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Russia's Ukraine Policy Part of Broader Shift

  • Al Pessin

It was all smiles for the cameras when Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in September and expressed his intention to join the Russian-led Customs Union.

In doing so, Sargsyan abandoned more than two years of negotiations on an association agreement with the European Union.

While Russian pressure seemingly worked in that situation, it backfired two months later when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych did the same thing, sparking months of protests, a violent crackdown and his ouster by the parliament, where members of his own party voted against him.

With Ukraine, Putin was faced with a choice -- accept the changes and potentially lose his special relationship with more former Soviet states, or take action and sacrifice his relationship with the West.

Russia’s intervention in Ukraine has surprised many experts, but some say it should have been expected based partly on its interaction with Armenia last fall.

“Russian policy has significantly shifted, where limits and restraint no longer apply. And more importantly, Russia is now firm and committed to pushing back and pushing out EU engagement in the so-called ‘near abroad’,” said Richard Giragosian, director of the Regional Studies Center in Armenia.

The shift surprised European leaders, but it shouldn’t have, particularly regarding Ukraine, said Nina Schick of London’s Open Europe research center.

“Some would say that it was a mistake that [European leaders] made that they didn’t take the Russian position more into account. The reality is that the Russian sphere of influence in Ukraine is far greater than perhaps they’d like to admit,” Schick said.

But Giragosian disagrees, saying it was reasonable, 25 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, to expect Russia to accept a turn to the West by its former satellites. He says Russia’s current policy runs counter to its own interests.

“It’s a shortsighted and short-term pursuit of raw power. In effect, they are recreating a new Iron Curtain through the former Soviet space,” Giragosian said.

Or trying to.

Giragosian said former Soviet states will resist such moves and the West will impose significant economic costs if Russia continues to use force to try to impose its will on Ukraine or other neighbors.

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