leader.

If such an analysis were to have occurred comparing the two nations, it would have ignored profound differences in the geopolitical conditions and contributed to Moscow’s hubris following their string of successes. 

One of the stark differences which existed between the two was the extent of administrative control which the central governments had over the rest of the country.

The Ghani administration did have issues controlling rural areas of Afghanistan, but the government existed in the backdrop of a nation which was ethnically divided and fraught with armed conflict. 

With the Russians controlling the Donbas and Crimea, Ukraine was left with territory that has a predominantly ethnic Ukrainian composition united by a Russian threat. Moreover, events such as the Holodomor and the Chernobyl accident of 1986 galvanize resistance because they reveal how Moscow views assets to their security as expendable. 

Moscow made a miscalculation in believing that a renewed military offensive would lead to quick military victory over Ukrainian forces. 

Although the Russian military effort remained largely static until their invasion on February 24th, the Ukrainians have had eight years to become a hardened army along with mobilizing civilians into a resistance effort.

Russia also made the mistake of many of their historical invaders, using multiple axes of advance into Ukraine’s vast plains and facing an enemy replicating Russia’s historical military strategy.

European partners who displayed their inclination for tradition by convening in Versailles are likely to view Putin as a madman threatening the continental peace, just as Kaiser Wilhelm II or Napoleon had done in Europe’s past. 

However, just as Napoleon tried to isolate Britain through the Continental System, the sanctions put on Russia will become less effective as they construct an alternative regime of trade and loopholes.

Furthermore, underlying intentions of the sanctions to get ordinary Russians to defy Putin are unlikely to have the intended effect. 

With sanctions forcing them to search for alternatives, there could be a creation of a new generation of oligarchs who take advantage of the underground economy— ultimately deepening Putin’s control. While the sanctions are at the height of their effectiveness, the West should bring Putin to the negotiating table to resolve matters of security concerns.

Without rapprochement, Russia will likely drift further into a position where they will permanently view themselves as being in a state of eternal conflict with the West. Russian policymakers have increasingly thought of their nation as aligning with the East, and will likely complete this pivot towards the region should the sanctions stay in place.

This realignment for Moscow entails an aggressive foreign policy aimed at weakening the cohesion of the European Union. The most likely next targets are Hungary and Poland, which are considered backsliding democracies, along with the neglected Balkan states

Both arenas will most certainly test the strength of European cohesion. It remains to be seen if the West can muster the skill to balance against Russian aggression where necessary but resist the temptation to overplay its hand. 

Christopher Ynclan Jr. is a recent graduate from the University of North Texas and a regular contributor for the Realist Review. He is currently a counterterrorism research fellow at Rise to Peace.






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