The annexation of Crimea has ushered in a new world order in which Russia gets to play a central, defining role in global politics for the first time since the end of the Cold War.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, left, and US Secretary of State John Kerry meet on the margins of the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague. Photo: RIA Novosti / Eduard Pesov
Well, it happened. Ignoring all the requests, appeals, warnings and threats of the West, Moscow annexed Crimea and Sevastopol to the Russian Federation.
Until the very last moment, just before Vladimir Putin’s delivery of his extraordinary message to the Federal Assembly, many politicians, diplomats, and commentators in the West could not believe that it would happen. Even when the referendum on the peninsula was in full swing and the result seemed inevitable, it was thought to be mere brinksmanship of the part of the Kremlin, using the people of Crimea as a bargaining chip in a round of geopolitical haggling.
This reluctance of the West to stare the facts in the face is because, ever since the late 1980s, Europe and U.S. have become used to Moscow always leaving room for compromise, no matter how loudly it initially protested. And relations themselves with the West have always been valued and worth protecting.
That was the case even at moments of heightened tension — for example, in 1999, when Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov ordered his plane above the Atlantic to turn back on news of the bombing of Yugoslavia, and in 2008, when Russian tanks rolled through the Roksky tunnel to protect South Ossetia from Tbilisi’s attempts to "restore constitutional order."
Now Russia is acting regardless of the costs, which renders the previous model of relations with its leading Western partners obsolete. But that means its relations with the East, too, need to change, since the global system is closely interconnected.
How has the world greeted the new Russia and what is it going to do about it? Let’s take a probing look.
Russia and the United States
Let's start with the main world power — the United States. All this conflict has confirmed the old adage: If you don’t want to engage in foreign policy, it will engage with you. Barack Obama's administration reacted sluggishly to the Ukrainian crisis, and for a long time limited itself to general exhortations and gestures by keen promoters of democratic values, such as Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland.
Since the days of the cavalier neoconservatives led by George W. Bush, who tried to put Kiev on an accelerated path to NATO membership in the mid-2000s, Washington has hoped that the EU would become the patron of this troubled nation and take the initiative. America focused on other regions, especially Asia and the Middle East.
The situation in Ukraine today is the result of the less than remarkable efforts of the EU in 2013 and early 2014. And now the U.S. has to deal with the consequences of Europe’s exemplary diplomacy: an acute international crisis with the active participation of Russia, which is still a nuclear superpower.
Washington, of course, is not interested in Ukraine itself, but the undesirable precedent of open rebellion against the rules of conduct that have been in place for more than two decades. Never before have they been so breezily and unambiguously rejected as in the case of Crimea. Now the U.S. has to solve a problem with multiple baseline conditions.
The first is the need to firmly demonstrate that the U.S. will not permit a revision of the outcome of the Cold War. This is important, since all current international practices are largely built on recognition of the fact that the Americans won the confrontation, and therefore have the right to dictate the world order.
Second, the U.S. must retain the possibility of operational cooperation with Moscow, because the latter still has considerable influence where many of Washington’s interests lie. The Middle East, the most intense region of U.S.-Russian sparring in the last two or three years, remains highly explosive, and having Russia as a firm opponent there would not serve the U.S. well.
Third, the U.S. cannot ignore the long-term prospect that the dissociation of the West from Russia will accelerate the latter’s relations with China, which is considered to be the main challenger to future U.S. hegemony. Washington still proceeds from the fact that Moscow will not allow itself to become Beijing’s junior partner.
But in the new circumstances, a change is almost inevitable. So it is likely that at some stage in the U.S. discourse on the need to punish Russia for "aggression" an additional element will appear: A reminder that a Russian alliance with China is extremely undesirable for America.
A combination of these three trends will determine the balance of the measures, the severity and scope of the sanctions, and the degree of flexibility in their application. There are more subjective factors at play: the pre-election interests of congressmen (i.e. the midterm election in the fall) and the overall reputation of Obama, who is accused of weakness and indecision and needs to demonstrate his capability. Since economically the U.S. depends little on Russia, we can expect to see some fairly draconian sanctions of a financial and economic nature to show which nation really controls the world economy.
Dealing with Europe
Europe is in the opposite position. It has already demonstrated to the world its total political failure as an international player, and its economic interdependence with Russia is great. The Old World may be among the main losers from the crisis. Under pressure from the U.S., which is annoyed by the EU’s incapacity, it may have to impose sanctions against Moscow that are mutually disadvantageous and harmful to sections of its own economy, while also picking up the tab for saving Ukraine from collapse.
The EU’s ambitions of self-sufficiency are likely to be buried eventually as it returns under the wing of the U.S., which will consolidate the arrangements on transatlantic trade and investment partnership on its own terms. Especially at risk is Germany, for which the Ukrainian crisis marked not only the country’s debut as a political leader, but also its role as Europe’s frontman. The mere fact that a power of this caliber, used to a shadow role, was forced to act as the mouthpiece of the anti-Russian campaign shows that the EU mechanism works very inefficiently.
Russia and Asia-Pacific
Another loser is Japan. Over the course of his one-year tenure, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has put a lot of effort into establishing relations with Vladimir Putin, and the ice is clearly broken... but is now draining away. Tokyo was forced to show solidarity with the other members of the G7 and criticize Moscow in the strongest terms, although the Japanese rapprochement with Russia in Asia is far more important than the fate of Ukraine. For them, Russia’s drift towards Beijing is an existential danger. Partly — though to a much lesser extent — Japan’s Ukrainian headache is shared by South Korea, the other staunch U.S. ally in this part of the world.
China clearly has the upper hand. Its position, as always, is a model of balanced pragmatism. Officially, it cannot support Moscow because the legality of the annexation is dubious, but it understands why Russia acted the way it did and is ready to provide extensive informal and economic support. Beijing, of course, does not want to see Moscow lose the battle for Ukraine, since that would strengthen the U.S., its main adversary.
And China is willing to use this opportunity to accelerate the Kremlin’s turn eastwards. It is important for Beijing to get Moscow’s infrastructural reorientation towards Asia under way, so it is willing to finance projects that strategically bind Russia to China. In other words, China is calculating that by the 2020s, when the strategic rivalry with the U.S. is likely to take on a new military-political dimension, Russia will have no slack to play with and will have to side with its Asian neighbor. A separate task is to gain Moscow’s support in territorial disputes in Asia and to prevent a rapprochement between Russia and Japan.
The third world, developing countries and the Middle East
The third world is watching the unfolding events with some surprise, but expects to profit by it. A rerun of the Cold War, when the superpowers paid generously for loyalty, is not in the cards, but the appearance of a rigid opponent of the West in the form of Russia is of interest to many. Most of the world is tired of the lack of alternatives. Russia will not gain recognition of its actions, but can expect to avoid a total blockade in case of further aggravation with the West.
Developing countries are refusing to fall in line and are instead using the discord between the giant powers to strengthen their own positions. A diverting statement was made by Argentine President Cristina Kirchner, who supported the Crimean referendum by equating it to the desire of Buenos Aires to regain jurisdiction of the Falkland Islands. Such extravagant support from distant countries is possible, but it does not impact the fact of the matter.
Iran stands apart. It is counting on a rapid growth of relations with Russia, which are still limited by Moscow’s reluctance to exacerbate ties with the West. The whole Middle Eastern canvas could be transformed if Russia begins to oppose U.S. policy and that of its allies even more than before.
Generally speaking, Moscow has an opportunity to capitalize on the enhanced reputation it gained from its handling of the Syrian conflict and due to its principled stance on the issue. Many Arab countries have been probing to see whether Russia intends to act as a regional counterbalance to America, which has lost part of its authority, but until recently did not find strong support. Now Russia's intentions can change. An indicator of Moscow’s willingness to review its political relations with the U.S. will be the fate of the NATO transit point at Ulyanovsk. So far, despite the frenzy, not a word has been mentioned about it on either side.
Russia and NATO
The alliance may, incidentally, find a new meaning, lacking since the collapse of the USSR. Eastern Europe’s call for an anti-Russian mobilization could breathe life into the old military bloc, for a period. After all, Article 5 on Collective Defense clearly refers to Russian aggression. However, a recurrence of the Cold War will not change the financial situation of NATO members: No one is willing to spend big on defense. So bellicose statements and symbolic acts could be as far as it goes.
Incidentally, an expansion of NATO is hardly likely. It went so smoothly in the 1990s-2000s precisely because the new countries were in no need of real security guarantees, only psychological ones. They could be accepted without fear of having to defend them. Now the situation is quite different: The potential adoption of Ukraine, Moldova, or Georgia imposes a duty to enter into a military confrontation with Russia on their behalf, which no one needs. Another point is that the intensification of military cooperation with these post-Soviet countries is almost inevitable.
How the Crimean campaign will affect the future of the CIS and the integration projects and policies of the former Soviet republics is a major topic on its own. From a global perspective, the Ukrainian drama is perceived paradoxically. By itself, with all due respect to the people of Ukraine and countries that play an active role in its politics, it is not of central importance to the world.
However, Ukraine has become the quintessential global issue, mixing together the contradictions of the basic principles of the UN Charter (self-determination vs. territorial integrity) with the double standards and the lack of balance in the world, the triumph of media images over reality, and legal chaos. Russia finds itself at the center of this 21st century tangle. The central role does not always win the plaudits, and often takes all kinds of flak. But Moscow has sought to return to such a position since the beginning of the 1990s. And now the dream has come true.
The article is first published in Russian in Ogonyok magazine.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.