Geopolitical Conflict and “Zero-Sum” Game of Russia and West in Ukraine

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Alireza Noori
Ph.D. Candidate, Saint Petersburg State University & Expert on Russia Affairs

Violation of international law, violating sovereign rights of countries, ignoring axial role of the United Nations in settling international disputes, and recourse to force in international relations have been among the most important points over which Russia has been criticizing the West during the past years. As a result of Russia’s critical view, it has been opposing the pressures that the West has been putting on the Syrian government while antagonizing the Western countries’ military action in Libya and other cases. In line with the same policy, the Russian President Vladimir Putin has written an article entitled “Russia and the Changing World,” in which he has pointed to the plight of states that have fallen victim to "humanitarian operations" and the export of "missile-and-bomb democracy". In that piece of writing, Putin has clearly stated that “nobody has the right to usurp the prerogatives and powers of the UN, particularly the use of force with regard to sovereign nations.” He has added that "the West has shown too much willingness to "punish" certain countries. At any minor development it reaches for sanctions if not armed force. Let me remind you that we are not in the 19th century or even the 20th century now."

However, despite Putin’s emphasis on respect for the rights of sovereign countries, Russia’s war against Georgia in August 2008 and its recent measures, which show that Moscow reserves itself the right to militarily intervene in Ukraine during the latter country’s recent developments, clearly prove that Moscow, for its turn, is not practically abiding by principles it apparently insists on. The main issue that lies at the heart of these cases and has caused Russia to show a dual behavior in its foreign policy is the hard and inflexible approach that Moscow takes to traditional components of power, including security, balance of powers and geopolitical advantage.

Of course, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian foreign policy has undergone many objective and subjective changes as a result of which the influence of ideology on the country’s foreign policy has dwindled in favor of more pragmatism. However, such realities as Russian officials’ notion of being situated in a special geopolitical space, a historical sense of insecurity, and the main strategic and geopolitical approach of Moscow continue to sway their lasting influence on the decision-maker elite at the Kremlin. The “hard” reactions that the Kremlin has shown to geopolitical onslaught of the West with regard to such issues as the eastward expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), deployment of an anti-missile defense shield in Europe and the Arab Spring have been outcomes of this mentality. Also, major manifestations of this way of thinking include Russia’s war against Georgia, Moscow’s outright resistance against the West in Syria, and rapid choice of a military option in the face of the recent developments in Ukraine.

The security-based geopolitical attitude of Moscow toward the “near aboard” (former Soviet Union republics) and the “nearest aboard” (Ukraine and Belarus)  can be analyzed along the same lines. This is true as Moscow considers such issues as security and insecurity as well as the balance of power and geopolitical rivalries as issues whose “quality” in these two regions will have a direct impact on their “quality” in the overall rivalry and confrontation between Russia and the West. More importantly, these issues find their true meaning in relation to the actions of the geopolitical rivals of Russia, which are topped by the West, which is pursuing a strategy to contain and restrict Russia within its geographical frontiers.

In the meantime, although Russia’s reaction to efforts made to change the balance of power in the “far abroad,” including in Syria, has not been generally compatible with international norms, by engaging in the war on Georgia in August 2008 and rapid transition to military “phase” in the face of the current developments in Ukraine, Russian leaders in the Kremlin have shown that their country’s security, superior position and geopolitical advantages in the near abroad, especially in the nearest abroad, is not open to any deal. As a result, they are quite ready to resort to “force” without hesitation in the face of any threat to these factors.

Therefore, the reasons behind Russia’s “hard” reaction to ongoing developments in Ukraine and the situation in the Crimean peninsula can be only understood on the basis of the large-scale power struggle between Moscow and the West as well as their zero-sum geopolitical game. Moscow considers withdrawal from Ukraine as tantamount to West’s dominance over that country; the shift to “near abroad” of the geopolitical “space” of rivalry / confrontation between Russia and the West; gradual advance of the West, first through a “soft” and then an “hard” approach toward Russia’s borders; and subsequently, more vulnerability of Russia’s strategic depth in the long run. Also, as a result of these changes, Moscow will be “left out” in the process of political developments in the West and in international arena, and its distance from borders of major European powers will increase.

It goes without saying that accepting all these vulnerabilities and allowing the West to gain more concessions in the aforesaid “zero-sum” game will not be a favorable option for Russia. In the meantime, apart from the significance of Russia’s military presence in Crimea, such a presence will have symbolic importance for regional and international prestige of Moscow because losing Crimea will send “bad” messages to both friends and enemies of Russia.

Since this game is “going on,” Russia is probably afraid of a domino phenomenon in case it withdraws from Ukraine. Moscow is well aware that if it allowed the West to advance in Ukraine, this will not satiate the West’s aggressive appetite, but will simply encourage it to make more inroads on other geopolitical interests of Russia. Therefore, following the West’s dominance over Ukraine, it would be turn for Georgia and Belarus and other countries located in Russia’s “near abroad” to have a similar experiences. Such a state of affairs will also speed up the process of accession of these countries to other geopolitical plans of the West within framework of the NATO or the European missile defense shield.

Another point which should be also taken into consideration is the negative impact that ceding Ukraine to the West will have on the cause of reviving the position of Russia as a “big power.” losing Russia’s control over what is going on in Ukraine will cast doubt on the position of Moscow as a major player in political and security equations of the “near abroad.” At the same time, Russia’s partners in the “far abroad,” including in the Middle East, will have serious doubts about expansion of further cooperation with Moscow. This would be also in conflict with the Russia’s efforts, at least during past months, which aimed to introduce Russia as a counterbalance to the West.

Although the loss of Russia’s geopolitical advantages in the near abroad will not take place over the short run and it will take a relatively long time to happen, by showing a hard reaction in Georgia and Ukraine, Moscow has been trying to show that even at the cost of tension with the entire West and losing many advantages of cordial relations with the Western countries, the Kremlin is trying to prevent this from happening. The Russians insist that it was as a result of Washington’s analysis of Russia’s containment power in Europe that the United States reached the conclusion that it can make changes in the European map in order to boost its own strategic advantages. Moscow also believes that it was due to the same mentality that the West attacked the former Yugoslavia and took that country out of Russia’s sphere of influence.

This is why Kremlin has opted for overt resistance as the sole solution in the face of all-out geopolitical onslaught of the West, which has been symbolized by the proposed deployment of an anti-missile defense shield in Europe and also by the West’s approach to Syria. It is also in line with the same policy that Moscow believes that “submission” to the West in Ukraine will be just a beginning for the total loss of the entire “near abroad,” which will make the realization of the idea of reviving Russia’s position as a “big power” well-nigh impossible.

It should be, however, noted that Russia’s effort to win its geopolitical and zero-sum game against the West cannot be considered a good ground for taking military action in or against one of the sovereign members of the United Nations because Russia’s “Council of the Federation” cannot play the role of the UN Security Council in order to issue permit for such military action. On the other hand, as has been already proven by early reactions that have been shown by the Western powers, they can use Russia’s reaction as a tool against Moscow by “aggrandizing” Moscow’s military action. By doing this, the West will be in a good position to facilitate its own hard and soft influence in the “near abroad” of Russia.

Key Words: Geopolitical Conflict, “Zero-Sum” Game, Russia, West,  Ukraine, Vladimir Putin, NATO, Balance of Power, Noori

More by Alireza Noori:

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*Iran and Opportunity to Strike a Balance in “Either US or Russia” Option:

*Photo Credit:, Economist

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