Back in 2001 President Bush looked into Vladimir Putin’s eyes and later claimed he had looked into his soul. I always found the remark to be ridiculous, and recent events prove why: Putin has none.
Russia is looking for a resurgence. In 2007 Russia planted its flag on the North Pole. In 2008 Russia invaded Georgia. In 2013 the Sochi Olympics showcased to the world that Russia is very much a key actor and plays host to the world. And throughout the last decade Putin has used Russia’s vast hydrocarbon wealth to manipulate markets and make entire countries dependent on Russia’s cheap export, lest the rates for Russia’s gas significantly rise.
Ukraine sits on Russia’s border and its orbit is torn between the allure of EU accession to the west and Russia’s tug to the east. Ukraine fared poorly under the Soviet Union; google the key words famine, USSR, and Ukraine and you find that seven million Ukrainians died in 1932-1933 under Moscow’s rule. For that reason alone Ukraine looks west to the EU as a symbol of democracy and bastion of human rights. Indeed, Ukraine moved closer to the EU in recent years by, inter alia, creating a free trade agreement. President Yankovich dashed hopes for further EU integration recently by looking back east to Russia, setting off today’s crisis.
The crisis is deepening because Yankovich is not the only Ukrainian looking east. Look back to 2012 when Ukraine’s parliament held an unexpected vote. The New York Times describes the vote this way:
The Ukrainian Parliament, acting unexpectedly, approved a bill on Tuesday reaffirming Ukrainian as the country’s sole national language, but allowing local and regional governments to grant official status to Russian and other languages spoken by at least 10 percent of their residents.
The question of granting Russian official status as a second state language had reopened an emotionally charged debate in Ukraine, a former Soviet republic where millions of people speak Russian as their native tongue.
Many people are far less comfortable speaking Ukrainian, especially in the eastern part of the country, the base of support for President Viktor F. Yanukovich, a native Russian speaker.
The vote helped expose the cinder lying and deep rifts we see today. Indeed, Ukraine’s second largest city, Kharkiv, Crimea, the autonomous republic where Russian troops effectively took command in a few short days, and Donetsk, all speak Russian. I got word today from my Ukrainian friends living in those cities that many Ukrainians are taking their family pictures alongside Russian soldiers.
Russia is therefore in a perfect position to take back what they see as already theirs. Russian-speaking Ukrainians welcome the intervention because they clearly want to gravitate back into Russia’s orbit. Yanukovich fled the country for Russia and happened to drain the country’s coffers (70 billion), leaving the country politically and economically weak and in disarray.
Meanwhile Russia wins the battle in terms of power politics. The quick move into Crimea avoids a protracted battle because troops are already welcomed. The EU, which incidentally imports half of Russia’s gas, is more or less impotent without the United States, and the United States is hesitant because we are coming out of two of the longest wars in the nation’s history. If that were not enough, the inevitable diplomatic and economic sanctions the West conspires to place on Russia are tempered by Europe’s need for Russia’s gas. And while the United States did fight proxy wars against the USSR during the Cold War, starting a hot war now in Ukraine’s east would be brazen at best and, at the worst, initiate a new world war.
A referendum is the best way forward, as a vote in eastern Ukraine that allows self determination and secession from Ukraine’s west could bring a quick peace. War cannot be an answer if we value world peace. Putin knows this. And that is why he has already won his bid for Russian expansion.
It is a cruel irony that 100 years after the First World War we are on the verge of starting a third. Whatever lessons international diplomacy has learned over the last one hundred years will be sorely tested in the coming months. The price of avoiding a Third World War could very well be offering up Crimea to Russia. Then again, such an offer conjures up memories of that Second World War, where even a policy of appeasement was not enough.
Hope for peace.