Cover Story

Russian riposte

Print edition : April 18, 2014

Russian President Vladimir Putin signs a Bill making Crimea part of Russia, in the Kremlin on March 21. Photo: Sergei Chirikov/AP

People queue to get their Russian passports in the Crimean capital of Simferopol on March 24. Photo: YURIY LASHOV/AFP

At the Red Square in Moscow on March 18, people celebrate the incorporation of Crimea into the Russian Federation. Photo: DMITRY SEREBRYAKOV/AFP

With its intervention in Crimea, Russia is sending a clear message to the U.S. and its Western allies that the unipolar world order is not viable anymore and the rules of engagement have to be changed.

THE stand-off between Russia and the West over Ukraine has been called the worst East-West crisis since the end of the Cold War. Future historians will probably look back at it as the dawn of a new era in world politics, marked by Russia’s push to rewrite post-Cold War realities.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton compared Russia’s takeover of Crimea to Hitler’s annexation of Austria and Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland in 1938. Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague called it “the biggest crisis in Europe in the 21st century”, while NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen spoke about “the gravest threat to European security and stability since the end of the Cold War”.

The Western ire is understandable: no country in the top league has so demonstrably challenged the post-Cold War global order as Russia did with the reunion of Crimea. Even Russia’s thrashing of George W. Bush’s “democracy beacon” Georgia in 2008 did not cause so much anger because the West was not immediately involved. In Ukraine, Putin thumbed his nose directly at the United States and its European allies.

Putin explained in no uncertain terms that his move in Crimea was in response to the Western policy of “containment” of Russia. “We have every reason to assume that the infamous policy of containment, led in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, continues today. They are constantly trying to sweep us into a corner because we have an independent position, because we maintain it and because we call things like they are and do not engage in hypocrisy,” Putin said in his keynote speech at a Kremlin ceremony to sign the Crimea reunion treaty on March 18.

By orchestrating a replay of the 2004 “colour revolution” in Ukraine, the West had “crossed the line”, Putin said. “There is a limit to everything. And with Ukraine, our Western partners have crossed the line…. Russia found itself in a position it could not retreat from. If you compress the spring all the way to its limit, it will snap back hard.”

Putin stated clearly that in Ukraine, Russia not only defended its vital interests but stood up against what the NATO chief called “the rule book” the alliance members “have spent decades to build”. “Our Western partners, led by the United States of America, prefer not to be guided by international law in their practical policies, but by the rule of the gun. They have come to believe in their exclusivity and exceptionalism, that they can decide the destinies of the world, that only they can ever be right. They act as they please: here and there, they use force against sovereign states, building coalitions based on the principle ‘If you are not with us, you are against us’. To make this aggression look legitimate, they force the necessary resolutions from international organisations, and if for some reason this does not work, they simply ignore the U.N. Security Council and the U.N. overall.”

The West has rebuffed Russia’s attempts “to strengthen the level of trust and to build equal, open and fair relations”, Putin said. “On the contrary, they have lied to us many times, made decisions behind our backs, placed before us an accomplished fact. This happened with NATO’s expansion to the East as well as the deployment of military infrastructure at our borders,” the Russian leader recalled. “It happened with the deployment of a missile defence system. In spite of all our apprehensions, the project is working and moving forward. It happened with the endless foot-dragging in the talks on visa issues, promises of fair competition and free access to global markets.”

The current crisis is not only about Ukraine. However, the outcome of the East-West standoff in Ukraine may be crucial for deciding the success or failure of Russia’s new policy of defiance.

Crimea’s takeover has solved the problem of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, which Ukraine’s new leaders had vowed to drive out of Sevastopol and for which there is no other basing location that does not freeze in winter. Russia has thus consolidated a strategic grip on the region and the ability to project its naval and air power to the Mediterranean and beyond.

But the battle for Ukraine still lies ahead. Putin’s key demands are that Ukraine remain neutral and switch from a unitary to a federal state structure. This would give the country’s pro-Russian south-east regions veto power over Kiev’s key foreign policy decisions, such as membership in NATO, and keep Ukraine in the Russian orbit.

Crimea was Putin’s trump card and he has played it. He has a mandate from the Russian Parliament to intervene militarily in Ukraine to “protect” ethnic Russians, but sending troops into mainland Ukraine is not a feasible option as this would involve military confrontation with serious international complications which Russia avoided in Crimea.

Putin has other instruments of leverage to push through the federalisation agenda. Moscow has made it clear that it is ready to apply economic pressure. It has already suspended the disbursement of a $15-billion aid package it had extended to the Viktor Yanukovich government and has threatened to scrap the hefty price discounts on its gas supplies to Ukraine. This would nearly double the price of Russian gas for Ukraine, putting a crippling burden on households and industry. The U.S. and the European Union have promised Ukraine financial assistance but Russia believes that the West will not be willing to bear the enormous cost of bailing out Ukraine’s near-bankrupt economy and will eventually ask Russia to step in.

Putin’s main card at this stage is Ukraine’s Russian-speaking regions. Crimea’s rebellion against the coup in Kiev has inspired Russian speakers in the east and south of Ukraine to demand greater autonomy from the central government. The rise of Far-Right and neo-Nazi groups in western Ukraine, who spearheaded deadly clashes with the police during the Kiev protests, widened the chasm between Ukraine’s Russian-speaking south-east and nationalist west. Thousands of people in Ukraine’s main industrial centres of Donetsk, Kharkiv and Lugansk have demonstrated in support of their demand to hold local referendums on a new power-sharing arrangement. With Kiev categorically opposed to reform, pro-Russian activists in eastern Ukraine have been setting up armed militias, vowing to resist pressure from the “illegitimate” government in Kiev. This has raised the spectre of a civil conflict that can lead to the break-up of Ukraine.

Moscow hopes to persuade the Western backers of the new government in Kiev that federalisation of Ukraine is the only way to keep it from falling apart.

Despite their tough rhetoric, the U.S. and the E.U. have so far refrained from slapping biting economic sanctions against Russia that would inevitably have a crippling blowback effect on Europe’s struggling economy. The assets-freeze of select Russian individuals is likely to misfire since Putin ordered all government officials last year to close their bank accounts and sell off properties abroad.

If and when wider economic sanctions come, Russians appear to be solidly lined behind their leader. A March poll found that more than 90 per cent of respondents supported Crimea’s reunion with Russia.

Western efforts at international isolation of Russia have had limited effect. Russia has shrugged off its suspension from the G8, pointing out that the group has been losing its relevance anyway. China, India and other BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) partners have refused to join the Western campaign to condemn Russia. In his March 18 speech, Putin thanked India and China for their stance on the Ukraine crisis. Even as G7 leaders announced their boycott of Russia at a meeting at The Hague on the sidelines of a nuclear security conference on March 25, the BRICS Foreign Ministers, meeting in the same venue, denounced the use of sanctions and “hostile language” and rejected Australia’s threats to block Russia from attending a G20 summit in Brisbane later this year.

The Ukraine crisis has prompted fears of a new Cold War between Russia and the West. However, in Putin’s calculus, this is an unlikely scenario. Unlike the Soviet Union, Russia is deeply integrated into the world economy. It is the E.U’s third-largest trading partner and Russian oil and gas supplies meet 80 per cent of Europe’s energy needs. The U.S. needs Russia’s cooperation on Syria, Iran and Afghanistan.

Putting too much pressure on Russia would push it closer to China. Russia would step up defence supplies to China and reorient its energy exports from Europe to the East. During Putin’s upcoming visit to China in May, the two countries are expected to finalise a contract for the sale of Russia’s latest Su-35 fighter jets and a long-pending deal for Russian gas exports to China.

China would be only too happy to “strategically bind Russia” to itself, said Fyodor Lukyanov, Chairman of Russia’s authoritative Council for Foreign and Defence Policy. “China is calculating that by the 2020s, when the strategic rivalry with the U.S. is likely to take on a new military-political dimension, Russia will have no slack to play with and will have to side with its Asian neighbour,” he said.

Japan, China’s main competitor for Russian natural resources, has refused to cancel ambitious investment plans in Russia. On the day Russia’s apex court endorsed the Crimea reunification treaty, a major Russia-Japan investment forum opened in Tokyo, attended by 1,000 businessmen.

India may also benefit from Russia’s pivot to the East. Russia’s First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov has said that Moscow’s top priority in the post-Ukraine scenario is “to find new partners and those who look kindly for our attention, and we need to turn to them and discover opportunities to sell our goods”. Igor Sechin, Putin’s trusted lieutenant and head of Rosneft, Russia’s largest oil company, visited India in the last week of March to offer the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) 10 offshore oil and gas blocks in the Barents Sea and in the Black Sea.

“India is a very important country for Russia…. We want to expand our cooperation,” Sechin told PTI. “We are (also) looking at supplying crude oil to Indian refineries.”

Putin’s long-term policy is not to reignite East-West confrontation but to make the West see the realities: the post-Cold War unipolar system has collapsed and world powers need to agree on new rules of the game. Back in the era of George Bush Sr, the U.S. ignored Putin’s idea of building a new global security architecture “from Vancouver to Vladivostok”.

In his famous speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007, Putin returned to the idea: “I am convinced that we have reached that decisive moment when we must seriously think about the architecture of global security.”

In the wake of the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, Russia’s then President Dmitry Medvedev proposed a draft European security treaty that would address territorial disputes and renounce the use of force. The West turned a deaf ear again.

With his move in Ukraine, Putin has screamed to the West: either we sit down and write a new “rule book” or the world sinks into free-for-all chaos.

“Russia has started a very big game. The risks are great, but the possible gains are enormous as well,” analyst Lukyanov said. “The old world order has almost stopped functioning and a new one is about to take shape. Mikhail Gorbachev, who was the first to speak about the need for a new world order in 1986, failed to build it. Vladimir Putin is returning to the crossroads to make a new attempt.”

Early reactions from the West are not very encouraging for Russia. On March 21, the E.U. signed the political part of an association and free trade accord with Ukraine which commits Kiev to the same deal that former President Yanukovich refused to sign last November and which led to his overthrow. The political accord binds Ukraine to Europe’s defence and security policy, while the free trade pact, to be signed later this year, would prohibit Ukraine from joining the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union. Is the West back at its old game of containing Russia?

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