All nations have red lines which must be respected. When nations fail to respect the integrity (whether historical memory or physical borders) of nations then we have conflict and inevitably it is this failure to appreciate red lines that escalates past the point of confrontation into military conflict.
In Western Europe and the USA we have failed to acknowledge Russian history and it is this failure of ours that has created the latest crisis in Crimea.
Sevastopol has been the headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet since 1783. We study history to understand and we would hope, to learn from the past. When Hitler invaded Russia in Operation Barbarossa he opened up an Eastern Front that stretched from Estonia in the North down to Crimea in the South. That invasion was along the entire borderline of Western Russia – a distance of some 2,000 kilometers. According to Nazi Germany’s “Generalplan Ost” or the “Master Plan for the East” first the Slav’s deemed racially ‘acceptable’ were destined for enslavement (Germanic people would colonize the Central and Eastern European territories) and the rest would be murdered. So nearly all Poles, Ukrainians, Russians, Serbs, and Croats – in fact most of Central and Eastern Europe, was to be ‘cleared’ of what the Nazis called “Untermenschen” or sub-humans.
Russia has a long history of conflict, war and conquest. If this is viewed as expansionism then Napoleons’ invasion of Russia, the Crimean War, the Russo-Japanese War, the Russian Civil War and the Second World War are all poignant reminders that even if Russia wins, in terms of casualties it always loses.
When empires collapse they usually leave the centre intact. The mother (or father) land retains its sovereign, national home. Russia’s fatherland is a multi-ethnic federation. When we disregard history, for whatever reason, we fail to appreciate that even a nuclear armed Russia can be vulnerable and therefore can fear for its safety. With the break-up of the Soviet Union, Russia has seen its empire disintegrate and its closest allies defect to the European Union. Why then do we ignore the Russian suspicion that both the Western world and Islamic forces desire the disintegration of the Russian Federation?
Again, I do not understand why we in the West assumed that the coup d’état against the legitimately elected ruler of Ukraine would be acceptable to Vladimir Putin? Diplomatic intimidation has never worked with Russia. It is only the perception that Russia was and is weak that could have tempted the West to support the Ukrainian coup. The choice for the West was understandably going to be Yulia Tymoshenko. She served as Prime Minster in 2005 and again from December 2007 until March 2010. She not only wanted to join the EU but also NATO. Statements she made indicated her wish to abrogate treaties the Ukraine had with Russia. The Russian Black Sea Fleet would no longer enjoy access to Ukrainian port facilities and security protocols would be drawn up to both guarantee Ukrainian independence and to block “Russian Expansionism” – as Tymoshenko saw it.
The journalist Nahum Barnea wrote that “Ukraine is a failed state, slowly, inextricably crumbling due to rampant corruption and ethnic and religious tension.” Former President Viktor Yanukovych was elected president in 2010, defeating Yulia Tymoshenko. Yanukovych rejected a proposed agreement for closer ties with the EU (in November 2013) and what followed were protests that were centered on Kiev. As the civil unrest spread across the Ukraine the specter of civil war grew with the casualties. President Yanukovych fled to Russia in late February 2014. He left behind a 340 acre Estate with its own palace that was packed with priceless treasures. So he was a gold plated thief who seems to have stolen wholesale from his people. But he was Putin’s gold plated thief and he opposed whatever Tymoshenko the Capitalist believed in.
If we truly understood Russia then the best case scenario is Ukrainian neutrality and Russian indirect authority over its neighbours. The USA and Europe can continue to confront Russian power or they can engage in and create a practical compromise by which all parties gain confidence and long term security through military de-escalation and economic and social integration. But this will only occur if a buffer is created between Russia and its perceived antagonists.
We cannot continue to seek to contain Russia as if the Cold War had moved eastward into the Russian Federation itself because it is clear that under those conditions Russia will fight back. The only beneficiary in this latest conflict is going to be the world’s other superpower, China, which can happily watch as Europe, America and Central Asia descend into another bleak period of uncertainty and instability.
Global economic dislocation has created opportunities to realign superpower interests. After the fall of the Soviet Empire the world was briefly held together by US unipolarity. It may not be a bad thing if Russian intervention in Ukraine has forced the EU to re-consider its role in global affairs. It has rarely demonstrated a position that differed from the USA because its economic and political interests were congruent with American interests. And Europe would have been the primary beneficiary in any diminution of Russian economic power because of its proximity to and its geographical accessibility to Eastern Europe.
In “Syria, a Russian–American failure” (29/6/2013) I wrote that “Big Power cooperation would cause others to pause before interfering militarily, and may even constrain the colonial ambitions of other nations.” My criticism was then, and is now that “this is an area where America has failed to grasp an historic opportunity to create a strategic partnership with Russia ….. Cooperation rather than competition (between the USA and Russia) is the only way to defuse tensions….”
Détente between the two great nations could mark the next transformative stage in global international diplomacy. It would lead to peaceful cooperation between former enemies and it could lead to less robust Chinese expansionism in the South East Asian region.