With ruthlessness worthy of the earliest Romanoffs and diplomatic skill worthy of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, President Vladimir Putin has turned Ukraine’s internal political crisis (December 2013-March 2014) into an opportunity to begin rebuilding the Empire that Russia lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union — an event that he has famously called the greatest disaster of recent times.
From the first earliest moment in this crisis Putin has lied to the world, brazenly claiming that all those well-armed toughs in Russian uniforms (with the insignia removed) standing alongside all that Russian battlefield equipment were only local civilians with friendly attitudes towards Russian people. By the first week of March, Putin was able to welcome the leaders of Crimea’s regional Parliament as they officially conveyed the desire of the people of Crimea for immediate admission to the Russian Federation.
The Brief Career of Vladimir the Enlightened
For several months previously the international stock of President Vladimir Putin and his regime had been rising everywhere in the world. This buoyant trend began back in the last week of September, 2013, when Putin suddenly reversed the practice of vetoing in the UN Security Council all resolutions that proposed collective action for the purpose of saving the people of Syria from their tyrant-ruler. By the end of September 100,000 Syrians had died in Syria’s Civil War and 2.5 millions had been driven from their homes, including at least two million who had taken refuge outside Syria in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.
Up until the last week of August, 2013, President Obama had consistently turned away all proposals for American intervention in the Civil War on the perfectly reasonable grounds that no one could find in the ever-ramifying ranks of the opposition any elements that were capable of establishing a new Syrian regime dedicated to basic human freedoms. Indeed, it became clear very early that most of the viable opposition elements are committed against such un-Islamic notions as democracy and religious freedom.
But then on August 23 President Obama suddenly reared himself up to announce that Chemical Weapons were being used against Syria civilians and, evoking International Agreements Against Use of Chemical Weapons going back to the 1920s, he now saw a duty to take military action to prevent any further use of such forbidden weapons. “This kind of attack” (the use by Assad of chemical weapons against his own people), he now insisted, “is a challenge to the world… This kind of attack threatens our national security interests” [emphasis added.]
However – to make a complicated story as brief as possible – the world did not salute. Public opinion in the United States was apparently not in favor of any action at all, and the Senate of the United States was determined to jawbone the issue to death rather than act. The Parliament of Great Britain, called into special session by the Prime Minister to consider a motion in support of the proposed American action, voted the motion down on August 26. This moment will be recalled forever as one of the moral low points for what used to be called the Free World and most painfully for what used to be called its Leaders.
Then, suddenly, during the last week of September, Vladimir Putin reached out suddenly, Deus ex machina, to offer a way out for us all. He would twist the arm of Bashir al-Assad, he said, so that Assad would sign on to an agreement leading to surrender and quick elimination of all the Chemical Weapons in his possession. This was something that he was uniquely qualified to do as only he, among leaders of major powers, had retained good standing with the dictator of Syria. No one could imagine the President of the United States doing what Putin had just done.
Nobody seriously expected that this would contribute anything to ending the Syrian civil War – and it did not. Weeks later, a Conference was held in Switzerland for the purpose of establishing a framework for ending the Civil War; but several of the most bloody-minded of the Opposition elements refused to attend, while the government of Syria refused to allow any talk about Syria’s government at all. That “reconciliation” exercise is now kaput.
But the opportunity of working in harness on this cause and simultaneously on the cause of negotiating an end to the standoff with Iran over its nuclear programme undoubtedly contributed to lowering the temperature of all parties. There suddenly appeared a new and friendly spirit in international diplomacy – a spirit share by all except the Israelis, as I have previously noted [“How the Geneva Accords Have Increased the Isolation of Israel,” The Bayview Review, January 28, 2014.]
And so, for several months now the diplomatic stock of Russia has been steadily rising. As the Sochi Olympic games approached, Putin’s smiling countenance imposed itself at the top of all the television news programmes. The success of the Games was all the more dramatic because many clear-thinking people were projecting that Sochi might become the scene of chaos on a whole new scale. Two suicide bombing attacks on Russia state buildings a few days before the opening of the Games started up much agonizing about whether the Games were truly “safe.”
Simultaneously, a world-wide campaign started up for the purpose of tarnishing the Russian government and the Russian people as homophobic; but that effort flopped – despite moral support from President Obama and despite efforts by major media outlets to assist the street-theater. What really counted to the vast majority in our part of the world was a grand spectacle much more breath-taking than advertized. No need occurred during the Sochi moment for a display of mighty force against Russia’s internal or external enemies.
This steady upgrading of the stock of Vladimir Putin has been happening as the diplomatic stock of the President of the United States has been falling with roughly- equal velocity. In desperation, Obama had yielded pride of place in the matter of salvation of Syria to Russia, and could not risk thereafter bad-mouthing Vladimir Putin over all the issues still unsettled between the United States and Russia at a time when Vladimir Putin was looking to more and more people like the Statesman of the Year.
Meanwhile, the leaders of all the nations of the world, beginning with those closest to the United Sates, have all taken their turn before the international media to denounce the United States for breaking all the rules of civility through its snooping on our telephones and all forms of information exchange.
The Ukrainian Crisis.
The need for the President of Russia to think first of the worldwide-public relations effects of his daily actions has now passed. Several of the well-known critics of his regime who were released in the week leading up to Sochi, to great PR effect, have since been clawed back or virtually shut-up by the threat of being clawed back.
But now, coming out of nowhere, the Ukraine crisis has abruptly reversed the hopeful trend of the last six to eight months. It began in the Ukrainian capital Kiev in late December with great anti-government demonstrations reminiscent of the Tahrir Square demonstrations in Cairo in January 2011. In the Ukrainian scenario, the matter requiring immediate redress, according to these crowds, was the recent decision by the government of President Yanukovych to halt his well–advanced negotiations intended to lead to integration of Ukraine into the European Union.
Putin was plainly meddling in this matter – for the most obvious of reasons – and doing so in a way that reminded Ukrainians of the days when the Ukrainian Soviet Republic had answered to the USSR. President Yanukovych had, in effect, been summoned to the court of President Putin and made to change his tune in public. Instead of a new relationship with Europe there were to be closer ties with Russia, assisted immediately by a great gift of Russian money.
The slogans in the Euromaiden Square became nastier and the anti-Russian noises from the crowds became louder as the Ukrainian government introduced Anti-Protest Laws. Government buildings including the Justice Ministry building in the centre of Kiev were seized by force and set on fire. By February 20, there were approximately one hundred dead and many thousands injured.
As in Tahrir Square in January 2011, the crowds in Euromaiden Suare in Kiev were now demanding the resignation of their President. The President agreed to a mediation effort led in person by the principal European statesmen and signed on to an agreement to step down within a few months. But then he suddenly skipped town and, from some place near the Russian border, he re-appeared, denouncing the foreign interlopers and vowing to fight on. On February 22, the Parliament of Ukraine declared the office of President vacant and filled it with one of their own, while setting a date in May for new elections.
The Secession of Crimea.
There was generally enthusiastic support for the Kievan anti-government movement in most parts of Western Ukraine but not in Eastern Ukraine where a high proportion of the public identifies as ethnic Russian. Throughout the Crimean peninsula public opinion ran high against the Kievan insurrection. Since 1954 an Autonomous Republic of Crimea with its Capital at Simferopol and with a Parliament of its own has been acknowledged by Ukraine. Now, with Kiev in disarray, the Crimean Parliament voted for Crimea’s independence. On March 1, Vladimir Putin, received authorization from Russia’s parliament to deploy troops to Ukraine in response to the Crimean crisis. As of March 2, Russian troops had complete control over the Crimea. A referendum on the question of establishing Crimea’s independence is scheduled to be held on March 16.
An overwhelming victory for the cause of annexation to Russia is anticipated in the referendum, as the only substantial bloc in opposition to the move is the community of roughly 250,000 Crimean Tatars. These are the local spawn of one of those nomadic conquering races, like the Huns and later the Mongols, who came out of Central Asia and made subjects of the local population from the 12th to the 16th centuries, Modern Russian history is considered to begin with the triumph of “Russian Czars” over these unloved invaders.
Stalin drove out the remnant of Tatars during the 1940s, but a portion returned, out of auld lang syne, during the Khrushchev years. Their descendents today fear, with good reason, the revival of Russian-patriotic nationalism which Putin so openly exploits to keep neighbours such as the Chechens and the Georgians in line.
As I write (March 10) Russian troops have closed access to Crimea by sea and by land. As for the former, Sevastopol is the major base of the Russia warm-water fleet. While there is a small naval force displaying the Ukrainian flag, it is dwarfed in all respects by the Russian fleet which has all along had the right to extra-territorial control of Sevastopol – much as the United States controls Guantanamo. The only point of entry by land is across a narrow isthmus, and this was seized at once by pro-Russian forces which have been preventing all unfriendly traffic.
Under this heading Russia includes the delegation sent by OSCE, the organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. This body, with its fifty-seven member states located in Europe, Asia and North America is tasked with promoting arms control agreements and promoting human rights, freedom of the press and fair elections. Obviously, Russia has no need for such nuisances at this moment. Also in this category of useless nuisances is the world press; accordingly, journalists and photographers have been roughed up and world news services are closing up shop.
Sorting Out the Rights and Wrongs.
There may be something here for moral philosophers to chew over, but none of it interests Putin. There is no good reason why it should. Both sides are making similar and equally bombastic appeals to “democracy” and to “constitutionality,” but the two narratives do not touch at any point. Neither side, so far as I can see, has the moral advantage.
It was obvious in the earliest days of the troubles in Kiev that both sides were being jerked around by criminal elements. The snipers who fired down from government buildings upon the raging protestors were probably (but not necessarily) loyal to Yanukovych and no doubt they thought they were defending “the Constitution”. But before that moment was reached, hooded thugs, screaming their allegiance to “Democracy”, had broken from the ranks of the “peaceful protestors” and were using lethal force to break the ranks of the government soldiers, seizing government premises, setting fire to the Ministry of Defense, and taking possession of stashes of battlefield weapons and gear. By this point, everybody was wearing some form of government-issue battle gear and military helmets with visors. No one on any side at this stage had any intention of surrendering by way of the ballot box what he imagined his side had just won for “true democracy” in battle.
As for Putin’s “annexation” of Crimea, there are major extenuating factors. Crimea had been part of Russia until Nikita Khrushchev, for reasons having to do with building his own personal political machine in the earliest days of his tenure, gave it as a gift in 1954 to Ukraine. From the point of view of Putin and, we are told, most residents in Crimea today, the peninsula is being returned to the position under which it had once prospered and which made most sense in terms of Russia’s national security.
Putin can be confident that, for all the righteous noise being made by all the western political leaders, singly and in bunches, NATO forces are not coming over the horizon. The conspicuous display of NATO’s irrelevance in situations like this one will inevitably reduce the appeal of membership, not only in NATO but in the European Union – and this not only in Central and Eastern Europe but also in Turkey. Likewise, for all the bluster about economic sanctions, if push comes to shove Putin has it in his power, for the time being at least, to turn off Europe’s fuel supplies. [“The European Union Reacts to the Crisis in Ukraine,” Stratfor Global Intelligence, March 4, 2014.]
Diplomatic Consequences of Putin’s Actions in Ukraine
The Ukrainian crisis and Russia’s brilliantly successful response to it has already dramatically changed the terms of the relationship between Russia and every other player of significance in world affairs. It will be a long time – if ever – before Russia and the United States will be able to work together in the two closely-linked matters of Syria and Iran. As distrust develops between Russia and the Western powers, both the Syrian government and the Iranian government will have no great difficulty evading the responsibilities that they have so recently undertaken to divest themselves of current and/or future Weapons of Mass Destruction.