Ukraine – a never-ending story?
July 17, 2014
As the black flag of jihad has been hoisted over a large swathe of Iraq, it is perhaps unsurprising that the streets of Kiev have receded in the rear-view mirror of global crises. Ukraine’s new President Poroshenko, elected in May, now appears to be robustly keeping separatists at bay in Sloviansk and Donetsk. President Putin seems content that his annexation of Crimea has kept intact Russia’s defence interests in the Black Sea. Meanwhile, Western sanctions – or at least the threat of them – appear to be doing their job. Britain’s Ukraine problem, while not over, is now under control.
Naturally it is tempting to conclude that when an item falls off news bulletins, the moment of danger has passed.
Yet Putin still has no interest in the remainder of Ukraine becoming a united, more Western-facing nation. Indeed his interest is in keeping battles in its eastern provinces raging. He will be relying on Europe and the United States to take their eyes off this ball – it must be made clear to him that this will not happen.
The Crimean crisis baffled many in the West who failed to grasp why Vladimir Putin would engineer an old-fashioned, imperialistic land-grab that risked Western ire and Russian firms’ balance sheets. Nor have they understood why reincorporation into Russia would seem such an enticing prospect for people only recently freed from the Soviet yolk.
But the Russian President is a master at fashioning strength from weakness. His handling of the Ukrainian crisis is a supreme case in point.
The toppling in February of inept Kremlin ally, Viktor Yanukovych, from the Ukrainian Presidency was a massively embarrassing blow to Russian prestige. Not only did it entail a loss of face in the world, but the speed with which peaceful pro-EU protest morphed into overthrow sent chills through Muscovite spines. In swiftly taking the initiative by first invading Crimea and then securing an (albeit dubious) democratic mandate for its return to Russia, Putin achieved several objectives.
From a position of fragile financial and geopolitical clout, Putin boosted his profile with a domestic and global audience as a champion for the interests of Russia and the Russian diaspora. His approval rating at home soared to 80% after the Crimean invasion. The challenge and counterweight he presented to Western hegemony also won him quiet support amongst a broader community of states increasingly unwilling to dance to the USA’s tune.
In practical terms, Putin has long feared encirclement by nations no longer within the Russian orbit. In taking a firm stance over Ukraine, which looked set to be absorbed into Europe’s economic structure and NATO’s ambit, he set down a marker that his nation would not tolerate further encroachment into its sphere of influence. Russia will not have forgotten the lessons from 1956, when a Hungarian uprising was brutally supressed at a time when Western attention was focused firmly on the Suez crisis.
To his great enjoyment, Putin has also been able to expose to the full glare of global media attention the flimsiness of Western resolve. Bellicose rhetoric from NATO leaders was matched with inaction. Promises of protection remained unfulfilled. Just as in Syria, Russia was able to place itself at the centre of geopolitical negotiation and speculation without great cost. Putin now knows that in probing Europe’s borders, he meets not a formidable armour but a soft underbelly. Meanwhile, he has further exposed US battle fatigue, already evident from American withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, at the prospect of further global engagement. The lack of Western confidence in projecting its values and doing more than rattle sabres in support of those seeking its help, will have undermined its alliances across the world.
On the face of it, Putin’s objectives have been met by the actions he has already taken. He has ruled out further military encroachments, stilling Western nerves. But rest assured, the Ukrainian story is not over. Russia needs to keep this conflict live to ensure that there will be no further moves into its sphere of influence. The next phase of this Ukrainian battle of wills may see Putin navigating a far narrower course – stoking the flames of separatist passion through the provision of arms and the projection of power, while being able plausibly to deny Russian involvement. Without the money, desire or military reach to extend his nation more broadly, Putin now creates power through proxy wars and creative new mechanisms for mischief – the Russian state has become expert in the field of cyber warfare, for example, with high profile attacks on Estonia in 2007 and South Ossetia in 2008 wonderfully difficult to pin blame for.
So what should the West do? Make clear that it too has ways of getting its message across without needing to resort to hard military power. Foremost in its arsenal are sanctions and we must realise that those already in place are working. The rouble is fast losing value, while capital is streaming out of Russia. Meanwhile inward investment has plummeted and Russian companies are finding it far harder to access foreign credit. GDP growth this year will be close to zero. This is highly damaging to the Russian President.
Putin is surrounded by an elite keen to preserve their powerful business interests, dazzling wealth and access to the luxury goods, lifestyle, properties and schools offered by the West. The prospect of being placed on an international blacklist by Europe and the US, with assets frozen and visas cancelled, is a sobering one for Putin’s cronies. Let us not forget either that many of this elite’s companies have already had to made significant cash calls because of the double-digit collapse of the Moscow stock market.
If we are not to engage militarily in the Ukraine, we must at least continue to show the Russian President that we are serious when it comes to sanctions. Even if this course of action harms our short-term financial interests (and I say that as the MP for a central London seat which has benefited enormously from Russian wealth in recent years). It may prove inconvenient, unpredictable and painful, but Russia needs to know that the benefit of the West’s outward looking, free trade and liberal economic institutions will not be open to its companies and countrymen if it continues to test our resolve.
In the longer term, it is vital that Europe reduces its reliance on and exposure to Russian oil and gas. The United States should assist in this regard, removing all barriers to exporting its own energy resource to the region and encouraging Europe energy independence by sharing new technologies, such as those around shale gas.
President Putin knew from the outset that Ukraine was a conflict that Western leaders wished would go away. In the world of power politics, he now needs to know that this is not a nation we are willing to allow to fall by the wayside. Should he remain determined to pour oil on this fire, we must have our own resolute strategy in response.