As eastern Ukraine spirals out of control, the interim government in Kiev is desperately seeking to renegotiate the Geneva agreement, aimed at restoring a semblance of unity in the now deeply divided state. Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, appears happy adjusting levers of strategic power to apply pressure, in turn in Donetsk, Sloviansk and now in Odessa.
It is not yet clear whether the eastern Russian-speaking region will actually separate from Ukraine, whether Russia will invade or if regional destabilisation is just being used to achieve other ends. At least as likely as invasion, this destablisation is just a bloody game to achieve Russia’s regional economic and strategic goals.
There is no doubt that Russia is providing most of the impetus for separatism in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking regions. First Crimea separated from Ukraine, with the direct intervention of what Putin first denied and then later admitted were Russian troops without insignia. Now "paramilitaries" with identical unmarked uniforms and weapons are active in eastern Ukraine. These paramilitaries are providing both direction and reinforcement to separatist Ukrainian Russian-speakers.
There is fear within the Kiev government that pushing back against the pro-Russian occupation of key towns and installations in the east will provoke a direct Russian invasion. This will, many believe, be rationalised by the deaths of Russian speakers.
However, short of mass casualties among Russian speakers, which would spark an artificially constructed Russian variation of the "responsibility to protect" paradigm, such an overt intervention is unlikely. The intention of the Russian government appears to be to pressure the Kiev interim government into reversing its position on embracing the European Union and NATO to one of returning to mother Russia.
To achieve this outcome, Russia is balancing its role in eastern Ukraine. Should Russia overtly invade, it would be politically difficult to withdraw and leave Russian speakers living within a Ukrainian state. Such an intervention would almost certainly require absorption of Russian-speaking areas into Russia proper.
More usefully, Russia will exert maximum pressure on the government in Kiev without invading. Russia does not wish to lose the leverage that would come from leaving Ukraine nominally intact but internally divided. In this, Crimea was useful as an object of lesson to the Kiev government for what could happen in eastern Ukraine. It was not necessarily a precursor to what will happen.
In the meantime, what amounts to a deadly theatre is being played out in Odessa, Donetsk, Sloviansk, Konstantinovka, Slavyansk, Andreyevka and Kramatorsk. Dozens have now died, and Ukraine’s security forces are demoralised and, in part, divided.
Since invading Georgia in 2008, Russia has been much more prepared to directly intervene in the affairs of its neighbors. Regional control is much more important to Moscow than international rule of law.
But Moscow does not wish to reincorporate Ukraine entirely, as it did once within the former Soviet Union. Ukraine serves a more convenient purpose if it remains nominally independent but performs to a classically pessimistic script drafted by the Kremlin.
Such a script, by default, portrays Moscow as the powerful yet torn protagonist. In this, Russia’s dramas, vanities and intemperances are writ large. By way of contrast, the minor, peripheral characters are increasingly being rehearsed in their role to be one of subservience and supplication in this Slavic tragedy.
Russia's political leaders appear to be taking a particular pleasure in the planned and co-ordinated dismemberment of Ukraine. As with any unprincipled thug, Russia’s only constraint is ensuring it remains internationally unaccountable while continuing to dismantle its vulnerable neighbour.
Russia is now breaking off pieces of the country at will and ignoring international protestations while feigning innocence. The eastern Ukraine town of Slaviansk is now firmly under the control of thinly disguised Russian troops and their local compatriots, with Ukraine reluctant to act for fear of provoking even greater Russian intervention.
That pro-Russian militia took military observers from Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe hostage only further highlights Russia’s intransigence towards a genuinely negotiated resolution of the crisis. The arrest of the observers, on the pretext they were spying, was a simple demonstration of Russia’s rejection of any external involvement in events in eastern Ukraine; the release of one on health grounds was an all-but-inconsequential gesture.
European and United States protestations at the events in eastern Ukraine are having no effect on Russia’s actions, nor are proposed economic sanctions by the G7 expected to be strong or co-ordinated enough to be meaningful. In any case, Russia has already factored sanctions into its game plan.
As with threats of US intervention following the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons in Syria last year, Russia has fobbed off US concerns by agreeing to terms it had no intention of keeping. Russia was to urge moderation on pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, retaining the fiction that they are not actual Russian soldiers.
While some of the heavily armed and uniformed militia in eastern Ukraine are, no doubt, locals who have volunteered or been recruited to the service of the militant separatist movement, others are clearly uniformed Russian soldiers without identifying insignia. These Russian soldiers are identical to those Russian troops without insignia who, with support of Russian-speaking locals, overthrew Ukraine control of Crimea in February.
Meanwhile, despite Russia’s earlier agreement to draw down troop numbers massed on Ukraine’s border, there are some 40,000 soldiers still in place, along with military "exercises" that look like preparations for invasion. This, too, however, is part of Russia’s "psychological warfare" game plan, whereby it has not technically invaded Ukraine, but the threat of doing so undermines Ukraine’s interim Parliament’s every thought and move.
While Russia is very unlikely to invade Ukraine, it is absolutely intent on seeing Ukraine rewrite the country’s constitution to create autonomous -- Russian-aligned -- regions. It also wants Ukraine to hold new elections, producing a parliament with a dominant core of pro-Russian members, and an agreement to turn away from the European Union and embrace Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union.
In all of this, as with the US in some of its own ventures in Latin America, Russia sees Ukraine as clearly within its own sphere of influence. And there is no doubt that if events in Ukraine are handled badly, they could create a much bigger and more serious regional problem.
But the US, Europe and even Russia are all keen to avoid an uncontrolled escalation of the Ukraine crisis, especially in ways that could spill across borders. To that end, Russia is being a regional thug but, with no one prepared or, indeed, able to force a halt to its carefully calculated actions, it is likely to get the final outcome it wishes.
United States political leaders bluster, but Russia continues to be unmoved by their protestations over its annexation of Crimea and the massing of troops along Ukraine’s border. Long having believed itself the world’s only superpower, the US is now being delivered a lesson in real politik, if not humility.
Estonia, which has a large Russian population, has hit back against Russia, saying the West should freeze all Russian bank accounts … for what little that would appear to do. Estonia’s President Toomas Hendrik Ilves says that what is most threatening about Russia’s behaviour is that "the old rules don’t apply". Since Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, he says, it has been clear that Putin would ignore guarantees of territorial sovereignty that conflicted with Russia’s sense of national interest.
Despite US President Barack Obama claiming that Russia’s seizure of Crimea is a sign of weakness rather than strength, US commentators, such as Stratfor’s George Friedman, believe the US is now headed towards direct confrontation with an increasingly assertive Russia. Assuming the US continues to believe that it is the world’s remaining superpower, and not one that has to negotiate, this may be correct.
There are now real concerns that, having established the precedent of "protecting" Russian speakers in former Soviet satellite states, it may move to annex further regions. Despite some commentary suggesting that Russia’s assertiveness is solely Putin’s doing, in fact it represents the wholesale reorientation of Russian politics towards a dominant conservative nationalist paradigm.
To illustrate, Deputy Speaker of Russia’s Duma, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, bluntly says that the south-east of Ukraine be re-incorporated into Russia. Yet Zhirinovsky is the head of the inappropriately named Liberal Democratic Party, rather than Putin’s United Russia Party.
Within Russia, there is strong support for asserting Russia’s "return to greatness". According to Irina Yarovaya, a prominent member of the Duma's security committee: "Any person whatsoever who criticises the policies of the Russian authorities in Crimea becomes thereby an enemy of the fatherland."
Criticism of Msocow’s policies or Putin himself is no longer tolerated. Leading Moscow academic Professor Andrei Zubov was recently sacked from the prestigious Moscow State Institute of International Relations for comparing Moscow's actions in Ukraine with Nazi Germany's annexation of Austria in 1938. In a parallel move, a number of critical websites have also been closed.
As if to illustrate the parallels between Russia’s former and current oligarchies, and the shift from one strong leader to another, Russia’s Orthodox Church Press has recently released its 2014 calendar featuring none other than the infamous Joseph Stalin. One analyst noted: "As Stalin would say 'this is not mere chance, Comrades'."
In large part, what appears to be missing from the West’s expressions of moral outrage over Russia’s perceived expansionism is that they are not presenting the world as it is, but rather as they would like it to be. The collapse of the Soviet Union was a moment of deep reflection for Russia, but the West’s triumphalism did not mean that Russia had disappeared. It many respects, it remains powerful, perhaps almost as much as it has earlier been.
Similarly, the rise of China as an economic and strategic power -- and the US' Asia "pivot" recognising that -- has added a third key player to the global balance of power. With the US economically and strategically weakened, perceptions of its pre-eminence and ability to shift global events are increasingly doubtful.
The Cold War era was characterised by two superpowers, and the post-Cold War era by just one. But, in the wake of the US’ ill-advised adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, the world increasingly appears as tri-polar. No one now seriously questions that China is a global player and that Russia can act, more or less, with impunity in areas it claims to be in its sphere of influence, tends to confirm this fundamental global strategic shift.
That Russia and Ukraine have come to the brink of war in just a few short days is obvious enough. What is less obvious is not the quickly evolving events that might unfold over the next days and weeks but Russia’s end game.
As with its negotiations over the Syrian civil war last September, Russia is playing an adept game of strategic chess. While Russia has its game planned well in advance, the West is only just coming to terms with the next move.
Underlying Russia’s positioning on Ukraine, and key to its ability to fob off Western protestations, is its longer-term plan to establish a Eurasian Union to rival that of the European Union. As a significant regional economy, Ukraine is critical to the success of Russia’s bid to counter the EU, which is why Russia is insistent it remains within its strategic sphere.
Russia also stations its strategically important Black Sea fleet at Sevastopol, which under a deal signed by ousted President Viktor Yanukovych it leases until 2042.
In one sense, Russia’s Eurasian Union is a reinvention of the economic relations within the former Soviet Union. In another sense, however, it is an economic reinvention of the pre-Soviet Russian Empire. Either way, Russian President Vladimir Putin intends to restore Russia to an international greatness corresponding to that prior to the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
Russia has already sent 6000 troops without insignia to Crimea in southern Ukraine, ostensibly as "local patriots". These are to protect its naval base at Sevastopol and in support of ethnic Russians unhappy with the recent ousting of Yanukovych, who is pro-Russian. The Ukrainian government has said such moves could lead to war between the two countries.
A war between Russia and Ukraine would be bloody and vastly destructive; if Ukraine struck quickly it could achieve an initial strategic advantage. Similarly, if Russia invades it will be a long, bloody and costly conflict. Neither country wants to go down the path of direct conflict.
If Ukraine continues to resist Russia’s assertions, expected at least to be for a pro-Russia economic policy as agreed to by Yanukovych, Russia will assist ethnic Russians in Ukraine’s south and east to declare themselves independent from Ukraine. Ukraine could respond militarily to such separatism but would, by definition, then be involved in a war within its borders; Russia would have punished Ukraine without having become directly involved.
The solution to this situation would be a divided Ukraine suing for peace, the conditions of which would be greater autonomy for ethnic Russian regions and the economic obeisance of Ukraine to Russia’s Eurasian Union.
The United States and the EU are deeply concerned at current events and have made angry noises. Ukraine has requested NATO’s intervention. But while the EU would like Ukraine to become economically closer, the EU and the US do not critically need Ukraine, and NATO will, consequently, not go to war over it.
It is highly likely that, should events continue to unfold as they seem, the EU and the US 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% 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 Ukarine 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.
Turmoil in Ukraine may continue and events, unfolding quickly, are not entirely predictable. But if Russian President Vladimir Putin is acting in a supremely confident manner over this conflict, as has been noted by some observers, it is because Russians play chess very well.