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Saturday, 1 March 2014

Beyond the Boiling Point – Russian Aggression triggering a Global Conflict

If anyone has ever doubted that Putin’s Russia is playing hardball on the international level, then Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula are proving it again. With a Russian military intervention in Ukraine being imminent, Europe is facing a war in its immediate neighbourhood, with incalculable consequences for Europe, and even for the whole world.

We have witnessed some eventful weeks in Ukraine. The fall of President Victor Yanukovych, civil war like events at Kiev’s Maidan, and the return of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. But this time, unlike the Orange Revolution ten years ago, the changes are more profound and by far more dramatic - not only regarding Ukraine itself, but most of all the reactions by Russia and President Putin. In fact, Ukraine is turning into a battle field of the world powers, with the idle Cold War to turn back to pre-1990ies conditions – and an imminent threat of turning hot.

Ukraine is not only a predominantly western oriented former Soviet Republic tangled between Europe and the Russian Federation; it is above all a strategic key country for both Russia and the Western World. The protests and riots at the Maidan were a clear dead-giveaway for the predominantly western orientation of the Ukrainian people, and a signal to Russia not to interfere in their domestic or even international relations – and that Russia cannot simply buy a country’s approval. The Ukrainian people demand the freedom to decide on their own fate and to become a part of Europe in the long-term. Evidently, it will tear the country apart.

An emerging second “Crimean War”

The events on the Crimean Peninsula are edging towards increasing violence between the predominantly Russian majority and Ukrainians. Recent events show that the Crimean Peninsula is on the verge of breaking apart from Ukraine, with ethnic Russians calling for a referendum to decide if it shall go on belonging to Ukraine, declaring autonomy, or even remerging with Russia. Ironically, one of the reasons for these tensions has to be found in an administrative change during the Soviet era, back in 1954. The Crimean Peninsula used to be under administration of the Russian Socialist Soviet Republic, but then transferred to the Ukrainian SSR by decree.

Russian nationalists have been demanding to return Crimea to Russia ever since, and now, Russian nationalism has dramatically increased in the wake of the violence and turmoil on the peninsula. With unidentified paramilitary people occupying airports and nationalists raising the Russian flag on administrative buildings, the pressure inside the pot keeps growing.

Russia is keeping its Black Sea fleet at key points on the Crimean Peninsula, paying a huge amount to the Ukrainian government to obtain the rights to deploy their fleet there. For strategic reasons, Russia has a vital interest to keep its fleet there, demonstrating pure military presence and keeping its interest in the Black Sea. Should the Crimean Peninsula fall to Russia, it will be a significant political shift towards Russia.

Putin’s Red Herring

Sochi was a party, but as ever, even the greatest party comes to an end. What remains is a massive hangover with all its negative consequences. This hangover is Russia’s economic situation, internal pressure from right wing extremists, separation tendencies from Caucasus republics, and rapidly depreciating rubble with an imminent financial crisis to break out. Every statesman, authoritarian or democratic, knows what to do when it’s getting messy in your own country: to cause some turmoil and some military action in another country, raise some patriotic feelings, and your own people will ignore the inner trouble for a little while.

Putin triggers a military conflict in Ukraine to distract its own people and its own critics from imminent deteriorating problems in Russia itself. It might have a short-term success, but with even more severe long-term consequences. If the military intervention slips into a long-term conflict on a wider scale, and if it fails to implement the outcome Russia wants, Putin will face even more domestic resistance. This could either lead to a revolution inside Russia, or intensified reprisals against the own Russian population. No matter the outcome of the upcoming war in Ukraine, it will eventually lead to Putin’s demise.

Old Soviet backyard behaviour

Putin has re-established Russia as a global power, especially in the view of the Syrian civil war. Ever since he is in power, Russia claims to restore its former Soviet power status. This is visible in Russia’s relations to its former Soviet Republics, treating them like their own backyard and claiming ultimate right to interfere in internal affairs and their bilateral relations with other countries or international organisations. Last year, Russia prevented Ukraine to sign the Association Agreement with the EU by offering financial support through its puppet president Yanukovych. Putin, however, did obviously not expect the Ukrainians’ reaction.

Though Ukraine is a former Soviet Republic, it is no longer a Moscow controlled country. As such, Moscow will have to accept the fact that neither the Ukraine, nor any other Eastern European state or former Soviet republic is a Russian satellite state and Russia is well advised not to treat these countries like its own backyard. Conceivably, Putin is aware that such a revolution as occurred in Ukraine could also erupt in Russia, or even in its last puppet state Belarus. As a consequence, his domestic and foreign politics strategy turns more and more into violent policy implementation by force.

Internationalization of the Conflict

From a western perspective, Ukraine is having an intensified dialogue with NATO, after joining the Partnership for Peace Agreement in 1994. In a long-term, NATO membership of Ukraine is a potential objective. As such, the western alliance has a genuine interest to ensure its security ambitions in the wider Eastern European theatre. As such, the Black Sea and the Crimean Peninsula is a strategic key region for them also.

US President Barack Obama has warned President Putin of the consequences and the “costs” of a military intervention in Ukraine, and the foreign ministers’ of France, Germany and Poland success to negotiate between former President Yanukovych and the opposition was a temporary sign of diplomatic efforts by Europe. Nevertheless, it is questionable of the EU, the US, or the International Community as a whole will take any action whatsoever. The UN Security Council won’t implement a resolution as Russia will veto anything the other Security Council members will submit. Logically, NATO won’t have any legal base to intervene – which might not be that bad as the current Ukrainian crisis is a lethal cocktail for a global crisis.

It is more likely that none of the Western actors – neither the US not the EU, nor the UN – will take any action at all, knowing that any kind of even remote elevated reaction beyond words would trigger an even bigger crisis. The EU won’t take any actions because of their own financial crisis and their non-existing hard politic instruments; and the US has announced to significantly cut its military budget, which makes extensive out of area missions too costly. This reveals the West’s dilemma: if they don’t intervene at all, they passively grant full freedom of action for any action in Ukraine and other regions in the world. On the other hand, if the Western world intervenes, the entire conflict could escalate from a regional to a global scale.

Cold War turning hot

Just before the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, the US has deployed a number of military vessels to the Black Sea, as a “support” for Russia to ensure security during the Winter Olympics. However, now, it could be interpreted as an initial military signal to Moscow: “We’re here, and we also got our interests.” Additionally, to make things even more dangerous, NATO is having its nuclear fleet stationed at the Bosporus, evidently on stand-by to move in, whenever the order is given.

Parallels with the Pre-World War One situation are obvious, one incident leading to another, and to another, until there is only one little misunderstanding necessary to spark a really big fire.

Will history repeat itself, again?

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