As Russia, Ukraine, and the West appear to be locked in an escalating conflict, the most commonly asked question is: what does Russia want? To provide some context and analysis of Russia’s part in this crisis, this virtual issue of Communist and Post-Communist Studies presents a range of articles published during the last decade that highlight the drivers of Russia’s foreign policy towards Ukraine and the West.

Russia and Ukraine

At the core of the current crisis is the future of Ukraine as an independent state. In the wake of Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity (a.k.a. Euromaidan) that led then-President Viktor Yanukovych to flee the country in 2014, Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula and attempted to stimulate a wave of unrest in the country by stimulating a “Russian Spring” in the name of the Tsarist-era Russophone territories of Novorossiia. Taras Kuzio (2019) argues that Russia’s failed experiment with the Novorossiia project in eastern Ukraine in 2014 ought to be instructive, yet Russian leaders have yet to appreciate its lesson: despite Russian leaders’ refusal to accept Ukraine as a legitimate state and its people as a separate nation, Ukrainians have moved closer to Europe while Russia’s soft power in Ukraine has collapsed. Kuzio concludes that, “current Russian leaders believe Gorbachev “lost” the USSR. Future Russian leaders may come to remember Putin for having gained Crimea and lost Ukraine” (p.307). Ammon Cheskin (2017) explains that Russia’s understanding of soft power is less about persuasion and influence than “a means to project geopolitical and domestic aims through nonmilitary means” (p.285). Consequently, the aggressive media depiction of a “decadent West and a fascistic Ukraine” in Russian media served to weaken rather than enhance its influence in Ukraine. An alternative perspective is offered by Paul Goble (2016), who argues that Russia’s ability to promote Russian identity in Ukraine is limited chiefly by domestic factors, namely: “the fundamental weakness of Russian identity, the tensions inherent between identities the state supports and those it fears, and the reactions of the increasingly numerous non-Russian nationalities to any ethnic Russian identifications” (p.37).

Since 2014, Russia continues to support separatists in eastern Ukraine (indeed, Putin issued decrees recognizing the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics and authorized the movement of Russian troops into them as this essay was being written) and to conduct cyberattacks on Ukrainian infrastructure. Russian President Vladimir Putin has claimed repeatedly that Ukraine is not a legitimate state while insisting that Ukrainians and Russians are one people. Yet unlike the 2014 events, the current escalation has no clear trigger in Ukraine’s domestic politics. Rather, Putin demands guarantees that Ukraine will never become a member of NATO and that NATO force deployments will revert to their 1997 posture. In other words, Russia has placed Ukraine’s fate at the heart of its security concerns about NATO and the West’s perceived encroachment upon Russia’s sphere of influence, meaning that understanding the current crisis requires a broader view of Russia’s relations with the West.

Russia and the West

Scholarly analyses of Russia’s relations with NATO and the West depict a mismatch of perceptions concerning international status, motives, and legitimacy. Relations with the West are deeply entwined with Russia’s concerns about Western recognition of Russia’s international status. Examining the past dialogue between Russia and the West, Tuomas Forsberg (2014) observes that the root tension in the relationship is that “Russia and the West have diverging conceptions and perceptions of status” (p.324). Complicating matters are diverging appraisals among Russian and Western leaders over whether Russia has gained or lost in its international status. Drawing on Social Identity Theory to account for Russia’s policy towards the West, Deborah Welch Larson and Alexei Shevchenko (2014) argue that, “Russia’s stance toward the United States has been strongly influenced by the degree of external validation of its self-image as a great power. Russia is striving for enhanced global recognition while at the same time retaining its national identity” (p.270). Allen C. Lynch (2016) presents a similar identity-based explanation in linking Russia’s domestic regime and foreign policy toward the West since the collapse of the Soviet Union. He argues that Russia’s identity as a “state-nation” with powerful imperial legacies shapes the way that Russian leaders link international status to foreign policy. He warns that, “a Russia that allows its neighbors the ‘freedom to choose’ is a Russia that will be reduced to marginal status in world affairs. On no point is this consensus stronger than on Russia’s relationship with Ukraine” (p.110).

In a slightly different vein, Andrei P. Tsygankov (2018) emphasizes that Russia’s relations with NATO in the post-Cold War era are marked by the historical association of NATO as a threat, now linked to the encroachment of Western civilization on Russia’s borders. From this perspective, two important observations emerge. The first is that, since 2014, Russia’s policy makers became convinced that “the old formats such as the Russia-NATO Council outlived their purpose” (p.107). In this scenario, then, Russia’s goal is to negotiate a new security order in Europe to replace the one that emerged after the Cold War when Russia was perceived as too weak to secure its interests. Second, the brinkmanship we are observing over Ukraine likely reflects the lessons learned and policy consensus in Russia that, “the only way to stop NATO’s encroachment on Russia’s perceived spheres of influence is to clearly signal red lines and act firmly to defend Russia’s interests” (p.109). Importantly, such a perspective suggests that Russia’s leadership views the war with Georgia in 2008 and the annexation of Crimea in 2014 as strategic successes.

However, examining Russia’s past conflicts with Georgia and Ukraine, Vasile Rotaru (2019) finds that one constant has been the Kremlin’s effort to legitimize its actions by invoking humanitarian factors and UN principles, including the right to self-determination and the responsibility to protect (or R2P). In essence, Russia mimics the West’s arguments in favor of military intervention, with particular reference to NATO’s intervention in Serbia and eventual recognition of Kosovo: “Moscow’s strategy is not necessary to prove that it acted right, but that its actions are in line with those of the West” (p.319). The fact that Russia has promoted its security concerns above these legitimating narratives perhaps signals that the present crisis is a genuine departure—so much so, that any sudden escalation of claims about a humanitarian catastrophe in the Donbas are likely to interpreted outside of Russia as pretext for invasion.

Legitimation and Framing of Russia’s Wars

In Russia and the West, the international media may be used as much to advance legitimating claims as to promote confrontation. While much current analysis of Russia’s motives focuses on domestic drivers and particularly the Kremlin’s control of the press, Oksan Bayulgen and Ekim Arbatli (2013) observe that the US media also contributes to conflict dynamics through its negative framing of Russia and the construction of narratives that evoke Cold War—style confrontation. While media coverage should not diminish acts of international aggression, it is unfortunately clear that crises may also be fanned by media speculation, sensationalism, and disinformation.

Another important vector for legitimation as well as disinformation is social media. The role of social media in both mobilizing support and stifling opposition became abundantly clear following Russia’s intervention in Ukraine in 2014, and undoubtedly will become even more important if open war erupts between Russia and Ukraine (though Ukrainians have been living with an undeclared war for the last eight years). Ivan Kozachenko (2019) examines how the “anti-Maidan” group on Russia’s social media platform VKontakte forged symbolically meaningful connections between the unfolding confrontation over Crimea and Donbas and the Soviet past, for which “the existential threat of ‘imagined’ fascism and the fear of ‘de-sacralization’ of the neo-Soviet World War II narratives” (p.9) were the main driving forces. In this fashion, the “memory war” on social media helped to drive the domestic appeal of Putin’s real war while squelching dissent. However, rather than consolidating Russian society, Elena Kravchenko and Tatiana Valiulina (2020) find enduring online impacts of Crimea’s annexation in the deepening of social divisions between patriots and liberals among Russian bloggers. While these studies do not identify a clear link between social media activity and public opinion, recent surveys show that most Russians are uninterested in war. As Putin’s brinkmanship and bluster leads Russia to war in Ukraine, these studies suggest that he may not be able to count on the same kind of online boost in popularity as in 2014. A key question about Putin’s regime may thus be resolved by Russia’s next move: whether domestic public opinion still matters to the Kremlin, or whether the it views public support as easily manufactured to support Putin’s foreign policy objectives.


Russian stereotypes and myths of Ukraine and Ukrainians and why Novorossiya failed
Taras Kuzio

This article discusses two inter-related issues. Firstly, the factors lying behind Russia’s fervent belief that its Novorossiya (New Russia) project, aimed to bring back to Russia eight oblasts of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kharkiv, Dnipro, Zaporizhhya, Odesa, Mykolayiv, and Kherson in eastern and southern Ukraine and launched during the 2014 “Russian Spring,” would be successful. Russian identity misunderstood, and continues to misunderstand, Ukraine and Ukrainians through stereotypes and myths of Ukraine as an “artificial state” and Ukraine’s Russian speakers as “fraternal brothers” and Russians and Ukrainians as “one people” (odin narod). Secondly, why Ukrainian national identity was different than these Russian stereotypes and myths and how this led to the failure of the Novorossiya project. Russian stereotypes and myths of Ukraine and Ukrainians came face to face with the reality of Russian-speaking Ukrainian patriotism and their low support for the Russkij Mir (Russian World). The article compares Russian stereotypes and myths of Ukraine and Ukrainians with how Ukrainians see themselves to explain the roots of the 2014 crisis, “Russian Spring,” and failure of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Novorossiya project.

Russian soft power in Ukraine: A structural perspective
Ammon Cheskin

In this article, I adopt a structural approach to Russian soft power, switching focus from the supposed agent of power (Russia), towards the subjects of power (Ukrainians). I outline the applicability of this approach to empirical studies into soft power, demonstrating how soft power can be examined from bottom-up, discursively-focused perspectives. The empirical analysis then traces how Ukrainians (do not) link their self-identities to discursive understanding of “Russia”. Reviewing recent insights into the relationship between soft power and affect, I argue that Ukrainians’ cultural, historical and linguistic ties with Russia often lack necessary emotional force to generate meaningful soft power.

Russian national identity and the Ukrainian crisis
Paul Goble

No aspect of the Russian–Ukrainian war has proved more unexpected than the revelation that Ukrainian national identity both ethnic and civil is far stronger than almost anyone thought, while Russian national identity is far more fragmented and weak than most expected. That was especially surprising to many because Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine on the assumption that Ukrainians are not a “real” nation unlike Russians and that his actions were advancing the interest of what the Kremlin leader chooses to call “the Russian world”. One result of this discovery has been that the Kremlin has had to take Ukrainian identity more seriously. Another has been that it has gone to great lengths to promote Russian national identity via state-controlled media, but the latter effort has come up short because Moscows ability to promote Russian identity is limited by the same three factors that have restricted previous Russian rulers: the fundamental weakness of Russian identity, the tensions inherent between identities the state supports and those it fears, and the reactions of the increasingly numerous non-Russian nationalities to any ethnic Russian identifications.


Status conflicts between Russia and the West: Perceptions and emotional biases
Tuomas Forsberg

This article looks at the status conflicts between Russia and the West and asks: why do these conflicts exist despite attempts to avoid them? If status conflicts refer to merely a symbolic recognition, then they should arguably be easier to solve than conflicts stemming from competition for power and resources. Yet, status conflicts can be difficult to solve even when they were not conceived as zero-sum games. The article argues that status conflicts cannot be understood without the interplay of perceptions and emotions. First, what really matters is not objective status but perceptions thereof and there seems to be a gap how Russia and the West perceive status in general. Secondly, the perceptions of when status is gained or lost seem to be emotionally loaded. Russia is more willing to understand its relative status when military or economic issues are at stake, but if the dispute deals with international norms and questions of justice Russia is more likely to interpret Western action as violating its status and conversely, it is more likely to interpret its own action as enhancing its status when it is defending such values differently from the West.

Russia says no: Power, status, and emotions in foreign policy
Deborah Welch Larson and Alexei Shevchenko

Since 2003, Russian foreign behavior has become much more assertive and volatile toward the West, often rejecting U.S. diplomatic initiatives and overreacting to perceived slights. This essay explains Russia’s new assertiveness using social psychological hypotheses on the relationship between power, status, and emotions. Denial of respect to a state is humiliating. When a state loses status, the emotions experienced depend on the perceived cause of this loss. When a state perceives that others are responsible for its loss, it shows anger. The belief that others have unjustly used their power to deny the state its appropriate position arouses vengefulness. If a state believes that its loss of status is due to its own failure to live up to expectations, the elites will express shame. Since the end of the Cold War, Russia has displayed anger at the U.S. unwillingness to grant it the status to which it believes it is entitled, especially during the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, and most recently Russia’s takeover of Crimea and the 2014 Ukrainian Crisis. We can also see elements of vengefulness in Russia’s reaction to recognition of Kosovo, U.S. missile defense plans, the Magnitsky act, and the Snowden affair.

The influence of regime type on Russian foreign policy toward “the West,” 1992–2015
Allen C. Lynch

Russia’s foreign policy does not follow directly from the nature of its internal political system but rather from the interaction of that political system with other political systems. Russian policy toward the Western world is best understood in terms of the capacity of Russia’s post-Soviet rulers to achieve two goals that are in implicit tension with each other. They are: a) maximizing the benefit to the Russian state of the country’s multifaceted relations with the Western world; and b) securing Russia’s status as the undisputed hegemon throughout the country’s historical borderlands. These broad policy objectives—shared by Russian liberals and nationalists alike–have been common to both the Yeltsin and Putin administrations, albeit expressed in different ways over time and with differing expectations of being able to reconcile the two. Building upon authoritarian and interventionist patterns established early in the Yeltsin years and reacting to the West’s refusal to acknowledge Russian regional primacy, Putin has consolidated an arbitrary personalist regime at home and waged war along the Russian periphery, even at the cost of relations with the Western world. In this respect, Putin’s regime may usefully be seen as a “state-nation” with a strong imperial imprint, building upon powerful legacies of Russian political development. The removal of Putin from power will not change that regime type or key challenges in Russian-Western relations.

The sources of Russia’s fear of NATO
Andrei P. Tsygankov

The paper analyzes Russia’s perception of NATO since the beginning of its eastern enlargement. Russia’s reaction to the enlargement evolved from attempts to diffuse its potential damage through a limited cooperation to passive and then active policies of containment. The latter have resulted in a risky behavior with respect to the alliance and a concentration of Russian military on the Western border. Two factors can assist us in explaining Russia’s evolving perception of NATO from a potential partner to a renewed military threat — the historical experience of viewing the alliance, and the West in general, as potentially threatening and the post-Cold war interaction with NATO that served to strengthen the historically developed perception. As of today, Russia has learned from its interaction with the alliance that NATO remains a principle threat to Russia’s national security and that through the alliance’s expansion the West seeks to exercise its cultural, economic, and political domination in Eurasia.


‘Mimicking’ the West? Russia’s legitimization discourse from Georgia war to the annexation of Crimea
Vasile Rotaru

The 2008 Georgia war represented a turning point in Russian foreign policy. It was for the first time since the dissolution of the Soviet Union when Moscow invaded an independent country and for the first time when two members of the Council of Europe fought against each other. A premiere for Russian post-Soviet foreign policy was registered in 2014 too. The annexation of Crimea represented the first incorporation of foreign territories by Moscow since World War II. These two events generated the West’s protest and blatantly contradict Russia’s proclaimed foreign policy discourse centered around the respect for states’ sovereignty and equality of actors in the international system. Starting from the assertion that the formulation of Russia’s foreign policy is determined by the West’s international behavior — Moscow looking whether to emulate or to find alternatives to it; the present paper will compare Russia’s legitimization arguments for the 2008 war and the 2014 annexation of Crimea trying to assess how Moscow answers Western criticism and whether there is a continuity in Russian official legitimization narratives.

Cold War redux in US–Russia relations? The effects of US media framing and public opinion of the 2008 Russia–Georgia war
Oksan Bayulgen and Ekim Arbatli

This paper examines the Cold War rhetoric in US–Russia relations by looking at the 2008 Russia–Georgia war as a major breaking point. We investigate the links between media, public opinion and foreign policy. In our content analysis of the coverage in two major US newspapers, we find that the framing of the conflict was anti-Russia, especially in the initial stages of the conflict. In addition, our survey results demonstrate that an increase in the media exposure of US respondents increased the likelihood of blaming Russia exclusively in the conflict. This case study helps us understand how media can be powerful in constructing a certain narrative of an international conflict, which can then affect public perceptions of other countries. We believe that the negative framing of Russia in the US media has had important implications for the already-tenuous relations between the US and Russia by reviving and perpetuating the Cold War mentality for the public as well as for foreign policymakers.

Fighting for the Soviet Union 2.0: Digital nostalgia and national belonging in the context of the Ukrainian crisis
Ivan Kozachenko

This paper focuses on the use of Soviet-era symbols, myths, and narratives within groups on VKontakte social media site over the initial stage of the Ukraine crisis (2014–2015). The study is based on qualitative content analysis of online discussions, visual materials, and entries by group administrators and commentators. It also applies link-analysis in order to see how groups on social media are interrelated and positioned online. It reveals that these online groups are driven primarily by neo-Soviet myths and hopes for a new version of the USSR to emerge. Over time, the main memory work in these groups shifted from Soviet nostalgia and “pragmatic” discourse to the use of re-constructed World War II memories in order to justify Russian aggression and to undermine national belonging in Ukraine. Reliance on the wartime mythology allowed for the labelling of Euromaidan supporters as “fascists” that should be eliminated “once again.” This powerful swirl of re-created Soviet memories allowed effective mobilization on the ground and further escalation of the conflict from street protests to the armed struggle.

Social Antinomies of Linguistic Consciousness: Russian Blogosphere Debates Crimea’s Incorporation
Elena Kravchenko and Tatiana Valiulina

This article focuses on the debate over Crimea’s accession. The content analysis relies on data collected during the first and most turbulent year of Crimea’s incorporation, which started with the decision to conduct a referendum on the Crimean status and then to declare Crimea’s independence in March 2014. The sample consists of 50 entries published on LiveJournal, both posts and commentaries. We have discovered and problematized severe disagreements in bloggers’ worldview that give rise to the antinomies of bloggers’ linguistic consciousness. By this, we mean the use of words with opposite connotations relating to the same event within the same blog and an inconsistency between bloggers’ perception of the event and the affective meanings of lexical items attached to it. Our main point is that Crimea’s accession prompts bloggers to reduce this dissonance by “rolling up the semantic rainbow,” that is, by destroying meanings with rigid binary semantic opposition, which thereby further exacerbates deep-rooted divisions within Russian society where patriots and liberals increasingly keep apart.

Communist and Post-Communist Studies is an international, peer-reviewed scholarly journal featuring comparative research on current and historical developments in the communist and post-communist world. Post-communist states and societies encompass Central and Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, Asia, Africa, and Latin America, for which the term “post-communist” remains analytically useful as a temporal or geographical frame. The journal broadly covers domestic politics and societies, foreign policy and international relations, ideology and identities, political economy, political and human geography, and law.