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Ukraine: how far will Putin go?

March 8th, 2014

The ripple effects of the Syria vote continue to be felt

There are two sorts of country in the world: superpowers and everyone else.  Superpowers can – and often do – act as they see fit, constrained only by domestic factors or the opposition of other superpowers.  The rest exist only to the extent that the superpowers allow, a fact that this week’s events have brought into stark focus.

The issues in question over the Ukraine are not clear-cut.  The ousted (but at the time, still de jure) president may have called for aid from Putin, Crimea had more than twice as many ethnic Russians as Ukrainians at the last census, and the peninsula itself only transferred from Russia to the Ukraine in the 1950s when both were internal divisions of the Soviet Union.  It may well be that there was and is local popular support for a return to Russia, something that could be demonstrated in the referendum now planned for 16 March.

That, however, is to an extent beside the point.  The crisis has not been sparked because some citizens of one country would rather be citizens of another.  Rather, it is about how that transfer is coming about: Putin’s decision to deploy Russia’s forces into a sovereign state against the wishes of the current government.  The similarities to the German-Austrian Anschluss in 1938 are striking, where the Austrians voted for union but not without Nazi Germany taking the precaution of being on hand to ensure the point.  (As an aside, we should always be a little wary of historic parallels: they’re never exact and can be poor guides to the future if both the historic and current contexts aren’t properly understood).

As then though, Putin must have been reasonably confident that the Western powers would not take meaningful action before he ordered the deployment, just as Hitler was sure that his potential enemies wouldn’t react too strongly over Austria or, later, over the Sudentenland in Czechoslovakia (another then recently-born and arguably artificial country).  Why can we be reasonably sure of Putin’s certainty in this instance?  In a word, Syria.

The absence of a rival superpower to the US after the fall of the Iron Curtain was unsurprisingly accompanied by a marked increase in military interventionism from NATO powers, led by the US, directly into other countries, peaking between the actions in Kosovo in 1999 and Libya in 2011.  That era is over.  The Syrian government crossed Obama’s red line when it used chemical weapons but Western guns stayed silent – the reason for which lies in no small part in the vote at Westminster which the government lost.

As it happens, that was probably the right decision, though reaching it for the wrong reasons has had the consequences we’re witnessing now.  There is no point intervening unless you intend to change the outcome, which means first determining what you want that outcome to be and, in turn, committing sufficient force and willpower into achieving it.  That was never done and it seemed more like the western leaders were intent on behaving like a sports referee, handing out penalties for foul behaviour but with no intrinsic interest in the result, which is no way to conduct foreign policy.

That failure of strategic thinking, combined with a decline in willingness to get involved, is what has given Putin the space to act with near enough impunity in the Ukraine.  It’s not as if he doesn’t have a record in these things: Russia invaded Georgia to ‘protect’ ethnic Russians in 2008 (Putin was PM at the time but in reality since 2008 Russia has been a dual monarchy, with Putin playing the Augustus to Medvedev’s Caesar, whatever the actual offices held).  At that time, mission fatigue hadn’t reached the extent it has now but the military overstretch in Iraq and Afghanistan was worse, and the Bush presidency was approaching lame-duck status.

The pressing question now is how to respond because the events of the last few weeks will not be the end of the process.  The Crimea is almost certainly lost to the Ukraine and non-recognition of its annexation is unlikely to cause many sleepless nights in the Kremlin.  Nor would Russia’s suspension from the G8, a body which is in any case increasingly overshadowed by the G20 on which Russia is guaranteed a seat.

We should remember what kicked all this off: Kiev’s desire to look to Brussels rather than Moscow.  Brussels is of course not just the capital of the EU but also the headquarters of NATO, and that the expansion of the two has gone hand-in-hand: a very threatening development from Russia’s point of view.  One can well understand a chain of thought in the Kremlin that directly linked Ukraine’s desire for closer EU links (and vice versa) to severe doubts as to the security of Russia’s Black Sea fleet’s base.

Yet the nature of Putin’s Anschluss and the unresolved fate of Ukraine’s Russian-inclined eastern districts means hard questions must be faced and answered.  Putin is behaving as the leaders of superpowers can when not opposed by their peers, and as long as that opposition doesn’t exist, the chances are he will continue to do so.  Even excluding Crimea, Ukraine’s integrity is far from assured.  Are Europe and the US willing to let further divisions happen?  A treaty with Kiev would answer that question.  As would the lack of one.

David Herdson