While in the West World War II turned into the Cold War in the late 1940s and history ended after 1991, across the iron curtain in the Soviet block the period of the Cold War was more akin to an ice age. During this period, communist regimes deftly applied the repressive levers of the one party state to freeze war-time sectarian conflicts and centripetal forces in multinational states, for 45 years justifying their existence with their defeat of fascism in 1945 and the continued struggle against a new foe – Western capitalism.
The thawing of this ice age in the post-Soviet spring of 1989-1991 led to the reactivation of World War II-era sectarian slaughter, triggered by Slobodan Milosevic’s drive to forge a greater Serbia, ostensibly to unite and protect Serb communities in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo by annexing their territories and cleansing them of non-Serbs, even where non-Serbs constituted a majority of the population.
The dissolution of the Soviet empire in the early nineties was relatively bloodless, partly because it had stood largely united during World War II and partly because Boris Yeltsin largely refrained from nationalist politics. The fifteen former republics declared independence during 1991 with apparent relief that the dehumanizing Soviet experiment was finally over and in 1994, Ukraine agreed to hand its formidable nuclear arsenal to Russia in return for guarantees of its sovereignty and territorial integrity from Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom.
A few localized but nasty conflicts did emerge, however, notably that in Transnistria, a sliver of land between south-western Ukraine and Moldova, which has long been the thin end of Moscow’s wedge in historic Bessarabia. There, in 1992, Russia supported the breakaway ethnic Russian population of Moldova and the territory, with no international recognition but still under Russian protection, has since acted as a source of contraband and instability in the region.
Whetting the appetite
Over the 20 years following the fall of communism in the Soviet bloc, the West ignored the black hole of Transnistria and allowed the non-Baltic former Soviet republics to languish under ever-more corrupt and despotic regimes from Minsk and Moscow to Baku and Tashkent. Emboldened by this disengagement, this perceived weakness of Western leaders, and peeved by Georgia’s pro-Western stance and economic reforms, the Kremlin provided military support to Georgia’s breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in August 2008, recognized their independence and continuing to act as their military guarantor. No other UN member has recognized such independence, nor has any action been taken against such aggression.
Most recently, of course, Russia began its occupation of Crimea at the end of February 2014, deploying some 20,000 soldiers (which the Kremlin denies are from Russia) and considerable military hardware. These are supported by Crimean security forces and a fearsome array of irregulars, including disbanded Berkut riot police units, Russian Cossacks, Serb Chetniks from Bosnia and Kosovo and hastily recruited local ‘self-defence’ street thugs. The small peninsula with its sunny beach resorts, is awash with fully armed, masked and apparently unaccountable men.
Under these conditions and following the decision of the Crimean parliament, also taken at gunpoint, Crimea held a referendum on whether to exit Ukraine and join the Russian Federation or to resort to the ambiguous status between Ukrainian authority and independence that it held in 1992, a period best remembered for its lawlessness. The day before the referendum Russia alone vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that would have declared the referendum illegal. The following day, a showcase vote took place at which the levels of both turnout and support for Russian annexation reflected that the peninsula was reverting to the Soviet past.
Drums of war
Also on the eve of this ‘referendum,’ rival rallies were held in Moscow, where tens of thousands attended on each side, as well as in a number of cities across Russia. Opposition demonstrations supported Ukrainian sovereignty and opposed war, while pro-government rallies called for the annexation of Crimea and a stand against ‘fascism.’ The Moscow pro-government rally was clearly highly organized, with thousands of men and women dressed in uniform red jackets, with caps and red flags, standing in serried ranks, cheering in unison and singing World War II Soviet marches in a choreographed display of unity and aggression that would have impressed even Pyongyang’s Kim Jong Un.
The Putin regime’s ideology borrows heavily from the Soviet Union, using 1945 and continued internal and external threats to justify its existence and to suppress internal dissent. In moves to protect ethnic Russian ‘compatriots’ from Western-backed Ukrainian ‘fascists,’ the Kremlin has not only broken international law by deploying its forces in Crimea and supporting the referendum, but has also deployed far larger forces to the eastern and northern borders of Ukraine, including in Belarus, and has raised the terrifying spectre of conflict between Russians and Ukrainians.
These are acts of cynical revanchist aggression driven by cold fury over the toppling the criminal puppet Yanukovych, blind refusal to recognize Ukrainian sovereignty and gnawing fear that a democratic and prosperous Ukraine would spell not only the end of the Kremlin regime’s political legacy – a customs union of Eurasian autocracies able to negotiate ‘on equal terms’ with the EU and ultimately stretching ‘from Lisbon to Vladivostok’ – but the end of the current regime itself.
And yet these are not the acts of a lunatic, they are the results of the cold calculation and steely brinkmanship that the world has grown to know and loathe.
Crimea is just the tip of the iceberg, a testing ground for Western resolve. Experienced Russian nationalist thugs, Cossacks and special ops have already crossed into north-eastern Ukraine and, posing as ethnic Russian Ukrainian locals, are causing havoc and committing murder in the key eastern regions of Sloboda Ukraine (including the second city of Kharkiv) and the industrial heartland of the Donbass (including its regional capital Donetsk). These are the spoilers, preparing the ground for the next wave of staged secessions and annexations by creating a semblance of harassed ethnic Russian Ukrainian ‘compatriots’ seeking salvation from Moscow. Transnistria is also spewing armed goons and paramilitaries into Odesa, Ukraine’s largest port in the south west.
In the absence of a concerted and highly muscular Western response, after digesting Crimea this week, the Kremlin machine will proceed to devour two to three Ukrainian regions a fortnight, moving like a slow-motion combine harvester across the Ukrainian steppe, until it reaches the Carpathian Mountains and the borders of four EU member states in the west of the country.
Within the bounds of the EU, the Serbian Janus will likely first be drawn from its accession path and encouraged to revert to its role of spoiler of the western Balkans. Among EU members, Bulgaria is already visibly torn between its new Euro-Atlantic commitments and its historic links with Russia. Hungary and Slovakia are also susceptible to manipulation. And perhaps most starkly, the other side of Russian Kaliningrad, the Baltic trio of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, also until recently directly under Moscow, dangle tantalizing ethnic Russian minorities.
The Western response
While one would hope that such predictions are paranoid fantasy, past performance lends at least some credibility, and if even a fraction of this comes to pass, it will pose one of the greatest challenge to Euro-Atlantic security since World War II and prove one of the greatest tests to date of the responsiveness and resilience of institutions such as the EU, NATO and the United Nations. Again, unfortunately, their recent performance is not encouraging.
While the West’s response to the recent Ukrainian revolution has appeared united, actions were poorly coordinated and tragically tardy. Sanctions were imposed by the EU on the Yanukovych clan after he had been deposed and fled the country. The cost of collective inaction was over 100 civilian lives and the downward spiral of events to the current deadly confrontation with Russia.
The ‘first wave’ of Western sanctions against Russia came relatively swiftly last week, with a snubbing of Russian membership by rich world clubs such as the G7 and OECD and the suspension of EU negotiations on issues such as visa access for Russian citizens. But one does not stop a tank by telling it that you won’t be its friend anymore.
The ‘second wave,’ the application visa sanctions and asset freezes of targeted regime personnel were imposed in the last week by Canada and the United States, but as with the Yanukovych regime, the EU continues to dither. And as seen with the deployment of Russian forces in Crimea, tank crews are not known for their observation of immigration niceties.
Further, the motivations and pressure points of the Kremlin are quite different from those of the Yanukovych’s kleptocracy. Indeed it has been argued that visa bans and asset freezes are welcomed by current Kremlin ideologists, who favour the building of a Eurasian empire, crucially including Ukraine and ‘constructed on the fundamental principle of the common enemy’ represented by Atlanticism, liberal values and the geopolitical control of the USA.
Fortunately, however, despite its extensive borrowings from Soviet heritage, today’s Kremlin is not heading the closed and self-sufficient economic monolith that was the Soviet Bloc. Russia today is integrated into the global economy and dissent, though hamstrung, surprised itself with its own numbers on the streets of Moscow last weekend. The West must therefore move swiftly and decisively to the ‘third wave’ of sanctions – hard hitting and economic and however painful to those countries imposing them.
Wake up, Cameron, and smell the coffee
And the United Kingdom, mindful of its obligations as guarantor of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity must at last take a lead by taking concrete action. The posturing and bluster of Cameron and Hague to date is shameful and will leave an indelible blot on Britain’s credibility in the world security arena. Of course Britain should contribute strongly to joint EU trade sanctions initiatives and to a nuanced but credible threat of force by NATO members, beyond the token US deployment of a single destroyer to the Black Sea and a handful of F-16 aircraft to Poland. The cowardly act of pouring Western arms into Ukraine will only cause a massive loss of life in Ukraine and across the region.
Most importantly, Britain can play a unique and decisive role in de-escalating tension in Ukraine through pressure on the Kremlin by closing London’s financial center and British tax havens around the world to Russian money, if only temporarily. Britain must take the decision to suspend Russian commercial activities, including trading of Russian companies on the London stock exchange, ban Russian commercial activities, and revoke Russian ‘investor visas,’ which it sells for USD 1.6 million. As Ben Judah correctly observes: ‘in the 21st century, what matters are banks, not tanks.’
Act now, Cameron, don’t wait for more facts are on the ground. Ukraine will not forgive, nor the world forget.
John Fitzroy is a contributor to Geopoliticalmonitor.com