Monday, March 10, 2014

The Ukraine Crisis: Understanding Europe's "proxy battleground"

Although the "Ukraine Crisis" cannot be called a "war" in the sense of being as a "shooting war", in almost every other manner, it is a war.

Russia has been using "war" strategies against Ukraine for ten days already: surrounding Ukrainian bases and holding their soldiers effectively hostage in their own bases; attempts to storm Ukrainian bases and ships in Crimea have been neutered by the Ukrainian blockading themselves in and preventing Russian soldiers from the chance of boarding their ships; even more aggressively "war-like" tactics have included blockading Sevastopol's harbour that the Russian Black Sea fleet share with Ukraine's naval headquarters; another Ukrainian naval base in an inlet elsewhere in Crimea has been blockaded even more aggressively, by scuttling mothballed Russian ships in the bay, trapping those Ukrainian naval ships inside the bay. Shots have been fired at a Ukrainian military observation plane passing by the "border" between Crimea and Ukraine proper.
In the meantime, Russia has been steadily building up its forces in Crimea. For what purpose? They already have had effective military control of the peninsula for a week. Are they preparing for the next part of the campaign?

Europe's chessboard

With the status of Crimea now effectively settled by a Russian fait accompli, Putin's "chess game" enters its next phase. As one business insider put it last week, while Russia may have Crimea, the rest of Ukraine is still very much "in play". This revealing expression tells you all you need to know about the maturity and mentality of some the European and American "players" involved in Ukraine's future.

The path that led to this current crisis was begun back in November last year. The EU offered Yanukovich a deal that was very much "take it or leave it"; or more exactly, Ukraine was squeezed between a rock and a hard place: to side with Europe or with Russia. Unwilling to spurn his Russia ally, Yanukovich turned down the EU and took the politically "safer" option of a sweetened deal from the Kremlin. It was then that "Euromaidan" movement began, and a three-month long campaign that involved right-wing fascists led to shootings and Yanukovich's flight to Russia. The West had won, or so it seemed.

Using the chessboard analogy of Europe versus Russia, the "Ukrainian revolution" was a case of "knight takes bishop". Russia reacted almost at once; after initially appearing to retreat, the Crimea annexation was taking away a highly-prized "chess piece" of Ukraine's that was deep in Russia's "half" of the board. The Russian "knight" takes the Ukrainian "rook". The Kiev government's position still looks shaky and vulnerable, while Russia has a more dominant position, and looks to assess its next move.

Both Europe and Russia appear to be moving their pieces around the "Ukrainian chessboard", but there seems little real room for manoeuvre: for both sides there is a lot at stake. Europe has invested a lot of time and energy into the current situation in Ukraine, while Russia cannot afford to "lose" the country to Europe. The situation in Ukraine looks destined to be either a stalemate where both sides agree they cannot "win" decisively and reach some kind of face-saving agreement, or Russia decides to go for the "nuclear" option (i.e. invades Ukraine proper), and then all bets are off. But whatever the outcome will be, it will not be a simple one; Europe has opened a can of worms that could have far-reaching consequences.

The EU's drive to the east brought it inevitably into Russia's "near abroad", and to the current situation where Europe finds itself deep into Russia's "side" of the "chess board". Europe can hardly be surprised at Russia's reaction to its conspicuous flaunting of its "wares" to Ukraine. A temporary respite seems to have occurred, as both Europe and Russia wait and see what the effects of the Crimea "referendum" on 16 March will be. After that date, things could get very messy.
Whatever apparent respite there is now, may only be temporary, and entirely illusory: the players are still moving their pieces on both sides, and tensions below the surface are as high as they have been. There are reports of violence in the east of Ukraine, strongly promoted by the Russian foreign ministry; very convenient for Russia to use these events as a justification to enter Ukraine proper for the sake of restoring order. Last week, Russia changed the law to make it much easier for any Russian-speaking person to get Russian citizenship. The equivalent of this would be if the USA made it very easy for any native English-speaker to get US citizenship, for the purposes of extending its "soft power".

No doubt, the Kremlin has a longer-term aim in mind here; less the restoration of the Soviet Union and a "new Cold War "(there are no Communist ideologues in the Kremlin), but the the restoration of the "glory" of Russia, and dominance over the regions once controlled by the former Russian Empire. Accelerating the path to citizenship for people across Russia's "near abroad" creates the rationale for coming to the aide of any of its aggrieved citizens in neighbouring countries, and changing "soft power" to "hard power".

A crisis of complacency

I've written before about the parallels to the current crisis and that which followed the assassination of Franz Ferdinand on 28 June, 1914.
While no-one in the West is talking about war with Russia if they invade Ukraine, it should be remembered that neither was anyone talking about a general European war in the immediate aftermath of the events in Sarajevo.

What is odder is that while the rhetoric of the West is far from bellicose, its actions seen from a Russian perspective look highly-threatening, and yet the West cannot see that. Talk of sanctions is one thing; movements of NATO's airborne assets to close to the Russian border is quite another. Similarly, while the West's rhetoric towards Ukraine has been strongly supportive of the new government in Kiev; the danger here is that the inexperienced (and politically-immature) government reads phrases as "unconditional" Western backing as a green light for Kiev to start a military campaign against Moscow. In the same way, Moscow may also (more correctly) interpret such Western talk as nothing but words, giving Moscow the tacit assurance that any military action in Ukraine will meet with only diplomatic reactions.

In this sense, we're very, very far from out of the woods yet, even if the story seems to be dropping off the leading headlines of Western media due to the impression of a hiatus in the crisis. Going back to 1914, it's worth remembering that it was a month before Austria reacted by declaring war on Serbia due to its indirect involvement in the assassination. It was another ten days after that before all the major European powers were militarily involved. The "July Crisis" of 1914 that led to the Great War took nearly six weeks to reach the point of no return; it was more than three weeks before Austria even sent an ultimatum to Serbia.

This "crisis" has only really existed for two and a half weeks; two weeks ago was when Yanukovich first fled Ukraine and the opposition took the initial steps to try and form a government. While no-one it the West is even contemplating "war", there are also a lot of variables to factor in; possibly even more than in the initial crisis in that summer of 1914.
In Crimea itself, there are the Tatars, whose reaction to joining Russia is an unknown quantity. Might a flash-point there have a cascade effect of encouraging other Muslim countries to come to their aid? Turkey's unpredictable Prime Minister (who himself is embroiled in scandal - and in need of a helpful distraction?) has made some statements that Russia could read as being unhelpful at best.  
There is the reaction of the other East European countries. Some of them have a personal experience of Russia, and have no wish to see themselves become "another Ukraine". While the rest of Europe and America may dismiss some of their fears as paranoia, the fact that there are a large number of East European countries in NATO means that the number of variables increases accordingly. If Russia decided to invade Ukraine, it is unclear what the reaction of Eastern Europe (especially Poland) would be; history and emotion are two very powerful motivations that can make governments and statesmen do irrational things.
The Baltic States, too, would feel themselves in a bind, hemmed in between Russia and the sea. They have already put pressure on NATO to bolster their forces; the chances that this could be interpreted as a direct threat by Russia is large.

In short, the Ukraine Crisis has re-opened issues and emotions in Europe that have laid dormant since the end of the First World War, let alone the "Cold War".
Western Europe and the USA are now beginning to realise that historical forces have been unleashed in "battle for Ukraine"; forces that, in their complacency, they did not even begin to comprehend. The next time, perhaps they should read a history book first.

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