Ukraine-Russia: A battle of futures

AP Photo/ Sergei Poliakov

Why does Putin continue to show aggression toward Ukraine after his conquest of Crimea? We argue that the Russian leader fears Ukrainian citizens’ political orientation toward the West, which threatens the political system he built in Russia.

Historically, wars have often occurred in the wake of ideological polarization. Stephen Walt argues in “Revolution and War” that wars are common in the aftermath of revolutions. One reason is increased uncertainty as a result of the revolution. Another is that the revolutionary state is often temporarily weak, a situation that rivals are keen to exploit. Furthermore, leaders of old regimes fear (rightly or wrongly) the spread of revolutionary ideas, especially if the revolutionary state has a threatening ideology. Thus conflict between a revolutionary regime and established powers happened during the French, Russian, and Iranian revolutions.

John Owen’s book “The Clash of Ideas in World Politics” similarly argues that periods of regime change often occur in the context of transnational ideological polarization. During such a period, rival regimes and transnational ideological networks battle for influence in countries torn between different ideologies. The ongoing research by one of us (Lada) builds on this literature, and shows that countries with visible shared identities often go to war with each other as long as they differ in their political institutions (see previous post in The Monkey Cage).

As the other one of us (Snegovaya) has previously noted in The Monkey Cage, Putin indeed views Ukraine’s recent Euromaidan events as a turn to the West and an ideological as well as a civilizational challenge. In Ukraine’s case, the democratic pro-Western ideology of Euromaidan clashes with Putin’s autocratic ideology. Euromaidan symbolizes both a choice of formal and informal institutions that are complimentary. Institutions are the rules of the political game: formal institutions are written rules such as constitutions, while informal institutions capture unwritten political values and beliefs. The choice is between Western-style democracy and European integration (the European Union) on the one hand, and corruption and neopatrimonialism on the other.

The 2014 Euromaidan movement has been fundamentally different from the 2004 Orange revolution movement by being a rational, rather an emotional protest: a vote for values, not a personality (charismatic leader). Studies show that the values orientations of Euromaidan participants are similar to those of European citizens, and closer to the orientations of western regions of Ukraine. For example, using the Shalom Shwarts methodology, a recent survey discovered that Euromaidan protestors were much closer to the European countries than Ukrainians on average on various value dimensions. Value proximity to Europe was manifested primarily in Ukrainians’ beliefs about the importance of change. In addition, there was substantive similarity on indicators of security and tradition, independence of thought and action, and universalism.

Putin’s project is entirely different. It recreates the Soviet system with some nationalistic Russian flavor, state-controlled economy, autocratic political system (hence he sides with autocrats – Alexander Lukashenko, Nursultan Nazarbayev and other post-Soviet rulers, Chinese leaders). The system is neopatrimonial in nature, based on weak institutions, corruption and personal loyalty. It is based on the idea of cultural uniqueness of the ‘Russian world’, Orthodox religion, subordination to the authority and lack of competitiveness. It is a different ideological project. Putin cannot allow a competing ideology to win in Ukraine.

Yet why war instead of compromise? James Fearon argues that wars occur despite their cost to both sides for one of three reasons. The first describes a country that cannot be sure about its opponent’s strength and resolve, which makes compromise difficult. The second argues that the object of contention cannot be divided up in peaceful bargaining. The third reason, which seems to be the most relevant in the Ukrainian case, is commitment problems. Commitment problems are often analyzed in the context of a rising and a declining power: a rising country cannot credibly promise not to exploit its power advantage in the future. As a result, the declining state starts a war as early as possible, in order to prevent power from shifting too much in the rising country’s favor.

How do commitment problems apply to Ukraine? Russian influence in Ukraine is in decline – if not in terms of material sources of power, at least in terms of soft power: the ability to get an outcome through attraction rather than coercion. Putin realizes he faces an adverse change in the future: young Ukrainians are turning in spades toward Western political ideas.

Although not all Ukrainian regions supported Euromaidan equally, the divide is becoming more generational than regional (East-West). Younger (and better-educated) Ukrainians across all the regions of Ukraine are Western-oriented, support democracy and pro-Western development. As to their attitudes toward Euromaidan, the pattern is such that the older a person is, the more he or she supported the Viktor Yanukovich government and opposed the protesters (see the graph):

Source: Joint survey by Kiev International Institute of Sociology and Levada Center (Russian NGO), the survey was conducted in February 2014, and the press release ( was published on February 28th 2014.

By contrast, younger and middle-age Ukrainians were more supportive of the protesters. Maxim Rudnev, a sociologist from The Higher School of Economics, points out that the younger Ukrainian generation is more similar to Western Europeans and differs from both older Ukrainians and Russians based on The European Social Survey data. Younger Ukrainians (15-23 years old) correspond to the European population on the levels of self-enhancement (that includes the value of power, wealth and social recognition) and self-transcendence (that includes the care of relatives, understanding, equality). Older generations of Ukrainians who were socialized during the Soviet years show much smaller value differences compared to Russians.

Strikingly, the generational change would almost entirely eliminate any existing regional divide in Ukraine in about 10 years if Russia did not intervene – according to the estimates of Evgeny Golovaha, a Professor at the Institute of Sociology of NAS of Ukraine. This is similar to the pattern of convergence described by Alesina et al. in “Goodbye Lenin or not” for Western and Eastern Germany. Overall, Ukrainians are not only turning to the West but making a different civilizational choice, where democracy comes in a package with different political values.

Overall, Putin is facing a commitment problem where Russian soft power is declining in Ukraine, which is particularly threatening to him because of the shared identity between the two countries. This is why an end to Ukraine’s troubles is not in sight.

Akos Lada is a doctoral candidate in political economy and government at Harvard University, and Maria Snegovaya is a Columbia University doctoral candidate in political science.

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