Monday, April 28, 2014

The Ukraine Crisis: Russian Reasons; Ukraine as the "new Bosnia"?

The "Ukraine Crisis" gradually escalates day by day. Like a time-clock, there is the daily drip-drip of new events that make the spiral of escalation slowly swirl down ever deeper. The capture and parading of OSCE monitors by the separatist "government" of Donetsk over the weekend, followed by the shooting, only today, of Kharkov's mayor, adds more tension and psychological game-play to the power-play that is Ukraine.

The separatist East of Ukraine is becoming more and more a lawless territory, where "law" is instantaneously prosecuted at whim. The deaths of ethnic Ukrainians in the Donetsk "oblast", as well as the rule of the land by "men in black", make the place appear as a legal black hole, effectively out of legal reach of the Kiev government, and only listening to the words of the Kremlin.

The Kiev government has its forces in the region, but they are hamstrung by the wish to avoid civilian casualties in any military action. As I've said before, they're damned if they do, and damned if they don't.

Exactly how the Kremlin would want it.

If you stand still, you're dead

Again and again we get back to the motivations that have spurred Putin into this course of action. First of all, there is the historical perspective: the view that over the twenty years since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has been betrayed by the initial good-will it gave to the West, feeling encircled. Seen in this light, Putin's "aggression" has been compared to Hitler, and obtaining Crimea his own "Sudetenland".

But this is a false narrative, as convenient as it may be. The truth is more subtle: Putin is a consummate "chess player" at geopolitics, and (like another contemporary authoritarian, Turkey's Erdogan) is a ruthless opportunist. The outside world is naturally keen to see Putin's actions in Ukraine as based solely on irridentism and "revanchism". While this is partly true, the reasons for this are purely opportunistic.

It is more effective to see Putin's actions as a response to the internal political changes that have happened within Russia in the last five years. The financial crisis was the impetus for the liberal opposition to begin to get seriously organised, resulting in the anti-government protests at the end of 2011. But the problem with the liberal opposition (in some ways like the secular opposition in Turkey) is that it is too centred on the big cities, and failed to represent the views of the masses in the hinterland.

Although it is a simplification to say that Putin's popularity comes from "real" Russians, it is true that in some ways the real "opposition" is cultural and nationalistic, not Western-leaning liberals. Putin's "revanchism" appeals more to the instincts of rising numbers of the far-right, as well as to the innate conservatism and historical sympathies of everyday Russians. His actions in Crimea and Ukraine speak more of Putin's view of how Russians feel about Russia's prestige, less than his own.

It is his image with his supporters and the far right that Putin is really paying attention to when he thinks about how to react to the West's courting of Kiev.

Seen this way, his "aggression" in Crimea and Ukraine is a way of restoring popularity at home and mollifying the baneful influence of the nationalist far right. The Ottoman Empire lasted as an imperial force for five hundred years, but the height of its power was when it was expanding, reaching its zenith under Suleiman the Great in the 16th century. After he died, the body politic stagnated, and there were no more gains, only losses of territory, leading to the empire's slow death.
In the same way, Putin views the power of Russia. Putin sees Russian assertiveness in the "near abroad" as a strategy to maintain power. Seeing Russia as an intrinsically unstable state (given the geography, amongst other factors), the only way to prevent its collapse is if the government keeps moving forwards; the war with Chechnya was an example of the start of reversing the near-terminal decline of the nineties. The war in Georgia in 2008 was a way to cement the prestige of the Putin regime. Now that the financial crisis has led to another shaking of the Kremlin's power-base, the events in Ukraine are an opportunity to continue this process.

By standing still in the nineties, the Russian body politic came close to death; Putin has now demonstrated that he has definitively learnt those lessons.

The "new Bosnia"?

Russia has said that it has no wish to dismember Ukraine. Technically, they may be telling the truth, but the reality is that what Putin may ultimately be looking for is a kind of "Dayton Accord" for Ukraine.

Present-day Bosnia is ruled as a highly autonomous nation-state. While it has a functioning central government, the vast majority of its everyday affairs have been passed on to the two autonomous governments; that of the "Respublika Srpska", and the Bosnian-Croat alliance. This arrangement came about only after several years of brutal civil war. Since the "Dayton Accord", the Bosnian Serbs (who make up nearly half the population) have ruled their own mini-statelet; being part of Bosnia, but there being little doubt on the ground that their allegiance lies more towards Belgrade than Sarajevo.

Putin's ultimate aim, if not for a full annexation of "New Russia" (the historical name for the South and East of present-day Ukraine), will be along these lines, but preferably minus all the horrible bloodshed. The "referendums" in those areas in a couple of weeks are simply in place to rubber-stamp this process, to present a fait accompli to Kiev and the West on the ground. Once these "referendums" are done with, the onus then lies on Kiev to accept "the will of the people" and a constitution that meets the wishes of Moscow.

It has been clear so far that there is little that the Kremlin is not capable of; they simply make liberal use of what the Americans would have called "plausible deniability". Invasion would be too crude an instrument for a Kremlin so full of former KGB agents; much more satisfying to use cloak-and-dagger tactics. Any illegal acts in the east of Ukraine are pinned on "fascists" trying to provoke civil war; the Kremlin then dismisses any link to violent acts by the separatists, saying that they are the actions of Ukrainian nationals, and thus the Kremlin has no control over them. Thus it pins the blame back on to the weakness of Kiev.

So far, this strategy has worked brilliantly.

How long will it take for the West to realise that they have "lost" Ukraine, and to make a deal with Putin?


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