Can Russia afford to be an outcast in world politics?

Photo Marie Mendras 2010 resize.jpg

What President Putin has been pursuing during his months-long battle against Ukraine’s economy and society is the semi-collapse and semi-implosion of the Ukrainian state. But at what cost?

Marie Mendras
14 April 2014

The President of Russia has successfully annexed Crimea, weakened the Ukrainian state, and played havoc with security in the region. He has been building up a war scare, and is now monitoring the takeover of key administrative and police buildings in Eastern Ukraine. He is denying Russia's direct military intervention, but the identity of the masked, highly prepared special units fool nobody. The large-scale use of propaganda in all media is the clearest demonstration of the subversive nature of the Kremlin's methods. Vladimir Putin has created a climate of fear, uncertainty and unpredictability that may be usefully reinforcing his hand at home, but is also triggering resentment and distrust in many countries, not only in Europe. Will he not become an outcast in international relations, albeit a powerful one? Spoiling too much may soon backfire, and produce corrosive damage to Russia’s reputation, economic performance and international influence.

The timeline is well-known: an embargo on many Ukrainian exports in July 2013; further pressures on the corrupt Viktor Yanukovych to walk out of the association agreement to be signed with the European Union in Vilnius on 28 November; the unexpected and peaceful Maidan revolution; Russia’s direct involvement in the bloody crackdown in Kyiv in February 2014; Crimea’s expedient and illegal ‘referendum’ and annexation to Russia; and further destabilisation of Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv by means of economic subversion (gas prices at a hike), propaganda roller (Kyiv government consists of 'fascists' and 'extremists'), and military scare (40,000-plus troops stationed at the border with Eastern Ukraine); and finally armed aggression and occupation.

Had Moscow ‘contented itself’ with seizing the small autonomous republic of Crimea, already under de facto Russian control, then grudgingly established relations with the new authorities in Kyiv might have led Europe and the United States to swallow the bitter pill, and resume business as usual with Russia. 

But this ‘we just want Crimea back!’ option was never the gameplan.

But this ‘we just want Crimea back!’ option was never the gameplan. For what Putin has been pursuing during his months-long battle against Ukraine’s economy and society is the semi-collapse and semi-implosion of the Ukrainian state, with its 46m inhabitants – a failing country that would fall into oblivion, and surrender itself to the control of Russia-monitored networks and oligarchs.

That was the hoped for scheme: victory over Kyiv without having to conquer more people or territory, and without having to wage a traditional war. Many in the West and beyond would have applauded Putin’s self-restraint and turned a blind eye to the Ukrainian defeat. Putin’s urgent priority was to deter the West from rescuing Ukrainian sovereignty, and supporting a strong democratic, anti-corruption, pro-Europe strategy.

Vladimir Putin’s own strategy at first appeared strong and well devised. It now looks bold and risky..

Vladimir Putin’s own strategy at first appeared strong and well devised. It now looks bold and risky. Ukrainian society at large is resisting subversive destabilisation. The deployment of spetsnazy (Russian special units) and provocateurs in a few cities of Ukraine has not succeeded in sparking off internal strife, but the danger has risen with the recent attacks on administration and police buildings in several Eastern cities, that the interim government had to fight off. The latter has named the reconquest of official buildings 'anti-terrorist' defence, which may be an inappropriate mimicking of the Kremlin’s constant 'terrorism scare.' But, all in all, it is faring relatively well, given the extraordinary dangers and challenges of all kinds, economic, social, political and military. They are responding to provocations with political determination and a policy of trust-building with Europe and America. How many times have Russian leaders and officials announced a ‘civil war’ in Ukraine, emphasising the impossibility of reconciling ‘Russian speakers’ in the east of the country with ‘Ukrainian speakers’ in the west. Ukraine is, indeed, a large and diverse country, but then so is France, which has quite as many local and regional idiosyncracies.

Ukrainians did not fall into the trap of initiating their own civil war.

In other words, Ukrainians did not fall into the trap of initiating their own civil war, which would have called for the often heard dismissive interrogation in similar cases: ‘But what side really started it all, aren’t responsibilities shared evenly?’

Ukrainians did not start a ‘new Cold War’ either. But Russia is threatening Europe with burning conflicts, and is losing what was left of its reputation as a 'responsible power.' NATO countries, most notably the USA, and the EU are using economic threats, military deterrence, targeted sanctions, and offers of negotiation, as a way of imposing restraint on Russia. The Council of Europe has stripped the Russian deputies of their voting rights in the Parliamentary Assembly; and the G8 is now back to its original G7.

Sanctions and public reprobation have so far proved efficient, in that regular Russian troops have not yet invaded Ukraine, yet the destabilisation of Ukraine by subversive means may prove even more dramatic than a classic intervention, and makes it more difficult for the West to react. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is now insisting that the Russian military will not overstep, and implies that NATO is the villain, because it is preparing for possible retaliations. However, Vladimir Putin several times has said that military defence of ‘the Russians’ in Ukraine was still a possibility, ‘if need be.’ Both men have played with everybody’s nerves in recent months, and now arouse exasperation and profound distrust.

The United Nations’ repeated disapproval of Moscow’s actions marked the beginning of Russia’s counter performance. On 3 March 2014, the Security Council expressed strongly worded denunciations of Russia’s policies. The British, French, American and Lithuanian Ambassadors did not mince their words. And none of the 14 member states, not even China, supported the fifteenth member, Russia. On 27 March, Moscow was further humiliated by the General Assembly vote on a resolution reasserting Ukraine’s territorial integrity and condemning Crimea’s annexation. The results were not good for Moscow: 100 states voted for Ukraine, 58 abstained, and only 11 voted against: Russia and the ‘usual suspects,’ Syria, Sudan, Zimbabwe, North Korea, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba, Bolivia, Belarus and Armenia. Hence, only two of the ex-Soviet republics aligned with Moscow. China abstained, but did not hide its irritation at Russia’s anti status quo policies. Similarly, it had not welcomed Moscow’s ‘recognition of independence’ of Abkhazia and South Ossetia after the 2008 war in Georgia. On 13 April, the Security Council held another emergency meeting on Ukraine and Russia’s subversive involvement was once more vigorously denounced (The Geneva quadripartite negotiation, scheduled for 17 April, has not yet been confirmed).

The political and economic costs of the Crimean adventure are heavier than Putin expected, and the returns look modest

Furthermore, sanctions against a number of high-level officials and oligarchs, a few of them belonging to Putin’s inner circle, have sewed the seeds of distrust and anxiety inside Russia’s ruling economic elites, which have quite a lot to lose in a long standoff between Moscow and the West, where they have secured much of their wealth and corporate assets, and, for many, settled their families. Economic recession is looming in Russia, even though oil and gas prices remain high. Can the country afford to be marginalised in an ever more globalised and competitive world? The political and economic costs of the Crimean adventure are heavier than Putin expected, and the returns look modest, except for a new surge of populist chauvinistic emotions inside Russia.

In the longer run, Putin’s stubborn preference for force instead of negotiation, and his challenge to European security, may well help the EU to devise a common strategy on energy and the Eastern Partnership, and also rejuvenate NATO and transatlantic solidarity. For their sake, and ours, we must support Ukrainians in their defence against aggression, and in holding free and fair elections on 25 May.

Is it time to pay reparations?

The Black Lives Matter movement has renewed demands from activists in the US and around the world seeking compensation for the legacies of slavery and colonialism. But what would a reparative economic agenda practically entail and what models exist around the world?

Join us for this free live discussion at 5pm UK time (12pm EDT), Thursday 17 June.

Hear from:

  • Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor: Author of Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership
  • Esther Stanford-Xosei: Jurisconsult, Pan-Afrikan Reparations Coalition in Europe (PARCOE).
  • Ronnie Galvin: Managing Director for Community Investment, Greater Washington Community Foundation and Senior Fellow, The Democracy Collaborative.
  • Chair, Aaron White: North American economics editor, openDemocracy
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