Monday, April 7, 2014

Pinning down Power in Ukraine Crisis: West versus Russia

In February 2014, the people of Ukraine managed to topple their government by way of prolonged protest which was in part a call for the Eastern European nation to move closer to Europe and away from Russia.

The deposed Russian-backed President of Ukraine Victor Yanukovych sparked the wrath of the Ukrainians by refusing to sign a ‘trade agreement’ that would have brought Ukraine closer to the EU. Instead he preferred closer ties with Russia which is sort of creating its own ‘EU’ called the Customs Union.

This paper posits that Ukraine has been a battleground for power both between the West and Russia (external power) and that of the state versus the citizens (Internal).

The paper will try to lay bare the various power struggles that were and are at play in the Ukrainian crisis and conclude that with the West looking like having won, the power play has only begun as Russia will not allow a nation so close to it and vital to its prestige get aligned with the West, its arch-enemy.
Before the Ukraine case can be tackled, it is essential to discuss the notion of power as it occurs in the discipline of International Relations. It will also feature a summary of two prescribed course readings on Power.

Theory of Power in IR

The concept of power is one of the hotbeds of political scientists as it is yet to have one definition agreed upon and yet very important in the study of International Relations (IR).

Power broadly put denotes the capacity of agents to bring about intended changes, or the ability to overcome obstacles. Power in international relations may be defined as a state’s ability to control, or at least influence, other states or the outcome of events that are somewhat significant.

One of the most widely used delimitations of Power comes from Robert A. Dahl (1957). Dahl’s definition is  useful  in trying to marry the various terms that can be interchanged with the term ‘power,’ terms like; influence, control, coercion, force, persuasion, deterrence, compellence, inducement and so on.

 Dahl suggested that underlying most such terms is the basic intuitive notion of A causing (or having the ability to cause) B to do something that B otherwise would not do. Where A is the influencer or nation with power and B is the one being coerced.

Barnett and Duvall (2005) warn however that Dahl’s view of power which dominates the study of IR ignores some crucial aspects of power.

In their paper, Power in International Politics, Barnett and Duvall warn that the Dahl’s dominant view of power obscure the full nature of power and call for the study of other forms of power going on to say that without an adequate understanding of the nature of and the ways in that power can differently affect different situations, the current work that is available on the concept of power is not powerful.

The two offer four forms of power namely; compulsory power, institutional power, structural power and productive power which they present in a 2 by 2 box (see figure below). The two axes are separated based on the degree to which they emphasize the interaction of different units being closely occurring in space/time, and secondly the degree to which power operates through specific actors or through socially relationships.

The two argue that power in general terms, is the production, in and through social relations, of effects that shape the capacities of actors to determine their own circumstances and fate.

“The first dimension concerns whether power works in interactions or social constitution. One position on this dimension treats social relations as composed of the actions of pre-constituted social actors toward one another. Here, power works through behavioral relations or interactions, which, in turn, affect the ability of others to control the circumstances of their existence…The other position consists of social relations of constitution. Here, power works through social relations that analytically precede the social or subject positions of actors that constitute them as social beings with their respective capacities and interests” Barnett and Duvall (2005:9).

The second core analytical dimension concerns how specific—direct and immediate—are the social relations through which power works.

Compulsory power means direct control over another and the classic illustration of which is Dahl’s definition where power is the ability of A to get B to do what B otherwise would not do.

The two however add that ‘Compulsory power is not limited to material resources and also includes symbolic and normative resources” (15).

Structural power is the direct and mutual constitution of the capacities of actors.

“Structural power shapes the fates and conditions of existence of actors in two critical ways. One, structural positions do not generate equal social privileges; instead structures allocate differential capacities, and typically differential advantages, to different positions…Two, the social structure not only constitutes actors and their capacities; it also shapes their self-understanding and subjective interests” (18).

Institutional power means actors’ control over socially distant others

“Specifically, the conceptual focus here is on the formal and informal institutions that mediate between A and, as A, working through the rules and procedures that define those institutions, guides, steers, and constraints the actions…and conditions of existence of others, sometimes even unknowingly” (15)

Productive power leads to the production of subjects through diffuse social relations.

“Productive power and structural power overlap in several important respects…Yet structural and productive power differ in a critical respect: whereas the former works through direct structural relations, the later entails more generalized and diffuse social processes…productive power…is the constitution of all social subjects with various social powers through systems of knowledge and discursive practices of broad and general social scope” (20).

“This difference between direct and diffuse social relations of constitution has two important implications for thinking about productive power. First, productive power concerns discourse, the social processes and the systems of knowledge through which meaning is produced, fixed, lived, experienced, and transformed…Second, discursive processes and practices produce social identities and capacities as they give meaning to them…Discourse, therefore, is socially productive for all subjects, constituting the subjectivity of all social beings of diverse kinds with their contingent, though not entirely fluid, identities, practices, rights, responsibilities and social capacities” (20-1)

Thomas Volgy, Lawrence Imwalle and John Schwarz in their paper Where is the New World Order? Hegemony, State Strength, and Architectural Construction in International Politics also tackle the question of power.

The trio start by quoting scholars who say that after the Cold War, a new type of international system which is based on economics has emerged.

Before the Kosovo conflict, a joint Russian/Chinese statement on their willingness to pursue a “multipolar world” also stressed that “no country should seek hegemony … or monopolize international affairs” (Gordon, 1997:A3). Soon after the Kosovo conflict began, Chinese official organs publicly denounced America’s “global strategy for world hegemony” (Eckholm 1999).

Even France wondered that America seemed imperialistic in its leadership of NATO.
All this to speak of a vacuum that formed after the Cold War. Obviously, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, America emerged a mild victor and along with the rest of the West can be said to be the new hegemon.

The trio starts by discussing the notion of a hegemon and suggest that a typical hegemon enjoys to types of power.

“...hegemonic strength can be viewed from two different perspectives (Strange 1989). One is through the concept of structural power: the capability and willingness of the hegemon to create essential rules, norms, and modes of operation for various dimensions of the international system. The hegemon enjoys “structural power through the capacity to determine the terms on which those needs are satisfied and to whom they are made available” (Strange 1989:165-6).”

Apart from structural power, Strange suggests Relational power which is the capabilities of the hegemon vis-à-vis other actors in the system, and its ability to get some groupings of others, by persuasion or coercion, to do what they would not otherwise do.

Relational power is measurable by looking at the economy and size and strengths of the military while structural power requires a more complex approach to gauge.

The paper then asks if the United States is a Hegemon and finds that while economically the US is stronger than any other nation, it fails to satisfy the requirements of a hegemon when relational power is inspected using the External Strength Index.

The paper then concludes that despite the US being weak in terms of external strength, its policy makers parade and speak in hegemonic terms and will continue to do so which includes the expansion of NATO.

But tables are turning for the US, suggests the paper.

“At the same time, such efforts at leadership have begun to encounter substantial resistance. NATO allies are chaffing against US terms for NATO expansion and the US has been unable to stop the thawing of Russian/Chinese relations to combat US ‘hegemony’. In the economic realm, the 1997 parliamentary elections in France may have provided a first indicator of growing resistance to the American model of economic growth, with its attendant social welfare costs for wealthy democracies. Recently, French, Russian and Third World policy makers have challenged as well the right of the US to set rules for their multinationals to operate in regions identified by the US as friendly to global terrorist activities (Cohen 1997)
without a much stronger commitment of resources to develop a new, global architecture, American interest in developing new global architecture may be insufficient to create new forms of global order. American ‘hegemony’ without additional capabilities will probably dissipate under the onslaught of greater interdependencies, domestic constraints, increasing systemic complexities, and the numerous states chaffing against US leadership.”

The problem is being compounded by the fact that the US’ old enemy is no longer a bigger threat to make the US policy makers to attribute more resources to boost external strength.

The paper ends with a disclaimer saying the US should not be written off and has not been dormant since the cold war and that it is and will continue to be a force to reckon with in international affair especially because there are weaker rivals to challenge it.

On the theoretical level, neo-realists, the crucial feature of any system is the distribution of material power, and hence the dominant political reality of the post-Cold War order is the preponderance of the United States. (Hurrell, 2006)

For institutionalist liberals, globalization and ever denser networks of transnational exchange and communication create increasing demand for international institutions and new forms of governance. Institutions are important in helping to explain how new norms emerge and are diffused across the international system, and how state interests change and evolve.

Systemic liberals build on many of the same core ideas but develop a broader Kantian image of the gradual but progressive diffusion of liberal values, as a result partly of liberal economics and increased economic interdependence, partly of a liberal legal order coming to sustain the autonomy of a global civil society, and partly of the successful example set by the multifaceted liberal capitalist system of states. (Hurrell, 2006:7)

Russia has been on the decline since the Cold War ended, the reality of the past two decades here has been one of decline and the dissolution of power. Nevertheless, its foreign policy is focused on trying to arrest that decline and seeking to reassert regional and global influence. (Hurrell, 2006:2)
Ukraine and its value


Ukraine is Europe’s second largest country seated on top or Romania and the Black Sea and half wedged into Russia.  With a population of 45 million people, Ukraine only got independence in 1991 after the Soviet Union fell apart.

Since then, the country has been caught between moving towards joinining the
European Union and reconciling with Russia.

The Russian factor in Ukraine is a very important factor, Russian is widely spoken in Ukraine, and Russia provides most of Ukraine’s energy needs and despite countries from Europe being its biggest trading partners, Russia is the biggest single trading partner to Ukraine[1].

Russia’s Black Sea Fleet is also based in Ukraine and this Ukraine joining NATO would mean a big blow to Russia.

Russia, wanting to revive its influence on Ukraine has in the ‘punished’ Ukraine for moving towards Europe and has managed to have leaders such as Yanukovych dance to its tune.

In 2006, Ukraine was forced to agree to pay almost twice the former price for Russian gas after Russia briefly to cut supplies in a move that sparked alarm in Western Europe as well. In January 2009, Russia again cut gas supplies in a row over unpaid fees.

To Russia, Ukraine is very important as it provides a buffer between it and NATO and losing it to the West would leave Russia feeling naked as Putin once remarked in 2005, the very dissolution of the Soviet Union was "a real drama."  He said the break-up of the USSR in 1991 left tens of millions of Russians outside the Russian Federation[2].

Putin of course wants Ukraine in the Eurasian Union, which is widely seen as Russia’s answer to the emergence of the EU.

The EU on the other hand, would get a boost of confident to have one more member added to the club at a time when some members such as Britain want to leave the Union. The EU is also eying the electricity and gas exports and the heavy industry that produce anything from war ships to planes bigger than Jumbo jets.

And apart from 45 million more consumers, Europe will use Ukraine to prevent Russia from sliding back westward.

So obviously, Ukraine is important to both Russia and EU. It has so far managed to balance between the two hegemons all this while but in reality, it has always been toyed by Russia while being lured by the EU.

Barrack Obama and policy makers from the EU have pleaded with Russia not to see Ukraine’s going West as a zero-sum game but it remains just a plea.

So far, Russia has pulled out its Ambassador from Kiev, has suspended the huge loan it offered Ukraine, apparently as a move to influence it. The Russians has also declared that the interim government in Ukraine is illegal and branded it a mutiny

Some of those so called Russians are Ukrainians that live in the east of the country and favour stronger ties with Russia and would be happy to join Russia again while those in the east of the country see Europe as the future and want to break away from Russia.

When Ukraine announced that it wanted to sign a trade agreement with the EU, Russia’s influence surfaced.

Russian health inspectors found fault with Ukrainian sweets, Russian customs officials slowed down cross-border traffic and Russia's energy giant Gazprom reminded Ukraine's Naftogaz of its huge debt[3]. But this coercion was only after Russia failed to entice Ukraine with significantly lower gas prices, large-scale industrial co-operation projects, and soft credits.

The rest is now history.

In November 0f 2013, President Victor Yanukovych's government refused to sign an accord that would have meant greater co-operation with the European Union and instead pivoted to Russia.

That deal that Yanukovych refused among other things demanded that the former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko who until her release in 2014 had spent 2 years in jail.

 Thousands of people, especially from the west of the country, outraged that a long-standing aspiration for integration with Europe had been ditched overnight, poured into central Kiev for peaceful protests occupying the Independence Square, known as Maidan and the crisis was to drag on until the end of February.

And despite Obama’s sweet talk, which analysts have said is fear of pushing Putin too far at a time the US wants him in Syria, Iran and other trade issues, his government is still rooting for the pro-EU camp in Ukraine and a leaked tape of the US officials suggests that the US role might be bigger in the background[4].

United Kingdom Foreign Secretary William Hague was quoted at the height of the Ukraine protest saying: "It's in the interests of the people of Ukraine and Russia to trade with the European Union."
He added: "It's important that Russia doesn't do anything to undermine that package... We don't know, of course, what Russia's reaction will be[5]."
Hague added that he would talk to the Russians to try to reason with them that Ukraine was not a zero-sum game.

George Osborne, the Chancellor of Britain announced[6] that his country and the EU were ready with a chequebook to help the Ukrainians who are almost bankrupt and deep in debt. The debt was to be alleviated by Russia’s loan package which is now in limbo with the fall of the pro-Russian regime.

As of February 26, there were still fears that the country might see Russian troops coming in to intervene, but so far Putin has not made a move yet.

Hegemonic stability theory states that the international system stays stable if only one hegemon is in power, and so far for Ukraine, Russia has always been the hegemon and with the fall of the Soviet Union. Now a new hegemon is in town and as the theory states, instability is prevailing.

The newswire AFP quoted Russian Economy Minister Alexei Ulyukayev saying If Ukraine goes ahead with signing a partnership deal with the European Union Moscow will punish it by raising import duties on Ukrainian goods.

This apart from withholding the $15 billion loan package and calling the interim government illegitimate.

While Russia throws in tough cards, the West has been buoyed by Ukraine’s brave moves and many European parties and organizations such as the International Monetary Fund have said they stand ready to pump cash into Ukraine.

So, in theory, Russia which has power and influence over Ukraine looks to have fallen to the attraction (soft power) of the EU, which really did not do a lot of stunts to actively woo Ukraine. And the EU being a new and rising hegemon is eager to partner with the US to counter Russia which is also trying to wake up as a new hegemon.

Russia can cause a war in Ukraine by fanning the Pro-Russian sentiment in the east, it can directly intervene and restore the order it wants. It can squeeze the insolvency of Ukraine even more by raising tax on Ukrainian exports to Russia or it can raise the prices of gas and freeze Ukraine to submission.

Doing this however would only push Ukraine further West which seems ready to assume the burden of the ailing state.

The EU have little options in Ukraine, they can defend it from a Russian invasion which would only trigger World War 3 and this option might now even be possible with the rigidity of the EU and the reluctance of some members such as Germany to involve in war.

The EU can only play underground politics, appeasing Russia by appealing to international law while letting the protest movement which is pro-EU pivot to Brussels and naturally boot out Russia. The EU can also cause Ukraine to break up into two with one part going east.

The US can challenge a Russian invasion, but lessons from the Russian-Georgia war indicate that the stakes are not big enough with the elections coming up soon and domestic politics taking center stage in the US.

The only option the US has is to support the protest movement and to engage the Russian machine in diplomacy to let it take defeat without losing too much face.

That is on an external power note.  Internally, the power play in Ukraine was between state and citizens and on a lesser extent between eastern citizens and western citizens.

The state had all the material power that a realist would think as enough to get by on, but it lacked the moral support and was faced with a citizenry that in part was also materially equipped. Thus influence, force and power of the state failed to beat the moral power of the population and the population won.

The future looks dark for Ukraine however, as power politics will continue between, on the inside, those that are pro-Russia and those that want Brussels and on the outside, those from the West and those from Russia.

The game will largely rely on Putin, which the hegemon with most to lose incase Ukraine moves to the EU. As the paper went to print, Putin had ordered his army to practice for war[7], a tactic Morgenthau would describe as psychological show of power to Ukraine and NATO.

The Russian Parliament quickly gave Putin power to invade Ukraine and Obama and Nato warned Russia that there would be consenquences if it used troops in Ukraine, but the warning was too late and Russian troops were said to be in Crimea already and had a say on business there, including knocking down the internet and telephone services[8].

Now the ball

In a nutshell, Power is the ability of any actor to persuade, influence, force or otherwise induce another actor to undertake an action or change an objective that the latter would otherwise prefer not to do. It is also the ability of one actor to persuade, influence, force or otherwise induce an actor to refrain from an action it would prefer to undertake.

Power can be seen in the population of a country, its size, its natural resources, its industrial capabilities, its leadership and its diplomatic ability among others.

The paper has discussed the notion of power and hegemony and used it to argue that the Ukrainian crisis is more about power politics between Russia and the West.


Barnett, Michael N. and Raymond Duvall. (2005). Power in global governance. Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press.

BBC (2014) Ukraine crisis: William Hague warns of 'many dangers, retrieved on 24/02/14 from URL:

BBC (2013) Analysis: Russia's carrot-and-stick battle for Ukraine retrieved on 24/02/14 from URL:

BBC (2014) Ukraine crisis: Leaked phone call embarrasses US  retrieved on 23/02/14 from URL:

BBC (2014) Ukraine Profile retrieved on 24/02/14 from URL:

BBC (2005) Putin deplores collapse of USSR retrieved on 24/02/14 from URL:

Guzzini, S (2010) Power analysis: Encyclopedia entries (DIIS Working Paper 2010:34)

Hurrell,  A (2006) Hegemony, liberalism and global order: what space for would-be great powers? International Affairs 82, pp 1-19

Michael Barnett and Raymond Duvall Power in International Politics (No date)

Michael Weiss (2014) Russia Stages Coup in Crimea retrieved on 02/03/14 from URL:

RT (2014) Putin orders ‘combat readiness’ tests for western, central Russian troops
Retrieved on 27/02/14 from URL:

Thomas J. Volgy, Lawrence E. Imwalle and John E. Schwarz  Where is the New World Order?
Hegemony, State Strength, and Architectural Construction in International Politics
in Journal of International Relations and Development, Issue 2, Pages 246-262

Peter Dominiczak, and David Blair (2013) Ukraine revolution: Britain offers cash to Kiev as the world waits on Putin, retrieved on 26/o2/04 from URL:

[1] BBC (2014) Ukraine Profile retrieved on 24/02/14 from URL:
[2] BBC (2005) Putin deplores collapse of USSR retrieved on 24/02/14 from URL:
[3] BBC (2013) Analysis: Russia's carrot-and-stick battle for Ukraine retrieved on 24/02/14 from URL:
[4] BBC (2014) Ukraine crisis: Leaked phone call embarrasses US  retrieved on 23/02/14 from URL:

[5] BBC (2014) Ukraine crisis: William Hague warns of 'many dangers, retrieved on 24/02/14 from URL:
[6]   Peter Dominiczak, and David Blair (2013) Ukraine revolution: Britain offers cash to Kiev as the world waits on Putin, retrieved on 26/o2/04 from URL:

[7] RT (2014) Putin orders ‘combat readiness’ tests for western, central Russian troops
Retrieved on 27/02/14 from URL:
[8] Michael Weiss (2014) Russia Stages Coup in Crimea retrieved on 02/03/14 from URL:

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