Ukraine crisis is just another act of Russian-managed drama that aims to reshape the geopolitical balance of power in Europe. Its goal is not to recreate any kind of the late Soviet Union, but to regain and reassert Russian influence. It happens after Moscow felt in danger of losing Ukraine to the West, after mass protests brought down a corrupt regime of president Viktor Yanukovich, who had fled to Russia in February 2014. Russian reaction – annexation of Crimea and assault on eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk seems to be well prepared and moves forward as Russia does not encounter any serious efforts to stop it. United States and the European Union imposed some sanctions, but they do not bite too much. Still too many important powers from the West prefer to make business and money with Russia, than to recognize the gravity of current situation.
Liberal Delusions vs. Realpolitik
Russia openly challenges the international order that had preserved peace on European soil since the end of WW II. After two decades of, as seen by Russia, betrayal and humiliation suffered at hands of the West, the country is ready to retake what it lost. And Russia perceives itself to lose a lot after dissolution and dismemberment of the Soviet Union – territory, influence and pride. It is somehow similar to the Chinese interpretation of modern history, but China suffered a century of humiliation, while for Russia it took only a decade from 1991 to 2000, when president Vladimir Putin started to reinvigorate the central government and amass power in his own hands. The bountiful era of oligarchs orchestrating the Kremlin what to do was over. From then on it was the Kremlin that issued orders and crafted the rules of the game. Boosted by revenues from skyrocketing oil and gas prices, Vladimir Putin was in a great position to restore Russian influence abroad. And by abroad Russia means not only the former Soviet republics (so-called near abroad, which means not really abroad), but also former satellite states in Europe. Russia was on a way to become not only European, but global power again. Losing Ukraine was not an option. For many Russians Ukraine is not even a state (so it cannot be independent) and Ukrainians are not a nation. Kiev is a historical birthplace of Russia (Kievan Rus’) and Ukrainians used to be called a Brotherly Nation. Now there are no Ukrainians in Ukraine anymore. There is an oppressed Russian minority and the rest of the people inhabiting Ukraine are labeled as fascists.
As John Mearsheimer wrote in a recent Foreign Affairs’ essay, Russia, by taking over Ukraine, is just reacting to the West’s deeds and delusions. The West tried to rip Russia off its former republics piece by piece, reducing its power and threatening Moscow. It was mere defense from Russia – Georgia, Crimea and Donbas right now. If external power would try to install a government in Mexico, that was unfriendly towards the United States, Washington could have not accept it and acted to prevent it – Mearsheimer says. What created the current crisis in Ukraine is a clash of West’s liberal delusions and Russian realpolitik. As Western countries wanted to lure Ukraine to its side by signing EU-association treaty, this effort was not backed by hard power. When Russia pushed back, sending ‘the little green men’ (Russian soldiers without insignia) to Crimea and then to Donbas, and afterwards sending regular troops with heavy weaponry, including not only tanks and armored vehicles, but also sophisticated anti-aircraft systems (one of which shot down civilian airliner MH17 in Ukraine), the only thing that West could have provided Kiev with was compassion. As for now the sanctions imposed on Russia as a response to its aggression on Ukraine are toothless and do not bite. There is also no political will to arm Ukraine to stop Russian troops retaking Luhansk and Donetsk regions after pretty successful ATO (anti-terror operation) in June and July. As Russian troops (incorrectly called as rebels or pro-Russian separatists) were drawn close to a defeat, Russia just sent thousands of soldiers and hundreds of armored vehicles from an army amassed near Ukrainian border.
The Planned Response With Ad Hoc Adjustments
We had seen it before in Georgia, in the summer of 2008. Now and then the drama was staged near the Olympic Games – in Beijing in 2008 and in Sochi, Russia, in 2014. But make no mistake, aggressions on Georgia and Ukraine respectively were planned long before the games took off. When did all the planning start? One shall look at the so-called colored revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan – in order the Rose Revolution of 2003, the Orange Revolution of 2004 and the Tulip Revolution of 2005. Vladimir Putin and his lieutenants were taken by surprise then, time and again, just standing by while pro-Russian regimes were being toppled by mass protests. Not only was it a serious threat to Russian influence in this countries, but also to a Russian regime itself. What if that kind of protests could spring in Moscow, Petersburg and other major cities? The colored revolutions were labeled as foreign ploys, designed, sponsored and orchestrated by the West (mainly the U.S.) and the Kremlin decided that such events cannot happen again.
That is the reason why nearly every single demonstration in Russia, even sparse in numbers, is violently broken up, and why NGOs are shut down, and people involved in them jailed for years on phony charges. But Russia had not constrained itself to defensive measures only. What we observe now in Ukraine and what have we seen in Georgia in 2008, are the offensive measures designed as a response to colored revolutions. Russia was not going to be taken by surprise again in Ukraine, in what the West perceived as a second round of Maidan protests (first took place in 2004). As the West expected some internal turmoil in Kiev after president Yanukovich fled to Russia, Moscow was ready to push the button and unleash its forces. Crimea was taken smoothly and nearly without a shoot. Ukrainians could have just observed as the peninsula was grabbed by Russian soldiers. If somebody thought that swallowing Crimea would make Russia satiated, it soon made them wrong with instigating a rebellion in Eastern and Southern Ukraine. Russians were beaten in Kharkiv and Odessa and Mariupol, but after brief fight they took over Luhansk and Donetsk – the area that forms an industrial heart of Ukraine.
Currently Russia bleeds Ukraine by killing its soldiers and destroying its armor, but also by destroying and looting infrastructure in Luhansk and Donetsk regions. If Ukraine ever regains control over those territories, it would take years to rebuild them. For a country with such serious economic problems as Ukraine it sounds like a gargantuan task. And this is the best-case scenario with Russia giving up what it gained during its aggression. It would barely make sense for Russia, so do not expect such a happy ending. It could have ended that way few months ago, but the turn of events since spring made such ending virtually impossible. And I do not mean the face-saving option for Putin, brought up by so many analysts while discussing the Ukrainian crisis. Putin is winning and face-saving option is the last thing he has on his mind. Moreover, this conflict is based on geopolitics. Russian bravado challenged the whole security system in Europe and while the West is trying to figure out what to do, Putin has some space to act pretty unconstrained. He uses this space well, especially while there is a serious disagreement between Western allies on how the reaction shall look like?
For Poland and the Baltics the answer is obvious – permanent NATO presence on their territories and an end to business as usual politics towards Russia. The argument goes that accommodation and dialogue and business ties failed miserably to change Russia’s attitude and create a viable partnership between former Cold War rivals. It is doubtful that such a change could have occurred, even though the West (mainly European powers such as Germany, Italy or France) gave it a chance. Skeptical attitude towards such change is also present in John Mearsheimer’s essay. He correctly observes that the West and Russia tried to deal with each other using different (excluding one another) approaches: liberal values vs. realpolitik. Even if there were a good-will and understanding in relations between Russia and the West, it had to fail as both parties used different languages, or at least different dictionaries. Nowadays it would be described as using different playbooks. Russia never resigned from the great power playbook, while European powers (except for maybe the United Kingdom) lost their historical adroitness in using that old script. For them it seemed obsolete and not appropriate to the 21st century. This civilizational divide haunts both parties today as they talk, but cannot understand each other. One may call that The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, as John Mearsheimer did and wrote a book titled just like that.
But one cannot analyze international relations only at the meta-level of great powers rivalry as it omits important factors of no lesser value, such as internal situation in states at play. In case of Ukraine one cannot pretend to ignore the fact of mass dissatisfaction with president Viktor Yanukovich and his policies. However pleasant it may sound to many, months-long protests against Yanukovich decision to reject association agreement with the European Union were not instigated by external actors. Peoples have a right do self-determine their future and the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians decided it is high time to just do it. They protested at squares and streets of Kiev and many other cities while temperatures were substantially below zero. Does that kind of determination come from money paid from abroad? The internal struggle for Ukraine’s direction – shall it look at the West or rather follow the East (Russia) – continued nearly since its independence in 1991. Now and in 2004 it appeared that the supporters of the West gained a momentum to move on. After 2004 the Orange movement failed dividing itself and gave power back to the remnants of the old regime quickly. Today Russia did not allow the situation to settle by itself, although the history of a collapse of the Orange movement shown that restraint was not a bad option. But not this time, as Russian agents planted years and months before the so-called rebellion in Eastern Ukraine popped up, started taking over Ukrainian cities being backed up by Russian troops without insignia.
How To End Russia’s Game?
So is the Cold War reemerging with Russia and the West again flexing their muscles? Is the geopolitics, the old style, back in the heart of Europe? How the West shall change its relations with Russia so it does not move from accommodation, which failed, to confrontation, which is not an option for anyone. Fortunately, there is much space between accommodation and confrontation. Firstly, the West has to understand the reasons that determine Russia’s behavior – namely, the great power politics. It is high time to end the delusion that the West can deal with Russia using the same playbook that it uses while dealing with, let’s say, Brazil or Turkey or Norway. Secondly, the West cannot upheld its responsibilities towards Russia, for example the NATO-Russia deal from 1997, while Russia is cherry-picking its own responsibilities and declaring norms and treaties null and void at its will. Action shall be followed immediately by an adequate reaction. There does not have to be any emotions in the process. Like in ‘The Godfather’ – it’s not personal, it’s strictly business. Third and foremost, those reactions have to be serious and the West has to mean it, really. What we have seen until now was a poor theater of sanctions imposed with an eye blinking to Russia. Many countries wanted to express the feeling that the sanctions are here, but they do not have to be treated as a big deal. What kind of sanction is a travel-ban for a few dozen of wealthy man anyway? Russia could be deterred only by stiff opposition and composure shown by the West as a whole. As Russia is moving the line in Ukraine further, the West is slowly coming to make its mind that such a behavior has to stop. As Ukraine looks like being thrown under the bus by the West, the game is now for the West’s (meaning NATO and EU) credibility. It started to be challenged with what looks like an abduction of Estonian intelligence officer (few days after president Obama made a tough speech on Russia in Tallin, Estonian capital). It is time to act and to act now. As former Polish Foreign Minister prof. Adam Daniel Rotfeld said recently – ‘Russia will halt when it is halted’.
*Piotr Wołejko is Warsaw based analyst, Polish voice on international affairs & security, lawyer, University of Warsaw graduate. BlogDyplomacja.pl is the only place where the author publishes his articles. The blog operates since December 2006, but until now the articles were in Polish only.