In his book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Samuel Huntington makes the case for the utility of an external enemy in maintaining a coherent US national identity. ‘For self-definition and motivation, people need enemies,’ he wrote. His thesis has been widely discredited. But recent developments in Ukraine seem to have partially validated the claim, and given it a new dimension. After 25 years of the West treating Russia as an enemy in Ukraine, in recent weeks Moscow might have actually become one.

Even prior to recent events, the depiction of Russian policy in Ukraine as nefarious has always, of course, held a kernel of truth. Russia’s actions there since the Soviet collapse have been far from constructive and transparent. And the rhetoric of senior officials – in a particular notorious example, Vladimir Putin himself questioned whether Ukraine was a real country in a private moment with George W. Bush – has been at times inflammatory, subversive or incendiary.

But until the collapse of the EU-brokered political settlement on 21 February, Russia’s actions in Ukraine had never merited the labels usually ascribed to them: expansionist, neo-imperial, neo-Soviet, aggressive, and so on. Indeed, until that watershed moment, it would have been wrong to attribute any significant development in Ukraine’s recent political crisis to Russia. Yes, in the autumn of 2013 Russia did use economic levers to demonstrate to President Victor Yanukovich the costs of proceeding with the proposed Association Agreement with the EU. But it was Yanukovich, at the end of the day, and not Putin, who decided to make the shift – and it is unlikely that the Ukrainian president was serious about implementing the agreement in the first place. Even so, Russia’s levers in Ukraine are entirely of the Ukrainians’ making. If Yanukovich or any of his predecessors had spent less time getting rich off the gas trade with Russia, and more time implementing a comprehensive energy-efficiency policy (Ukraine has one of the world’s highest ratios of energy consumption to GDP), creating a domestic gas market and forging an investment climate conducive to the development of Ukraine’s own gas reserves, Moscow would not have had any significant economic leverage. The effectiveness of economic coercion in this case is no credit to Russia’s strength; rather, it is a reflection of the utter failure of the Ukrainian elite to reform the country’s economy.

Despite the EU flags in Maidan Square during November, the claim that the initial protests reflected broad popular support for the Association Agreement is also off the mark. Yes, many in Ukraine are united by a shared desire to enjoy the same standard of living and institutions as those of their Western neighbours, and to have the opportunity to travel in Europe more freely. But when asked whether they wish to join the European Union, only a minority of Ukrainians agree. The Association Agreement is a highly technical, 400-page document that mostly covers distinctly uninspiring subjects, such as fisheries and customs codes. It was no rallying cry for the masses, and few in Maidan Square had read it.

But foreign-policy decisions alone did not mobilise the population in Ukraine; if the decision to use force against unarmed student protesters had not been taken on the night of 30 November – we do not know by whom – it is likely that the Maidan protests would have petered out. In the event, more than 500,000 people came out where there had been only 10,000 before.

Both the former government and the more radical protesters bear responsibility for subsequent events in Kiev. At key points, on 19 January and again on 18 February, protesters escalated the stand-off with violence to provoke a response from a president who refused to resign. True to form, Yanukovich responded brutally, using snipers to kill over 70 civilians over 19–20 February and ultimately bringing about the collapse of the regime as former loyalists who wanted no part in the bloodshed began to defect. Officials in the former government who took the decision to use force, perhaps including Yanukovich himself, should be held accountable for the deaths of their fellow citizens.

It was very much an internal Ukrainian chain of events. But for many in the West, that was all Putin’s doing. The Economist ran a photo of the Maidan in flames on its cover under the headline ‘Putin’s inferno’. Carl Bildt, Sweden’s foreign minister, wrote that it was Russia’s pressure on Yanukovich to reject the EU deal that ‘set in motion the chain of events that has now resulted in carnage and death in the streets of Kyiv’. To blame Putin for those events cheapens the very real crimes that were committed by Ukrainians against Ukrainians.

What has ensued since then, however, is another matter altogether. Russia has taken deeply disturbing steps following the breakdown of the 21 February negotiated settlement. It is too early to say with any confidence how this will end, but it is clear that moves to take control over key installations on the Crimean peninsula, first using personnel from Russia’s Black Sea Fleet – which is stationed there under a bilateral agreement, and subsequently reinforcements from Russia – might well be a prelude to war, long-term occupation, partition or some combination thereof. The signals coming from Moscow, including a presidential request for authority to deploy forces to Ukraine which was immediately approved in the upper house of parliament by a unanimous vote, are certainly troubling.

These moves represent an unprecedented departure from previous Russian policy, a point that might be lost as a result of the previous hyperbole about Russian aggression. Why did this happen? There are two possible frames for understanding the shift.

The first sees these recent moves as a reactive effort to avoid what decision-makers in Moscow perceived as a direct threat to Russian interests in Ukraine. Discussions with Russian interlocutors in recent days suggest that Moscow’s narrative about events in Ukraine is more than just propaganda. Putin and his inner circle might well have convinced themselves that the collapse of the 21 February agreement resulted at least in part from a Western plot to install a loyal government in Kiev that included far-right leaders who would revoke Russia’s basing agreement in Crimea, quickly move Ukraine to EU and NATO membership, repress the country’s Russian minority and further cement regime change as an acceptable modus operandi in international affairs. An escalation spiral set in as Russia tried at first to deter what it saw as hostile behaviour.

This frame explains recent Russian moves as fundamentally reactive to events, and perceptions of events, on the ground in Ukraine, and not as a shift in objectives. Russian policy there has always been focused on avoiding worst-case outcomes. In other words, Moscow knows what it does not want: a threat to its national security, an undoing of bilateral economic ties, the empowerment of Russophobic political forces or political and economic instability. Furthermore, Russia wants to avoid precedents of coercive removal of a sitting government, particularly in cases in which the West is perceived to be involved, either by tacitly approving a revolution or explicitly promoting one. That objective, driven by Moscow’s anxieties about the legitimacy of its own rule, determines Russian policy in Syria as well, but proximity amplifies its importance in Ukraine. And that explains Moscow’s outrage at the immediate unravelling of the negotiated settlement brokered by EU foreign ministers on 21 February and subsequent resistance to recognising the new authorities in Kiev. It is certainly not out of love for Yanukovich, whom Putin has despised for nearly a decade. Indeed, although Russia has granted Yanukovich shelter, he pointedly noted that he had been unable to see Putin during his 28 February press conference.

Far-fetched though it may be from a Western perspective, this first frame suggests that Moscow believed its nightmare, worst-case scenario was unfolding, and was taking all measures seen as necessary to prevent it from coming to pass. If we are seeing an escalatory spiral, intentions cannot be deduced from outcomes on the ground.

The second frame provides a far more sinister reading of Russia’s recent actions, suggesting its motives are aggressive or even territorially expansionist. A comparison with the Russia–Georgia war of August 2008 demonstrates that what has happened this week in Crimea is far worse and could have revealed a very different Russia. In 2008 the Georgian military, under Mikheil Saakashvili, used force in South Ossetia. Russia’s all-out invasion followed an artillery assault on the South Ossetian regional capital, Tskhinvali, and an attack on a Russian peacekeeping base. Russian soldiers and citizens were killed; it was only then that Russia escalated into a full-fledged military invasion. Regardless of how one regards Russian motives in the conflict, or the proportionality of Moscow’s response, the Georgian government was the first to move from periodic gun battles to massive shelling and thus gave Russia’s subsequent actions a pretext. Russian citizens and forces had come under attack.

In Crimea, there has been no such pretext for military intervention. Certainly, there were ominous signs coming from Kiev. Immediately after President Yanukovich fled, a new government was formed that included members of far-right parties or had far-right affiliations, particularly in the areas of national security and law enforcement. Officials allowed nationalist paramilitaries to patrol the streets and to work alongside troops from the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The language rights that Russian-speakers had enjoyed since 2012 were abolished (although the government reversed itself and vetoed the law following the Russian invasion and autonomist moves in eastern provinces).

But no actions were taken against the Russian population. There were no attacks on Russian civilians in Crimea. The central government in Kiev was not using force to repress ethnic Russians in Kiev, Kharkiv, Donetsk or any of the other Russophile regions of the country. In response to demonstrations in the Crimean capital, Simferopol, Ukrainian authorities did not use force. They did not prevent Russian nationalist groups from assembling and demonstrating. Even when the government in Simferopol ousted its prime minister and announced a referendum on autonomy, Kiev made no moves to employ its military or police forces. The Ukrainian government’s response to events in Crimea has been measured and cautious.

This is precisely what makes these events so unsettling. The conventional wisdom (reflected in the first frame) is that Russia primarily seeks stability on its borders. After all, had the Kremlin wanted to provoke secessionist movements among the Russophile regions of Ukraine or northern Kazakhstan, it would not have been difficult to do so. Crimea? The Russians could easily have had it if they wanted it. The large Russian and Russophile communities in Ukraine and Kazakhstan served Russian interests far more outside Russian borders than the burden they would have represented if they lived within those borders. Without Crimea’s voters, Yanukovich could not have won the 2010 presidential elections. With the substantial Russian-speaking and Russophile communities in Ukraine amounting to nearly half of the country’s population, Russia was virtually assured that Ukraine would continue to be a close partner in economic and security matters. Gaining Crimea to lose Ukraine just did not seem like a rational trade-off.

The aggressive military moves that we have seen this week suggest that we could be witnessing a more fundamental shift in the underlying principles of Russian policy, either a shift towards a deliberate policy of sowing unrest in its neighbourhood for geopolitical ends or even of outright territorial expansion. This week, as events were escalating in Crimea, the Duma began consideration of a law to simplify the procedures for a foreign territory to join the Russian Federation. Doing so would require little more than a referendum. The city council of Donetsk has already voted to support holding such a referendum in the Donbass region. This, combined with the announcement that the Kremlin would be authorised to use the Russian military on the territory of Ukraine, suggests that after all these years of crying wolf about Russia’s expansionist ambitions, the wolf may finally have arrived.

Policy prescriptions for the Western response differ drastically depending on which frame one accepts. To a certain extent, path dependency may have already pushed Western leaders to adopt the second. In other words, US and EU policy has long assumed that Russia is inherently hostile to Ukraine; for many, recent events have merely validated that assumption. Following that logic, subjecting Moscow to sanctions and international isolation, and a full backing of the new Ukrainian government, are the next steps.

While this course of events might be the only politically feasible one at this point, it carries with it serious risks of a global confrontation. If the first frame described above – an escalatory spiral – is closer to the truth, that would be a tragic outcome. Indeed, if Russian objectives are not to carve up Ukraine at any cost, Western leaders have an obligation to seek common ground with Moscow. Russian officials have expressed their desire to return to the 21 February agreement in order to defuse the crisis. That is clearly impossible. But something other than the status quo in Kiev, negotiated with the involvement of all major Ukrainian political parties, is not.

Engagement with Russia at this point will certainly not be easy, and has the potential to be extremely unpleasant. But it might be required if something much worse than the events of recent days is to be avoided.

Samuel Charap is IISS Senior Fellow for Russia and Eurasia. Keith Darden is an Associate Professor in the School of International Service at American University.

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