Tuesday, 4 March 2014

UKRAINE, RUSSIA & THE NEW CRIMEAN WAR?

I know that this blog is starting to look like "All-Ukraine-All-The-Time" but this is obviously something close to my heart. And I believe it is also quite important for the future of the EU and US relationship with Russia. Finally, living in Kiyv, I can hopefully bring a mixture of Western and Ukrainian outlook to the discussion.



So, as you probably heard, Russia has been sending troops officially unofficially into Crimea and reserve itself the right to do so anywhere in Ukraine, should it deem it necessary to protect Russian-speaking minorities.

The pretext is not new. Plenty of people made comparisons with Hitler and Sudetenland but, frankly, it is hard to find a European power who hasn't used that argument repeatedly into all kind of conflicts, from ancient history to very recently (French intervention in Mali, for example). Indeed, the Crimean war between Imperial Russia and the British, French and Ottoman alliance was justified on the Russian side by Tsar Nicolas Ist supposedly wanting to protect the Orthodox Christian minorities oppressed by the Ottoman Empire.


The truth is, in this affair, Putin's hypocritical humanitarian appeals asides, the West and the Ukrainians made mistakes.

If you're willing to go back far enough, it was a mistake not to dissolve NATO in 1991 when the Soviet Union officially collapsed (even if to re-create some kind of 'western world military club' the day after). It certainly was a mistake to let Poland join in. It is still a mistake to talk about Ukraine or Georgia being invited in. Unless we were also planning on inviting Russia in... I can hear the snorts of derisions from the readers but why the fuck not? The ostensible goal of NATO - to oppose the Soviet Union - was dead. There was nothing to be gained by carrying on a Cold War mentality that was and is feeding Russian and Putin's paranoia...


... except, of course, that Putin's actions are now (and in Georgia before), a posteriori, justifying such distrust of post-Soviet Russia.

I am sure I won't be the first one to point out that international relations and geopolitics really resemble a school-yard: "Muuuummy, he started it first".


It'd be laughable - if it wasn't for the nukes and the torn lives of so many.


The Ukrainians are not blameless either.

I find Putin's complaint that the Ukrainians did not respect the agreement signed on the 21st of February laughable. Welcome to democracy and people determining their own future, mother-fucker.

But, surely, the new government had more pressing concerns than repelling a law making Russian the second official language in some regions of Ukraine?

I mean, sure, they were eager to re-affirm their identities, a fraught subject almost anywhere in the world but particularly in many places of the ex-Soviet Union where so many people, religions, ethnicities, languages or idioms all intersect. Still, even without considering Russia's feelings on the matter, it wasn't the friendliest gesture Kyiv could make towards the more pro-Russian parts of Ukraine.

But, even then, so far, the "threats to Russian-speaking minorities and Russian nationals" has remained nothing but outright lies and propaganda spewed by the Russian media. And, if anything, I suspect that Putin's actions in Crimea are more likely to increase the risks to said minorities in Ukraine rather than to diminish them.

On the other hand, I wouldn't be surprised if Putin would welcome such tragedies and some Russians being killed by Ukrainians as it would give him yet more pretexts to grab even bigger chunks of Ukraine.

For, at the end of the day, despite all the geo-political strategic stuff written and that I've myself quickly mentioned above, I think this all really about Putin, his ego and his self-image as the re-creator of the Russian Empire.

I had started out quite a fan of the man. Taking on the oligarchs and stabilising post-90s Russia was no mean feat. As I said elsewhere, it also opened up the possibility of a real modernisation and normalisation of Russia.

And, yet, after being so successful at stabilising his country, Putin did very little to modernise it. Moscow and St Petersburg are fine, modern, first-world metropolises. But, nearly everywhere else, Russia is a dismal, unpleasant, second-world country. He's been buying off the Russians' acquiescence to his rule with the revenues from Russia's natural resources but the long term investments and the development of a competitive industrial base needed for Russia to become a modern nation able to compete in a global market are still nowhere to be seen...

This was immensely disappointing and the change in focus - from making Russia strong and resilient by modernising it to making Russia feared and big by conquering some pointless real estate - will have tragic long term consequences.

I don't doubt that this crisis will end up with Putin in control of Crimea. Not only does he already have it but he cannot back down without being immediately attacked internally for what would be a major display of weakness. Not that he is likely to feel like backing down in any case...

The response of the western world is more open to question. The EU is tied up due to Germany's reliance on Russian gas. The US has more freedom of action. Thus, I think we will see some tougher sanctions out of the US than out of the EU and, thus, it will be less than crippling for Russia.

If only Germany was willing, the EU would be well placed to truly screw Russia's economy. Confiscate all the Russian money floating across the EU. Stop buying their gas. Send back all the sons and daughters of pre-eminent Russians now studying and enjoying the life of Riley in the West. Forbid Russians from holidaying in Nice, Monaco, Courchevel and Megeve. Exclude Russia from the G8. Make it a pariah state like South Africa used to be.

There's no end to the humiliations, insults and economic woes we could heap on Russia without having to fire a shot.

This would be a return to a full-blown Cold War and, while I think it is utterly idiotic, given the total lack of any upside for anyone involved, I think it is warranted. The times of Empires has passed and, while The Great Game was cool and entertaining for the kings and tsars who never had to do the dying personally, nowadays a leader's focus ought to be on making his populations as materially safe and wealthy as he can. It's actually a far more complicated game than the war-games of old.

But I don't quite believe that the West will go nearly that far. We'll see...

Another set of more open questions revolves around the Ukrainian East. Do the Ukrainians give Putin some pretext to invade Kharkiv or Donestk? Do they try some kind of drastic payback? I know some of my friends were pointing out that, though Ukraine no longer has nuclear weapons (since they were 'tricked' into giving them up in 1994 against solemn promises - including by Russia - not to interfere ever with its sovereignty and borders) they have nuclear plants... and thus nuclear waste. They could fairly easily manufacture some pretty nasty 'dirty' bombs... I am not saying this is likely to happen. There's no way the Ukrainian government would be so reckless. This is just the kind of talk my humiliated and resentful Ukrainian friends use to vent their anger and frustration.

And this, in my opinion, will be the longest lasting impact of Putin's actions: the destruction of any goodwill within Ukraine towards Russia.

One day, Putin will be gone - retired or dying at the helm of Russia, if he goes the full autocratic way.

However, the hatred he sowed will not die with him.

A great many Ukrainians have always felt close to Russia - and to Belarus, too - it's the same people, after all. But when a big brother keeps on beating the shit out of his little brothers, well, eventually, this lead to family dramas, brotherly hate and even... fratricide.

The Russian people, beyond some short-term feel-good emotions with the return of their imperial glory, will get nothing out of this, long term. Quite the contrary.

What a waste!