As events unfold in Ukraine that reverberate growing tensions between West and East precipitated by Russia’s saber rattling, many fear that second Cold War may be in the offing. The crisis in Ukraine has deepened with Russia’s annexation of Crimea amid Western concerns, which started in November (2013) protests against the pro-Russian president, who was opposed to Ukraine’s Association Agreement with the European Union (EU).
With the disintegration of former Soviet Union in 1991 leading to the emergence of a number of independent republics, including Ukraine, a process of economic integration by joining the EU, has advanced. The EU, a regional organization for fostering economic and security relationship among its 28 members, comprised only the West European countries in the beginning. At present it is composed of many countries of East Europe, which used to be allied to the former Soviet Union until the Cold War ended in 1990.
Moreover, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), an alliance of western countries including the U.S., has made strides in accommodating former Soviet Union allies as new members. This is also known as the NATO’s eastward expansion. As this organization rivaled with former Soviet Union-led and now defunct Warsaw Pact during the Cold War, NATO’s expansion in East Europe has been resented by Russia.
Russia considers the disintegration of Soviet Union as its greatest geostrategic loss because it was deprived of an opportunity of exercising its power over a large geographic region. Charles Tannocle in his piece “Putin’s Kampf” (Project-Syndicate) has mentioned that Putin may regard Soviet Union’s disintegration as a tragedy but for China it was the greatest gift unimaginable. He adds that at a stroke , the empire that stole millions of hectares of Chinese territory over the centuries, and that threatened the People’s Republic with nuclear annihilation, simply vanished.
Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, has also described the breakup of the Soviet Union as the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century. In displaying muscle power and intimidating Ukraine, a neighbor that also has sizeable population of Russian origin, maybe the Russian leader is trying to repeat the old legacies of annexing small territories in the neighborhood.
Charles Tonnacle recalls the World War history when the policy of appeasement pursued by the former British Prime Minister (May 1937-May 1940) Neville Chamberlain, reflected in 30 September, 1938 Munich Agreement (under the provision of which Sudetenland, then a part of Czechoslovakia, was given to Germany to appease Hitler). According to him, that policy failed as exemplified by Hitler’s March, 1939 annexation of rest of Czech lands of Bohemia and Moravia.
The above events demonstrate the fact that even if Ukraine tries to please Russia by agreeing to legitimize the March 16 succession referendum to give a chance to the Russians inhabiting in Crimea, to decide whether they want to be the part of Russia, there is no guarantee that Ukrainian territorial integrity would be preserved.
At a time when crisis in Ukraine deepens with Russian troops guarding the military installations in Crimea showing no signs of withdrawal, the West’s response to it has been lukewarm. The U.S. and the EU have not come up with any concrete set of measures to restrain Russia from escalating the situation in Ukraine.
Russian leader Putin may have calculated the risk and decided not to budge anticipating that America, wary of decade-long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and preoccupied with domestic issues, may not be forthcoming with more assertive steps to force Russia to go backwards.
The Ukrainian territory of Crimea, a peninsula with no contagious border with Russia, has a unique history of humiliation. It was under the Russian empire for two centuries until Nikita Khrushchev gave the same to Ukraine in 1954. For the Russians, Crimean territory carries more importance not only because it is predominantly populated by people of Russian origin but also because it hosts the Russian Black Sea Fleet under the bilateral basing agreement.
If history is any guide the Russians have more often championed the cause of the people of their ethnic group and advanced the same excuse for intervening in the affairs of other countries’ territories. The most recent of which was in 2008 when it launched military attacks against its own former republic arguing that the Georgian government then was not protecting fully the interests of the Russian populations in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Since then these two Russian enclaves have been the breakaway regions of Georgia waiting to be internationally recognized as independent provinces.
With Russian intention becoming clear based on its past behavior in 2008, 1979,1968, and 1956 , it is ironic to learn that the Atlantic community (the U.S. and EU) keeps its mum vis-à-vis the crisis in Ukraine. Some commentators have contended that free fall of Ukraine’s economy (IMF is learnt to be preparing to impose harsh austerity measures in the name of reform), and apprehension of possible Russian retaliation by cutting off energy supplies to Europe, the EU, in particular, has been hesitant to decide about economic sanctions, the likes of which are imposed on Iran for latter’s suspected uranium enrichment program.
The above worries of the Europeans is understandable in view of the fact Germany, the most powerful of 28-member bloc, which has the biggest economy among EU members, is dependent heavily on Russia for its energy needs. Germany is dependent on Russia for up to one third of its oil and gas and tens of billions of dollars in trade.
Recalling the observations of Jamie F. Met in the author’s Project-Syndicate piece “Back to Future in Ukraine and Asia” Russia is reenacting 19th century norms of international behavior, one cannot but opine that stationing of Russian forces in Crimea after the ouster of pro-Russian president Viktor Yakunovych is tantamount to the interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign nation, which no civilized country can tolerate, let alone all those which believe in liberal internationalism.