Ukraine’s tragedy is everyone’s tragedy
In Eastern Ukraine, we are seeing an ingenious Russian plot unfold — for the second time. Russian servicemen, wearing no insignia, infiltrate into the area and, capitalising on marginal grassroots separatism, spark unrest. They establish control in a professional manner, quickly, and largely without blood.
The government in Kiev is helpless. Struggling with a crisis of legitimacy since the moment of taking control, it can hardly rely on the armed forces to establish order in its insurgent backyard, fighting a highly skilled and professionally organised enemy. Faced with the ‘green men’, who use the human shield of a minor civilian crowd in each instance, dispirited Ukrainian servicemen are apparently easily cajoled into laying their arms down, giving up their vehicles, maybe even changing sides.
The insurgents’ demands are not coherent: some want to proclaim independence and join Russia, while others are looking at holding a ‘regional referendum on Ukraine’s federalisation’, whatever that means — a nation-wide referendum on the matter has already been offered by Kiev. Annexing large chunks of its southwestern neighbour would come at an enormous cost to Russia, not only because of the West’s potentially tough response, but, primarily, in material terms — while popular support for the move is less than evident. In essence, a repetition of the Crimean scenario is possible, but unlikely.
The most likely outcome is far-reaching regional autonomy, perhaps in the context of the federalisation of the state. But no-one knows how, or when, these moves should take place or who should initiate them. Probably not the ‘illegitimate’ government in Kiev, probably not before the May 25 elections. However it turns out, it is now looking increasingly likely that the unrest will relativise the legitimacy of the elections, and that Russia will use the limbo to declare the new government ‘legitimate’ or ‘illegitimate’ as it suits her and treat it accordingly.
The annexation of part of Eastern Ukraine by Russia would be a disaster. But federalisation could be no less: if such a federation is as loose as Putin wants it to be, and a number of regions are controlled by Russian puppets, it will not only amount to the ‘finlandisation’ of Ukraine — Putin’s goal — but to complete governmental paralysis, and perhaps sustained separatism. And not only Ukraine will suffer.
Europe will suffer, because instability, unpredictability and authoritarianism in its neighbourhood make cooperation impossible. Some of the EU’s Eastern member states, notably the Baltics, perceive Russian meddling in, and control of, Ukraine a hard security threat and feel they could be next on the list — unsurprisingly, as some United Russia MPs now want to prosecute Gorbachev for letting them secede from the Soviet Union. Finally, Europe needs not only Ukraine; it would like to work with Russia, too. But Putin’s uncompromising, expansive power politics will lose him all trust, indispensable for any cooperation.
America will suffer, because, despite sustained efforts to forge a partnership with Russia, it will have to fight against it once again. The intelligence and military resources it has lately aimed principally at trans-border threats and the Middle East will again have Russia in their focus. There will be no Cold War, but there will be some muscle-flexing: an anti-missile shield and stone-hard air policing on NATO’s eastern borders and permanent NATO presence on the Black Sea. The alliance will get its raison d’être back, if that’s good news.
Russia will suffer, because it will become a pariah in the globalised world. The tumble of its stock- and commodities market, coupled with an immense capital flight in the wake of the Ukraine crisis has already made the World Bank revise its prognosis of modest Russian growth to -1.8% for this year. Economic sanctions — which Europe and America will surely enact if Eastern Ukraine is annexed — will be felt by most Russians. Moscow has already become a persona non grata in a number of fora for dialogue with the West, and the reality is such that just relying on the BRICS will not suffice for retaining its international standing. Meanwhile, Europe is stepping up the work on gaining energy independence from Russia; if progress is made, Russia could easily be left with no-one to buy its natural gas. Most importantly, cooperation with Europe can be the only meaningful long-term goal for Russia — now this will be degraded to an illusion for a long time again.
The wider world will also suffer, because Russia has shown that international law is relative to the interests of the mighty. If a large and powerful state follows roguish policies, they become a point of reference and no-one can feel secure. Its neighbours fear its expansionism, multi-ethnic countries around the world fear their own separatists, whom Russia’s actions have granted legitimacy, adherence to signed agreements becomes optional, states cannot rely on international law in their dealings with each other. The world becomes unpredictable and unstable.
But Vladimir Putin’s popularity is breaking records.
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