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Crimea and Punishment

Recent events in Ukraine are unfolding at a dizzying pace. From the attempted brutal clearing of the Maidan Nezalezhnosti to the subsequent deposing of Viktor Yanukovych, the Russo-Cossack push into Crimea and the de facto annexation of that peninsula, Ukraine seems situated on the brink of a national catastrophe. Meanwhile, Russia radiates serenity.

March 17, 2014 - Mitchell Belfer - Articles and Commentary

17.03.2014 k25

Woman holding a sign reading "No war". Photo: Wojciech Koźmic

Its national leaders appear calm, cool and collected. The orchestration of Crimea’s annexation confirms the rumour that President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have been brushing up on their Machiavelli, but their politicking is poised.

Politics, however, is as much a game of charades as it is a game of brinkmanship. Lurking beneath the fanfare of Putin and Lavrov’s statesmanship, the shuttle diplomacy and the false accusations and military deployments are real national vulnerabilities. Russia is not annexing Ukraine from a position of power. It is acting from weakness. Sure, Ukraine is even weaker, more fragmented and less cohesive than Russia, given the constant harassment it has faced from its imposing neighbour, there should be little wonder why.

But Russia is not competing with Ukraine; its real target is the United States and the European Union and the collective security alliance of NATO. Essentially, Russia is trying to prevent any further expansion of NATO into its former colonies. It will not directly attack NATO’s interests or members and has resorted to punishing its smaller neighbours such as Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014) for NATO’s ambitions.

Moscow’s behaviour is a logical attempt to stave off the further, inevitable decline of its international significance. And the state of its armed forces – the rampant abuse among rank-and-file soldiers has steadily eroded the force’s morale with poor equipment and a lack of strategic vision – has reduced Russia to a second-rate power. This condition will become more apparent with the rapid demographic plunge the country is set to experience over the next decade, a plunge that will only heighten the country’s vulnerabilities. Russia is signalling its end game and is preparing to adopt a stance of armed neutrality. It is mustering armed force against Ukraine now so that the US, NATO, the EU and China may think twice about interference later. Ukraine and Georgia are the residues of Russian power, and Russia will soon be running on the fumes of its former glory.

Already Russian weakness has seen the near-wholesale abandonment of the former superpower by its allies. All that is left is a motley crew of the hyper-penetrated forced to cede a degree of sovereignty to accommodate Russian interests (re: Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan), rogue states that no other alliance would include (re: Iran, Syria, Belarus) and dependant proxies (re: Armenia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia).

Meanwhile, in the West the Balkan states are either already members of the EU and NATO or want to join. Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are fully integrated. Georgia and Ukraine post-2013-2014 are now on track for deeper engagements, and Moldova is in the queue while Uzbekistan flirts with the EU, its ally South Korea and the US. Finally, Azerbaijan offers an attractive alternative for European energy security. In short, the Russian model is unattractive. People and the states they inhabit would rather belong to or partner with the West.

Then there is the East. China’s economic surge is producing political gains and former Russian allies have begun to eye Beijing as the source of Eurasian stability and their own prosperity. Kazakhstan, for instance, may not be ready to officially shift its priorities, but its annual trade increases to China is affecting Russia’s regional standing. The fig leaf Shanghai Cooperation Organisation offers Russia little comfort; it is not acting as the balance Moscow sought and has become a talk-shop. China, it seems, is unwilling to risk its economic pulse for Russian adventurism.

And so Russia is standing alone with only a handful of “yes men” as support. Of course, it does not have to be this way. Instead of clinging to its superpower past it needs to accept its precarious present. Like all others in the international community, Russia relies on trade links and information, on economic and political globalisation. Resorting to violence for archaic goals and in archaic ways is bound to thrust Russia to the margins of international political and economic life and justify Dostoevsky’s parting wisdom that “when reason fails, the Devil helps”.

Mitchell Belfer is head of the Department of International Relations and European Studies at Metropolitan University Prague and Editor-in-Chief of the Central European Journal of International and Security Studies (CEJISS).

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