Walter Hamilton. Calling a spade a spade in Ukraine.

Mar 9, 2014

Ukraine, the U.N., the European Union and the U.S. have nine days in which to influence the tide of events in Crimea or witness the second (after the excision from Georgia of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008) expansion of Russia’s military and political control beyond its post-Soviet borders. Nine days. That’s how long the Sochi Paralympics will run – during which the prestige-conscious Vladimir Putin is unlikely to declare ‘Full Ahead’.

Everything about the Russian takeover in Crimea suggests a carefully planned, long-term strategy. The concoction of excuses being offered by the Kremlin, the disinformation about ‘fascist threats’ to Russian-speakers and Jews, comes straight from the old KGB playbook. It is utter nonsense to suggest the special forces being used in Crimea were briefed, equipped and deployed in response to an appeal for help from ousted Ukrainian president Yanukovych contained in that piece of paper produced days after the troops were on the ground. An operation like this, requiring the coordination of many external and internal elements, had to have been in the making for weeks, if not months. The reason Russia refused last month to sign the negotiated political settlement in Kiev becomes apparent: Putin had another solution in mind.

Sitting in Sydney, thousands of kilometres from Simferopol, never having visited that part of the world, I am little qualified to comment on the events unfolding there, I admit. But I have read enough history and heard enough of Putin lamenting the ‘disastrous’ break up of the old Soviet Union to sense that Crimea satisfies more than a passing ambition for the Russian leader. Some more knowledgeable observers believe he is acting out of a need to distract attention from weaknesses in his own country’s economy and social cohesion; that what we are witnessing is opportunistic adventurism. While adventurists are not necessarily less dangerous than methodical imperialists, the implication of their analysis, that Putin is riding the tiger’s tail, smacks to me of wishful thinking. And, anyway, successful adventurism often proves habit forming, and domestic problems, and the opposition movements that in normal circumstances coalesce around them, tend to melt away when the cause of ‘national survival’ is invoked.

The Internet offers us a bewildering array of information, commentary and analysis on the crisis. What I did not know about the history of Ukraine, up until a few days ago, was a lot; for many people, I imagine, it has been a quick swot. Yes, Ukraine has been an independent country for only a short time. Yes, it is divided along religious, ethnic and linguistic lines. Yes, Crimea occupies a special place in the survival story of the Russian people. Yes, Nikita Khrushchev may have been tipsy when he ceded Crimea to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954. But, so what? An invasion is an invasion, and no hastily organised referendum conducted under the guns of an occupying power can be considered a legitimate act of self-determination (first run a Russian flag above the parliament building, then ask the people whether they want to be part of Russia––an order of events reminiscent of the Nazi’s Lebensraum program). The use of thugs and militias to intimidate and threaten opponents––a further tool in the Kremlin’s kitbag, as we are seeing––is the present reality, and no amount of gesturing to former historical realities can cancel out what is happening on the ground today.

Very few Europeans would welcome a return to the Cold War. Fewer still want a ‘hot’ war over Crimea. I suspect most governments would be satisfied if Putin stops there and does not extend his annexation to include eastern Ukraine. If so, there will be a touch of ‘Munich’ about the collective sigh of relief. (A Mark Twain quote is being used a lot lately: ‘History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.’) The planned economic and political sanctions are unlikely to have a deep or lasting effect. They’re already being be cited by the Kremlin as evidence of Western hypocrisy and anti-Russian animus; any chinks in the solidarity of the sanctioning states will be ruthlessly exploited.

All nations bordering Russia, meanwhile, have been put on notice, especially those with significant Russian-speaking populations. Over the past 25 years, efforts have been made to draw Russia into the European sphere––under Putin now the tide is ebbing. The ancient contested ground of Central Europe faces increasing pressure to re-align national interests with Russian interests. The levers for this pressure from the east will include the threatened withdrawal of energy supplies, ‘nationalist’ agitation from within the Russian diaspora and blatant military power. There will be sweeteners, too, such as soft loans and trade privileges. All will be played out amid a geopolitical conversation about growing American irrelevance and impotency (see: Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam). Such is the worst-case scenario.

A best-case scenario might be something like this: the withholding of international recognition for a Russian-annexed Crimea (the example of Burma-Myanmar is instructive about what can be achieved through a lasting international resolve); a policy of engagement with Russia based on strict reciprocity (starting with strategic trade goods) that stays Putin’s hand from turning off the gas pipelines running west; immediate material support for open and fair elections in Ukraine, with sufficient independent observers on the ground to validate the process; and encouragement for a more inclusive political culture, which might assuage Russian concerns about creeping NATO-ism. A failed and bankrupt state in Ukraine would, after all, be a more immediate threat to Russia than any member of the European Union. It could be smarter for Russia to let the E.U. and its partners pick up the tab. Now that could be the starting point for a real conversation with the Kremlin.

Walter Hamilton reported on international affairs for the ABC for 13 years.

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