Since the Russian military annexation of the Crimea began in earnest last Friday, Russia has been slowly tightening its grip on the peninsula; taking control of Ukrainian military assets, and surrounding Ukrainian military garrisons and its navy. The Russian noose has been getting ever tighter day by day, making the Ukrainian military units a hostage in their own bases and ships, with nerves getting ever more frayed as time passes.
Tuesday evening saw a seemingly alarming escalation, with reports of an ultimatum, giving Ukrainian units until the following morning to surrender.While this "deadline" passed without incident and the Russian military manoeuvres over the border finished on Wednesday, events and the stand-off hang by a thread. There are daily disturbances in the cities of the east and south of Ukraine.
What is going on?
Putin's psychological game
I've talked before about my theory of the "Russian Gambit":
"What are Russia's intentions? While accepting a de facto split of Ukraine on the ground (at least in the short term), accepting it de jure would be another matter, and we know that Russia follows the line that the opposition now in power in Kiev is engineered by fascists that have come to power through a violent coup. On Saturday, having fled Kiev, Yanukovich may well have asked for Russian protection for a Russian-speaking eastern and southern rump state. But the Kremlin may have explained their own motivation, based on their analysis of the opposition: to allow the opposition a taste of power in Kiev (while having no control of the east), playing a waiting game for the disparate opposition to violently turn on each other, allowing Yanukovich and his party to return to power in Kiev soon afterwards, with Russian help or not, depending on the situation."
Putin's press conference yesterday gave more weight to this ruse.
In it, he spoke of Yanukovich still being the legitimate president, even though he accepted that he had no real future in Ukraine. Putin talked of there being "no-one to talk to in Kiev", as there was no legitimate government; the only plan worth mentioning was the one that Yanukovich signed (agreeing to some form of all-party coalition, and elections in December). As the opposition has reneged on that deal (as Putin saw it), it seems clear that the planned elections in May would only be "legitimate" to the Kremlin if they voted in Yanukovich's "Party Of The Regions"; if not, then there surely would be no hope of a thaw in relations between Kiev and Moscow in the foreseeable future.
Putin gave the impression of being happy to cause as much political mischief as possible to the "interim government" in Kiev as long as they (or indeed any future "fascist" elected successor government) existed. At the moment, this has included the pro-Russian party being in effective control of the east and south of Ukraine, not recognising the Kiev government, and causing regional instability. On top of that was mood of casual harassment of Ukraine's sovereignty by the Russian military; air incursions, patrolling close to the border, and so on. If there was no government in Kiev as Putin saw it, then Moscow was within its rights to move almost at will across Ukrainian territory. Then there was the economic punishment, with the threat to Ukraine's gas supply, its nuclear energy, and many other financial instruments that could be used and payments withheld. In short, Putin would make the Kiev government's existence a living nightmare; everything short of out-and-out war. This would continue to be psychological torture for Kiev, and for the whole of Ukraine.
The Crimean land-grab was a piece of convenient opportunism, from the Kremlin's point of view, righting a "wrong" that has been done by the ethnic Ukrainian Soviet leader, Khruschev, during the Cold War. Crimea had been ethnically Russian since Stalin purged it of Tatars in the Second World War, and had been a key part of Russian territory since the late 18th century.
Putin's motivations are more internal than external: he cannot allow the Kiev government to exist with impunity as it would send a fatal message to his own standing at home, and give encouragement to the pro-Western opposition. The effective annexation of Crimea was an act of opportunism; nothing more. His "gambit" in Ukraine is about securing a friendly government there; nothing more. How he achieves that depends more on the actions of Kiev. It would be more convenient that he not use the military to achieve it, but Putin has no moral qualms about using it if he feels he has no other choice. That was the underlying message from his press conference.
The political game continues, as Putin and his adept foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, twist the West's logic of foreign intervention in unto itself, while making an art-form of the apparent barefaced lies about the situation on the ground in Crimea. In the meantime, the West looks on at a nightmare largely of its own making.
The West's nightmare scenario
The road to this crisis came partly from creating some awful geo-political precedents. The Kosovo War of 1999, and the Iraq war of 2003 were both US-led military engagements without UN support that led (either indirectly or directly) to regime change. While both situations were very different, under different administrations, and provoked very different moral responses, they both followed the same precedent: military unilateralism that could skirt international law (i.e. through the use of the UN).
Furthermore, it was hard in Moscow to dispel the feeling that Russia was being encircled economically and militarily, by the EU and NATO; the American use of military bases in Central Asia as part of its "War On Terror" can't have helped either.
Putin duly took note of this. Russia has historically always been protective of its right to intervene to protect its interests in its "near abroad": the Russian equivalent of the "Monroe Doctrine". In this way, the West's accusation of Putin starting a "new Cold War", while easy to throw, is a misleading comparison. Other Western politicians (such as even Hillary Clinton), have accused Putin of behaving like a "new Hitler". Again, while it is tempting to make the comparison, this also an exaggeration: he has no wish to overwhelm Europe. Russia has been the largest nation on earth for well over a century, and Putin has made Russia one of the world's leading economies.
The fall of the Soviet Union (and loss of Russian territory and prestige) may be compared historically with Germany's punishment at the end of the First World War; even the twenty-year period of transition to German/Russian military "aggression" matches. In this sense, Hillary Clinton's comparison of Putin to Hitler makes some sense, though it is too simplistic an analogy.
This is no "new Cold War". There is no "ideological war" as twenty years ago; also, we are no longer living in a bipolar world, but nowadays one of various "power blocs" and key players (more on that in a moment). A better historical comparison is to the period of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with imperial powers (or these days, "neo-Imperial powers") re-learning their historical roles in the world after the chaotic period between the First World War and the end of the "Cold War".
The wider precedent that the West has created stems from a) the precedent of military unilateralism, and b) allowing countries to cross artificial "red lines" with impunity. The example of Syria last year was critical. Together, these two signals are fatal to Western prestige and respect across the world; the West is hypocritical to accuse others of acting aggressively in their one interests, and in any case, no-one believes that the West have the moral courage to act against anyone.
Kim Jong-un is probably making note of this.
But that is only one of a number of effects that the West's reaction to the "Ukraine Crisis" may have.
The talk of a "new Cold War" may be overblown, but the real change that this crisis is likely to bring about is the hardening of "power blocs" that have been forming over the last ten years: by this I mean the waning power of the USA in comparison to that of China; the EU becoming more of a "inter-national grouping" for the sake of economic and military influence; the role of Russia as a power balancing its interests between that of China and the others; and the rising influence of smaller players such as Brazil, and regional players like the Arab states (GCC) and Turkey.
In other worlds, "multilateralism" may be now definitively fading, being replaced by a world power unilateralism, last seen in the decades prior to the First World War. The West's influence is fading; the East's is rising. The lack of appetite for intervention in the West may now be seen as a "weakness" in the dominant nature of democracy, while the East has no such political inhibitions to hold back its wishes.
The split between the West on the use of sanctions also seems to be opening rifts between those East European countries that had recently joined the EU and NATO (or both), and what Donald Rumsfeld once called "Old Europe"; the original members of the EU. The USA seems to be taking the side of the East Europeans, already making promises to be a more conspicuous guardian of its new NATO allies along the Russian border. In this sense, historic differences between Eastern and Western Europe, their different perspectives and motivations, are coming to the surface after decades (even centuries) of slumber. The divergent attitudes towards Russia of the UK and Germany compared to Poland, Hungary, the Czechs and Lithuania are now plain to see. This may put huge strain on a united European front towards Russia. Putin will also be watching this issue closely.
No-one in Europe has any real clue what will come of the new government in Ukraine, but the far-right, nationalist elements are hiding in plain sight. One unintended consequence of the EU so conspicuously supporting "fascistic" elements is the damage it does to its own reputation (it has already given masses of political ammunition to Russia); it also may encourage further support for the far-right all across the member-states of the EU itself.
That would be a real nightmare for the EU.
Any sanctions on Russia, as Putin smartly pointed out, can be returned in kind by Russia. The economic effect of this across the globalised market is uncertain; the only thing that does seem certain is that this will create more uncertainty about the future of open multinational trade, and therefore may tip the world into another recession.
Lastly, Obama has been receiving sharp criticism from the right, that now his chickens have come home to roost. In effect, Obama has created a "neo-isolationist" policy since the end of the Bush administration. Apart from Libya, the military has disengaged from Iraq and Afghanistan, and there is little appetite for any other conflict for the remainder of Obama's tenure. This "weakness" in foreign policy can potentially open things up in the 2016 elections: it would be a reverse of the 1940 election between the "isolationism" of the Republicans at the time, and the interventionist tendency of Roosevelt's Democrats.
The word on people's lips these days is "appeasement".
(Update Thursday, 6 March
In the last twenty-four hours, the USA has ramped-up its rhetoric on sanctions, as well as making explicit orders to increase its air-force assets to Lithuania, as well as reminding Russia that a US navy vessel will soon be entering the Black Sea.
This escalation of pressure by the USA seems to be aimed at reversing the more mealy-mouthed statements of the last week on the Ukraine crisis. This may be aimed at a) the critics at home, and therefore nipping in the bud any perceived foreign policy weakness ahead of the elections later this year, and in 2016, and b) the explicit support for the Eastern European nations in NATO against the perceived threat of Russia.
In other words, there is now a clear divergence between a "pacifist" and cautious Western Europe unwilling to harm its Russian assets, and a "militant" Eastern Europe, supported by the USA.
This can only lead to the "Balkanisation" of Eastern Europe now becoming widened to the conflicting motivations of Eastern and Western Europe, and now the USA and Russia are now involved in a longer-term "proxy war" of influence over the European continent.
In many respects, this is less the clock has turning back to the "Cold War" politics of the past, but more to the similar form of conflicting "alliances" and "agreements" that existed in 1914)