Narrative X-ray: Is Russia a man of its word and the West a liar?


Read this article in Estonian

One of the most important Russia’s propaganda narratives is that Russia has kept its word through the twists and turns of history, thus being honest, just, and good. The West, on the other hand, has always been disingenuous, broken agreements and reneged on promises – Russia’s actions have mainly been a response to this. Narrative X-ray examines how much truth there is.

Russia uses several narratives to justify its actions, including its aggression against Ukraine, but one that seems to give it the moral right to decide the affairs of neighboring countries is to point the finger at the West. If the West can, why not Russia?

One of the best examples of this is the Russian narrative, according to which the West seems to have promised that NATO will not expand eastward after the collapse of the Soviet Union. As Narrative X-ray has already written, at the end of the Cold War, the USSR was not offered an official guarantee to limit the expansion of NATO, but the Russian state media uses it relatively successfully in its propaganda, showing Russia as a victim and the West as a traitor.

How did this narrative come about?

Putin’s speech on April 14, 2014

In the context of the war in Ukraine, the earliest known example of the use of this narrative is the official speech of Russian President Vladimir Putin on April 18, 2014, the day the Russian State Duma accepted Crimea as part of Russia. In this speech, Putin stated that the declaration of independence of Crimea by the local authorities is comparable to the unilateral secession of Kosovo from Serbia. “This is exactly what Crimea is doing now, it is legitimate and did not need any permission from the central government,” Putin said.

Even more: Putin referred to the clause on the self-determination of peoples of the UN Charter (“To develop international friendly relations based on respect for the principle of equality and self-determination of peoples and to implement other measures to ensure general peace.”) and the decision of the UN International Court of Justice of 22.07.2010, according to which general international law does not include ban on declarations of independence. “Crystal clear, as they say,” Putin commented.

In the same speech, Putin made another connection: namely, Crimea’s desire to join Russia should be especially well understood by the Germans, because “unlike some allies at the time and now,” Russia supported the reunification of the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic in 1990. “I assume that German citizens also support the Russians’ efforts to reunify historical Russia.”

He also noted: “When implementing the policy in practice, our Western partners – especially the USA – prefer to be guided not by international law, but by the law of a stronger one.” They believe in their uniqueness, that they have the right to determine the fate of the world, that they are always right.” Putin was referring to NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 without a UN Security Council mandate, as well as Western military action in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.

Putin repeated these talking points in his address on February 21, 2022, when he announced the recognition of the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics, the occupied parts of Ukraine.

What story does it tell us?

With this, the Russian president wanted to show that the annexation of Crimea corresponded to the practice of Western countries, the UN Charter, and international law. If the Western countries do not recognize Crimea as part of Russia, then they are thus ambivalently rewriting the legal space they have created to suit themselves – in an anti-Russian way. The double standard of Western countries is one of Russia’s important talking points.

But let’s take the previous one into pieces.

The right to self-determination established in the UN Charter was based on the territorial boundaries previously determined in colonial possessions or in other ways, and not on ethnic-cultural communities. This is also reflected in the reluctance of central authorities and international bodies, for example in the case of Catalonia, to allow or acknowledge this. National minorities never automatically have the right to unilaterally become independent or secede, therefore there cannot be a so-called Crimean nation that would do so either.

Putin’s comparison with Kosovo is inappropriate already because it ignores the fact that the Milosevic’s regime severely oppressed the Kosovar Albanians. General Klaus Naumann, who led the NATO bombing, testified at the Hague war tribunal that Milosevic’s solution to the Kosovo problem was to shoot ethnic Albanians. There was nothing like that in Crimea. And while the UN International Court of Justice clearly failed to answer the question of whether the independence of oppressed groups can be practiced under international law under the UN Charter – indeed it is not prohibited, as Putin pointed out – Kosovo’s independence received a moral legitimacy from the world that Russia’s intervention in Crimea will never receive.

Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008 and has been recognized by 107 of the 193 UN member states, including the US and most EU countries. Few countries like Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Syria, Afghanistan, and North Korea have recognized Crimea as part of Russia.

Second, Kosovo was under UN supervision for many years. The UN Security Council recognized Serbia’s territorial integrity but did not rule out Kosovo’s independence. Violence erupted in Kosovo recently, on 24 September, which is why the EU’s special envoy had to intervene, calling on Serbia and Kosovo to return to dialogue. Serbia still does not recognize Kosovo as an independent state.

Russia was (and is) strongly against the independence of Kosovo, justifying it, among other things, by the importance of Serbia’s territorial integrity. Russia considers the Balkan countries as part of its sphere of influence and Serbia as its ally, with whom it is united by the Orthodox faith. According to Russia’s view of history, the Kosovo crisis was not caused by the ethnic cleansing of Kosovar Albanians organized by Milosevic, but rather by the US and its allies, who took advantage of the weakness of post-Soviet Russia to destroy its long-time ally Serbia.

So, in a sense, it is Putin’s revenge, a replay of the unpleasant 2008 Kosovo solution in Crimea-Ukraine, which helps to achieve several goals at once.

Who is it aimed at?

It is common knowledge that Russia justified its attack on Ukraine with the need to “denazify” it and “stop the genocide of the Russian-speaking population”. Although it is hard to believe that the Jewish-origin President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, would be a Nazi, the narrative of Nazism and the rescue-reunification of the Russians can still be sold to the home audience because of the legacy of the Great Patriotic War. After all, the destruction of fascism, the sole saving of the world, is, for many Russians, a discourse through which Russia assigns itself a leading place in the world.

However, not to the world as such. Therefore, it is logical that the apparent legitimization of Russia’s actions through comparisons with the actions of Western countries, apparent compliance with the UN Charter, etc., is aimed at the rest of the world, especially the West, because it is pointed in its direction.

At the same time, the West bites through the inappropriateness of these comparisons, but the rest of the world, which does not know as much about the historical background, may not. Thus, it could even be argued that the narrative is rather aimed at the third world, but can be used everywhere.

What are its goals?

Drawing parallels with Western activities in Kosovo and elsewhere serves several purposes. When Putin did this in his aforementioned address recognizing the people’s republics of Luhansk and Donetsk, his message was clear: if the West can set the borders of Kosovo, Russia can do the same for the “people’s republics” in eastern Ukraine.

Three days later, on the day of the start of the “special operation” in Ukraine (February 24, 2022), Putin justified the invasion in his speech with similar claims as NATO had made in 1999 when bombing Yugoslavia. In other words: protecting the local population from genocide, stopping an out-of-control nationalist government, guaranteeing human rights, and preventing (Nazi) atrocities. If the West was allowed to bomb Yugoslavia and separate Kosovo from Serbia, then Russia has the right to do something similar in the case of Ukraine – the reasons seem to be the same.

Jade McGlynn, the author of the book “Russia’s War” (“Russia’s War”, 2023), is sure that the constant mention of Kosovo and Yugoslavia, their use as examples of Western activity, is not a coincidence. “This is an attempt to legitimize the invasion of Ukraine, even more so: the Kremlin’s analogies comparing Eastern Ukraine and Kosovo show that the Russian government’s goal in attacking Ukraine is to restore the security architecture of the Cold War, so that the West no longer has the exclusive right to change borders and regimes”.

How is it going at the moment?

In March 2022, the United Nations International Court of Justice (ICJ) ordered Russia to immediately stop its invasion of Ukraine because there is no evidence to support the Kremlin’s justifications for military action, including genocide against the Russian-speaking population in eastern Ukraine.

Exactly one year later, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for Putin in connection with alleged war crimes and the illegal removal of children from the occupied territories of Ukraine.

Recently, on 25 September, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made a statement at a press conference at the UN General Assembly in which he confirmed: “Russia recognized the independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine in 1991” – thus also Crimea as part of Ukraine. “We have no problem with the territorial integrity of Ukraine,” Lavrov added. He did this in response to the question: “Does Russia recognize the sovereignty of Ukraine?”

If so, then Russia should have no problem with returning Crimea. However, based on the previous examples, we can be sure that this is another show in the information war. The narrative underpinning the policies and ambitions of the current Russian regime has not disappeared anywhere.

Video of Lavrov’s interview:

Screenshots are from sources used in the story.