Ukraine: Putin’s Calculated Risk in Crimea
What has been happening in Ukraine over the past few weeks raises serious and interesting questions about the present and future state of international relations.
Putin’s Russia is giving the lie to many who had rather dismissively concluded that the fall of the Berlin Wall signalled the end of history – basically implying that the great ideological rivalry between the USSR and the United States had come to an end and that too by a total knockout of the former. Russia, under Putin, is looking more and more like the wounded bear coming back with a vengeance after having licked its wounds. The present crisis in Ukraine/Crimea provides a telling illustration of how the nationalistic leaders in Russia intend to take full advantage of favourable circumstances to achieve their objective.
One very interesting point to consider in this situation is the extent to which the United States has itself contributed to this new power equation through the way it has behaved over the past decade. Following the demise of the USSR, the sense of total victory and exuberance was such that, to borrow a sentence from the great historian Arnold Toynbee, Americans felt that “well here we are at the top of the world, and we have arrived at this peak to stay forever.” This common mistake among victors is always fraught with danger, and subsequent events in the US provide an illustration of this.
Loss of “moral capital”
Although the disintegration of the USSR left the Western powers, headed by the US, with a considerable amount of goodwill, a series of poor decisions resulted in a considerable loss of “moral capital” within a relatively short time. Military interventions in Somalia, Afghanistan and, most of all, in Iraq all somehow contributed to this. Then there was the Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) issue — the big lie concocted to mystify allies and enemies alike, and for justifying a most costly war in terms of both human lives and money. This was followed by the ignominious and cynical way in which the US withdrew its troops from Iraq, leaving it to sort out a heinous civil war. Let alone the fact that many are convinced that the war was carried out for the most venal of reasons to satisfy the greed of a small clique of hawkish warmongers.
As is so often the case, the chickens have come home to roost. Listen to Putin’s discourse. At the head of a more self-assertive nation, he is claiming that the demise of the bipolar world is the cause of the instability in international relations, clearly suggesting that he sees Russia’s role as one of two dominant world powers. Although he is not himself exempt of some very condemnable acts, he is clearly seeking to seize the high moral ground in this conflict by directing his attacks against the credibility of the West which is posing as the guardian of principles in the international realm.
The more complex or confused the issues, the more people would rely on the element of TRUST when taking sides in a conflict, and trust is a function of “moral credibility.” By very rapidly organizing the referendum whose results would predictably and overwhelmingly support the cause of Russia, Putin has sought to add a gloss of “democracy” on his actions and thus increase the confusion even further especially given that the government of Ukraine, which was ousted by mass protests in Kiev, was a democratically elected one
A parallel can be drawn with the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 when Presidents John Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev stood “eyeball to eyeball” for thirteen days with the threat of nuclear annihilation lurking. Of course the present situation does not present any of the highly dramatic background associated with the Cold War environment. But the important point is that the tremendous amount of moral support enjoyed by President John F Kennedy was a determining factor which allowed him to bring the situation to a satisfactory closure (avoiding a nuclear deflagration) by organizing the blockade of Cuba and ultimately forcing the Russians to back down.
Russia’s heavy hand and the West’s feeble response
The Cold War environment following World War II has now all but disappeared. But the rivalry between the US and the new Russia is far from being a thing of the past. Although it would seem that the battleground is presently more or less restricted to how the new post- Berlin Wall EurAsia region would be shaping up under the respective spheres of influence of the new Russia and the US, there is no guarantee that the rivalry would not soon spread further geographically in the future.
As opposed to the threat of military intervention, the response of the Western powers up to now in the present crisis has been to brandish the use of economic sanctions against Russia for its “occupation” of the autonomous region of Crimea. This should come as no surprise since the appetite for an escalated conflict with Russia is palpably absent.
The spread of the “global market” and the importance of transactional relations have resulted in such an enhanced level of integration among nations that the threat of “excluding” one actor from access to some essential activities (import and export of goods or freezing the assets of major companies or individuals for example) through sanctions can constitute a serious form of dissuasion under some circumstances.
In this particular case the jury is still out regarding whether the harm caused to Russia will not in the medium and long terms be more than outweighed by the effects of the sanctions on its commercial partners.
In the final analysis, the outcome of such crises are largely dependent on the level of commitment to the resolution of the problem by top leaders of the players and other stakeholders to the conflict. For the reasons mentioned above and in the light of recent history, there are many reasons to believe that the West’s response will be fairly muted at the end of the day.
President Obama and other leaders have declared that the referendum held on Sunday in Crimea and which has led to an overwhelming Yes vote for integration with Russia will NEVER be recognized. Although that may be so, one is left with an uneasy feeling that, in the end, they will learn to live with its consequences.
Putin and his supporters in Moscow as well as Crimea, on the other hand, are fully committed to the cause as a result of such factors as cultural attachment, linguistic affiliations, national pride and above all strategic importance. On the count of commitment therefore it is fairly obvious where the advantage lies.
From all that has been said above, it seems that the annexation of Crimea to Russia is a done thing. It looks likely that, in spite of the strong protests which will certainly emanate from the rest of the “international community”, Russia will not back down. The real question then is: are we at the dawn of a new Cold War and what can the West do about it?
Obviously there are lessons to be drawn.
The US and its allies, having been unwittingly sucked into Putin’s stratagem this time, will seek to get their act together in order to strengthen their hands for future battles. The response will necessarily be complex and multifaceted.
Only one thing is for certain: if they want to have a strong leadership position, the US and its allies will have to take strong remedial action to improve their stock of moral capital. The surest way to do this is to develop a grand strategy which will appeal to a large coalition of diverse interests while being convincing in its attachment to universally accepted principles.
* Published in print edition on 21 March 2014