By Roberto Orsi
The ongoing crisis in the Ukraine may be analysed under a series of different perspectives, each yielding narratives belonging to different genres: is this a crisis in military relations? Is this the product of peculiar psychological settings of the leadership in Russia, in the West, in the Ukraine itself? Is this another crisis of capitalism? Is this an eschatological battle of “good against evil”? … The list could continue. In this article the crisis will be addressed as the crisis of the Ukrainian state, as that of a geopolitical experiment – more due to an accident of history rather than to conscious political ambitions from the side of that country’s leadership – which had indeed some chances of success in the past, but appears to have met its ultimate failure.
What is the Ukraine?
The Ukraine is a post-Soviet republic, which became independent after the collapse of the USSR in 1991. This is a quite familiar story. But the historical path which led to the creation of the Ukrainian state is more complicated. The territory of today’s Ukraine was part of the Czarist Empire until 1918 for most of its area, excluding the extreme West (Lviv and other areas), which formed the province of Galicia under Habsburg sovereignty. Historically, Kiev has been the birthplace of the first statehood form for the East Slavic tribes (Kievan Rus’), progenitors of the Russians, the Belarusians and the Ukrainians. After the Mongol occupation, while the East Slavic centre of gravity shifted to Novgorod and then Moscow, the region of Kiev came under Polish-Lithuanian sovereignty. However, it must be noticed that historical Ukraine did not encompass most of today’s Eastern Ukraine, of the South and of Crimea, as all these territories were under Ottoman control. The situation changed in the eighteenth century: the Czarist push for West- and Southward expansion led on the one hand to the incorporation of much of today’s central Ukraine into Russia, after the successive partitions of Poland between Prussia, the Habsburg Monarchy and the Russian Empire; on the other, it led to the liquidation of the Ottoman presence in the East and the South, including Crimea. Because of the severe depopulation of these territories, the Czars called for successive waves of colonists from all parts of the empire to settle in the newly acquired territory (parts of which historically bore the name Novorossiya, i.e. New Russia), and even German settlers.
While the region remained under Czarist sovereignty, the idea of a Ukrainian nation as an ethnographic and political entity separated from the Russian people gradually became the subject of strategic considerations since the latter part of the nineteenth century, challenging the policy of unity of all East Slavic populations under the Orthodox faith, which constituted the pillar of the Czarist political project. It is not surprising therefore that the first time the Ukraine re-materialised as a geopolical entity, with much more extended borders than any previous historical Ukraine, occurred as the consequence of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, whereby the German Reich and Austria-Hungary, after defeating Russia on the Easter Front in WWI, carved out the Ukraine as their prize for victory. This first attempt at establishing a Ukrainian state was short-lived and it soon collapsed after the defeat of the Central Powers in 1918. Ukrainian territory became a contended land between various movements, but it will in the end be captured by the Red Army, with the ex-Habsburg portion and other Western areas being annexed to the newly constituted Poland of Marshal Józef Piłsudski. The Bolsheviks created a Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic as part of the Soviet Union, with Kharkov as capital. The Ukrainian SSR saw all the extreme aspects of the Stalinist regime: the agrarian policy of the 1930s caused widespread famine, as in other region of southern Russia and Kazakhstan, and the devastation of the pre-existing social forms of organisation in the countryside, but also massive investments for rapid industrialisation and urbanisation.
The event of WWII radically changed the political geography of the Ukraine. With the German-Soviet invasion of Poland in September 1939, Stalin expanded its borders by incorporating Galicia and later Bukovina (from Romania). But the entire Ukraine was later conquered by National-Socialist Germany during operation Barbarossa in 1941, remaining under German occupation until 1943-1944. The Germans established an administrative region called Reichskommissariat Ukraine encompassing the regions to the West of Kiev, of Dnepropetrovsk, and Nikolaev. The SS and other paramilitary formations, together with local collaborators, exterminated the Jewish population, which constituted a large share of the urban demography. When the Red Army re-conquered the region and after the end of the war, German and Polish minorities were expelled westwards, while the re-established Ukrainian SSR was enlarged with the permanent annexation of Galicia, Bukovina, and also a region lying beyond the Carpathian mountains, hence the name Transcarpathia, which was traditionally part of Hungary. This latter annexation gave to the USSR immediate access to the Pannonian basin in Central Europe and a direct border with Hungary itself and Czechoslovakia.
Post-WWII Ukraine saw the struggle of anti-Soviet partisans in the West until the early 1950s, but also a large scale economic reconstruction. Like the rest of the Soviet (planned) economy, the pace of economic development started to slow significantly in the late 1960s, and the by the mid-1970s the USSR found itself in a stagnation. Even so, it is arguable that the Ukraine was probably one of the regions of the USSR with the highest living standards, certainly above the average of Russia. The Ukrainian SSR economy, like most of the other Soviet republics, was never designed to function independently from the rest. As a major industrial centre, it relied on energy supplies sourced from other parts of the Soviet territory, on a common transport system, and on industrial integration with other regions. The Ukraine also became a major area for the deployment of military forces in Europe, as its territory hosted the strategic reserves the Red Army in the event of a war against NATO, with an immense amount of equipment, more than 1,200 strategic nuclear warheads, and 2,500 tactical nuclear missiles at the end of the Cold War.
At the time of the USSR final crisis and collapse, the leadership of the Ukrainian SSR became convinced that their republic could achieve a higher level of prosperity by disengaging itself from the other former Soviet republics, particularly, of course, Russia. However, the initial optimism soon had to leave space for the harsh realities of a very difficult period of economic transition, in which the Ukrainian GDP contracted by 60% in a few years, hyperinflation, mass unemployment, very inefficient and corrupt privatisation of the vast industrial resources. On top of all this, the Ukraine had to undergo a complicated process of nation building, which would prove extremely divisive, while struggling to create a narrative of the Ukrainian identity which could encompass all citizens. Such state-enhanced, experimental Ukrainian identity however appears to be precariously grounded either in the sheer opposition to Russia, or in a rather unproductive victimisation (like all forms of victimisation), or perhaps simply in an insufficiently thick historical background.
In the midst of this cataclysmic change, the post-1991 Ukrainian state precariously achieved a partial consolidation only by means of a complex system of balances: between the Eastern (Party of Regions) and the Western parts of the country, between the oligarchs and the masses, between the centre (Kiev) and the regions, between the president and the parliament, between the West (US and EU) and Russia. Despite being often represented as belonging to the Russian sphere of influence, Kiev held in reality a rather ambiguous stance vis-à-vis Moscow, notwithstanding its heavy energy dependence from Russian gas. The Ukraine never joined the CSTO (the security alliance between Russia and several other ex-Soviet republics), while it joined GUUAM in the late 1990s, a coalition of West-leaning ex-Soviet republics. The lack of cooperation between Kiev and Moscow can arguably be identified as the main reason why the Commonwealth of Independent States never functioned as the envisioned (in 1991) federal form among ex-USSR states.
In the 23 years of its independence, the Ukraine has not succeeded in developing a viable economic model, and it failed to promote a higher standard of living for the almost totality of its inhabitants. The large industrial sector inherited by the Soviet Union has been rapidly losing its value in the face of global competition, chronic lack of investments, and above all the inability to ease the structural dependence from energy sources located in Russia at a time of rising international energy prices. The agricultural sector, which has a large growth potential due to the quality of the soil, remains severely underdeveloped. Against this background of economic failure, it is therefore not surprising that the Ukrainians have been emigrating in large numbers, both towards Europe and towards Russia. The country finds itself indeed in the middle of a quite dramatic demographic implosion, also considering the very low birth rates.
The Current Crisis
Economic bankruptcy, demographic implosion, ubiquitous corruption, internal and external political polarisation, great power influence if not outright intervention: the Ukraine has been walking on extremely thin ice for quite some time. The weakness of the Ukrainian experimental state has generated a number of dangerous feedback mechanisms: the weaker Kiev became, the more intense grew international pressure around it, and even inside it. The more intense these international pressures, the weaker Kiev became. The 2004 Orange Revolution marked the beginning of the end: the contestation of results in a presidential election and the ensuing political unrest, coupled with the chronic inability to pay the energy bill, led to a severe crisis with Russia, including the interruption of gas deliveries to Kiev, which eventually resorted to syphoning gas transiting through the country from Russia to Europe.
The 2004 crisis was in many ways a lost occasion for the pro-Western camp. Yushenko and Tymoshenko failed to impress a new direction to the country, and did not pursue the large scale economic reforms Ukraine badly needed. They instead relied largely on the short lived boom in global steel prices in the middle of the last decade, postponing any structural adjustment. The West, both the EU and the US, despite the strong backing for the Orange revolution in rhetorical terms coming from Western media, did not possess any strategy for the reconstruction of the Ukrainian state and economy, which could have led to its organic integration within the European economy, including some degree of energy diversification. Instead, according to WTO data, the Russian Federation remains the largest trading partner of the Ukraine, absorbing 25.7% of its export (against 24.9% for the whole EU), and making up 32.4% of its import (the EU share is 30.9%) in 2012. The US does not figure amongst the Ukraine’s major trading partners: it represents the destination of only 3% of Ukrainian exports, and the origin of less 3.4% of Kiev’s imports. Interestingly the inability of the US to offer any meaningful industrial reconstruction to its prospective allies, as in the case of the former Soviet republic of Georgia, is emerging as one the most serious limits of US foreign policy in recent decades, in contrast to the historical successful strategy of industrial reconstruction of Western Europe and Japan after the Second World War.
The current crisis has been triggered by the convergence of a series of factors. First, the Ukrainian state is again on the verge of bankruptcy. This has offered the chance for external forces to assert again their influence, even to the point – as witnessed in recent months – of open and direct intervention. The Ukraine could have continued its precarious existence only if the westward pull by the US and the EU, and the eastward pull by Russia, stayed below a certain degree of intensity, and without resorting to open violations of the constitutional architecture. Main political figures of the pre-crisis era and main political parties (Yulia Tymoshenko and Viktor Yanukovich, Tymoshenko’s bloc and the Party of Regions) were acutely aware of this, and of how the Ukraine could only survive between the two poles, without openly siding with Russia, in which case it would have faced the secession of the Western regions, or with the West, in which case it would have lost, as it is happening, the East, the South, and Crimea (i.e. about 40% of the country). Paradoxically then, Yanukovich, despite the corruption of the political elite whereof he was an expression, and his inadequate political skills, far from being a Russian “puppet”, as often portrayed by the Western press, was indeed one of the few leaders acting for the preservation of the Ukrainian statehood.
The westward pull which triggered the crisis came in the form of an Association Agreement with the EU. This kind of treaty does not per se mean that the signatory country will certainly become EU member in the near future (Turkey signed such a treaty in 1963 and it is still far from becoming EU member), but clearly represented, in the context of the Ukraine’s particular international context, a preference for a future of integration with the EU and away from Russia. The perspective of a Ukrainian integration with the EU generated an immediate response from Moscow, which has been working for years on the competing project of a Eurasian Custom Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan. It should clear that, barring the option of putting the Ukraine through yet another long period of dramatic economic restructuring, there is no way the current Ukrainian economy can sever its ties with the EU, nor with Russia. Unfortunately however, the EU deal and the Eurasian deal were largely presented as mutually exclusive.
Yanukovich’s terrible handling of international pressures and the mounting protest by the pro-Western faction, fueled by genuine political discontent alongside with powerful external US and EU support, led to the collapse of constitutional order, leaving dozens of dead from both sides. A provisional government has been put in place but, as it immediately emerged, cannot speak on behalf of the whole country, as entire regions immediately started to look towards Moscow. It is highly probable that the scenario of a Ukrainian disintegration has been contemplated by the Russian government for many years, and that consequently the current events somehow are part of contingency plans relying on a vast network of pre-arranged intelligence and military structures. The smooth takeover of Crimea in a matter of two weeks, arguably one of the most successful intelligence operations in recorded history, could not conceivably occur by improvisation. Events in Crimea, where, according to some reports, over 90% of the Ukrainian military personnel has defected to the Russian side, are also significant as they seem to strengthen the impression that most of the Ukrainian military and intelligence is actually leaning towards Moscow.
At this juncture, the provisional government in Kiev appears very weak. It is questionable to what extent it can control not only the Eastern provinces, but also the West, where ultra-nationalist groups dominate the scene. It is questionable to what extent they can rely on any meaningful military instrument. There is uncertainty about their ability to organise the upcoming presidential elections on May 25, which can be easily sabotaged, particularly in the East, and whose result may not be well accepted by the extremist formations of the West as well.
The Russian Position
The Russian position in this crisis has been spelled in a comprehensive fashion by President Vladimir Putin with the speech delivered at the State Duma on the occasion of Crimea’s annexation to Russia. That speech represents a remarkable historical document for the comprehensive narrative thereby articulated and for offering a direct insight into the rationale underpinning the Kremlin’s decisions.
For anybody who possesses even a very limited experience of Russian things, the idea that Russians, Belarusians, and Ukrainians are sister nations, or somehow three declinations of the same people, would certainly not sound particularly new, as it is rather widespread, and not only in Russia.
The Russian president has insisted on this very narrative exposing the high degree of intermingling between Russian and Ukrainian people. More importantly, he has insisted on a historical reconstruction about the end of the USSR, which highlighted the betrayal of the popular will, expressed in a 1991 referendum on the future of the Union, to remain within some sort of federation. Putin has indeed recalled how the original idea of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) was that of a federal super-state with a common currency, a common economic space, a common foreign policy, and armed forces. Instead, the CIS never functioned, and administrative borders which were never intended to be international ones cut through the lives of tens of millions people. Putin has hence articulated the view that the Russians are perhaps the ethnic group in the world which has to endure its fragmentation in the highest number of states.
In his speech, the Russian president has appeared careful in not revealing too much of the options he is considering. On the one hand, he has re-affirmed the principle of Ukraine’s integrity and sovereignty, but on the other, he also reserved his right to further intervention, and hinting at that possibility.
After all, in Putin’s view a large part of the Ukraine may well be a sovereign nation in some sort of union with Russia and other post-Soviet states. And what actually constitutes “the Ukraine” may be disputable in the face of Kiev’s apparent inability to function as a state, as articulated above.
One of the most important points of Putin’s speech depicts the current crisis as a process of re-unification of Russian lands and Russian souls, mirroring the process of German re-unification in 1990. This surely constitutes a very powerful image for the Russian audience, an image speaking to the core of Russian patriotism and to the anger accumulated in the last two decades of perceived national humiliations. The establishment of such a narrative represents somehow a crossing of the Rubicon with the Russian public opinion, and certainly with many members of the Russian elite, especially in the armed forces and security apparatuses. It makes clear that the president is irreversibly committed to a large scale project of national reconstruction entailing some sort of revisionism of the post-Soviet geopolitical settlement, and that those who identify themselves with such political project, and such a vision of twenty-first century Russia (visibly explained in the choreography of the Sochi Olympic Games Opening Ceremony), shall not be abandoned. The corollary of this position is of course that the Russian leadership, as already clearly shown with the annexation of Crimea, does not see any way to put the Ukrainian state back on its feet, and considers the “Ukrainian experiment” as over for good.
The US Position
US interest in Kiev has a long history: on the one hand the Ukraine, and more in general the former territories of the Czarist Empire, is the region where a large number of Americans trace their origin. On the other, since the end of the Cold War American strategists have formulated the view according to which “Russia without the Ukraine is just Russia; Russia together with the Ukraine is an empire”. This view has been thoroughly articulated in the 1998 book The Great Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives by Zbignew Brzeziński, which advocated an active US policy for the continuous weakening of the residual Russian state aimed at its further fragmentation into smaller, and consequently essentially meaningless, political units.
Against this background, there is little doubt that the State Department has been closely watching the political situation in the Ukraine since the very start. There are however a number of shortcomings to the US policy in that country. As mentioned above, despite the stated goal of bringing it closer to the “Western camp”, the US did not offer any substantial economic aid in terms of a large scale, long-term industrial reconstruction, which is what Kiev has been needing since 1991. The Ukraine was supposed to join NATO already in 2008 under an initiative by President G.W. Bush, which was however abandoned in the face of French and German opposition, not to mention the strong anti-NATO sentiment in many parts of the Ukraine itself.
This is a more general feeling that, while Moscow has been working on contingency plans in case of Ukrainian disintegration at least since 2004, Washington may not have possessed a correct assessment of the likely consequences of decisively pulling the Ukraine westwards, even by means of backing the overthrow of Yanukovich, despite the fact that his election was accepted as regular and valid by Washington (and the EU). Strategists in the US may not have foreseen that, because of the very delicate domestic equilibrium of so many difference forces and actors, the Ukrainian state may have simply disintegrated in the face of a drastic geopolitical turn, as it is indeed happening. Moscow’s rapid reaction also seems not to be entirely anticipated in Washington, thus signaling a rather unsatisfactory assessment of Moscow’s capabilities in the region, together with the operation of US intelligence in the area.
The US finds itself once again in the awkward position of having decisively contributed to the insurgence of a certain critical phase, both by means of large-scale resource commitment and mobilisation of Western media, where however the partners and allies on the ground (in this case, Kiev’s provisional government, the Western militias, the protesters, and the activists) are successively abandoned at the decisive moment, as already during Saakashvili’s catastrophic campaign aimed at seizing South Ossetia during the 2008 Georgian crisis.
The Ukrainian crisis is revealing of the ways in which American foreign policy can entail vast grey areas not only concerning large scale intelligence operations, something that very few international politics experts would doubt, but particularly in the relation between entire sectors of the State Department and the higher echelons of the US government. The disconnection between elements of the foreign service and other governmental agencies in charge of American interests in Kiev becomes apparent when considering that, while the State Department has admittedly used very large resources for its Ukrainian strategy, to the point of accepting the risk of constitutional breakdown, both Secretary of State Kerry and President Obama appeared surprised by these events, fairly unprepared to assess the situation and to take consequent diplomatic steps. President Obama agreeing on a totally unnecessary meeting with the provisional Ukrainian PM Yatsenyuk, from which the latter emerged absolutely empty-handed (excluding the offer to send food instead of weapons), stands as an ominous sign of Washington’s tactical confusion.
The EU and German Position
The EU emerges so far as the clumsiest actor, with a rather severe image loss in the Eastern part of the continent. Blatantly discharged by US diplomat Victoria Nuland with unprintable words, the European Union has operated as the trigger of a crisis in which it cannot play any positive part, by offering to Yanukovich the signing of an association treaty at very unfavourable conditions, to such an extent that only a Ukrainian president able to completely disregard vital economic interests of most Ukrainians, including of most oligarchs, could have signed. The plan called for a wave of structural adjustments which would have likely harmed most Ukrainian industries, in exchange for very little. The formulation of a better plan of economic reconstruction for the Ukraine, the imposition of less draconian conditions, and making clear that the EU association treaty did not mean that the Ukraine should have exclusively committed to the EU, thus severing its ties to Russia, would have all prevented the situation from precipitating.
In many ways the EU role in this crisis reflects the divisions of the European bloc and its chronic inability to stably coordinate around a precise strategic vision – simply because such a vision is not there. It appears instead that the EU has embarked on its Ukrainian initiative largely propelled by Poland and the Baltic states (the Association Agreement was offered to Kiev under Lithuanian EU presidency), with all other members being little alerted on the possible consequences of this move, discovering all too late that a very dangerous crisis was in the making in the relations with Russia and for the stability of the Ukrainian state.
Within the EU, the role of Germany has been very peculiar. Historically, the German government has sought collaboration with Russia on a long list of strategic issues. The personal friendship between Gerhard Schröder and Vladimir Putin yielded the international deal for the construction of the Northern Stream gas pipeline, transporting natural gas under the Baltic Sea from the Russian Vyborg directly to the German gas hub in Greifswald, thus effectively bypassing the Ukraine and its possible geopolitical instability (which has materialised with great punctuality). The Germans have kept a certain degree of proximity with Russia during the opposition to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, and in the occasion of the Libyan campaign in 2011, in which Berlin carefully avoided any direct involvement. In the current crisis the German attitude has shifted towards a severely confrontational tone, with Angela Merkel even undiplomatically hinting at a possible mental health condition affecting Putin’s political judgment. However, the German panic over the crisis of the Ukrainian state should be read in the broader context in which Berlin has to operate. Germany is a country which still retains a large amount of economic and human capital, but appears nevertheless to be in decline. In the generalised race to the bottom characterising the European trajectory, although its economic growth outpaces that of its Western and Southern neighbours (whose decline is even steeper), Germany is in a demographic recession since 1972 (!), and posed to shrink significantly amidst severe ageing of the population and an increasing ethnic and religious fragmentation as a consequence of mass immigration.
The collapse of the socialist bloc in 1989-1991 has opened the way for a reunified Germany to re-assess its influence in its traditional Central European backyard, but at the price of sponsoring a huge economic reconstruction and paying for the related financial and industrial effort. Interestingly, in the absence of a flow of US direct investments in the Ukraine, only Germany may have represented a valid alternative to Russia as a source of capital for its reconstruction. However, on the one hand, the Ukraine – especially the more industrialised and economically relevant Eastern and Southern provinces, does not belong to the traditional German sphere of interest. On the other, Germany is already overstretched by the effort of rebuilding other central European economies, being even unable at the moment to back a stronger reconstruction thrust in Romania and Bulgaria (EU members since 2007), which remain indeed severely underdeveloped. The German overstretch has significantly worsened after 2009-10, with the onset of the Euro crisis and the severe economic recession in the whole of Southern Europe, an area with over 120 million inhabitants.
Germany’s panic over the Ukrainian crisis has therefore to be read in the context of the numerous difficulties in which Germany finds itself, because of its long-term domestic decline, and of its inability to devote additional resources to yet another front (indeed a recurrent feature of Germany’s strategic predicament). Another major source of preoccupation has to do with the shift in political culture that the Russian moves entail in relation to the management of international crisis, which will be assessed in a separated article.
As much as this is a geopolitical crisis, the return to geopolitics in Europe is clearly a shock for many. The hysterical reaction of the German government to these events is only understandable in such a setting. For the current generation of German leaders, who have put all their faith and bets in the indefinite prolongation of the post-historical condition, the crude fact that borders can be disputed (in Europe!) and crossed by armed forces is more than an unpleasant (however intensely) fact. It is a disaster of unfathomable dimensions. It signals that their whole way of thinking about the future of Germany, and of Europe/EU, may be on a dead track, and that Germany is being caught in a long-term unfavourable position. The occupation and annexation of Crimea does not signal “a return to nineteenth century politics”. Rather on the contrary, it is probably the avant-garde of future ways of conducting international politics, which shall witness the emergence of politics’ territorial dimension. Although sidelined for a while, territoriality is hardly an element to be banned for ever from the understanding of politics and of international politics in particular.
Nature of the Ukrainian Crisis
The crisis in the Ukraine is certainly the most serious geopolitical confrontation in Europe since 1945. In many ways, it is more similar to the typical crises which, from the early era of state formation in Europe, have precipitated the numerous continental, generalized conflict Europe has witness many times in the past five centuries. The pattern is fairly familiar: during a long period of time the various “players” dispose their pieces on the chessboard, generating a large number of interconnections between different flashpoints (accumulation). Eventually, the degeneration of a localized crisis can precipitate the destiny of the whole strategic arrangement (trigger).
This similarity is many due to the crisis’s extended ramifications, the extreme forms of rhetorical confrontation, the symbolic value of its stakes, and the porosity of the borders involved (especially the Russian-Ukrainian border, but also Moldova).
During the Cold War, crises occurring on the European continent (arguably the place of more intense confrontation, certainly so considering the sheer deployment of military forces), in both camps, were contained within national borders, with the agreement of non-intervention from the other superpower. So the civil war in Greece (1946-49), the East German (1953) and Hungarian (1956) uprisings, the Czechoslovakian crisis (1968), and others. The presence of large armies and readily deployable military instruments, not to mention the awareness that nuclear weapons could be used at any time, were all external constraints to the diffusion of the crises, as the choice of escalation was unviable to both superpowers. Cold War crises also saw a low number of players, which were normally tightly controlled by Washington or Moscow, or were essentially isolated. Besides, in every crisis, political aims were usually pre-determined and rather clear, albeit sometimes unattainable (rapid German re-unification, Hungarian neutrality to be achieved already in the 1950s on the one hand, re-establishment of Communist rule from the USSR perspective).
The Ukrainian crisis on the contrary has vast ramification and blurred limits.
Contrary to a rather simplistic representation of this matter in most of the press, there is no clear-cut division between “who is Ukrainian” and “who is Russian”: most Russian families have relatives in the Ukraine and vice versa. Tens of millions of Russian bear Ukrainian surnames. They all descend from East Slavic tribes. They are part of the same linguistic continuum. They mostly belong to Christian Orthodoxy. For centuries, they have been part of the same empires. The administrative border between the two countries was never really designed to be an international border, as illustrated above. Crimea as a strategic location for the Russia Black Sea Fleet gives to Moscow direct access to the Mediterranean, thus connecting the current crisis to the ongoing conflict in Syria and the broader confrontation between the Shi’a world (Iran and shi’a groups in Lebanon, Syria and elsewhere, backed by Russia and also China) and the Sunni coalition led by Saudi Arabia (with US and Israeli involvement). Other ramifications concern the Caucasus and energy routes, not to mention the overall architecture of energy security in Europe, which is per se a sufficient cause for the highest geopolitical concern.
The rapid degeneration of the Ukrainian crisis has also become possible on the one hand because of the intensity and extent of foreign intervention (both Western and Russian), and for the all-too intricate web of relations among domestic actors: pre-crisis political figures (Yanukovich, Tymoshenko), the provisional government, the protestors in Kiev, radical groups (Pravy Sektor, Sleboda) from Western Ukraine and their armed militias, the oligarchs, the pro-Russian protesters and their armed wings, intelligence infiltrators, foreign diplomats. Contrary to the typical Cold War Era crisis, it appears that, in the magmatic situation of today’s Ukraine, the degree of allegiance by all these groups to particular centres of command and control in Washington, or Brussels, or Berlin, or even Moscow, is questionable.
Ways Out of the Crisis?
Unfortunately there is no easy exit from the current crisis. In many ways, the crisis of the Ukrainian state is irreversible. As a general principle of physics dictates, entropy prevents a system to revert to its previous condition. Once the above mentioned complex of balances that held the Ukrainian state in place has been lost after the ousting of Yanukovich, a quasi-deterministic chain of events has been set in motion. On the international side, considering that vital interests of the Russian state (clearly, from Moscow’s perspective) were at stake, Russia had to intervene. This was not difficult to foresee, and it is therefore remarkable that political leaders in Kiev, in Lviv, and in the Western capitals committed to a course of action where they did not have adequate means (nor strategy) in order to deal with the expected Russian response.
The collapse of a centralized constitutional order has created a void, which regional forces are filling, drifting to different directions. The events in Kiev have irreparably damaged the chances of a political settlement of the internal East-West rivalry, given the amount of casualties from both sides. The impossibility of a return to pre-crisis conditions has been definitely sealed by Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Some commentators have highlighted the fact that in such a way Moscow loses millions of potential pro-Russian votes in future Ukrainian elections. However, this line of thought is unconvincing: not only there is an alarming record of electoral results being overthrown by civil unrest in Kiev, which therefore makes electoral competition essentially meaningless, but more in general it appears that in Moscow’s view the Ukrainian state will no longer be able to run any regular electoral competition, which Russia is clearly able to sabotage in large part of the country. In a nutshell, the electoral significance of Crimea within the Ukraine is meaningless for Russia given that the Ukraine will cease to exist shortly.
Other political agreements, such as the ones sometimes articulated even by high ranking diplomats, do not seem to be attainable in the current context. This is especially true for the idea of transforming the Ukraine into some sort of federal state. Unless “federal” means in this case the enhancement of a completely fictitious Ukrainian (pseudo-)sovereignty, as in the case of the Holy Roman Empire during the late eighteenth century, no such scheme can apply to the Ukraine. The reason is simple: in no model of federal state different regions can belong to different economic and trade areas, to different military alliances, and security blocs. Because of the fundamental political and economic differences between the Eastern and Western regions of the country, giving more power to the local authorities would represent just another way in which the country will eventually disintegrate.
Some commentators, including prestigious names such as Henry Kissinger, have expressed the view that the Ukraine should remain a neutral state between the two blocs, and a “bridge” between East and West. This opinion is however very problematic. Arguably, the Ukraine is disintegrating precisely because it cannot function as a bridge. This “staying in the middle”, while it has to a certain degree preserved the Ukrainian statehood as far as it was possible, it is also destroying the Ukraine (economically, demographically) from within. If there was a chance for the Ukraine to have such a positive role between NATO/EU and Russia, it would have performed in the 23 years of its existence. But that is not the case. Now the historical window of opportunity of functioning as a bridge, of staying in the middle, has been closed for good.
The problem of “neutralization” is particularly interesting. According to this view, the Ukraine should follow the path of post WWII Finland. This is however impossible: Finland could perform that role precisely because it was Finland: a small, rather homogenous, relatively prosperous nation with a well-functioning state, and located in a geopolitical area which was not, arguably, the focus of most Cold War era tensions in Europe. The Ukraine is pretty much the exact opposite of every single point.
Furthermore, the nationalistic government in Kiev is unlikely to accept any such “federalisation”, left alone “neutralisation” of the country, not to mention the amputation of Crimea. Kiev’s provisional government is then unable, as previously mentioned, to control many regions and the proliferation of armed groups in both halves of the country. It is unclear whether they will ever be in a position to re-assert some degree of control.
A peaceful partition of the Ukraine also does not seem a likely solution. There is international resistance to such an expedient, because of the established idea that existing international borders shall not be changed. More importantly however, there is uncertainty about where to draw the line between the areas supposed to join the Russian Federation, and those to remain in a landlocked rump Ukraine.
In the absence of a readily achievable settlement of the dispute, because of the sheer complexity of the matter, it is likely that the situation will continue to degenerate. Kiev finds itself in a strategic trap: if it does not act against the armed groups which are taking over the Donbass, other regions will follow the path of Crimea. If it attempts to crush the insurgents, it will trigger a Russian invasion. Because Kiev seems to have embraced this latter course of action, a Russian invasion of Eastern Ukraine, and possibly a much larger military operations, appears to be likely. Moscow’s moves cannot be countered by Kiev, whose military instrument is likely to disintegrate and/or to defect en masse to the Russian side in the event of a conflict, like already occurred in Crimea, as previously mentioned.
Even in the case of Russian invasion, it is not probable that the West will respond with some military action. Only after the stabilisation of the situation on the ground it will be possible to devise some form of political agreement around a new geopolitical arrangement. Of course, there will be international consequences of such actions, possibly in terms of re-configuring the defence policy of several European nations.
The crisis in the Ukraine is the crisis of the Ukraine as a state and consequently as a geopolitical entity. As illustrated above, in the 23 years since its independence the Ukrainian state has never really functioned properly in many key areas of what a state should be. While the world hosts a long list of quasi-states, failing states, and failed states, because of its sheer geopolitical location the Ukraine cannot survive intact in the face of mounting international tensions. The crisis is also a product of an accumulation and stratification of rivalry and grievances between the US and Russia, as it appear connected to a series of other flashpoints in the Middle East, in the Caucasus, and in Central Asia.
The situation could have evolved differently, especially with a different economic policy towards the Ukraine from the US and the EU starting from the early 1990s, i.e. immediately after the collapse of the USSR, at the time of maximum Russian weakness. The absence of any long term economic strategy for the area and of an industrial plan for the Ukraine on the model of the German-backed reconstruction of Central European economies has led to a spiral of worsening economic and political conditions. Even within the perspective of democracy promotion, it is unthinkable that democracy can exist in the absence of any economic prosperity and of extreme polarisation of wealth distribution. More in general, it is arguable that the immediate discarding by the West of a European project inclusive of Russia after 1991 should be regretted as a wrong turn in international politics. Trying to assert some degree of control in the magmatic situation of today’s Ukraine will be a costly task with numerous elements of uncertainty.
While the disintegration of the Ukraine takes place as the consequence of geopolitical tensions, it also represents the byproduct of Russia’s resurgence. There is little doubt that Russia’s political project is an imperial one: Russia exists and has existed historically as an empire, and only as an empire, otherwise it would not exist. The Russian leadership’s ambitious vision for the future of Russia, while on the one hand possibly the only available given the historical setting in which it is formulated and has to operate, can entail vast risks in terms of international order (including international law) preservation and imperial overstretch. Not only risks for the world, but also for Russia itself.
This piece originally appeared on the website of the Security Studies Unit of the University of Tokyo’s Policy Alternatives Research Institute.
Roberto Orsi is a co-investigator on the Euro Crisis in the Press project. He holds a PhD International Relations and is currently Project Assistant Professor at the Policy Alternatives Research Institute (政策ビジョン研究センター) of the University of Tokyo (Japan). His research interests focus on international political theory, history of ideas (particularly modern continental political philosophy and critical theory), political theology (Carl Schmitt). He is also interested in social science epistemology and classical philology.
View all posts by Roberto or visit his personal website.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Euro Crisis in the Press blog, nor of the London School of Economics.
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