Ukraine

Crossing the line

Print edition : April 04, 2014

A poster in Sevastopol on March 11 reading "On March 16 we will choose either... or...", depicting Crimea in red with a swastika and covered in barbed wire and Crimea with the colours of the Russian flag. Photo: VIKTOR DRACHEV/AFP

Russian President Vladimir Putin. If he reasserts control over Ukraine, his popularity in Russia will shoot up, but if the crisis drags on and Russia ends up with a hostile Ukraine and spoiled relations with the West, he may face a dangerous surge in discontent at home. Photo: Alexei Nikolsky/AP

Moscow sees the West’s meddling in Ukraine as an encroachment on Russia itself.

IN UKRAINE, the West is reaping the whirlwind it has sowed in Russia in the past two decades.

Flush with its triumph in the Cold War, the West treated Russia as a fallen enemy who would never rise again and whose interests and sensitivities could be safely ignored. Western leaders cheated Mikhail Gorbachev when they solemnly promised him not to move North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) borders to the East if he agreed to the reunification of Germany. They cheated Boris Yeltsin by telling him that NATO’s eastward expansion would not bring the alliance’s military might to Russia’s doorstep and then setting up military bases in Poland, Bulgaria and Romania. And again they cheated Vladimir Putin in the Ukraine crisis.

It was the Russian leader who persuaded the embattled President Viktor Yanukovich to make concessions to the opposition and sign the February 21 peace accord, according to Poland’s Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, who mediated in the talks together with the Foreign Ministers of Germany and France. A Russian diplomat confirmed that United States President Barack Obama and the leaders of Germany, France and Poland had asked Putin to weigh in on Yanukovich, promising in return to make sure the Ukrainian opposition honoured their end of the deal. The agreement called for Yanukovich to pull back security forces from the streets and for the protesters to surrender their weapons. It further envisaged a coalition government of “national unity”, constitutional reforms that would take care of the interests of Ukraine’s Russian-speaking regions, and presidential election by December.

However, as soon as Yanukovich ordered the riot police back to barracks, the opposition took over government offices and forced Yanukovich to flee Kiev. Western powers welcomed the instalment of an opposition-only pro-Western government and turned down Russia’s calls to resolve the crisis on the basis of the February 21 accord.

It is not surprising that Putin refused to be taken in by Western assurances that Ukraine is not about “a strategic competition between East and West”.

In fact, this is exactly how the Kremlin sees the Ukraine crisis. The West took advantage of the massive protests against the kleptocratic and inept regime of Yanukovich in order to push its agenda of tearing Ukraine away from Russia.

“For Russia, it is not just a red line, it’s a solid double red line no one is permitted to cross,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, Chairman of Russia’s authoritative Council on Foreign and Defence Policy.

Moscow sees the West’s meddling in Ukraine as encroachment on Russia itself. According to Ukraine’s official statistics, ethnic Russians account for 17 per cent of its population of 46 million people. But when Gallup pollsters asked Ukrainians in what language they would rather be polled, 83 per cent chose Russian.

Russians are still reeling from the disintegration of the Soviet empire which made them the largest divided nation in the world, with 25 million ethnic Russians finding themselves in foreign countries. When Putin famously stated that the collapse of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”, he expressed the feeling of many Russians.

The West clearly underestimated Putin’s resolve to act to assert Russian interests in Ukraine. He deployed additional troops in the peninsula, where Russia has a naval base, and obtained a mandate from the Russian Parliament to send troops to other parts of Ukraine to protect Russian speakers from far-Right Ukrainian nationalists.

After the West stonewalled his proposals to return to the February 21 accord, Putin gave the green light to Crimea’s bid to split from Ukraine and join Russia.

A dominant narrative today has it that Putin could not allow Ukraine to slip out of his control because it is “the birthplace of Russian civilisation”. Moreover, Crimea was part of Russia until 1954 when it was handed over to Ukraine by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in a symbolic gesture to mark the 300th anniversary of Ukraine’s merger with Russia. What was a mere formality back then when both Russia and Ukraine were part of the Soviet Union is seen today in Russia as an act of enormous historical injustice.

Geopolitical compulsion

However, Putin had a far stronger geopolitical compulsion to interfere—the all-too-real prospect of Ukraine joining NATO. The new leaders in Kiev are the same people who staged the “orange revolution” in Ukraine in 2004 and set Ukraine on the path of NATO membership. After coming to power in 2010, Yanukovich reasserted Ukraine’s non-bloc status by law and signed a pact with Moscow to extend the Russian lease of the Sevastopol naval base from 2017 to 2042 in exchange for a significant discount on Russian gas prices. The opposition vowed to retract both acts.

Russian strategists describe Ukraine’s possible accession to NATO as “a strategic catastrophe” for Russia. NATO would come within 425 kilometres of Moscow, squeeze Russia out of the Black Sea and the Caucasus and deny it projection of power to the Mediterranean.

Conservative Russian philosopher Alexander Dugin, whose ideas of Russia’s Eurasianism as opposed to Western ultra-liberalism increasingly resonate in the Kremlin, views the current upheaval in Ukraine as “the battle of the unipolar world of U.S. hegemony against Russia”.

“Whereas in Libya we shunned the battle, because we had [President Dmitry] Medvedev at the helm, in Syria and Ukraine we have taken up the gauntlet,” Prof. Dugin wrote recently.

Along with pursuing military encirclement of Russia, the West has sought to disrupt Russia’s efforts for the economic reintegration of ex-Soviet states.

U.S. leaders publicly stated that their goal was to derail Putin’s plan to build the Eurasian Economic Union (EEC), a Moscow-led version of the European Union (E.U.), which they denounced as a disguised attempt to recreate the Soviet Union.

“There is a move to re-Sovietise the region,” Hillary Clinton said in 2012, when she was still U.S. Secretary of State. “It’s not going to be called that. It’s going to be called a Customs Union, it will be called Eurasian Union and all of that.”

“But let’s make no mistake about it,” she added. “We know what the goal is and we are trying to figure out effective ways to slow down or prevent it.”

The most “effective way” to wreck the EEC was to prevent Ukraine, the second most powerful economy in the former Soviet Union, from joining the project.

The E.U. had negotiated with Yanukovich a free trade and association pact that would have precluded Ukraine from entering any other economic alliances. Yanukovich balked at signing it in November after failing to win any meaningful financial assistance from the crisis-hit E.U. The move triggered mass protests that eventually brought down his government as people felt robbed of hopes for a better life as part of rich Europe.

Economists argued that had Yanukovich signed the accord on E.U. terms it would have reduced Ukraine to Europe’s colonial appendage.

“Apart from the geopolitical aspects and the historically predetermined standoff with Russia, [Europe’s] key economic motive [for a free trade zone with Ukraine] is the annexation of a new market for sales of the E.U. member-countries’ products, which European leaders believe will help lead the economy out of the crisis,” said Dr Nikita Krichevsky, a leading Russian economist.

Domestic motives

Apart from geopolitical considerations, the Russian intervention in Ukraine has been driven by important domestic motives. No matter how much the protests in Ukraine were manipulated by the West, they reflected the rise of grass-roots-level civic activity against corruption and authoritarianism—the same problems that brought thousands of anti-government protesters onto the streets of Moscow two years ago. By intervening in Ukraine, Putin sought to stop its pro-democracy agitation from spilling over to Russia.

Putin is widely expected to seek a fourth presidential term in 2018. However, the protest rallies against his return to presidency in 2012 were a sign of growing wariness with his rule. A poll conducted by the respected Levada Centre last year showed that half of Russians would like to see a new leader in 2018.

Putin’s move in Ukraine, if successful, could reverse the negative trend. Several surveys in March showed that Putin’s popularity was at its highest since his re-election.

Experts said Putin needed a new agenda to retain voter support—reassembly of lost Russian lands.

“Putin has exhausted the limit of people’s gratitude to him for having saved the country from chaos and ruin,” said Dugin. “He needs a new future-oriented strategy to re-establish his legitimacy. Eurasian integration of the former Soviet space would give him such a strategy.”

However, Putin’s strategy in Ukraine is fraught with serious risks. He may be right in his calculations that Western powers would not impose hard-hitting economic sanctions on Russia for fear of hurting their own economies, but it is much harder to predict how the situation evolves in Ukraine.

Yanukovich’s downfall left Ukraine in shatters. The country is bankrupt and is heading for default. The new authorities’ shaky grip on power may weaken further as they embark on harsh austerity measures to qualify for urgent assistance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and Western powers. The “revolution”, as Ukraine’s new leaders call it, or the West-orchestrated “coup”, according to Putin, widened the chasm between Ukraine’s pro-Russia southeast and pro-Europe west.

If Ukraine breaks up along the east-west divide, its western part will join NATO. This would be a dubious victory for Russia.

Putin has made it clear he would prefer Ukraine to switch to a federative structure, with the Russian-speaking regions getting enough autonomy to block any sharp swing towards the West.

The stakes for Putin are very high. If he reasserts control over Ukraine, his popularity in Russia will shoot up, but if the crisis drags on and Russia ends up with a hostile Ukraine and spoiled relations with the West, he may face a dangerous surge in discontent at home.

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