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Ukraine’s Crisis: A Mirror For International Politics

Published On March 22, 2016 | Europe

Putin’s interest in Ukraine (some could call it paranoia) has a theoretical background in one of the most famous American foreign policy books: “The Grand Chessboard” by Zbigniew Brzezinski. The author specifically pointed out that Russia without Ukraine would stop being a major Eurasian power, hence Putin does have enough reason to oppose the westernization of Ukraine.

In the first chapter of “The Grand Chessboard”, Brzezinski makes it quite clear that America is the sole global leader at the moment and thus it is US’s responsibility to shape the new world. Starting from this hypothesis he moves on to describing the new provocation of the 21st century: Eurasia, from Lisbon to Vladivostok. The grand chessboard, Eurasia, is the place where the big players of the world will battle for influencing the future.

Towards East

At the 70th session of the UN General Assembly in 2015 Putin held his first speech within the committee since 2005.  It seemed like he was only blaming the West, but what the critique on The Guardian missed presenting was that Putin can be beaten with his own arguments, same as the US. It must be understood that the US created a precedent with the Kosovo situation, one that encouraged South Ossetia and Abkhazia in becoming autonomous regions within Georgia. Putin is well aware of the Kosovo episode and he asks for this scenario to be acknowledged in other areas as well. It does not have to sound dramatic, given the fact that since 2008, when Russia and Georgia actively engaged in a five days war, there has been no escalation of conflict, which can be considered a success. Presenting this argument, there are voices who support such action in Luhansk and Donetsk, a process towards autonomy. “(…) the block thinking of the times of the Cold War and the desire to explore new geopolitical areas is still present among some of our colleagues. First, they continue their policy of expanding NATO. What for? If the Warsaw Block stopped its existence, the Soviet Union have collapsed and, nevertheless, NATO continues expanding as well as its military infrastructure. Then they offered poor Soviet countries a false choice: either to be with the West or with the East. Sooner or later, this logic of confrontation was bound to spark off a grave geopolitical crisis” Putin stated.  

Even George Kennan, the one who formulated the policy of containment against the Soviet Union, highly opposed Nato expansion. “I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anyone else” he said. Russia had an aging population and not enough economic power in order to still speak of containment. Thus, Nato expansion was based on a ghost alimented by paranoia. A situation that started in the 90s but continues to destabilize the relations with Russia till today. It seems conspirational, but if it is to follow NATO and EU, the most important ally of US, the expansion moved towards Eastern Europe without a doubt.

Brzezinski quoted Samuel P. Huntington in support of his own theory regarding the American responsibility, one that even Theodor Roosevelt strongly believed in: A world without U.S. primacy will be a world with more violence and disorder and less democracy and economic growth than a world where the United States continues to have more influence than any other country in shaping global affairs.”

This type of approach is exactly what makes US lose the bigger picture. Its own portrayal of the world might not coincide with what other leaders see and before trying to impose a vision US must first try and understand other’s history. It might be a supreme power at the moment, but big powers existed even before it came to the table and US should not forget about other supremacies. Trying to understand Russia only from the western-liberal view is wrong, as it presents one sided half of the story. The picture is much more complicated and failing in understanding Russia’s past will only create more doubtful decision making.

Another very important idea presented in “The Grand Chessboard” is the deep connection between the European Union and Nato. At the moment one could not have enough influence, or security, without the other. Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania were all once part of the Warsaw Pact, but today they are full members of NATO and the EU. Meaning that if Nato’s most eastern base at the end of the Cold War was Turkey, now it has to worry about at least 2 of the nations mentioned above.

Of course, it must also be mentioned that Russia itself is a Nato partner, even if at the moment all practical and military cooperation is suspended as a response to the situation in Crimea, they are committed to sharing data. On the other hand, Ukraine is also a sharing data partner, even more, it is the only country who constantly contributed with troops to Nato actions (except the US). But this does not mean that Nato can have military bases at the Russian border, and that is the catch. Yes, there were discussions of Ukraine and Georgia becoming full members of Nato, especially at the 2008 summit in Bucharest, but Merkel clearly stated even from then that such a scenario it is not possible. So then, why does the US still continue to push on this story even if it’s clear that from a realpolitik stance this is not possible?

Putin continued his UN speech by pointing at the unrest in Ukraine which started in November 2013 when Viktor Yanukovich refused to sign an association agreement with the European Union. “This is exactly what happened in Ukraine, where the discontent of the population with the current authorities was used and the military coup was orchestrated from the outside – that triggered a civil war as a result. (…) Ukraine’s territorial integrity cannot be ensured by threat of force and threat of arms. What is needed is a genuine consideration for the interests and rights of the people in the Donbass region and respect for their choice.”

 A decade before

Ukraine had the same president for 11 years, since 1994-2005, Leonid Danylovych Kuchma was the leader of Russia’s border to the West. During his mandate, Ukraine’s economy dropped, corruption rose and the relation with the ex-Soviet Union mother improved. Kuchma leadership ended with the Orange Revolution, with two possible presidents caught in the classic debate: pro-West or East? On one side there was Viktor Yushchenko with a European approach, while Viktor Yanukovich was a protégé of Kuchma, thus closer to Russia.

BBC explored Putin’s evolution until 2012 through an outstanding four episode documentary called “Putin, Russia and the West” and during the 3rd episode, “Democracy threatens”, it focused on the Orange Revolution. One of the main ideas suggested that Yanukovich, besides being Kuchma’s protégée, was more or less just a face for eastern interests.

Yushchenko was leading in the polls, with a huge percentage of the population supporting him as Ukraine’s next leader, but his presidential campaign was strongly hit when he was poisoned and needed to be hospitalized in Austria. Dr. Michael Zimpfer, president of the Rudolfinerhaus Clinique, stated that Yushchenko was definitely poisoned with dioxin, something that was easily seen on the candidate’s face. Needless to say, this was a manoeuvre very similar to the ones used in the Soviet Union’s era. During his absence Iulia Tymoshenko was the voice of Maidan, also known as the Independence Square, the one that strongly lead Yushchenko’s campaign to victory. But there was another turn to the story.

After the voting ended, several exist polls, including Ukraine’s Social Monitoring Center, stated that Yushchenko was ahead of Yanukovich, but shortly after midnight the Central Election Commission had another answer: Yanukovich was ahead. Yushchenko went to CEC. At the end of the closed doors meeting he famously stated: “We do not trust the accountability of the Central Election Commission. We call on our supporters to come on to Maidan of Independence and protect their freedom.” After 10 days, on 1st of December, Yanukovich also decided to complain about the validity of the results. Two months of going back and forward finally ended on the 23 of January when Yushchenko was inaugurated as the president of Ukraine. The following day Yulia Tymoshenko was appointed prime minister.

Donbass during the Orange Revolution

Besides being the night when the polls were announced, 22th of November 2004, was also the moment when Luhansk and Donetsk came into the spotlight. Yushchenko openly requested that the results in these two regions should be annulled as there were no observers nor journalists allowed after the closing of the electoral districts.

Moreover, only one week later, 28th of November, discussions about a possible separation of Donbass region emerged. Governors of the southern and eastern regions met with Yanukovich and Moscow’s Mayor Yury Luzhkov to discuss autonomy or even e possible separate Republic of the Russian speaking communities. A representative of Donetsk region, Borys Kolesnikov, stated that there was a need of a non-confidence vote towards the present Ukrainian authorities and creating a federal state instead of a unitary one. Yushchenko declared that such a decision is intended to protect local oligarchs and to hide the foggy elections in those areas. Even incumbent president at the time, Leonid Kuchma, opposed such a proposal, stating that a possible “autonomization” would be against the current laws and constitution.

Short memory

With Yushchenko as an incumbent president the separation was definitely out of sight. The Orange Revolution brought a sense of belonging to some Ukrainians and increased others uneasiness, failing to distress the division in the country.

The following presidential elections, in 2010, proved that Yushchenko’s movement brought fair elections, but the country was still heavily divided with the Russian-speaking east and south overwhelmingly backing Yanukovich, and the Ukrainian-speaking west and centre, including Kiev, voting for Tymoshenko.

Viktor Yanukovich formally became the president of Ukraine in February 2010 and only four months later the General Prosecutor started a number of cases against Tymoshenko which led to her imprisonment in October 2011 for abuse of powers. At the beginning of 2012 Tymoshenko’s husband, Oleksandr Tymoshenko was granted asylum in the Czech Republic.

The victory of Yanukovich proved that people have a very short memory, given the fact that only five years ago they strongly fought against the one who now was to become their new leader. It showed that Ukraine was confused, still trying to choose between the two big players who constantly knocked on its doors.

Timeline of the new crisis

On the 23rd of November 2013 president Yanukovich’s cabinet decided to give up on an agreement that would determine closer relations with the EU, choosing instead a cooperation with Russia. This decision outraged the people who started protesting in Kiev. At the beginning of December the protest escalated from 100,000 to 800,000 participants and also led to the occupation of Kiev’s city hall. Three weeks later Yanukovich signed a deal with Putin through which Russia was agreeing to buy $15 billion of Ukraine’s debt and reduce the gas prices for about a third.

If January 2014 was the month of the anti-protest law, February was for mourning. On the 20th of the second month Ukraine saw the deadliest day in decades, at least 88 people were killed in less than 48 hours. Two days later president Yanukovich disappeared, protesters occupied the presidential administration buildings and soon to be ex-president shows up on TV denouncing the coup. The very same day Yulia Tymoshenko was freed from jail.

On the 1st day of March Russia’s parliament approves Putin’s request to use military force in Ukraine. Two weeks later Crimea was annexed by Russia and a referendum backed Putin’s decision with an outstanding 97% pro voters.

April was the month when the independence of the southern and eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk returned to the table. Ukraine’s acting president, Olexander Turchynov, started the “anti-terrorist operation” against pro-Russian supporters. Three weeks later, on 11 May, Donetsk and Luhansk declared independence after internationally unrecognised referendums.

In late June Russia’s parliament cancelled the authorisation which allowed its military troops to use force in Ukraine. Two days later, on the 27th, the EU signed a partnership agreement with Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova.

At the end of July, EU and USA announced more sanctions on Russia. One month afterwards Russia decided to send a humanitarian convoy in Luhansk without having the approval of the Ukrainian government.

September seemed to be the month of a new beginning as Ukraine and the separatist forces signed an agreement in Minsk and Nato stated that it saw a massive withdrawal in Russian troops from Ukraine’s territory.

However, the Minsk treaty signed in 2014 did not seem to have enough weight and Ukraine, France, Germany and Russia tried to reach an agreement for several months. Finally, a second Minsk agreement was signed on February 2015 after 16 hours of difficult negotiations. The ceasefire agreement was to come into being on the 15th but the fighting didn’t stop.

The clashes in the southern and eastern regions of Ukraine seem to have cooled down, but the problem of division is still present and no real conclusion seems to follow.

Where to Ukraine?

As the mainstream story goes Putin’s the one to blame for the Ukrainian crisis. He is desperately trying to resuscitate the Soviet Empire, thus he decided to annex Crimea and may continue expanding into Eastern Europe. The problem with that argument is that it does not follow the steps took by the US and EU which also led to this situation. As presented before, much of this mess has to do with US ideals of being the sole leader and expansion towards east.

Putin response to the crisis in Ukraine should not be a surprise as he previously warned that he will take actions when Russia’s security is threatened. In response EU and US came as close to the border as possible. Imagine someone continuously poking another and playing the victim when the other finally reacts. The relationship with Russia was sensitive to begin with and the protest in 2013 was the spark for a much bigger wound.

Is Putin continuously supporting the unrest in Donbass? Probably. Why? Because it has been proven by Transnistria that a frozen conflict does not have enough weight in shifting policies. Ukraine is a buffer area, the last state between the west and Russia. It is impossible to believe that the US would act all nice and kind if there was a military alliance that used to be its mortal enemy lying next to its border. No great power could allow that and it is because they are sensitive to possible threats so close to home.

The somehow funny thing about this situation is that both US and the EU kept telling Russia that this has nothing to do with it and it should not be perceived as a threat, but this kind of behaviour is somehow similar to Kennan’s policy of containment. Need I remind you that even Kennan, the father of isolating soviets, opposed Nato expansion in 1998?

Back in the 90s, most liberals agreed with Nato expansion and that is because they believed that the end of Cold War completely changed international politics, as even Fukuyama called it the end of history. The only problem with this approach is that it is either too idealistic, either arrogant, but surely doomed to fail. We live in a world that promotes understanding, tolerance, dialog, but somehow the biggest power on Earth is unable to follow its own rules. Nobody denies that Putin is at least authoritarian, a very mischievous and paranoid character with an iron fist, but one cannot deny his intelligence.

There are several scenarios who either say the Russian president is crazy, or that he is the next Adolf Hitler but it actually looks like he has no intention of expanding. He could have done that ever since he came to power, at the beginning of the new millennium, but what Georgia and Ukraine showed is that he reacts when provoked. He cannot agree with too much western influence on Russia’s border, be it little Georgia or old pal Ukraine.

Simply put Russia does not have the resources to go further with invading plans. It does not have money, especially now with the price of oil being at its lowest in more than a decade and US being the biggest oil producer in the world. To quote John J. Mearsheimer “Putin surely understands that trying to subdue Ukraine would be like swallowing a porcupine.” Not to mention that Putin knows better than to forcibly occupy land by force, taking of Crimea was so smooth and easy because the majority of the population actually wanted it. Crimea belonged to Russia since 1783 and it ended up under Ukrainian border during Soviet Union, without a democratic vote.

To have it simply put, Ukraine is much more important to Russia than it is for the westerners. Ukraine is not a core strategic interest for EU nor US and that has been proven by the lack of military intervention from the allies.  The American dream does not have to be global.

 It was not “theirs” to begin with

The biggest mistake of this conflict is that both sides believe that they have the last word in Ukraine’s decision, but this only denies the country’s sovereignty. Ukraine should be encouraged towards more independence by all the players being it EU, Russia or USA. In the end it is in everybody’s interest. Ukraine, on the other hand, should calculate its position very carefully. It is not that the voice of the people does not matter, but it also needs to understand its geographic location and the importance that comes with it. After all, a federalisation of such a big piece of land does not sound so bad.

Mearsheimer presents a quite rational solution: let Ukraine be a buffer area between West and East and also shape a rescue plan funded by EU, IMF, Russia and the US. And if it is to speak of liberal measures, both EU and USA should encourage Ukraine to respect minority rights, especially the language rights of the Russian speakers. It would be a win-win situation.

Unfortunately, realpolitik does matter a lot up to this day, and as much as we like to think that we have reinvented international politics, we are far from it. The harsh truth is that if the big powers continue to fight against each other the only one who will get deeply affected will be Ukraine.



The grand chessboard – Zbigniew Brzezinski

Contemporary Ukraine on the Cultural Map of Europe – By Larissa M. L. Zaleska Onyshkevych, Maria G.

Academic articles:

Emmanuel Karagiannis (2014) – The Russian Interventions in South Ossetia and Crimea Compared: Military Performance, Legitimacy and Goals, Contemporary SecurityPolicy

Online articles:

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