Crimea as a trophy in the Kremlin symbolic game

Thursday, 13. March 2014     0 comment(s)
Katri Pynnöniemi
Senior Research Fellow - The EU's Eastern Neighbourhood and Russia research programme

On Friday February 28, a proposed amendment to the constitutional law "On the order of including newsubjects to the Russian Federation” (hereafter: draft law), was timetabled for discussion in the Russian lower house of parliament. The next day, a draft law was directed to the committee on constitutional law and state-building, where it is expected to be discussed in its first reading by the parliament on March 21,2014. In the meantime, on March 11, the Crimean parliament adopted a declaration of independence ahead of the planned March 16 referendum that will ask inhabitants if they want Crimea to become an ‘independent country' or seek accession to the Russian Federation. As it stands, the choice of remaining part of Ukraine will not be offered as an alternative. On March 11, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs commented on the declaration of independence by the Crimean parliament, saying that it was "absolutely legitimate”, and that the "independent and sovereign state of Crimea" has a right to ask to be included to the Russian Federation as a new subject.

From the perspective of western actors, these statements, at best, reflect Russia's clumsy maneuvering in response to the ouster of Yanukovych, in particular when taken together with events on the ground in Crimea and in view of Russia's seemingly contradictory past support for non-interference in the internal affairs of other sovereign states. At worst these Russian statements are simply illegitimate and worthy of no serious consideration by the West. Overall, and as aptly summarized by Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russia's security forces from New York University, "they [Russia]seem to be making things up as they go along”. While I find this explanation quite convincing, in terms of understanding Russia's response to the Ukrainian crisis, it in no way constitutes an extraordinary revelation.

In fact, as William Wohlforth noted some time earlier, rather than expect Russia to be busy developing and working according to "strategic plans with coherent sets of corresponding institutions”, what we should expect from Russia is "frantic bursts of activity that haphazardly make the best of the mix of resources Russia happens to have at that moment" (quoted in Neumann 2013, 25). In fact, the difficulties Russia has encountered in adopting its law on ‘strategic planning', further supports the relevance of this point. However, arguing that Russia's actions are clumsy, is not the same as saying that Putin is no longer "in touch with reality". To construe a more plausible explanation of what Russia is currently trying to achieve in Crimea and the wider Ukrainian crisis, we should pay attention to the mismatch between Russia's diplomatic practices, and the expectations and perceptions that the international society has of them.

Norwegian scholar Iver Neumann has come up with intriguing explanation for "Russia's deep-rooted, quasi-fatal attraction to clumsy international practices". He applies the concept of hysteresis, originally developed by sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, to describe a situation where dispositions and practices adopted in certain situations are ‘out of place' and seem objectively ill-adapted to a concrete situation. Neumann's argument is that "Russia's incapacity – or unwillingness – to emulate the more successful practices of its European neighbors triggered hysteresis effects and symbolic struggles that have persisted into the twenty-first century”. (Neumann 2013, 27)

Neumann offers two explanations as to where the ‘hysteresis' comes from in the Russian case. First, declining powers typically remain inclined to act as if they were still dominant players in the game. Second, as agents move from one social configuration to the next, they often carry with them dispositions that are alien to a given field. (Neumann and Pouliot 2011, 113). The lack of fit between Russia's actions and an arena where it is deployed is not a value judgment about Russia being backward, but on the contrary, "hysteresis is in the eye of the beholder”. The international order has a certain "socially constituted sense of the game" whereby certain actions either fit or are regarded by others as inappropriate or even clumsy.

Thus, when applied into the current situation, it can be argued that Russia's ‘sense of the game' differs radically from that construed by the western actors. First, and as articulated in the draft law, Russia is positioned as the main guarantor of Ukraine's territorial integrity. The Budapest agreement from 1994 where Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom gave "national security assurances" to Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan in return for eliminating all nuclear weapons from their territory, is not mentioned on this occasion. Instead, the draft law refers to a bilateral agreement between Russia and Ukraine signed in 1997. The second point, closely related to the previous, is the claim that not only is Russia a sole guarantor of Ukraine's territorial integrity, but it is obligated to respond in the event of "paralysis” of state governance in Ukraine which then poses a security threat (to national minorities). Putin's statement made during the press-conference on March 4, that there is abezpredel (total lawlessness) in Eastern Ukraine, should be seen in this context. Thirdly, as articulated in the draft law, the Crimean region is not "a part of the [sovereign] state [of Ukraine]" but is identified as ‘a region and population', that not that long ago was legislatively divided from Russia. To make the point clear, it is noted that "historically, as it is known, for the last several hundred years these regions belonged to the Russian empire, and later, to the Soviet Union”. Thus, the crisis is framed as a crisis of ‘internal-affairs-of-Soviet-Ukraine' upon which Russia, as the heir of the Soviet Union is obligated to react. Later in March 12, president Putin took a further step in this direction during a conversation with a Crimean Tatar leader, when he reportedly said that at the time "Ukraine did not leave the Soviet Union legally".

Thus, applying Neumann's insight on hysteresis, the Kremlin's ‘sense of the game' seems awkward because Russian leaders at the same time claim that the country has made a move from one social configuration to another (declaration of starting an era of ‘new Russia'), and yet, at the time of crisis, the Kremlin dispositions contradict not just international norms, but its own projections of Russia's place in the world. Consequently, the fit required for dialogue at the diplomatic level is simply missing. As noted by Neumann, this type of behavior has rarely really served Russia: the country has regularly played a "peripheral role of the odd man out". And yet, less efficient diplomatic practices have been reiterated. (Neumann and Pouliot 2011, 137) One possible explanation for the persistence of dysfunctional (from the viewpoint of international recognition) practices relates to the key memories of Russia's subject position in a suzerain system of the Golden Horde, and those of the country's entry to the international system. (Neumann 2013, 136-137.)

One may also ask, at least, whether one of the key memories for understanding the Kremlin's position in the Ukrainian crisis, is the parliamentary session held on December 25, 1991 to ratify the Alma-Ata treaty. On that occasion, Ruslan Khasbulatov, the presiding officer at the joint meeting of the chambers, stood up and asked "how about we change the name [of the country]"? Reporting on the event, Izvestiya wrote that: "the deputies in the hall burst into applause and, by a roll-call vote, then and there confirmed a new name for the state: the Russian Federation (Russia). There were two votes against". This event was not a revolution, but an institutionalization of the results of one. But it clearly shows the fragility of the state as an institution, the existence of which requires a collective imposition of meaning. The lesson Putin seems to have drawn from this event is that the collective will can be fabricated. Thus, Crimea in the Kremlin's game is no more than a trophy in a symbolic struggle that Russia's leaders perpetually find themselves in.


Neumann, Iver and Vincent Pouliot (2011): 'Untimely Russia: Hsteresis in Russian-Western Relations over the Past Millenium". Security Studies, Vol. 20, No.1, pp. 105-137.

Neumann, Iver (2013): "Russia in international society over thelongue durée. Lessons from early Rus' and early post-Soviet state formation". In Taras, Ray (ed.) Russia's Identity in International Relations. Images, perceptions, misperceptions. NY: Routledge 2013.

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