By Probir Kumar Sarkar.
Ukraine, the terra incognita, once made world headlines in 1986, under Soviet rule, when the Chernobyl nuclear disaster claimed scores of dead, and thousands more suffered the long-term effects of nuclear radiation.
This time, following political turmoil and the subsequent invasion and annexation of Crimea by Russian forces, Ukraine’s media infamy is part of a much larger situation. Though independent since 1991 along with other former Soviet satellites, Ukraine has always been seen by Russia as a buffer between it and the West. Ukraine’s recent brush with European ascension was a direct security threat to Russia. If Ukraine were to join the E.U. and then NATO, Russia’s soft underbelly would be exposed to its old enemy. Russia is prepared to prevent that. The West is not hostile, but if the last century has taught Moscow any lessons, it is that Europe should be held at arm’s length. Since Ukraine and Belarus fall into this buffer zone, Russia will never allow them accession to NATO or even E.U. membership.
This policy is not unlike Cold War-era maneuvering. In order to compete ideologically, militarily, and economically with the former USSR and its communist allies, the U.S. used a strategy of geopolitical containment of the Soviet Union. Looking at Russia’s actions with Ukraine, it would seem the stalemate never quite ended, only abated when the former Soviet Union basically faced economic exhaustion from the competition with the U.S. and its allies.
Economic cooperation with the West would benefit Russia today, but Vladimir Putin would rather return to the lost strength and glory of now-defunct, Soviet-style rule. And he has indeed made progress, both at home and abroad, in gradual but systemic developments. It is Putin, not Russia, that fears the Westernization of Ukraine. Proponents of liberal democracy and free market policy so close to home are a direct threat to his influence and cronyism.
Thus Ukraine is in the foreign policy sights of both the East and the West, each vying for a separate solution, but in Crimea, the upper hand has gone to Russia. The E.U. is preoccupied with the shambles of recession for existing members while the U.S. has exhausted support with unfinished tasks in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere in the Middle East. The American portfolio over the last decade and a half has created more foes than friends.
In response to the crisis in Crimea, U.S and European officials have tried to present a united front. The U.S. and some European countries have pushed for strong action, but those more dependent on Russian energy and trade were reluctant. The resultant minor threats and sanctions seem to have had little effect on Putin’s decision-making. The fragmentation of European nations, with serious economic crisis in the eurozone, makes a coherent response beyond proclamations nearly impossible.
In addition, it is wrong to compare Russian-style democracy and market forces with those of Europe and America. While the West might be better able to afford double-edged sanctions against Russia, Putin would be better able to weather the consequences than his rival politicians. It seems Putin didn’t move hastily in Crimea. He considered the consequences of U.S. and Western sanctions. While Obama and his European allies could not survive the vitriol of their democratic oppositions if the same happened at home, Putin does not care how much Russian markets plummet. Rather he is counting on his renewed popularity after claiming Crimea while many of Russia’s elites were tipped off and prepared for the plunge.
Russia’s seizure of Crimea may hurt the Russian economy, but it is only serving to bolster Putin’s position at the polls. His support base runs profoundly deep in Russian society, and the Kremlin’s pro-war hysteria is gaining momentum for his popularity, serving the dual purposes of singling out dissidents and consolidating his power base.
Invading Crimea might cost Russia the opportunity to control the rest of Ukraine by annexing a large portion of Russian supporters from the country, but one can expect that Putin has thought of this. He still holds the cards to create turbulence by mobilizing his intelligence agencies, and some six million ethnic Russians still reside in Eastern Ukraine.
Russia has shown it is not a waning power anymore. In 2008, Russia pushed in Georgia, changing power calculations in the region. Now Putin’s intervention in Crimea has proven Europe has no power to challenge Russia with the Americans so far away. If Putin’s adventurism continues, the large ethnic Russian populations within Ukraine, Moldova, and even E.U. nations like Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia might be used by Russia to further push NATO’s limits.
The Kremlin has already threatened that if they are challenged by the U.S., Russia can create problems in Iran over nuclear talks. Moscow recently offered to build two civilian nuclear reactors in Iran and could also provide nuclear- military supplies beneath the surface, which would scuttle the U.S.-Iranian negotiations. With this in consideration, the situation is looking more and more reminiscent of Cold War politics.
For now, Russia has Crimea, and the ball is still in Putin’s court. Europe and the United States have no appetite to engage in military power play with Russia as they are preoccupied with persistent troubles in their own spheres. From the fragmented European coalition, sanctions would exert a minimal pressure on Russia, and for any sanctions that America could impose, the Russians have a counter. It would of course present a challenge for Russia, but any sanctions against the world’s eighth largest economy would hit the world as badly as Russia itself.
For now the West watches as the Ukraine imbroglio hangs on, and Putin considers his next move.Mr. Sarkar is a senior international journalist who studied U.S. Foreign Policy and International Security at Cambridge. He is the Executive Editor of The Global Intelligence.
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