Sunday, 2 March 2014


Taking a double-barreled approach

by Colin Liddell

What seems to be happening now in the Ukraine is one of the worst outcomes possible. Russia seems poised to take very risky action merely to maintain its dignity and status as a great power. This situation has come about frankly because Putin misread the situation and ended up investing his political capital in Yanukovych, who turned out to be the worst type of corrupt oligarch.

Perhaps it was impossible to find a virgin in the whorehouse of Ukrainian politics, which ties Nigeria for corruption, but perhaps something more could have been done.

The other mistake was alienating the ultra-nationalist and traditionalist forces in the Ukraine, as these provided the revolution with its spearhead. With them on his side, or at least neutral, Yanukovych would still be installing his gold toilets and diamond chandeliers in his latest palace.

But here too, Putin faced problems as there seems to be a considerable amount of bad blood between the Ukrainian ultra-nationalists and the Russians, based on a lot of rather brutal history.

One of the features of Putin's Russia is a positive embrace of all of its history, including the dark deeds enacted under Lenin and Stalin. For Russia to turn its back on this period would be to weaken the "Grand Historical Narrative" that the likes of Putin and his wise man, Alexandr Dugin, believe is necessary for any strong and assertive country. But, of course, this creates animosity with those who suffered under Soviet Communism, and the Ukraine, we must remember was the site of the Holodomor, perhaps the worst crime of the 20th century, although it wasn't just Russians who carried this out.

For these reasons, the Ukraine has slipped out of Putin's grasp, despite the considerable economic and demographic leverage that Russia has in the country. In short, to end the game here would signify an enormous defeat. For Putin to stop now would be like a bitcoin investor selling all his bitcoin just because Mt. Gox has collapsed.

Putin, of course, is not about to end the game. He is going to stay in it and get something out of it, even if it is just the Crimea.

The Crimea, however, is important for two main reasons. Firstly, it is the lynch pin of a strong Russian naval presence in the Black Sea, something which helps link Russia to its civilizational roots in the old Byzantine Empire. The Third Rome (Moscow) draws much spiritual energy from its connection to the Second Rome (Istanbul/Constantinople). This is also a means of connecting it to its fellow Slavs or co-religionists in the Balkans (mainly the Serbs and Bulgarians, but also the Greeks).

The second reason is connected to the Eurasianist doctrine which posits Russia as the great telluric (land) power as the counterpoint to the great thalassocratic power (sea empire), America.

The sea power has its tentacles wrapped around some of the most 'telluric' pieces of the Eurasian continent – Germany for example – so, it is vital that its telluric rival finds some way to retaliate by finding places where it can at least dip its paws in the ocean. For the Russians to lose their interests in the Crimea, where they have a major naval base by treaty, to an EU and NATO-oriented Ukraine would be a significant setback in the Eurasianist viewpoint.

As the recent actions of the pro-Russian forces in the Crimea show, Putin is not about to let that happen. The Crimea is however a relatively simple problem to solve, even if the solving is done brutally and violently. Around 60% of the population is Russian and will support Russian action, and the territory is clearly defined as it is a peninsula with a narrow neck. It could be compared to a ripe apple waiting to be twisted off the bough. Historically it was never part of the Ukraine, only being added in the 1950s for administrative convenience.

A much more serious question is about the other predominantly Russian parts of the Ukraine. These have no clear border to separate them from the rest of the Ukraine and making one would doubtless require a war, a war that would also sit across Russia’s all-important pipelines to Europe and thus incur, in Obama's words, "a cost."

Double-barreled approach

Putin seems to be investing in two different strategies, one involving limited, definite gains and the other involving wider, less definite gains.

The second of these is the leading position, with the first one being a kind of back-up.

By supporting the breakaway of the Crimea, Putin is creating a mood of ethnic tension that is also infecting the Russian population in other parts of the Ukraine. This raises a threat of civil war and the breakup of the Ukrainian state. It is also calculated to concentrate minds and lead to a potential compromise solution with the new regime in Kiev, possibly even involving the return of President Yanukovych to serve out the rest of his term until new elections, as agreed before the Kiev mob took a hand. This may seem unlikely at the moment, but, in view of the alternatives, reason might suddenly start to prevail.

The danger, however, is that Slavic emotions will run out of control and override the many common interests between Russians and Ukrainians and lead to a rejection of such compromise, in which case Putin risks alienating the Ukraine even more. This could lead to a very messy situation in which Putin's choices would be either to ignore the calls of Russians within Ukraine for Russian intervention or else intervention that would involve seizing parts of the Eastern Ukraine in the face of the Ukrainian army.

This would precipitate a major world crisis, and would allow the West to paint Russia as an "evil aggressor." This would then be used to unite the NATO and EU-Blocs more strongly, and lead to more aggressive forms of economic and diplomatic warfare.

For this reason, Putin is unlikely to tread this path. This is where his fallback strategy of cutting off the Crimea comes into action. Whether the territory is annexed to Russia or simply becomes a Russian client state like South Ossetia or Abkhazia, it allows him a relatively easy way to preserve Russian mojo and status. The Ukraine will be punished for its "Atlanticism" by ironically having its most maritime province amputated, but because of the demographics and topography the operation will be relatively painless – a gentle spanking. A seizure of the Eastern Ukrainian would be a different story, and would turn into an open sore in so many ways.

Even though I believe the Crimea is a fallback position, it might even be a better main option for Putin than seeking wider, less definite gains, such as a return to the consensus worked out the day before Yanukovych fled. Given the various emotions stirred up in the Ukraine over recent months, such a spirit of compromise could be wiped out at the first elections, with the result that Sebastopol could then be on its way to becoming a NATO base.

In the long run, the Russians will have to rethink how they can better transcend such border-based squabbles, as they play into the hands of their worst enemies, based far, far away, beyond the wheat fields of the Ukraine.

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