The Crimean Crisis
Can the U.S. and its western allies thwart Russia’s expansionist designs?
Can the U.S. and its western allies thwart Russia’s expansionist designs?
The sense of euphoria that gripped the West after the collapse of the Soviet Union is fast fading. In his book ‘End of History and the Last Man’, Francis Fukuyama advanced the thesis that the triumph of liberal capitalism over communism will bring an end to wars and bloody revolutions. This theory is now under question due to the Ukrainian crisis.
The annexation of Crimea has badly jolted the West, particularly the U.S. They are describing the Crimean annexation as an act of aggression by Russia. On the other hand, Russia’s viewpoint is that it has taken back what essentially belonged to it and no violation of international law is involved as Crimea was made a part of Russia only after the Crimeans expressed their will through the referendum held on March 16. The total population of Crimea is about 2.2 million out of which 1.5 million are Russians. More than 82 percent of the electorate participated in the voting process and over 96 percent voted for uniting the Crimean Peninsula with Russia.
Despite such an outcome of the referendum, the majority of the observers have described the annexation of Crimea as a serious flouting of international law. For example, Professor Jeffrey Sachs in his article ‘Ukraine and the crisis of International Law’ describes Russia’s actions in Ukraine as a flagrant violation of international law. But, at the same time, he also castigates the U.S. and NATO for serious contraventions of the same law. For example, the U.S. and its allies went to war in Iraq without the support of the UN Security Council. Drone attacks violating the territorial sovereignty of Pakistan are another example of breach of international law. More recently, NATO’s actions in Libya to topple the government of Muammar Qaddafi and U.S. actions in Syria are also serious violations of international law and norms. “International law itself
is at a crossroads. The U.S., Russia, the EU and NATO cite it when it is to their advantage and disregard it when they deem it a nuisance,” writes Sachs.
However, the annexation of Crimea raises some other questions as well besides the violation of international law. What were the motivations for Russia to annex Crimea and divide Ukraine? Will Russia stop at Crimea and not add more states to the Russian Federation? Will the world powers allow this to happen? Will the Ukraine crisis unite the West? There are three possible motivating factors behind the Russian moves in Ukraine: (1) geopolitical (2) regaining its lost glory and status and (3) a sense of betrayal and humiliation.
During Soviet times, the distance between the Russian capital and the western military alliance was 1800 kilometers. In case Ukraine becomes a member of NATO, the distance would be reduced to less than 500 kilometers. If this happens, Russia will lose the strategic distance that allowed it to survive the invasions of both Napoleon and Hitler. Reordering of Eastern Europe after the end of the Cold War has strengthened this fear in Russia.
Just within eight years of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary joined NATO. Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and the three Baltic states joined NATO in 2004. Albania and Croatia followed suit in 2009. In 2008, U.S. President George W. Bush proposed to extend NATO membership to Georgia and Ukraine and that was perhaps the point when Russia felt really pinched. The enlargement of NATO meant that Russia has lost its influence in the region.
Some observers claim that Russia’s aggressive actions in Ukraine stem from its ambition to regain its status of a global power. The annexation of Crimea may thus be an imperial project. Russian President Vladimir Putin is on record to have described the dissolution of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical disaster of the twentieth century”. According to Harvard University Professor Joseph S. Nye, “Putin often has been described as angry with the West, beset by a sense of betrayal and humiliation from what he perceives as unfair treatment of Russia. The overthrow of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi and the ongoing efforts to undercut Kremlin client - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad - have only made matters worse.”
However, we cannot say anything with certainty about the ‘imperial project interpretation’ until Russia makes its next move. But some guesswork can be done. The dominant narrative for Russian intervention in Crimea from the perspective of Russian nationalism is that it acted out of ‘primordial attachments’ with ethnic Russians in Crimea. But the question here is that in the past 20 years Russia has never intervened outside its borders on behalf of the ethnic Russian Diaspora. The Euroasianism ideology, which believes in the reacquisition of the Russian Empire, may be the real reason.
However, the annexation of Crimea cannot be attributed to any single reason. NATO’s presence in the neighborhood, a sense of humiliation and betrayal and a desire to gain the status of a global power – or all these factors combined - explain Russian overtures in Ukraine. “Our Western partners, led by the U.S., prefer not to be guided by international law in their practical policies but by the rule of the gun. They are constantly trying to sweep us to the corner. Everything in Crimea speaks of our shared history and pride. This is the location of ancient Khersones, where Prince Vladimir was baptized… the graves of Russian soldiers whose bravery brought Crimea into the Russian empire are also in Crimea,” said Putin in his Crimean annexation speech.
But another important question here is whether the U.S. and its western allies can thwart the expansionist designs of Russia. The answer to this question depends on two factors. First, whether Western Europe will stand united against Russia. Second, whether the U.S. still enjoys the status of the sole world power and has got the will and power to stand against Russia. Some observers have claimed that the Ukraine crisis will unite divided Europe. Is it possible in view of the dependence of Europe on Russia’s natural gas?
The EU receives about 30 percent of its natural gas from Russia. Here lies the difference between the U.S. and the EU. Just 1 percent of American trade is conducted with Russia and the country does not rely on Russian oil and natural gas. On the other hand, for example, Germany conducts 3 percent of its trade ( valuing at 76.5 billion Euros) with Russia. One-third of Germany’s oil and natural gas is imported from Russia. If the U.S. wants a united Europe to stand against Russia, it will not be possible without loosening Russia’s grip over energy since much of its power in the region is the result of its control of energy supplies and distribution systems, according to a paper of the Heritage Foundation.
If the U.S. and the EU do not unite against Russia, it is most likely that Putin will use pro-Russian groups and economic pressures to further destabilize Ukraine. A civil war is very likely. Ukraine is highly reliant on Russia, which is the destination of about 25 percent of Ukrainian exports. About 10 percent of the Ukrainian budget is financed through remittances sent by Ukrainian workers in Russia. A Russian boycott simply means an end to the present Ukrainian government, which seems to be a fait accompli unless the U.S. and the EU lend their full support to Ukraine, which includes financial support as well. Will such support be liberally forthcoming to diminish the economic leverage of Russia in the region?