Aside from waiting breathlessly to learn results of the battle between Russia and the U.S., the Ukrainian people are already turning out to be among the losers.

A Maidan activist in Kiev. Photo: RIA Novosti

A future in which Ukraine and Russia became alienated from each other, integrated into separate military and political unions, was apparently unacceptable to Moscow. The shock of seeing this potential outcome on the horizon pushed the Kremlin towards a desperate attempt to defend its most important geopolitical position.

Yet from all sides, regional and global stratagems now being carried out in the context of the Ukraine crisis are removed from the goal of securing a respectable future for the citizens Ukraine. This country has become the unlucky battleground for skirmishes over the future world order. And the Ukrainian people are turning out to be among the losers.

The Putin factor

Russian president Vladimir Putin played a key role in the decisive moments of the Ukraine crisis. Putin seemed to view even the 2004 Orange Revolution as a geopolitical challenge and a model for political destabilization that, given the right conditions, could spill onto Russian soil.

Subsequent events—the Russian-Ukrainian gas wars, the rift between the leaders of the first Maidan and their political fiasco, the convergence of Moscow and Kiev, Viktor Yanukovich’s destructive balancing act between European and Eurasian integration projects, and finally, the second Maidan—confirmed to Putin that Ukraine was becoming the stage for a decisive confrontation over his political fate.

Ukraine never had such a huge significance for other external actors. Therefore, few people expected from the Russian president such a decisive shift into a high-stakes game. At the same time, however, Putin’s policy in Ukraine looks precisely like an active counter-play. It shows a readiness to counter unfavorable changes in the balance of power by means concentrating resources towards direct and unexpected action.

Yet observers should be wary of a viewing the President’s actions as premeditated, or of saying they were caused by an internal logic of consolidating an authoritarian regime – or that they were spurred on by a Russian public “brainwashed” by aggressive anti-Western propaganda.

A more detailed analysis of Vladimir Putin’s political steps during his third term reveal a much more nuanced picture. He has in fact demonstrated not only an intention to aggressively defend Russia’s geopolitical interests (as they are understood in the Kremlin), but also to create the foundation for reviving a constructive dialogue with the West.

This latter can be seen in the freeing of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and—especially—in efforts to create a positive image of Russia as the host country of the 22nd Winter Olympics.

It is entirely probable that the coincidence of the Sochi Olympics, which were so significant for Putin, and the change in power in Kiev, were taken especially hard in the Kremlin. On the one hand, a triumph of the organizers of the athletic celebration was overtly thwarted by the victory of the Euromaidan. And on the other hand, this happened at precisely the moment that the Russian leadership’s hands were tied.

Putin’s decision to get Crimea was provoked by the upheaval in Kiev, and by the expectations of its difficult geopolitical consequences.

However, it would likewise be superficial to characterize this decision as spontaneous. On the contrary, the preceding years of Putin’s rule could be seen as a preparation for crossing the Crimean Rubicon.

The interval between two of Putin’s most famous foreign policy statements—his appearance on February 10, 2007, at the Munich Security Conference and the practically confessional speech on Crimea that he delivered on March 18, 2014—was a period of disillusionment with the possibility of achieving an equal-rights partnership in relations with the United States and EU.

In proportion to the growth of this feeling, a conviction about the inevitability of a crisis in relations with the West strengthened. Indeed, the most likely area of aggravation was Ukraine.

The process of making political decisions regarding Ukraine also became fully centralized: it appears that the Russian president was unilaterally making the most important decisions. It should be noted that operationally, the success of uniting Crimea with Russia in no small way was caused by the hyper-centralization of direct control under the head of state.

The establishment of Russian sovereignty over the Crimean Peninsula predictably received broad public support in Russia, raising presidential approval ratings to unprecedented levels. What before early March concerned only Vladimir Putin became in a matter of weeks the common perspective of the regime and of society.

At the same time, powerful public demand to continue comprehensive support of millions of Russians and Russian-speaking people beyond Russia’s borders was forming. President Putin alluded to this in his Crimea speech. The need to comply with this demand is now becoming a factor in shaping the limits of compromise with regard to Ukraine.

After the March celebrations on the occasion of the annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol, and with the West’s imposition of new sanctions, the latent pressure of these elites significantly increased, and by all appearances, it influenced the Kremlin’s willingness to provide direct support to the Donbassa militants.

There is no doubt that in the foreseeable future, Putin will have the last word in developing a Ukraine policy. But now he will need to take into account not only pressure from the West and mixed signals from the Russian elite, but also the gathering strength of the population’s nationalistic mood.

Americans Are From Mars, Europeans Are From Venus

Robert Kagan’s famous metaphor comparing a belligerent United States to Mars and a soft Europe to Venus certainly seems to apply to the Ukraine crisis. With its policy of Eastern Partnership, the European Union brought to the escalation of the crisis almost a standard contribution, for the first time stepping into a realm of geopolitical rivalry that it had never experienced previously.

The Eastern Partnership policy, which had been conceived by its proponents as a dislodging of Russia’s influence in the western part of the post-Soviet landscape, inevitably drew the EU into a competitive geopolitical conflict.

The raising of the stakes in the geopolitical rivalry repeatedly provoked confusion in the EU structures that were responsible for developing an overall foreign policy. However, the development of the Ukraine crisis showed that the effectiveness of a unified European foreign policy was dropping to a level close to paralysis. In these circumstances a bold Mars will rush to aid the confused Venus.

Since the beginning of the second Maidan, the United States has become Russia’s main opponent, having seen in the Ukraine crisis not only a threat to European stability but also a chance to breathe new life into a gradually fading global leadership.

Russian sovereignty over Crimea has exceptional significance as a precedent, demonstrating a refusal to follow the world order in which the United States is the operative authority. Despite the fact that the scale of the Crimea challenge is minor and does not present any real threat to the American position in the world, the very possibility of an unsanctioned territorial change is an indicator of Washington’s ability to uphold an order in which it has the last word.

From this perspective, one may foresee actions by the United States to mobilize allies to contain Putin’s Russia. Notably, it is not the containment that will have the most significance in this case, but a mobilization that gives new meaning to the action of the United States’ leading military and political allies.

Given these conditions, the EU needs to acknowledge the need for a long-term American military presence on European soil, and moreover, to agree to the creation of a substantial military infrastructure in former Warsaw Pact countries.

During the Ukraine crisis, the division into “old” and “new” Europe reached a logical conclusion. With the active support of the United States, the position of “new” Europe on military and energy security issues is strengthening.

At least in words, it now needs to also follow “old” Europe. In its relations with Russia, “new” Europe is becoming a cordon sanitaire that in the near future may be bolstered at the expense of Ukraine (at least its western and central regions) and Moldova (excluding Transnistria and probably Gagauza).

Incidentally, the configuration of the “new” Europe is now noticeably different from the one that existed a decade ago. Poland, the Baltic States and Romania are willing to actively participate in the organization of the cordon sanitaire.

For various reasons, Bulgaria, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic are showing somewhat less enthusiasm. Nevertheless, in tandem with the “new” Europe, Washington is in a position to boldly control the security policy of the entire EU, as well as efforts to revive dialogue between the EU and Russia.

It appears that Barack Obama’s administration will try to use pressure surrounding Ukraine to try to resolve a more large-scale issue: the speedy conclusion of an accord with the European Union to establish a trans-Atlantic trade and investment partnership.

The appearance of this large economic bloc will mean the creation of new backbone for the wavering U.S.-centric world order. At the same time, the United States is activating efforts to create an analogous grouping in the Asia-Pacific region to serve as a competitor to the “Chinese dragon.”

In the meantime, Urkaine is caught in the middle. And aside from waiting breathlessly to learn results of the battle, the Ukrainian people are already turning out to be among the losers.

This is the abridged version of the article that was first published in Russian the Russia in Global Affairs magazine.