India Today - - UPFRONT - IAN BREM­MER Ian Brem­mer is pres­i­dent, Eura­sia Group and au­thor of Ev­ery Na­tion for It­self: Win­ners and Losers in a G-Zero World

Crimea took to the polls on March 16, with vot­ers over­whelm­ingly sup­port­ing a ref­er­en­dum to break from Ukraine and move to­wards in­te­gra­tion with Rus­sia. The ref­er­en­dum it­self was a for­mal­ity: More than 95 per cent of vot­ers were in favour, against a back­drop of heavy Rus­sian mil­i­tary pres­ence and no ex­ter­nal ob­servers from the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity. The Rus­sian govern­ment en­sured it would run smoothly by neu­tral­is­ing the Ukrainian mil­i­tary and me­dia in the area, sus­pend­ing di­rect flights to Kiev, and even go­ing so far as to halt Ukrainian mo­bile phone ser­vice.

In fact, the re­sponse from the United States and Europe in the lead-up to the ref­er­en­dum, and in its wake, went ac­cord­ing to the script as well, with sharp rhetoric ac­com­pa­nied by mea­sured es­ca­la­tory ac­tion. A bil­lion dol­lars in loan guar­an­tees for Kiev’s govern­ment was held up in the US Congress. The UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil’s emer­gency res­o­lu­tion was promptly ve­toed by Rus­sia (one of five mem­bers with a per­ma­nent seat). The US and EU did im­pose mod­er­ate sanc­tions, in­clud­ing travel bans and as­set freezes on a num­ber of Ukrainian and Rus­sian of­fi­cials, but they don’t ex­tend as high up as Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin’s in­ner cir­cle. The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion wants to re­serve more acute re­sponses as a de­ter­rent against fur­ther Rus­sian in­cur­sion into east­ern or south­ern Ukraine. In the mean­time, Rus­sians may make good on their prom­ise to meet this “pun­ish­ment” of Western sanc­tions with re­tal­ia­tory moves. It’s likely that Rus­sia will for­mally an­nex Crimea in the com­ing months. In short, in the wake of the Crimean ref­er­en­dum, we’ve been left with a pat­tern of tit-for-tat es­ca­la­tion.

But from here on, we can for­get about the ‘script’ and the ‘for­mal­ity’ of Rus­sian and Western be­hav­iour sur­round­ing the Crimean ref­er­en­dum. We are en­ter­ing un­charted wa­ters. The main ques­tion now is: Will Rus­sia stop at Crimea, or will Putin move into south­ern or east­ern Ukraine? What does it mean for Ukraine—and what does it mean more broadly?

On bal­ance, it’s likely that Putin does not move into east­ern Ukraine. But it re­mains an alarm­ing pos­si­bil­ity that he does so. While much of it may be pos­tur­ing, Putin has set the stage for fur­ther in­cur­sion. Rus­sia has pushed the en­ve­lope by seiz­ing a small vil­lage and a gas plant that are some five miles across the Crimean bor­der into south­east Ukraine. It is also im­por­tant to keep Putin’s do­mes­tic mo­ti­va­tions in mind. His pop­u­lar­ity back home has vaulted to its high­est level in years, top­ping 70 per cent. This pop­u­lar­ity has come hand-in-hand with a crack­down on the me­dia. It is com­bi­na­tion that doesn’t usu­ally ac­com­pany a climb-down in pol­icy. And if Putin does go fur­ther into Ukraine, he’ll have Rus­sia staunchly be­hind him. On top of this, some of the risk sur­rounds a sit­u­a­tion where Putin’s ‘hand is forced’ by events on the ground in Ukraine: If there are se­vere out­breaks of vi­o­lence in which eth­nic Rus­sians in south­east Ukraine are tar­geted, such im­ages will not sit well with Rus­sians back home. It would be a mat­ter of time be­fore Putin feels ob­li­gated to move in.

And if Putin does push fur­ther mil­i­tar­ily, the con­se­quences are dire in­deed. We’ll en­ter a pe­riod of in­sta­bil­ity and cri­sis, where risks in­clude civil war and breakup of Ukraine, huge shocks to en­ergy prices, mas­sive cap­i­tal flight of Rus­sian oli­garchs from Western cap­i­tal havens, and ratch­et­ing up of sanc­tions against Rus­sia, more in line with those in place in Iran to­day.

Even if Rus­sia stops its mil­i­tary in­cur­sions in Crimea, there are tremen­dous geopo­lit­i­cal knock-on ef­fects that we should al­ready be tak­ing into ac­count. Events in Ukraine will com­pli­cate all ar­eas of US-Rus­sia ties. Rus­sia doesn’t want an Ira­nian nu­clear weapon, but they could be less co­op­er­a­tive with US and EU on Ira­nian ne­go­ti­a­tions, pos­si­bly mak­ing a “third way” of­fer that un­der­mines the Amer­i­can deal. On Syria, Rus­sia will be­come very in­tran­si­gent, mak­ing it dif­fi­cult to im­ple­ment the chemical weapons agree­ment; Moscow will pro­vide greater fi­nan­cial and mil­i­tary sup­port for Bashar As­sad’s regime.

More broadly, re­cent events have sig­nif­i­cantly hit the cred­i­bil­ity of Amer­i­can for­eign pol­icy. Within days of Sec­re­tary of State John Kerry tak­ing strong ex­cep­tion to “asi­nine”, “iso­la­tion­ist” views in Congress that were framed as if the US is a “poor coun­try”, a di­rect ad­mo­ni­tion from the US and its key al­lies was wil­fully ig­nored by the Rus­sian pres­i­dent as he moved into Crimea. That has sent a mes­sage of weak­ness and brings con­cerns about Amer­i­can com­mit­ment to al­lies around the world. All of this re­in­forces the pre­vail­ing geopo­lit­i­cal dy­namic: We are in a world with a dis­tinct and dan­ger­ous lack of global, co­or­di­nated lead­er­ship. Given the re­cent es­ca­la­tion in Ukraine and all the open ques­tions of what comes next, it’s safe to say we have en­tered the most dan­ger­ous geopo­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment we’ve seen since the events sur­round­ing 9/11.



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