“If you compress a spring all the way to its limit, it will snap back hard. You must always remember this.” President Vladimir Putin said this about Russia in his Crimea speech on March 18. Russia was cornered and compelled to take action.
However, this image can be applied to the whole world in 2014.The contradictions that were brewing for a long time shot up to the surface. The ease, with which the former system of international relations collapsed, shows that it did not rest on a firm foundation.
When a direction change is so abrupt, it is interesting to see whether the change was logical and inevitable or just a result of an accident, coincidence of some circumstances.
Inventing an alternative history is a thankless and even pointless pastime because history does not have a subjunctive mood. However, all the actors have passed through so many crossroads in a little over a year of the Ukrainian crisis.
It is impossible to resist the temptation to imagine what would have happened if they had made other choices.
The first crossroads: November 2013. President Viktor Yanukovych renounced the association agreement with the European Union. Let’s imagine that Russia’s arguments had failed to persuade Ukraine and the document was signed in Vilnius. Russia’s actions were fairly predictable. It would have introduced the measures that it had promised and switched to non-preferential terms in trade with Ukraine, which effectively would have shut down the Russian market to Ukrainian producers.
This would have prompted the growth of anti-government sentiments in eastern Ukraine, which would have been hit the hardest. Threatened by escalating tensions Kiev would have demanded (without results) that the EU increase its economic aid to Ukraine and delay the implementation of the association agreement, which Kiev would have subverted de facto. Irritated by the lack of the promised reforms, the supporters of the European choice would have escalated their protests, appealing to the assumed commitments and the EU.
Tensions in Ukraine would have been fairly high by the regular presidential elections that were scheduled for early 2015. Meanwhile, the outside forces – both Russia and the EU – would have tried to exploit them to their own advantage by using the available means of exerting pressure on the authorities.
The elections would have turned into a new Maidan with a similar result – a deep split of the country and an acute confrontation of its political forces that relied on different external resources.
A similar scenario, albeit with different accents, would have materialized if Yanukovych and his team had had enough patience to wait for Maidan to go away by itself while it was still peaceful and not very numerous, instead of trying to scatter it. Tensions in society fuelled by the EU’s thirst for revenge against “the con artist” would have been growing all the same and the presidential race would have developed into new battles under the previous scenario.
The second crossroads: February 21. The legally elected President Yanukovych fled the country. Most probably, the regime change by force was inevitable anyway. It would have been impossible for Ukraine to abide by the notorious agreement that was backed by the authority of three EU ministers because rioting had gone out of control. That said, if Yanukovych had gone to the congress of deputies of all levels from southeastern Ukraine and Crimea, where he was expected, and made a statement about the unconstitutional coup and his intention to restore law and order, the winners in Kiev would have been in an even worse position than they were.
Later on, the internecine conflict with the radicalization of both sides would have probably developed all the same.
A third crossroads with many possible outcomes: Crimea. Russia may not have come to a decision to launch the operation that it carried out so rapidly in late February and may have left Crimea under Ukraine’s jurisdiction. It is impossible to say what civil conflict would have developed there and whether it would have led to the Russophobic horrors that are so vividly described by Russia. The general political destabilization and the rise of all radical forces could have produced this result but the ability of the local population to adapt, as had been manifest before, might have prevailed. Be that as it may, the moment of truth would have come as soon as the new Kiev authorities decided to scrap the 2010 agreement, under which Russia’s Black Sea Fleet was supposed to stay in Sevastopol until 2042.
The issue of revising the agreement and compelling the fleet to leave Crimea in 2017 would have been raised in any case. The entire logic of “the revolution of dignity,” which its ideologists also called a liberation and anti-colonial revolution, prompted the need to get rid of such an attribute of dependence as an “imperial” military base on its own territory. However, Russia would not have agreed to withdraw its fleet at the time for a wide range of reasons, both international and domestic.
The escalation of a conflict, in which all Western countries would have sided with Ukraine, could have easily led to war – not a “hybrid” war as in the summer of 2014 but to a full-scale interstate war fraught with a much greater danger.
If Crimea had not joined Russia but had proclaimed formal independence like the breakaway republics in the east, the situation would have been more flexible but simultaneously more unstable and risky. An intermediate judicial status is up for grabs and Kiev would have certainly tried to recover the territory it had lost. This would have exacerbated the confrontation and even turned it into an armed conflict.
If Crimea had remained unrecognized, it would have had no development resources because even Russia would have been unable to invest in it (now it can under its own laws). It is easy to predict an aggravation of socio-economic tensions with potential military and political complications.
Probably the main crossroads is the Russian World. Russia justified Crimea’s incorporation primarily by romantic national reasons (a divided nation, protection of compatriots and “we can’t leave our people in the lurch”) rather than by strategic ones (national security and an opportunity to project force). If the President had chosen the latter, the east of Ukraine would have had fewer hopes to expect that Crimea’s experience would extend to other Russian-speaking areas.
Would it have been possible in this case to avoid a fierce civil conflict with the involvement of outside forces?
This is the most sensitive question that will never be answered. However, the ferocity of the conflict in the east of Ukraine shows that it had accumulated a huge explosive potential that would have manifested itself in some form or other in any case.
The logic of “the national revolution,” as Maidan described itself, would have required much greater ethnic and cultural standardization. It is difficult to imagine Ukraine following the Baltic scenario with the institutional discrimination of the “alien” population. Meanwhile, it required consolidation on the anti-Russian basis. To sum up, there were many prerequisites for the explosion in the southeast of Ukraine, while the incompetent, ideology-driven new leadership did not demonstrate an ability to defuse tensions but sooner fuelled them.
Russia is actively discussing one more crossroads: April. Many analysts believe Moscow had an opportunity to send troops to Ukraine and split it into two almost equal parts with relative ease. In this case, one part would have remained loyal to Russia.
I don’t analyze this option because all actions of the Russian government are evidence that it was not even considered. Suffice it to compare how clear-cut and efficient Russia’s actions were in Crimea after Moscow made a specific decision, as compared to its shaky and indistinct involvement in Novorossiya.
There were no other crossroads. Everything that has happened since spring was prompted by the logic of the previous events and the choices made at each of these crossroads.
It would be reasonable to ask why in analyzing these crossroads I proceed from the confrontational behavior of the sides without allowing for some more constructive actions?
First, since the start of the 21st century Russian-Ukrainian relations have been increasingly antagonistic. The sides have been reluctant to search for compromise. Tensions between them had been mounting and even the Yunukovych period created just an illusion of rapprochement rather than real concord.
Second, the Russian-Ukrainian conflict is the center of a large-scale Russia-West geopolitical confrontation.
The third and main point is that this conflict relies on the acute confrontation of self-identities. Ukraine is trying to identify itself by breaking away from Russia – real, invented or symbolic. Russia is expanding its world beyond the 1991 borders and Ukraine is the most vivid example of what it has so unfairly lost.
Reconciliation between them is impossible until some new balance is established in due course.
Therefore, all roads lead in the same direction. It seems that we are heading for a point of no return. In any event, we will feel this way until the spring snaps back to its original position.