I just heard a BBC interview with the former foreign secretary Lord Owen. ‘People say the situation in the Ukraine is spiraling out of control’, said the interviewer. He didn’t say who these people were, but I assume it was his BBC colleagues.
The situation in the Ukraine is not spiraling. It’s not out of control. It’s very much the opposite. Russia is in control of the Crimea and working to ensure that Ukraine remains one of the last buffer states between Mother Russia and the West.
The Russian Black Sea Fleet has lost its secure port facilities at Tartous in Syria for the time being, and it currently relies on its old home port at Sebastopol in the Crimea. When Ukraine became independent it got sovereignty over the Crimea on the understanding that Russia would still control the province and the fleet base.
The will to give Russia a beating is absent from any state or alliance capable of doing so today.
As the Russian-sponsored Ukrainian government repeatedly made asses of themselves and were overthrown, they courted the risk of Ukraine dividing or moving wholly out of the Russian sphere of influence. Russia has made it clear in recent years that it would not accept that move, and has made it clear in recent weeks that if Ukraine breaks up the Crimea remains effectively Russian.
You don’t have to be a latter-day Bismarck to understand this. Russia identifies its fleet base and its buffers as critical national interests. Russia has made this clear to everyone. When people and governments threaten these interests Russia kicks up rough.
If the Ukraine were to enter an armed confrontation with Russia over the Crimea nobody would help Ukraine. Even if the Ukrainian Army were willing to fight the Russians on behalf of the new government in Kiev, the conflict would be limited to Russia plus allies and the Ukraine.
If the Ukrainian government enters into any conflict with the Russians they run the risk of being bankrupted by their own heating bills. As a largely still-Communist command economy, Ukraine depends for its winter survival on buying gas from Russia at heavily subsidised prices. Without some other willing and capable ally to pay the bills, no Ukrainian government will be able to defy Moscow for long.
There is no room for this conflict to spiral out of control. It is a straightforward reinforcement by Russia of its sphere of influence, and a reinforcement of the point Putin made over Georgia in 2008. The point is: Russia is not letting go of any more of its near-abroad buffer states.
An alliance of Britain, France and Turkey took Sebastopol in 1855. The Germans took Sebastopol in 1942. In both occasions the attackers were fueled by the will to give Russia a beating. The will to give Russia a beating is absent from any state or alliance capable of doing so today.
We in the West generally find Russia’s rational pursuit of clearly-defined national interests old-fashioned and even obnoxious, but as long as the price of energy is high and Russia sits on a big heap of oil and gas this is a phenomenon we have to learn to live with.