Ukraine is an endless source of fun. The play-thing of a Mad God and yet safely removed from the possibility of further Western Adventures. But, perhaps this time Putin has overplayed his hand, forcing a response that Russia’s petro-export economy can ill afford.
Perhaps not. Rather a price that has been judged worth paying:
Russia has a lease on Sevastopol that stretches out to ~2042, but the thing about sovereign nation states is that they are sovereign, and while a non-aligned Ukraine wouldn’t dare antagonise its more powerful neigbour this is not the problem Russia faced. No, Russia faced the prospect of a Ukraine in 2020 that was a small’ish EU nation subject to pressure of an EU foreign policy, with the security guarantee of NATO to let them act ‘unilaterally’. Even the potential that they might consider revoking the lease in the late twenties would be enough to scupper Russia’s certainty on it’s ability to forward project potential responses to future problems. This is the purpose of Sevastopol; to provide options for power projection.
As to it being boxed in by NATO, the sum of Russian foreign policy ambition does not boil down to warding off existential threats from its West (far from it). The Med is an important part of the world in its own right with unparalleled access to Southern Asia and Africa, areas otherwise difficult to reach (and thus influence), from a nation at the very top of the eurasian landmass.
Not Just a warm-water port. The return of the buffer-state:
In the cold war era when we had two hyper-dominant powers squaring off against each other the rest of us had to put up with the notion of spheres of influence, i.e, small peripheral nations that are subject to the will of their neighbouring hegemon. This helped give the hegemons:
1. Strategic depth
2. A casus belli to act beyond their own borders
You have Finland for the old USSR as one very good example.
Even with the end of the Cold War the victors were supposed to leave Russia with a buffer zone of non-aligned states between it and the West. We all know how chagrined Russia was to see NATO/Europe jump into the baltic states.
Russia still likes to see the world this way, and has worked hard to ensure that Ukraine and Belarus stay within its ‘fold’.
This has obviously become untenable in Ukraine, but what it has achieved with its recent chaos in the east of the country is to informally partition the country by forcing a federal structure with significant autonomy for the eastern provinces and confirmation of the countries non-aligned status. Oh, look what’s happened. And what guarantees the continued non-aligned status of a country that must continue to respect interests of its twin ethnic identities? Crimea. It will remain de-facto Russian territory, but not de-jure, and as long as that continues as a territorial dispute it will be difficult/impossible for it to join NATO or the EU. Kissinger has recently been conducting a little shuttle-diplomacy in Russia, you have to wonder whether his recent article isn’t communicating the reality of a done-deal rather than a wish…
If Putin succeeds in creating a federalised Ukraine with regional autonomy for russo-ethinic eastern regions, what might that say to Belarus? With a 13% ethnic russian population, 33% who believe they share a common history with Russia, and 70% who speak Russian langauge…“Keep you head down!” Putin gets the buffer between east and west that he seeks, even if it is intra-national boundary rather than supra-national one.
Never mind the quality, feel the width:
Surely this continued aggression on Europe’s doorstep will expose Russia’s dependence on Western cash for its gas? Without alternative markets for its petro-exports its economy would be toast. Well quite, that is exactly what Russia has done. Within the (extremely slow) time-frame that Europe can afford to wind down its gas dependence on Russia the rising eEast will more than suffice to soak up any Russian ‘surplus’.
Who do you think Russia perceives as the more important market for its products; a sclerotic Europe that will shrink to less than 15% of the world economy by 2030, or the worlds rising No2 power that will represent the largest economic bloc (including the peripheral nations that will become heavily integrated into China’s supply chain)?
Who do you think Russia perceives as the more important strategic partner/rival for its own future relevance; a post-RealistIR EU that continues to let its fascination with soft-power blind it to relevance of using hard-power, or the worlds rising No2 power with whom it share thousands of miles of border and an authoritarian government?
The fact that this has happened in Spring – as European gas-dependence declines with the warming weather – will also be seen as a good thing in the Kremlin, for it gives Europe the space to crystallise on less hysterical responses. In addition to which Germany is too sympathetic, and Southern europe apathetic, for any hard response to materialise from Europe. The US does have the power to utterly cripple Russia economically, by using legal instruments to taint vital Russian banks, but if there is any element of this crisis that is particularly clever it is the ‘threat’ to Eastern Ukraine. In demonstrating a credible military threat externally, and the will to create havoc internally, Russia is forcing the West to ignore Crimea and predicate dangerous sanctions on future action rather than actions past. A beautiful shell game, and for a part of Ukraine they have no intention of taking. If Eastern Ukraine is never absorbed into Russian territory they never get activated. One hopes that Russian nationalists in Eastern Ukraine realise they are Putin’s pawns before they shed too much blood in their cause…
Democracy is a biggest con in Foreign Policy, for it allows you to justify 180 degree turns in policy with no loss of face. In five years time when Putin steps away from (the front-line of ) Russian politics, there will dawn a bright new day when Russia will patch up rocky relations with its western neighbours. All ominous talk of consequences will evaporate, and we’ll all cheer; “Hooray for Western diplomacy!”
A good mark of whether Putin has succeeded or failed in this gambit is not the final status of Crimea, it is whether he can pull off this diplomatic reset before Finland, its northern frontier buffer-state reconsiders its options… The same holds true in reverse as the measure of success for Western diplomacy, can the Nordic countries be drawn more fully into the security architecture of the West?
To the folly of which fading empire do I refer?
Update 2014.05.08 – “Hooray for Western Diplomacy….?”
Update 2014.05.21 – How quickly can europe ramp down demand (130BCM), when russia can find people to soak up supply? this quickly (38BCM)
Update 2014.08.26 – How quickly can europe ramp down demand? Part 2 this quickly ten plus years.
Update 2015.04.12 – Russia gets twitchy about Finland and NATO
Update 2018.06.18 – Great read generally, but this in particular is interesting:
It began with infiltration, and its strategic centerpiece is a low-cost effort to coerce Ukraine into federalization in a bid to retain control over Kyiv’s strategic orientation. Moscow never wanted to hold on to the Donbass and still does not. If anything, it long sought to return it to Ukraine in exchange for federalization, though, at minimum, Russia is happy at the destabilizing effect that this conflict has on Ukraine’s policy and economy. Put aside cyber and political warfare campaigns, the four-year conflict in Ukraine is at face value a sustained raid that Moscow had hoped to close out with the Minsk I and Minsk II agreements.