There is the recognition that until 2012 Russia’s policy was based on emotive nationalism and soft revisionism contesting and undermining the post-cold-war liberal international order, while benefiting from the same order.
With Vladimir Putin’s third term in office Russia turned away from the European Union and made the choice for Empire over cooperation and integration. In this view the Ukraine is part of Russia’s sphere of influence and cannot be a nation separated from Russia.
As Zbigniew Brezinski noted “Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be a Eurasian empire.” The historic significance of Ukraine and the Crimea peninsula is evident.
As Orlando Figes writes in his excellent book “The Crimean War”
At the same time we live in a world in which international relationships are based on laws. The relationship between EU, Russia and U.S., for instance, was influenced by the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, the post-Cold War settlement and the 1990 Paris Carter for a New Europe.
Even though the rule of law does not seem to hold great favour at some levels in today’s Russia, neither does truth. As Timothy Snyder notes “if the only truth is the absence of truth, the Russian liars are honourable.” The present day reality is Ukraine is a sovereign state, with its own borders and not part of Russia.
Although the Ukraine conflict surfaced in 2014, the seeds of the conflict were sown during the post-Cold war period when Russia sought to prevent Ukraine’s independence and when this was inevitable sought to limit this. The notion that Ukraine is part of Russia goes back to Catherina the Great.
For the invasion of Ukraine the same outdated justification was invoked as previously was used by the fascists during the 1930’s, which was based on the principle that the state might intervene to protect anyone that it defines as a member of its own culture. This is the same argument that Hitler used in annexing Austria, partitioning Czechoslovakia, and invading Poland in 1938
The Ukraine question seeks also to revise international norms which allows states the choice of institutional affiliations and that border will not be changed by force. Such an approach can only be opposed by force and in this regard the west showed weakness and naivety thinking a Ukraine embedded in the west would ever be acceptable to Russia.
Today the best we can hope for is to manage the conflict, resolving requires trust which is barely available as we have returned to the cold war period; solving requires a different political climate and seems to be a long term project.
As a sovereign state the Ukraine joined NATO’s “Partnership of Peace” plan in 2006 as already expressed in 1994 which can only be seen as a further measure of NATO’s encirclement of Russia and applied to join the NATO Membership Action Plan in 2008 despite the fact that Putin has on numerous occasions emphasized that any indication of Georgian and Ukrainian membership in NATO was a red line for Russia.
It cannot be seen as realistic or prudent policies that the Ukraine will be invited to join NATO in the foreseeable future, also considering the fact that it’s doubtful the West had and has real intentions of defending the territorial integrity of the Ukraine as Barack Obama already showed by his words and actions.
Plans for NATO membership were shelved by Ukraine following the 2010 presidential election in which Viktor Yanukovych, who promoted the idea of a European future but in November 2013 after speaking to Vladimir Putin declared Ukraine would not sign the association agreement with the EU.
In December 2013 the protests at the Maiden square started which resulted in the power change in Kiev. We must recognize that during the Orange revolution foreigners, including Americans were very active in organizing people and inspiring them. Obviously the West by encouraging the power change in Kiev was well aware of the far-reaching consequences, since a Ukraine with the Crimea closely allied with NATO would be seen by Russia as a threat to its borders, territory and interests.
Nevertheless these protests in the Ukraine were about the future as envisioned by the people, inspired by the forces of freedom and democracy. They were about the protection of civil society and rule of law, dissatisfaction with the rampant corruption and the inequality as used and stimulated by the oligarchs.
After the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych Russian leadership came to the conclusion that Western expansionism could only be reversed with an “iron fist.”
Following parliamentary elections of October 2014 in the Ukraine, the new government made joining NATO a priority. Membership of EU and NATO of the Ukraine, a country which has been hollowed out by the elite during the last two decades and spiralling downwards is not in the cards, but integration is. This has however not the same priority for the European Union as it does for the US.
It must be concluded, Ukraine is a country reliant on western financial support, which attempts at reforms have shown limited or structural changes, a country still plagued by systemic corruption and its oligarch driven policies remain generally unchanged and its commitment to the rule of law is there for questionable. Therefor the question of permanency remains and the Ukraine sliding to wards Russia is a possibility.
What the association agreement between EU and the Ukraine made clear is that this agreement has minimal support in the European Union and is not really favoured by EU citizen. Neither is the return to the Hobbesian world.
During 2014 based on what the political theorist Alena Ledeneva calls “Sistema,” meaning “elusive,” different pro-Russia groups with various interests and strategies invaded the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine, which is divided between Russian and European sympathies and has a Russian population opposed to the Kiev government.These pro-Russian groups, although denied by Vladimir Putin as “Nonsense” were supported by regular Russian units.
The repeal of the 2012 law by the Government allowing Russian and other minority languages to be used locally was not helpful either. Other groups joined the anti-Kiev militias. The following invasion of Crimea and support for the pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas.
The following annexation of the Crimea and invasion of the Ukraine by Russia were violations of international law and not justifiable.
But as history has taught us, this isn’t as simple as our ideals. The Greeks were there, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Mongols, the Tatars, the Ottomans, and in 1753 the Russians annexed it. In 1853 the French, British, and Ottomans began a long war against Russia there that was devastating and ended with immense losses to all powers in the conflict.
The Russian claim to Crimea, as being an integral part of the Russian state, when placed in this historic perspective have some merit. As to the reasons to the invasion of the Crimea there are three interpretations and most likely the reasons and motivations for seizure was a combination of the three
a. response to the threat of NATO further expansion and encirclement;
b. recapture of former territories of the former Soviet empire;
c. a hastily opportunistic response to the events in Syria and the Ukraine.
With the support for the aggressive ascension war in eastern Ukraine, the shooting down of NH17, annexing Crimea in 2014 and the intervention in Syria in 2015 Russia has made clear it is willing to pay a high economic and diplomatic price by influencing the balance of power in Europe and the Middle East, in order to confirm Russia’s Middle Eastern aspirations from Catherina the Great to the cold war.
The strategic choices and weaknesses which the Obama administration showed played a role. From the beginning in 2009 the Obama administration failed to understand the long held revanchist feelings of Russia, demanding as the great power Russia sees itself, equal standing with the U.S..
By ignoring the 2008 war in Georgia and the 2009 “good will” decision to cancel the missile defence system for Poland and the Czech Republic Obama showed weakness, instead of strength and with his pivot towards Asia he gave the impression to withdraw from Europe, only to return when he needed Europe for the sanction against Russian interests.
In fact the Obama team in their disdain dismissed Russia as a regional power, instead of the security threat Russia is to the U.S., an attitude which continued even after the annexation of the Crimea and the influencing of the US elections in 2016. Obama’s animosity towards Putin is not an equivalent for strong leadership and only led to further destabilizing activities of the European order.
His cautious responses also played a role, by refusing to put American troops on the ground in Syria or to pursue a prolonged air campaign and to declare safe havens or no-fly zones, together with failure to act on his “red lines” in case Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons.
This further consolidated the Assad regime’s position with Russia making sure Assad stays in power until a better arrangement is formulated through international negotiations whereby Russia plays a leading role.
During the invasion in the Donbas Ukraine lost the communication war in the U.S. and EU at an early stage and the US showed passivity and weakness in Ukraine’s hour of dire need by not providing lethal weapons to the Ukraine in order to defend itself better, favouring “strategic patience” thereby ignoring the security assurances given to Ukraine in the “Budapest Memorandum” of 1994 and confirmed as in the Joint Statement in 2009 by Russia and the United States,”
As Secretary of State John Kerry stated in 2014
“Russia is behaving in a 19th century fashion” by invading Ukrainian territory, an incredible act of aggression by president Putin, trapped in a centuries-old mindset.”
“You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pre-text,” which makes one wonder does Secretary Kerry think with Iraq and Afghanistan in mind the world has amnesia.
As Obama stated in 2014 on the Crimea issue “The United States and NATO do not seek any conflict with Russia, now is not the time for bluster … There are no easy answers, no military solution.”
In both Syria and Ukraine the position taken by the Obama administration was exploited by Russia which showed a rational and calculating approach of the Russian Leadership when it became clear NATO would not intervene in the Ukraine to defend it or seek to defend its red lines in Syria.
It’s worth noting that through its history Russian has not been adverse to expand its territories in Europe when the opportunity presented itself.
The response in the West to these crises in 2014 has certainly worsened rather than improved a very serious crisis and failed to recognize Russia will hardly change, not with or after Vladimir Putin.
For one thing, the so-called autonomous republic of the Crimea is a mistake of history, unique in its culture, language, history and geography, thus making it “Little Russia” inside and independent and sovereign Ukraine – a mixed up bound to blow up from the very beginning, not only because of the West’s open support for regime change, but also as a result of the agreement between Russia and Ukraine that failed to address the entangled nature of the Crimea.
It should also be noted in these attempts to meddle in other states domestic affairs, thereby facilitating regime change by non-governmental organisations under the cover of promoting human rights and democracy play an increasing role, activities which were used to be done covertly by the CIA.
Those dynamics and realities should have been the guiding force of both EU and US policy toward Ukraine. Anything else risks the fragile breakup of the country, whose Crimean region is populated mostly by Russian-speaking ethnic Russians.
Realistically speaking there is no way that Russia will return the Crimea Crimean Peninsula given its increased strategic importance to Russia’s Black Sea Naval fleet, as Sevastopol is the only warm water naval base and the control of the Sea of Azoz.
The black sea has also significance to the oil and natural gas industries. At present, there are fewer than 100 wells drilled, with Exxon Mobil ready to start drilling deep-water wells.
The confrontational but weak reaction to the crisis by the Obama administration instead of a more prudent and retrained reaction was not based on any form of strategy gave only the “illusion of success.” By doing so Obama only confirmed the perceived hostility from the west and increased Putin’s popularity.
As Reagan’s former Ambassador Jack Matlock argued after the Obama administration had issued public warning to Vladimir Putin
“whatever slim hope that Moscow might avoid overt military intervention in Ukraine disappeared when Obama in effect threw down a gauntlet and challenged him. It was not just a mistake of political judgement – it was a failure to understand psychology – unless of course he wanted a Russian intervention, which is hard for me to be understand.”
The wisdom of the 2016 economic sanctions against Russian interest, must be questioned, instead of engaging but seeking to isolate Russia as economic sanctions, although relatively low-cost measures are never a very productive instrument for to realize change and once implemented take years to influence policies. The Magnitsky Act only added to the strained relation.
The sanctions have undermined the objective of integrating Russia into the global economy and have shown other countries the danger of integrating financial institutions into a American led system and the influence on U.S. dominated transactions.
The sanctions have deflected public attention away from demands for higher living standards, political rights and freedoms and have given Putin greater control over the economy and a powerful argument to blame the struggling economy on the United States and the west enabling to stimulate his brand of “rally around the flag” Nationalism.
The sanctions-sword has cut both ways for the EU and Russia and we Europeans are paying the economic price, while the economic price to the US is minimal.
In 2010 trade between Russia and the EU exceeded US 400 billion and EU investments in Russia accounted for more than 60% of total FDI reaching US 300 billion, confirming the financial and economic cooperation between the EU and Russia. This cooperation was also seen in other areas.
There are also economic reasons for the sanctions which are influenced by Oil & Gas interests and who controls the gas and its transports through the pipelines which is reflected in the opposition to North and South Stream gas pipeline projects by the US and motivated by Oil & Gas interests in the U.S..
But the fact remains Europe is dependent on Russian energy supplies, and the Russian federal budget will rely to a significant extend on the proceeds from those sales. Nordstream2 or NS2 is simply the most cost-effective option for meeting EU increasing energy needs; much cheaper than overland deliveries from Eastern Europe. US opposition is driven by mostly economic reasons to sell LNG to European markets.
Some of the aspects are:
a. the modernization of the Russian Refinery industry – JV Rosneft-Exxon;
b. the supply of modern technology to Russia;
c. acquisitions by Russian companies in Europe together with participations in Joint Ventures;
d. purchasing Russian Gas by European Companies.
As a consequence Russia has alienated Germany, historically and economical its most important partner in Europe and would be well advised to re-evaluate its domestic position and role in the world and seek to re-connect and join the countries of Europe on basis of equality and embark on a process of domestic restructuring and modernization.
The sanctions have isolated Russia from global markets and its inability to borrow on the international market and have led to depreciation of the rubble and fall in overall incomes. Without access to international credit it relied on the two Reserve Funds of which The Russian National Wealth Fund was merged in 2017 with the remaining of Russia’s sovereign Reserve Fund.
The Reserve fund was built up over years with profits from oil exports but amid low oil price prices was emptied by the end of 2017 and ceased to exist. The National Wealth Fund covering the budget deficits has decreased to below its nominal value.
Russia’s countersanctions on agricultural products have only increased the tight economic constraints in a country which has been without substantial structural reform for years in which the economy shows continued stagnation.
However what has had a much greater impact on the Russian economy and the modernization of the armed forces is the low oil price which plummeted during 2014-2016 from $100 to $ 30 but which has recovered during 2018 and today fluctuates at a level of $60 had by the end of 2020 a value of $95 billion at a level of $60, but the unstable oil price and its dependency on energy is a risk factor.
Since the recovery and given budget rules, oil revenues in excess of $40 per barrel are channelled into the National Wealth Fund. By the end of 2020 the wealth fund had in its coffers $ 95 billion.
The sanctions have also led to increased consensus in the strategic partnership between China and Russia which has become deeper and more comprehensive, encompassing security, economics, technology, and global governance.
But for Russia this also showed weakness as Russian influence in the world rest on its ability to balance between the east and the west.
At the start of the sanction China used this opportunity to increase the purchase of Russian oil products and completed the “oil for money” contract, although China used the opportunity to negotiate significant better prices for its energy purchases from Russia. China has not joined the sanctions since this is not in their interest, but they will be obliged to follow them.
Today in less than a decade the percentage of Chinese trade in Russia’s overall trade turnover has nearly doubled. Military cooperation has developed in such a way that Russia sells its latest military equipment to China, and the two countries hold joint military exercises on an increasingly large scale and over an ever-expanding geographical area, from the Baltic to the South China Sea. These developments in the Sino-Russian axis are significant.
So is the claim by Russia that international law does not protect state borders , with this Russia opened the door to continue and increase the yearly corrections of the long border with China.
Both China and Russia, nationalistic and authoritarian regimes share a resentment and contempt for the Liberal order of the West and are interested to create an alternative economic order in which India also plays a part.
China has obviously its own Greater Eurasia strategy “One Belt, One Road” initiative which it is building and which will test Russia’s willingness to accommodate China’s great power ambition, acting in the capacity of a junior partner. However any relationship with Russia given China’s economic interests will be unbalanced given the different aims both countries have. It’s also questionable if the public in Russia will on the long term back the shift from west to east.
Russia has also increased political and economic integration of former republics and increased cooperation with China, but has not yet led to the substantial increased Chinese investments Russia had anticipated.
With the knowledge of yesterday it was naïve of the Obama administration not to recognize Putin’s goals were limited in Syria and Ukraine and to think Russia would not response within its means.
Russia has always shown to react most and aggressively in order to capitalize on weaknesses and use all instruments at its disposal in order to protect what it sees as legitimate interests of the State. Like most Russians Vladimir Putin is a chess player with few fixed principles who approaches everything on a case by case basis, whereby his risks are calculated while responding pragmatically and flexible to events.
The annexation of Crimea, involvement in Syria, shooting down of MH17 and influencing US and European election Russia confirmed this assumption to be but correct, but was not limited to this. Also the Russian relationships with China, Iran, India and Turkey has been intensified.
It’s regrettable the U.S. has left behind the “live and let live” concept of Dr Kissinger thereby dealing with China and Russia in a more balanced and diplomatic manner, which begs the question “is the world better off with Russia inside or outside the tent of Nations?”
It is unavoidable to conclude, there is more what connects Russia and the West than divides us, one of those issues being the conflicts and wars in the Middle East which pose the same threat to Russia as the rest of Europe and the United States
As Dr Henry Kissinger rightly concluded at the time
“Russia should be perceived as an essential element of any global equilibrium. We need not a confrontation but a dialogue with Russia in order to merge our futures. There are opportunities for cooperation on global issues which should be used.”
It is however questionable if the global equilibrium still exists with the decline in soft- and hard-power of the U.S. since the 1970’s, the increase of Chinese economic influence and the recent disastrous presidency of Donald J Trump which has damaged US reputation and has had an destructive effect on what his predecessors have built over the last 70 years.
This despite the successes of spreading freedom, democracy and the decrease of global poverty due to Globalization. Also the adventures in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria have not been helpful in stabilizing the out of sync global equilibrium.
It should have been obvious to the Obama administration and today to the Biden administration, Russia is more than a regional power as seen by some in US Congress and should be taken seriously and as history shows can be unpredictable and brutal both internally and externally when angered.
I also cannot avoid observing that during my lifetime I have witnessed the Russian iron first with Russian adventurism in Hungary, Afghanistan, Georgia, Ukraine and other places which have resulted in repression and in enormous destructive exercises in futility. Just like I have seen American adventurism in Iran, Iraq, Vietnam, the greater middle east region and south America, all in the name of freedom and democracy.
But given the aspirations of people everywhere of freedom and liberty, the light of freedom cannot be dimmed forever.
What springs to my mind is the “Hungarian Student Revolt” of 1956 and how the revolt was crushed by Soviet forces and how we accepted the Hungarian refugees. This was followed by the “Prague spring “and with Alexander Dubcek’s election in 1968, which led to the two-decades long occupation by Soviet troops.
The siege and assault of the Chechen capital Grozny by Russian forces, from late 1999 to early 2000 made also clear how Russia uses its iron fist. Afterwards President-elect Vladimir Putin declared victory and Grozny freed, while in 2003 the United Nations called Grozny the most destroyed city on Earth.
The strength of the Russian bear might have declined after 1991, but Russia is a formidable and ruthless force to be reckoned with and has in President Vladimir Putin a strong unpredictable leader with the desire for facto control over its sphere of interests. Neither is the West willing to enter into a far ranging military conflict.
Looking at this realistically, the Crimea is an rather insignificant dispute which already has been decided in Russia’s favour. The Ukraine might be better off without the Crimea, also given the Crimea has for a long time been Russian.
Our European history has known enough peace treaties with had territorial concessions.
From the Russian perspective the conflict was spurred by the desire of the west to spread democracy and Russia to prevent this and to protect its interests. Ukraine is seen as a buffer against the spread of democracy and allowing the Ukraine to secede from Russia’s sphere of influence and to enter into the Western orbit seems dubious since this would have large repercussions for Russia and the region.
Resolution of the Ukraine conflict, which can only happen when Russia agrees might not be in its best interests, whereas the status quo might be useful and given the Ukraine weakness
A possible resolution of the conflict will not be easy and require a change in the political climate and such a settlement will include land swaps and a European wide security arrangement in which also the Ukraine and Crimea question are settled and the sanctions are dropped.
Without such a settlement Russia’s provocative involvement in the Donbas region will continue and it will seek to create an economic and political failure of the Ukraine, which might influence Ukraine to turn towards Russia also strengthening the authoritarian countries in the region.
However, a western orientated Ukraine able to reduce the level of corruption, adherence to the rule of law and integrated into the west, thereby showing modest growth would be a powerful counterexample of today’s authoritarian Russia and would have consequences for the region.
William J J Houtzager
February 22nd, 2021