Home / Opinion / Russia’s Ukrainian adventure

Five days after Russia seized the Ukrainian province of Crimea, the West, led by the US and the European Union (EU), is yet to come up with an effective response to this hugely ambitious move on the Eurasian chessboard.

So far, all that is on offer are strong words that have not affected Russia at all. The 90-minute conversation between US President Barack Obama and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin did not make any difference. The EU, not exactly known for smart military moves even in its backyard, is unlikely to offer a meaningful response. It is only a matter of time before the EU, heavily dependent on Russia for its energy needs—supplied largely through Ukraine—offers “talks" to Russia. On Tuesday morning, the US suspended military ties with Russia. Given that these ties between rivals are nothing more than frequent tea-drinking ceremonies, that means little.

Since 1991, when the Soviet Union disintegrated, Russia has smarted at the loss of prestige, territory and its superpower tag. In the 23 years that followed, economic and political humiliation and internal disturbance have kept Russia at bay. The hydrocarbon boom of recent years and US military weakness after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan emboldened Russia to take back what it lost earlier.

A Russian EU

The Russian way to re-integrate its “lost territories", the countries that were once a part of the Soviet Union, is an interesting carrot-and-stick combination. Modelled on the EU, Russia has plans to create a Eurasian Union, an economic group comprising its neighbours.

The response has been less than enthusiastic and shows a clear pro vs. anti EU division among Russia’s neighbours. Two years ago, Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan signed an agreement to form the group by 2015. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have appeared to be interested in joining but Ukraine and Georgia do not want to be part of this Eurasian Union. Georgia went to war with Russia two years ago and now a part of Ukraine is under Russian military occupation. This is the stick part of the Russian strategy.

Different worlds

The countries that once made the former Soviet Union can be neatly divided into two. One group, located in Asia—Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan—does not have a tradition of democracy and is ruled, mostly, by authoritarian rulers. The second set—Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia—is either within Europe or is politically in favour of joining the EU.

The Asian countries, due to geographic proximity to Russia and distance from EU, want closer economic and political ties with Russia.

If one leaves out Belarus—the only dictatorship on European soil—none of the other countries mentioned above want to embrace Russia. Joining EU makes economic sense. But these countries have experimented with and tasted democracy.

The divisions are obvious: a pro-EU, democratic bunch of nations in Russia’s European neighbourhood and a pro-Russia group in Asia that is cool to democracy.

Rolling back Ukraine

After handing out a lesson to Georgia, it was only a matter of time before Ukraine faced Russian music. As long as Kiev was controlled by strongmen who favoured Russia and were in its favour, Ukraine remained a “friendly neighbour". Much of Ukraine’s internal politics can be seen through this prism. The ousted President, Viktor Yanukovych, was elected from Eastern Ukraine—that is culturally and ethnically under Russian influence—and did all that he could to keep Ukraine in the Russian sphere. His actions said it all: Yanukovych resisted closer ties with the EU, systematically abused the human rights of Ukrainians—a big no no for EU—and imprisoned any politician who voiced opposition to Russia.

After Yanukovych’s exit, it was only a matter of time before Russia took steps to safeguard its interests in Ukraine. It responded immediately with military means.

What next?

1) The US and EU are unlikely to respond military to Russia, at least immediately. The EU does not have the means, or the appetite, to take on Russia; the US has other priorities.

2) This may change if Russia were ever to seize Ukraine completely or to split the country by snatching away all of its eastern provinces. It is unlikely to do so. Russia’s moves are well-calculated.

3) If Russia does not heed Western warnings, a different strategy may be used against it. Russia could be expelled from the Group of Eight countries. Economic sanctions could follow. This may not work. The country has an abundance of natural resources that the world is hungry for. Since its invasion of Crimea, oil, gold and corn prices have shot up. The world needs oil and gas and Putin knows that well.

4) European reluctance—and it is notable that the most powerful country on the continent, Germany, has not issued any strong statement against Russia—is due to its energy dependence on the latter. This fact is well-known to Moscow and it employs this energy coercion effectively against Europe. This can drive a wedge between the EU and the US on a joint strategy and response to Russia.

5) A long-drawn diplomatic response is more likely than a quick military reaction.

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