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How Putin called the West’s bluff on Ukraine

Text by Leela JACINTO

Latest update : 2014-03-02

For exactly a week, experts pouring over maps and graphics of the Crimea peninsula on various TV stations pondered the worst-case scenarios in Ukraine after Viktor Yanukovich’s ouster – and concluded they were unlikely to come to pass.

But then the mad month of March kicked off with the sort of escalation the European Union and US had hoped they wouldn’t have to deal with.

When Russia’s parliament on Saturday approved President Vladimir Putin’s request to deploy Russian armed forces in Ukraine, officials in Brussels and Washington were scrambling to respond to the worst crisis between Moscow and the West since the 2008 Georgian conflict.

“Certainly the international community is saying it’s going to try to help and some countries are very determined in pushing for tough action,” said FRANCE 24’s Gulliver Cragg, reporting from the Ukrainian capital of Kiev. “But there are a lot of questions as to how much effect international pressure can have.”

The White House account of US President Barack Obama’s response to Saturday’s vote had a hint of the old Cold War tones. In his 90-minute phone conversation with Putin, the White House announced, "President Obama expressed his deep concern over Russia's clear violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity".

But Obama’s "red lines" have been crossed in the past and Putin has a history of challenging his Western counterparts to put their money – or arms – where their mouths are.

“Look at the costs that Vladimir Putin has already been prepared to pay for Ukraine in terms of his public image,” noted Cragg. “He just spent a huge amount of money on organising the [winter] Olympics in Sochi, which was supposed to be something that was good for Russia’s image internationally. He must be aware that what he’s done in Ukraine now, he’s basically destroyed all that. That says something about Vladimir Putin’s determination to hold on to his influence over Ukraine.”

Ukraine is not Georgia

In the week following Yanukovich’s ouster, some experts compared the current crisis in Ukraine with the Georgia crisis in 2008 and concluded that given Ukraine’s size, population and number of military personnel, there was little reason to fear a “Georgia repeat” – when Russian troops stormed into the breakaway South Ossetia and Abkhazia enclaves.

But it was precisely the high stakes in Ukraine that prompted Putin to effectively seize control of the Crimean peninsula – a de facto deployment that appeared to catch the West and the new administration in Kiev off-guard.

“The Russian authorities think that they are in a position of losing everything and that explains the current behaviour of Russia,” said Florent Parmentier, an East Europe expert at the Paris-based Sciences-Po, in an interview with FRANCE 24.

“The key objective when Putin came back to power in 2012 was the idea that we will build a customs union which should include Ukraine. The fact that the Maidan activists were not in favour of the customs union meant, for Vladimir Putin, that his project has failed. He now thinks that he should put some turmoil in Ukraine, by putting Crimea in the spot, he’s in a position of destabilizing the whole of Ukraine,” said Parmentier.

Launched as a means to achieve an EU-type economic alliance of former Soviet republics, the customs union currently includes Belarus and Kazakhstan, with Kyrgyzstan and Armenia committing to join.

It was Yanukovich’s failure to sign far-reaching political and free trade agreements with the EU in November that sparked the opposition protests on Kiev’s Independence Square, or Maidan, a movement that is now simply referred to as “the Maidan”.

Ukraine is not Iran

In his response to Putin’s recent moves in Ukraine, Obama has warned that Russia would incur as-yet undefined “costs”.

“I think he was hinting at economic costs in terms of may be scrapping a trade deal or possibly even sanctions,” said FRANCE 24’s Cragg.

But few experts believe Obama is in a position to fire a financial fusillade. What’s more, Europe, with its substantial economic ties – notably in the gas and energy sector – is likely to far more wary of following an Iran-style sanctions package.

“What can we do?” asked Fiona Hill, an expert at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, in an interview with The New York Times. “We’ll talk about sanctions. We’ll talk about red lines. We’ll basically drive ourselves into a frenzy. And he’ll stand back and just watch it, “said Hill, referring to Putin. “He just knows that none of the rest of us want a war.”

'Protecting' ethnic Russians, disregarding sovereignty

One of the main justifications Putin has publicly employed for attaining parliamentary approval of a military campaign in Ukraine has been the protection of ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers in the former Soviet republic.

It’s a justification Putin has used in the past – notably in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
But for a number of countries with sizeable Russian populations, from Estonia to Kazakhstan, this sends out the message that Moscow, as the protector of ethnic Russians across the world, is willing to renege on its long-held principle of non-interference in a nation’s internal affairs – a position it has often used to criticise the West’s engagement in crises such as the Libyan and Syrian revolutions.

National sovereignty though has always been a matter of which nation state is currently under question.

As US journalist and former Moscow correspondent Julia Joffe noted in a column in the New Republic, “The internal issues of former Soviet republics, you see, are not truly internal issues of sovereign nations. This is because, by Stalin's very conscious design and very deliberate border drawing and population movement, most former Soviet republics are ethnic hodgepodges” said Joffe. “In other, blunter words, Russian ethnicity and citizenship trump national sovereignty.”


Date created : 2014-03-02