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Does Russia want a new Berlin Wall?

Article by Dr Beata Martin-Rozumilowicz

January 29, 2022

Does Russia want a new Berlin Wall?

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 it was a great victory for democracy. Experts purported the end of history and many anticipated that a linear progress away from authoritarianism and dictatorship was all but assured.


Yet, 30 some years on, is a new Berlin Wall just outside of Kyiv what Russia is again pushing for? The current circumstances seem to indicate that the answer to this question is yes.


While the Yeltsin years gave some hope of an incipient democracy in Russia, this soon started to dissipate in the early 2000s with Putin’s victory. As an election observer in Russian in 2003, I saw first-hand how fraudulent votes were being cast by election commissions to assure Putin’s continued success. Yet the West did little to call him on these early infractions.


Later, as countries (including Ukraine) fell to ‘so-called’ colour revolutions, Moscow’s response became more belligerent and recalcitrant. Some claimed that antagonistic Western forces were to blame, all the while touting self-determination and national sovereignty.


The initial successes in Poland and other Eastern European countries in the early 2000s, however, gave people in places like Ukraine a real hope for a different way of life. This was so much a threat that it caused Moscow to bankroll a Party of Regions and a Viktor Yanukovych to tow the Moscow line and to prevent democracy from taking root in the country.


Yet Ukrainians again decided in 2014 that they wanted representative democracy and a road to Europe. This Revolution of Dignity underscored that Russia had again miscalculated its strategy towards Ukraine (as they had in 2004 during the previous Orange Revolution).


While Russia’s geopolitical strategy in the region is not only about Ukraine, it does continue to hold a Cold War, bipolar view of the world where the focus is about Russia playing a global role again, sitting at the same table with the US, and calling the shots. With recent developments in Kazakhstan and Belarus, these former Soviet republics have become closer to the Russian orbit, but Ukraine continues to keep slipping away.


Russia has lost the hearts and minds of Ukrainians (as well as of Belarusians, and many Kazakhs, Armenians, and others) and is seen as the protector of authoritarian regimes, using its political and military means to stymie genuine sovereignty, democratisation, and further development. While this may currently be enough in Belarus or Kazakhstan, it has not worked in Ukraine.


With Yanukovych having fled to Russia, Moscow shifted focus and resources to new technologies, influence campaigns and hybrid warfare. The taking of Crimea and the false-flag operations in Donbas, and the attempt to attack the Ukrainian electoral system in 2014 to produce a Moscow-favourable Ukrainian president (in the shape of unlikely and unknown Dmytro Yarosh) was a prelude to documented Russian meddling in the 2016 US elections.


With the somewhat surprising win of Trump over Clinton, Moscow likely calculated that their new strategy had succeeded. Yet with Biden winning in 2020 and democracy and good governance firmly back on the agenda (albeit with focus initially on China), the Russians must have realised that they had overplayed what they considered to be a winning hand. This came on top of dashed hopes of gaining US respect and recognition during the George W. Bush administration, which came to naught with Iraq, colour revolutions and, later, the Arab spring under the Obama administration.


And so, we are where we are now. With smear campaigns against the Biden family and top officials within Ukrainian circles not gaining traction, the Russians have decided to hunker down and re-focus on previous Cold War strategies. Top amongst them is a buffer zone to surround Russia and insulate it from the debilitating democratic influence, particularly in Ukraine, where its size and proximity to Russia mean that it is a danger of becoming an example and a call to Russia’s own citizens to question why they live in the conditions they do. Staunch the wound before they bleed out.


And those questions are becoming ever more insistent, both within Russia itself, as well as within the independent states surrounding Russia. The excesses of the Yanukovych regime, when his lavish estates and golden toilets were exposed for the world to see by protestors in 2014 also caused Russians to question similar presidential holdings in Sochi. Ukraine, Georgia, and increasingly Armenia, have become examples to other autocratic states in the region of what democratic change can achieve. It gives impetus to opposition movements in Russia, itself, with the advent of Navalny, and even in countries like Belarus during the last elections.


The Berlin Wall had insulated Russia for some thirty years from this debilitating democratic contagion. Their hope is that a new barrier will serve the same role for the next thirty and assure authoritarian continuity. Will the current political circumstances in the region lead to the formation of a new Berlin Wall approach? We’re likely to know that answer very soon.

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