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Ukraine, by Damien Kingsbury

Russian memory and Putin’s larger game

The gap between preference and reality in the West’s approach to Russia’s incorporation of Crimea is defined by two sets of criteria. The first is the West’s failure to come to terms with the ‘new’ Russia, in the way that it acknowledges the ‘new’ China. The second is the regional realpolitik that manifests the ‘new’ Russia’s aspirations and the inability of the West to do much about it.

Ukraine’s overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovich reflected a genuine desire on the part of many Ukrainians to move away from the old, Soviet-era strongman style of politics and the almost lawless oligarchy that replaced it. The catalyst for his overthrow was Ukraine’s relationship with the European Union, which pushed Russia’s leadership into action.

However, since its 2008 invasion of Georgia, the old rules of national sovereignty don’t apply when they conflict with Russia’s sense of national interest. Despite some commentary suggesting that Russia’s assertiveness is solely President Vladimir Putin’s doing, this actually represents the wholesale reorientation of Russian politics towards a dominant conservative nationalist paradigm.

Within Russia there has been a marked closure of debate. Critical websites have been shut down, a prominent critical academic sacked and a list of ‘traitors’ published. This political closure has been paralleled by the promotion of ‘strongman’ politics. The Russian Orthodox Church Press devoted its recently released 2014 calendar to images of the infamous Joseph Stalin. One analyst privately noted: ‘As Stalin would say “this is not mere chance, Comrades”’.

Neither has the outcome of discussions between Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry been ‘mere chance’. As with its negotiations over the Syrian civil war last September, Russia is playing an adept game of strategic chess, and it is winning.

Russia’s renewed assertiveness stands in contrast to the triumphalism that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet Union, which left many Western observers blind to Russia’s deeply felt need to never again be vulnerable. During the ‘Great Patriotic War’ between 1941 and 1945, over 26 million people, more than one in eight, died within Soviet borders. As with the Jewish Holocaust, this lesson has not been forgotten.

Russia still wants to retain a buffer between the state and potential aggressors, as well as to neutralise enemies along its borders. This fits hand in glove with Putin’s plan for a Russian-led Eurasian Union, in much the same way that the European Union was intended to neutralise long-term enmity between European states.

In this context there remains a dark memory of Ukraine’s Second World War pro-Nazi past. There is little doubt that the Russian media’s hyperbole over Ukraine’s neo-Nazis is vastly overblown, not least given Russia’s own quasi-fascism. Putin is himself sympathetic to ‘White Russian’ philosopher Ivan Ilych. But it remains troubling for Russia that several members of Ukraine’s new government have at least a neo-Nazi past.

In particular, the All Ukrainian Union ‘Svoboda’ party, which has five members in cabinet, was created in the early post-Soviet era as the Social-National Party of Ukraine, intentionally mirroring the German Nazi National-Socialist Party name. Its defining characteristics were ethnic exclusivity, anti-Semitism, pronounced neo-Nazi rhetoric and, until 2003, the stylised neo-Nazi wolfsangel logo.

 

By 2005, Svoboda had begun to purge its more extreme elements, breaking with other European neo-Nazi groups and attempting to take on a more moderate hue. It has since clashed with other neo-Nazi groups, including the radical Right Sector at Euromaidan during the protests that toppled President Viktor Yanukovych.

While Ukraine does have a neo-Nazi element—as does Russia—the Euromaidan protest contained numerous political groups, from anarchists, communists and liberal democrats to nationalists and neo-Nazis. Similarly, Ukraine’s parliament has almost as broad a spectrum represented.

Nonetheless, Ukraine’s anti-Russian sentiment feeds into Russian concerns over what one former British diplomat posted to Moscow has referred to as an ‘arc of instability’, which ranges from Belarus bordering Poland to the west, Moldova and Ukraine to the south-east and the troubled Caucasus region of Abkhazia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Chechnya, Dagestan to the south and south-west, hence its intervention in the now less pliable Ukraine.

There is little economic value in creating Crimea as an internal part of the Russian state, and even its strategic value is less than it once was. But this annexation is an assertion of regional dominance: Russia’s ‘facts on the ground’ are just that, and no one is going to war over Ukraine.

The people of Crimea did vote to join Russia, in a hastily convened ballot marked by some over-the-top propaganda. Interestingly, in a region in which a bit over a third of the population are not Russian speakers and appeared to be opposed to integration with Russia, the vote in favour of integration was over 90 per cent! But, then, foreign journalists had been largely cleared from Crimea before the vote and no independent ballot monitors were allowed.

With only slightly fewer than an estimated 60000 Russian troops on Ukraine’s borders too, and considerable dissent and pro-Russian sympathy in eastern Ukraine, the government in Kiev has already decided not to try to wrestle back control of Crimea by military means.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian government’s friends in the West remain conflicted on what action to take over Russia’s heavy-handedness in Crimea. Germany in particular is taking a softer line on proposed economic sanctions than other EU countries.

It is highly likely that, should events continue to unfold as they seem they will, the EU and the United States will push for economic sanctions against Russia, but this then starts to play to Russia’s longer game. Russia supplies about a third of all of the EU’s oil and almost 40 per cent of its gas. The balance of trade between Russia and the EU goes approximately 3:2 in Russia’s favour. In short, Russia needs the EU oil and gas market, but the EU needs Russia’s oil and gas even more. Trade may reduce, but Russia will survive.

More to the point, with Russia moving to consolidate its Eurasian Union as a balance to the EU, keeping Ukraine within its orbit and reducing reliance on the EU is part of Putin’s longer game. That this might well result in a new iteration of the Cold War would simply be testament to Putin’s vision of Russia’s return to international greatness.

In turn this plays into the hands of the Kremlin’s hardliners, who have long been in favour of a split with the West. Instead, they are seeking to strengthen ties with an increasingly powerful China. Some even want a deliberately confrontational relationship with the West, by way of reasserting Russia’s status as a power worthy of the world’s attention.

US Secretary of State John Kerry says he still hopes for a compromise arrangement with President Putin, in a bid to resolve the Ukraine crisis. The difficulty with this is that increasingly there is no mood in Moscow for a deal. In any case, as Russians will tell you, in Russian there is no equivalent for the English word ‘compromise’.

If this leaves what English speakers might regard as a gap in how Russians thereby understand the world, they might take even less comfort from the fact that, in Russian, there are seven different words for ‘enemy’.

 

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