The Japan Forum on International Relations

April 20,2022

Russian Actions in Ukraine
ITO Kenichi

There are some who insist that the reason Russia annexed Crimea was either because of “NATO’s eastward expansion, which made it necessary for Russia to act to defend its sphere of influence,” or that “the responsibility lies with the international community, which has not determined which basic principle takes precedence, that of national self-determination or that of non-intervention in another country’s domestic affairs.” I, however, believe that both of these explanations are exercises in sophistry, and that the essential significance of “Russian actions in Ukraine” lies elsewhere.

NATO’s eastward expansion was not of its own volition, but rather, it happened on the request of the central and eastern European nations that had suffered under Russian oppression in the past. Romania’s former defense minister Ioan Pașcu—who worked to get Romania NATO membership—once confided in me his relief over getting it thus: “With this, Romania has, for the first time in its history, attained true security.” The issue of which countries the central and eastern European nations will ally themselves with is their sovereign decision and not something that Russia should dictate.

While the issue of whether national self-determination or non-interference in another country’s domestic affairs takes priority is indeed something that remains unresolved in international law and, thus, is a source of instability in international politics, it can by no means be used by Russia to justify its actions in this case. This is because the essential significance of “Russian actions in Ukraine” does not lie in this area.

Thus, what needs to be addressed now is what the essential significance of “Russian actions in Ukraine” is. This is fundamentally connected to “Russian actions in Georgia” in August 2008. Russia, having faced no sanctions by the international community for its actions in Georgia and, essentially, achieving territorial expansion as a result, has acquired a taste for such behavior, doing largely the same thing in Crimea. This view is the one that best demonstrates the essence of Russian actions. I believe that “governance by force” has been at the core of the Russian state from its imperial days through the era of the Soviet Union. Thus, I have since long sensed the Putin government’s dangerous tendency to revert to this ideology.

I visited Russia in August 2000, shortly after Putin became President, and in the report I wrote after returning to Japan (published in the December edition of the magazine Shokun!), I predicted the following: “President Putin will spend the next ten or twenty years leading the construction of a regenerated Russia and will thus occupy a place in Russian history as an ‘architect’ comparable to Peter the Great and Stalin.” This prediction later proved to be accurate. The basis for my prediction was my judgment that Putin was establishing his authority based on “violence,” and that this was in accordance with the system of “Rikichi (rule by violence) ” that is part of Russia’s traditional political culture. Let me explain what I mean by “Rikichi” here.

Those practicing “Rikichi” were, at the time, commonly known as “machine.” Later, it became a system of authority linked to the KGB (Russian secret police) and came to be known as silovik (the faction of force). Before long, they arrested the businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who represented the anti-Putin forces in the business world, and disbanded the oil company Yukos, which symbolized the oil and gas interests at the time. Indeed, “Rikichi” by the secret police, who wielded unlimited and absolute power, has been the traditional internal structure of Russia, with origins in the Oprichnina policy of Ivan the Terrible and later leading to Stalin’s Great Purge. The Putin administration inherited this and projected it outward, thus making it the “genetic makeup” of Russian foreign policy. This was, and continues to be, my theory on Russia.

Recent Russian actions include sending members of the Russian army to Crimea in disguise (as members of a militia) and claiming that the results of a referendum on whether Russia should annex Crimea “reflected the will of the people,” based on which Russia unilaterally annexed Crimea. This was a typical “Rikichi” action, while at the same time, it was a highly conspiratorial act based on a meticulously prepared strategic plan. The Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia were seized in the same manner. This is reminiscent of the Manchurian Incident, in which the Imperial Japanese Army itself blew up the Manchurian Railway line and then blamed it on China, subsequently moving to establish control over the entirety of Manchuria. The 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia were similar actions. This indeed is where we need to look for the essential significance of “Russian actions in Ukraine.”

What, then, is the new problem currently facing the international community? We could express it as follows: How should we deal with “rogue states” that threaten post-Cold War security when they are major powers such as Russia? Our handling of such states needs to proceed with an abundance of caution, but fortunately, we have our successful experience of the Cold War. Did Russia—a state ruled by violence—learn nothing from its defeat in the Cold War? The international community maintained as its basic stance, throughout the Cold War, the idea that “the use of violence to change the status quo is unacceptable.” If we are to take the “Putin doctrine” announced at the annexation of Crimea on March 18 as an expression of his actual thoughts, then the international community needs to prepare itself to respond with an understanding of the essential significance of “Russian actions in Ukraine.”

(This essay is the English translation of a Japanese-language essay dated June 18, 2014 in which ITO Kenichi analyzed Russia. It has been published in memoriam of the author, former president of the Japan Forum on International Relations, who passed away on March 14, 2022.)