The Ukrainian crisis, as we have seen already, has a domestic and an international dimension, both being the reason of the unrest and probably of its solution. While western and eastern Ukraine uses nationalism and ethnic factors to justify their struggle, the West and Russia act in a common ground of a “fake paternalism” that in reality covers the strategic and geopolitical interests behind their actions.
Especially Russia has been a sort of a puzzle recently towards the Ukrainian crisis: from triumphant action in securing a deal with Yanukovich in December 2013, to his demise in February this year; from the military action and annexation to Crimea to the stall and sometimes undecipherable position towards eastern Ukraine.
What really Russia wants from Ukraine? Is it real the threat of military intervention or it is a bluff, a sort of soviet-era blackmailing?
Moscow intervention is due to western historic blindness
The reasons of the Russian involvement in Ukraine are deeply rooted in history and especially in the last twenty years of international politics. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia assisted to the downfall of every single partner or satellite country, assisted to the failing of the state and its institutions, and especially was subjected to the West “revenge and punishment”. Russia in the 90s was a derelict state, anarchy was widespread, internationally was the “pet” of Washington, who used all its economic might to keep Russia under the leash. The US were free to move in the world scenario without any control, and if Russia was less concerned about the Iraqi invasion, the Balkans wars and Somalia turmoil, everything started to change for the bad to worse very soon. Washington’s plan to build a missile shield, officially against Iran and North Korea but in reality against Russia, increased nationalism in the Baltic States, Poland, Romania and Czech Republic, all countries that happily offered to assist the US. Russia started to realize that behind the friendly and paternalistic face there was a design to put Russia in a cage from where it will not be able to resurface again, a revival of the cordon sanitaire used against bolshevism in the last century.
But many can argue, if Russia was is such derelict conditions, then why the Americans were so keen to waste time and resources in this strategy? The reason is because the US knew that Yeltsin would not have been able to hold power for long and the strategy was to keep weak an adversary already wounded, before it was too late. Unfortunately for the US, the Chechen terrorism helped Russia in finding the key man to turn around its destiny: Vladimir Putin.
His ruthless conduct in the Chechen War was his business card to the West, that surely understood that the new Kremlin course would be a bumpy one, but at the same time underestimated Putin’s capacity to hold power for long and especially to rebuild Russia’s self esteem. During the ‘war on terror years’ and the Bush preventive war strategy, Russia still played a submissive role: western sponsored UN resolutions were voted in favor or abstained, a criticism was shout but not too loud. The US continued to look at Russia as an ex superpower, something to keep an eye on but not to be worried too much.
This therefore started to build in the West that sort of over confidence that any action against Russia, even the sensible ones, will not generate greater consequences. In this project aimed at destroying Russia’s vital space in the east, were used the “revolutions” or change of regime piloted to overthrow pro-Russian governments and replace them with pro-western ones. The main pillars of this strategy were: the missiles shield in Poland and Romania, the Ukrainian revolutions and Georgia.
In reality while the US and its allies continued to see Russia as a “pet”, they did not realize that Putin was already rebuilding its military might, the economy was growing at faster rate and the country was in the verge of an economic boom. Russia had to digest some hard situations but the turning point was in 2008, not for Obama election but instead for two important events that changed Russian politics for ever: Kosovo independence and Georgia action in Abkhazia and Ossetia.
2008: Back to the future, when soviet praxis meet Putin’s modernism.
The unilateral independence of Kosovo from Serbia enraged the Kremlin, denouncing a violation of international law and designed to split countries with ethnic or religious differences, like Russia. Russia for the first time appeared not only angry by words but took decisive steps blocking any recognition to the new state. However, we were far from any real action. This to Washington seemed the “ usual dog that barks but never bites” and therefore came the next step: Georgia.
The imprudent and suicidal action of president Saakashvili to retake Abkhazia and Ossetia by force, with the benediction of the West, changed the course. The Russian blitzkrieg, not only destroyed the Georgian army, but even put at risk the existence of the country itself as the Russian troops were marching on Tbilisi. The shock for Georgia and the West was unprecedented: Russia was at war and no one knew how to stop, suddenly the pet became again the big bear of soviet times, irascible, intractable, and aggressive.
The Georgian war, that took as a pretext the defense of Russian citizens in the two breakaway regions recognized by Moscow, was a clear response to the US for Kosovo. From then the relations between the two countries has deteriorated further: Russia cut the opposition out of power; paid its financial debts and expelled USAID, deemed useless for a rich nation like Russia; rebuilt the military power which display every year in the Victory Day parade in soviet style; restored nationalism and pride; internationally ended the appeasement to Washington. If Russia committed the fatal error to let the US act in Libya, Putin did not thought twice in blocking any attempt to intervention in Syria or fomenting unrest in Iran.
So why the Ukrainian crisis unfolded? The West after the debacle in Syria, where for two years was trying to build a case against Assad to legitimate an armed intervention, i.e. the chemical weapons, saw Russia not only blocking any UN resolution but even reaching successfully a deal, that it is still in place, to control and destroy these dangerous weapons. Russia’s move, is seen as the first major diplomatic success since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and for the first time we saw emerging what in Putin’s mind is the resetting of the world relations under a ‘Yalta restore system’ to superpowers balance.
But everyone knew that the tit for tat politics, used by both countries in the Cold War, was only starting and how to strike at Russia’s very heart of interests? Appeasing the Ukrainian protests was for the West a return to the policy of piloted change of regime and at the same time this would have enraged Russia. However, Washington was wrong in the calculation that Russian reaction could not led to a Georgian style intervention even though, this time, was a surgical intervention. Russia intervened to take what was needed and keep the rest in standby, while the West does not have a case either for intervention of for blocking Russian interference.
Nevertheless, we would be wrong to think of Russia’s actions in a straight line and without the double standards of which Moscow accuse the West. Crimea is not eastern Ukraine and Putin knows that.
Russian double standards: Crimea and the Donbas
Crimea,that was already an autonomous region within Ukraine, since the start of the unrest, voiced preoccupation and signals of a shift towards Russia. Its major Russian population and especially the naval base that Russia kept from soviet times, were all reasons for the Kremlin to do not waste a lifetime opportunity. Putin considered Crimea under a strategic and geopolitical factor masked by nationalism and rhetoric to facilitate a return to the mother land.
Putin used nationalism to obtain internal approval, but the reality is that Russia could not afford to lose the Black Sea fleet: it is needed to access and control the eastern Mediterranean (Syria), keep under control NATO states. If under a military point of view there was nothing that Kiev could have done to prevent a takeover, and a war that Russia probably would have fought for real, even on historical side there were few reasons to oppose a change. Crimea has always been Russian since 1783, although Tartar population lived in the peninsula until 1944. The Czars fight to control the peninsula and the access to the sea was vital. Even under the Soviet Union, Crimea was until 1954 a region depending from Russia SSR, although being an autonomous region. The main change occurred in the WWII when, following the Nazis invasion, some Ukrainians assisted the Germans, and in Crimea some Tartars fought against the Russians. At war over, Stalin revenge was devastating: he deported the entire population of Tartars in Siberia, and the peninsula was reshaped under Russian predominance and held with an iron grip. However, in 1954, the soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, Ukrainian, in the prologue to the famous de-stalinisation transferred Crimea to the Ukraine SSR, seen by many in the Soviet Union as a sort of compensation, justified under administrative advantages represented by geographical and common economic structure with Ukraine. Russia always maintained its naval base, and the situation remained unchanged until our times. The Tartars were allowed to return in Crimea only in 1991.
Ukraine and the West, although ventilated anger and still do not recognize Russian annexation, know that in fact this is now a fait accompli and regard Crimea as something non defendable; even ex US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and ex Soviet president Mikhail Gorbacev, who are far from being considered Putin’s supporters, condemned US negation of history and Russia’s right to Crimea. Nevertheless, this exposes also Moscow hypocrisy: what about Kosovo then? Six years ago they furiously denounced a violation of international law by allowing a unilateral referendum, and now the same happened in Crimea but with sides switched. Has Moscow changed line? Not really, the Kremlin still regards any unilateral action as dangerous to a country national unity, especially in a country like Russia, but the gain from Crimea and the potential loss of a strategic base were far more important than this pillar of Russian policy and for one time have been overlooked. This can be demonstrated by the total different approach towards eastern Ukraine.
When the eastern regions declared unilaterally an independence referendum, Moscow was silent and on more than one occasion even invited the rebels to refrain as there were no suitable conditions to hold a poll due to military engagement, although in reality the situation was not that dissimilar from Crimea. Moscow, following Crimea annexation, threatened military intervention in the east, as did in Georgia, to defend Russian citizens, but in reality nothing happened, although we have had already many episodes that could have been taken as a pretext: the Odessa fire, an assassination attempt of pro Russian mayor in Kharkhiv, the recent assault to the Russian embassy in Kiev. Nonetheless the Russian tanks are still on the other side of the border, except for old fashion ones that supposedly crossed and joined the rebels. This demonstrates that Russia is playing a different game in Ukraine: is doing exactly what Washington has been doing is Syria by arming rebels, fomenting unrest in the population, giving logistic support. In other words, no direct intervention, but a low intensity conflict by creating a situation where the rebels are strong enough to resist government forces and at the same time not that strong to alter the balance leading to an armed intervention from the west.
Russia in other words is keeping Ukraine at a leash as the US have done with Russia in the 90s. Economic sanctions towards Kiev will bite hard, gas supply halted recently will damage even further an economy at collapse. Russia also know that the government in Kiev is helpless, does not have a clear policy and an intervention will be considered only if a reckless action will happen: the recent embassy incident was a demonstration of how dangerous is the game Kiev is playing and led even the US to angrily criticize the government for inaction in protecting Russian diplomats.
Russia is not willing to go to war, due to economic consequences, on a military side although Russian forces are superior, it will not be easy against the Ukrainian army that has hardware from Russian industry, nationalism will increase the risk of an all out war with the possibility of a repetition of the afghan campaign. Russia at the same time does not want to take control of an economy in tatters, although the Donbas is the industrial powerhouse of Ukraine. Moscow still hope that will be able to settle with Ukraine for a federation with eastern regions obtaining a large form of autonomy, and a country that may join NATO and the EU, but keeping the east neutral or free from NATO bases.
How likely is this succeed will depend on many factors, but surely not from western sanctions as Russia is not concerned about that, at least until the West will not start to open the eyes and see Russia for what it is, a superpower back in business. While the West thought to have closed the front door to Russian expansionism, on the other simply forgot the back garden door, where Russian new czars take their afternoon tea with their Chinese partners, who also are US antagonists in the Pacific. The result is old ideological enemies signing multibillion dollars deals that dwarf western sanctions and give to Russia a long term investment in an area now cut off completely to western businesses.