Blending a heavy dose of propaganda with a true expression of how Russia sees itself as a besieged rival of the West, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu laid all responsibility for recent events in Ukraine – from Russia's annexation of Crimea to its support for separatist Russian-speakers in the country's east – at the door of Europe and the United States today.
Speaking at a conference in Moscow, the two men described western Europe and the US as threats to world peace, decried efforts to export democracy as a type of military action, and hinted at more aggressive Russian action in eastern Europe to protect what it sees as its interests. Russian President Vladimir Putin made similar remarks at a separate event in St. Petersburg.
The Russian leaderships comments come two days before Ukrainian elections that are already fueling violence in parts of the country's east, where Russia-backed separatists have been clashing with Ukraine-backed forces. About 13 Ukrainian soldiers were killed in the east on Thursday, and today Reuters reports that two pro-Russian militiamen were killed in a firefight with a Ukrainian militia outside of Donetsk, where Russian speakers held an independence referendum earlier this month.
The timing of the Russian comments, and the extent of their belligerence and framing of Russia and its interests as a victim of Western aggression, indicate more regional turmoil, not less.
Russia's public stance allows for little if any nuance in considering events in Ukraine, where street protests fueled by anger at corruption and government failings as well as mistrust of Moscow in Kiev pushed pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych from power earlier this year. President Putin called Yanukovych's ouster a coup supported by the US in remarks earlier today.
"The Ukrainian crisis arose because Yanukovych postponed the association agreement with the European Union. This was followed by a coup backed by our American friends and as a result there is chaos and full-scale civil war," he said.
Yanukovych's decision not to expand ties with Europe last year – after Putin put heavy pressure on the country not to, warning that trade ties and crucial gas supplies from Russia to Ukraine would be imperiled if it drew closer to Europe – was the precipitating event for the protests against his government in Kiev. And it's true that US-government backed NGOs have provided political training to many of the groups that opposed Yanukovych's rule.
But in dismissing the discontent against Yanukovych in wide swathes of Ukraine, and to ignore his own role in setting the current standoff in motion, he's signalling how he's not only going to behave towards Ukraine, but also towards other former Soviet countries in Russia's near abroad.
Mr. Lavrov decried European and US efforts to encircle and weaken Russia, according to Russia's Kremlin-controlled broadcaster RT. “Our Western partners rejected a truly historic chance to build a greater Europe in favor of border lines and the habitual logic of expanding the geopolitical space under their control to the East. This is de facto a continuation of a policy of containing Russia in a softer wrapping.” He continued:
"The operations to change regimes in sovereign states and the foreign-orchestrated ‘color revolutions’ of different brands produce obvious damage to the international stability. The attempts to impose one’s own designs for internal reforms on other peoples, which don’t take into account national characteristics, to ‘export democracy’, impact destructively international relations and multiplies the number of flashpoints on the world map."
“Schemes based on advocating one’s exceptionalism, the use of double standards, pursuit of unilateral geopolitical outcomes in crisis situation, are widely used not only in Europe, but also in other regions. This undermines crisis mediation efforts.”
Mr. Shoigu echoed Lavrov's remarks, saying that discontent in Russian ally Venezuela, where dozens of supporters and opponents of the government have died in clashes this year, was the result of "a so-called democratic opposition fueled from abroad." He also said that the "color revolutions" of today, a reference to the peaceful democracy uprisings in former Soviet satellites Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan in the last decade, now resemble "military invasions."
While Russia runs sophisticated information operations, the Putin government's fear of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and EU expansion and belief that its only path to independence and prosperity is to oppose this at every turn, is real enough. What NATO calls a large "coercive force" of Russian troops along Ukraine's border, and its seizure of Crimea, are evidence of that.
As are the comments of the head of the Russian General Staff, Valery Gerasimov, speaking at the same conference with Shoigu and Lavrov. “Some Western countries have ramped up anti-Russian rhetoric and are building up NATO troops in the Baltic, Poland, and Romania, as well as military presence of the alliance in the Baltic Sea, the Mediterranean, and the Black Sea,” he said. “We cannot be indifferent to this and will have to take measures in response.”
His comments raise the concern that when it comes to Russian intervention in its neighbors' affairs, Ukraine may be just the beginning.