As Russian forces assert formal control over the Crimea, the West should be under no illusions about where the crisis in Ukraine is headed—a Russian-sanctioned territorial break-up of the country, more explicit than ever, between its pro-Russian eastern and pro-European western quadrants. The only question now is to what extent Russian control of Crimea will extend further into Eastern Ukraine thereby escalating tensions even further.
This is ‘realpolitik’ in action, Putin style. The Russians are clearly more determined to assert their interests; they have much more at stake and, in Crimea, they are proving the old adage about ‘possession being 9/10th of the law’. The west essentially stood by as Ukrainians battled in the streets against former President Victor Yanukovych’s corrupt regime and is now scrambling to muster an effective response to what is a blatant breach of Ukraine’s sovereignty as well as the sanctity of bilateral accords between Russia and Ukraine.
Apart from stout-hearted rhetoric, there was precious little on offer in terms of a financial bailout or on the new economic partnership when Ukraine was negotiating with the European Union some months ago. Putin was only too happy to fill the vacuum and, post-Sochi, aggressively so. Yanukovych knew, too, that he had someone who would look the other way as he enriched himself with his palaces, country dachas and Swiss bank accounts to an extent that would make Kim Yong un blush. In times of personal emergency, Russia offered a convenient bolt hole for him as well.
French President Francois Hollande’s recent statement that his government “fully supports… the political reforms and economic modernisation of Ukraine,” or German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s assertion that his country would back economic help to debt-laden Ukraine have come laughably late.
When Ukrainians took to the streets in Kiev and other cities to protest against their government they received little tangible support from Western leaders save for a plucky few like Canada’s foreign minister John Baird who twice chose to march with them and listen to their concerns. For that he was derided by an irrepressible chorus of former Canadian diplomats who urged Canada and the west essentially not to take sides in the dispute, display more “balance” and “respect” for Moscow in order to safeguard the potential for “influence”. How naïve! So much for principle. They would have been splendid advisors to Neville Chamberlain in the late thirties. Baird declared correctly that Canada did not see itself as a “global referee” on events in Ukraine.
Once again in Ukraine, in an all too familiar pattern, we are seeing a diminished United States struggling tepidly to react to a situation that is spiraling beyond its control.
President Obama’s foreign policy mantra, which is to walk softly and carry a big twig, was on full display at his White House press conference on Friday when he stated the obvious that Russian military intervention in Ukraine would be “deeply destabilizing.” His admonition that Russian provocation would carry “consequences” had the same limp effect as his imaginary “red lines” being breached daily in Syria.
With reports coming in by the hour that Russian military personnel have been carrying out armed patrols and setting up checkpoints at airports and highways around Crimea, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry also went out of his way to hit the mute button with his diplomatic non-assertion that “the question is whether or not what is happening now might be crossing a line in any way, and we’re going to be very careful in making our judgments about that.”
Washington’s twig pen diplomacy with the Russians has thus far had little impact Putin who, like any bully, is quick to spot weakness where it lies.
What all should recognize is that, since the beginning of this new millennium, Russian policy had already hardened into a goal of undoing the Soviet breakup wherever possible.
There are parallels between Ukraine today and Russia’s 2008 invasion of the neighboring break-away provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the independent Republic of Georgia in the Caucasus. Georgia was the home country of Josef Djugashvili (Stalin) and the seaside Abkhazia region was the summer resort for many Russians.
When Mikhail Saakashvili, a charismatic pro-Westerner, was elected Georgian president in 2004, he became a chosen ally of the democratic West. He denounced the Russian-backed secessionist movements in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, launching police operations to clean up both criminal and militant groups in the regions. These actions were seen as a direct challenge to Russia and its interests. On August 6, 2008, Russian troops, tanks and planes streamed into Georgia helping South Ossetia secure its de facto independence from Georgia.
Kiev’s new, pro-Western leadership is meeting with a similar response as Russia moves to secure its interests in Crimea, home of the Russia’s Black Sea-based naval fleet and flexes its military muscle more menacingly over events in Ukraine .
The West must take a much tougher line in the face of Putin’s Crimean putsch. This is no time to go wobbly. The flurry of diplomatic manoeuvring has to involve more than stern words. Efforts to deploy international observers should be expedited. Boycotts of planning meetings for the G 8 in Russia should be elevated to formal suspension of Russia from the G 8 and perhaps even the G20 too. That would hit Putin where it hurts – his vanity. NATO should also beef up its military presence in the Balkans and along the Polish-Ukraine border. The U.S. should also revisit its ill-conceived decision on ballistic missile defense in Poland and the Czech Republic.
The UN Security Council will of course continue to debate the issue but Russia’s predictable veto will frustrate any action. It will be interesting to see how China in particular reacts. While there will be no appetite for military counterstrokes, economic sanctions against Russia should definitely be reviewed.
What is most lacking in the west are clear signs of leadership and collective resolve. What is yet uncertain in Ukraine is whether the new guard in Kiev has the capacity for genuine political and economic reform.
Canada should continue to support a vigorous diplomatic response aimed at bringing Russia to account for its flagrant violation of international norms. We should also provide direct financial support for Ukraine and endorse a major bailout by the IMF. We should also press as well for timely, free and fair elections in Ukraine. Even-handed or “balanced” postures will be as effective at containing bullies in this century as they were in the last.