The conventional readings of the Ukraine crisis, and of the Russian response to it under Putin, with the annexation of Crimea, don't accurately reflect the situation in Ukraine, Russia or Crimea. And they're no help for the future
Media treatment of recent events in Ukraine confirms that some in the West see international crises as Armageddons, conflicts between good and evil where the meaning of history is enacted, rather than as signs of differences of interest and perception between parties open to reason. Russia lends itself well to this appealingly simple scenario. Many commentators see it as a barbarian state ruled by Cossacks, a semi-Mongol otherworld defended by the successors of the KGB, hatching plots in the service of neurotic, cynical, egotistic tsars (1). These reclusive autocrats, out of touch with the times, advance pawns on ivory chessboards rather than reading the Economist; they sink a nuclear submarine for the fun of polluting the Barents Sea, or provoke an illegal referendum in a nearby foreign country to reclaim part of the Soviet Union.
The clichés in the western press - not just since the start of the Ukrainian crisis but over the last 15 years - may be all that most readers know of Russia's current foreign policy. This negative view, verging on caricature, is a well-established tradition, based partly on analyses that emphasise the totalitarian and "insincere" compulsions of Russian culture, and partly on the supposed continuity from Stalin to Putin - a favourite theme of French columnists and US neocon thinktanks (2). It goes back to the tales of early European travellers who likened the "barbarous" Russians to the fierce Scythians of antiquity (3).
The analysis of events in Kiev's Independence Square (Maidan Nezalezhnosti) results from this persistent demonisation. Ukraine, linguistically and culturally divided between East and West, is only able to preserve its present borders by maintaining a balance between Lviv and Donetsk, respectively representing European Ukraine and Russian Ukraine. To favour either would mean denying the foundation on which the country is built, and triggering a Czechoslovak-style partition from which there would be no going back (4).
Ukraine is like a fiancee who cannot choose between suitors, however costly the rings they proffer. Russia promised $15bn in December 2013, when the European Union pledged $3bn as a sweetener to the political association agreement rejected by the former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych (on 21 March the core chapters were signed, as the Russian parliament approved the annexation of Crimea). Ukraine has given (revocable) assurances to both suitors: the Kharkov accords of 2010, which extended Russia's lease on the naval base at Sebastopol until 2042, and the lease of arable land to European agribusiness. Experts who succumb to anti-Russian obsession and reduce this geocultural ménage à trois to a forced marriage with Russia lack analytical skill. They criticise Putin for using power politics, but lack imagination in limiting their own scenarios to the (liberating) absorption of Ukraine into the Euro-Atlantic community.
Contrary to what has been written, Ukraine's delicate internal balance was not upset on 27 February when armed men seized control of Crimea's parliament and government buildings - a sensational act taken to be Putin's response to Yanukovych being forced to flee Ukraine on 22 February. The real tipping point came on 23 February, when Ukraine's new government voted to repeal the status of Russian as the second official language in eastern regions of the country - a measure that the interim president has so far refused to approve. Putin could not have wished for a better excuse to initiate his Crimean manoeuvres. The revolution that led to the fall of Yanukovych, then to Crimea's exit from Ukraine, is only the latest twist in the cultural tragedy of this Belgium of the East.
In Donetsk, as in Simferopol, Russian-speaking Ukrainians are generally less sensitive to Russian propaganda than reputed, interpreting it with fatalistic irony. Putin knows that these people have the same hopes for the true rule of law and an end to corruption as their Galician compatriots. But he also knows that they are proud of their language: in 2011, 38% of Ukrainians spoke Russian at home. The risky, vengeful decision to repeal its status as an official language suddenly made Moscow's propaganda ring true. The problem for eastern Ukraine is not that the new government has overthrown the elected president, but that its first decision has been to humiliate a large chunk of the population.
So the Independence Square movement lost Crimea, which everyone remembers had been a "gift" to Ukraine from Khrushchev in 1954, on 23 February. This is why Mikhail Gorbachev commented on 17 March, after the Crimean vote for reunification with Russia: "The Crimea was attached to Ukraine by Soviet laws ... which disregarded the opinion of the people; now the people have made up their mind to correct the mistake. People should welcome this instead of declaring sanctions" (5). His statement shocked the EU, which was working with the US on retaliatory measures against Russia (travel restrictions, freezing the assets of 21 politicians an officials.)
Though Russia's demands may not be justified, it would be wise to understand their motivation before condemning them, especially as Ukraine could lose more than Crimea if the extended overtures by the very polite Victoria Nuland (6) persuade it to join NATO. Some major figures in the new government, which includes four ministers from the nationalist Svoboda party (7), are keen on that idea.
It may be time to banish the words "cold war" from articles on Russia. This historically inappropriate shorthand explains the repeated expression of old fantasies. US Senator John McCain, former Republican candidate for the presidency and Arizona's leading expert on international relations, wrote in the New York Times that Putin is an "unreconstructed Russian imperialist and and KGB apparatchik" encouraged by Obama's weakness."Aggression in Crimea has emboldened other aggressive actors - from Chinese nationalists to Al Qaeda terrorists and Iranian theocrats" (8). So what is to be done? "We must rearm ourselves morally and intellectually to prevent the darkness of Mr Putin's world from befalling more of humanity."
The US and the EU seem to have agreed to keep enflaming the Ukrainian crisis rather than trying to bring it under control. Distancing herself from these excesses, Angela Merkel telephoned Putin, in Russian. They seemed to understand each other. Their positions may be fundamentally opposed, but Merkel saw this as a reason to talk and negotiate, rather than insult each other.
In London, Paris and Washington, people began re-reading Tom Clancy spy thrillers. Meanwhile Germany and Russia - linked by their economies, by energy (40% of Germany's natural gas is supplied by Russia) and by memories of the Eastern Front - were looking at maps of a Mitteleuropa where they alone truly understand the balance of power. Merkel's harsh criticism of Moscow (especially since it sent in troops) does not prevent her from seeing the real reasons for Putin's nervousness, and the extent of his scope for manoeuvre.
Merkel differs in this respect from Yanukovych, who does not really understand his protector's psychology. He said on 28 February: "I believe Russia should and must act. And knowing Putin's character, I wonder why, until now, he has been restrained, why he has remained silent." Yanukovych speaks and acts from an uninformed position, disregarding the long-term issues and what the Ukrainian people think. He does not understand Putin, whose strength, underneath his brutal exterior, is knowing just how far he can go - unlike Yanukovych, and also unlike those in favour of unlimited expansion of NATO and the EU.
Putin has played the military card indirectly, sending Russian troops, out of uniform, into Crimea and holding military manoeuvres near the Ukrainian border, before shifting his offensive to legal ground. The referendum on 16 March made Crimean independence an issue of international law, over which the precedent of Kosovo, which forces the West to face up to its own contradictions, casts a shadow (9).
It is important to understand the long-term geopolitical balances, if the changes they imply are to be controlled. We must accept the concept of interaction (Wechselwirkung) described by the strategist Carl von Clausewitz as the defining characteristic of all logical duels settled by force or threat of force. The West's argument about words reflects a panicked rejection of unstable variables (10), a symptom of diplomacy reduced to spasmodic reflexes. Russia senses that there are dual standards in international relations. China has reached a similar conclusion and abstained from voting on the UN Security Council resolution condemning Russia's actions in Crimea.
Some would claim that the interventions in Afghanistan (2001), Iraq (2003) and Libya (2011) were the work of altruistic and visionary powers with a clumsy enthusiasm for liberation; the other side they see as defending its interests through blameworthy aggression. France's president François Hollande on 17 March described the Crimean referendum as a "pseudo-consultation, since it conformed neither to Ukrainian nor to international law". On 17 February 2008, nine years after a military operation decided without the agreement of the UN, the (Albanian-dominated) Kosovo assembly declared the independence of the autonomous province of Kosovo from Serbia, against the wishes of Belgrade, with support of France and the US. Russia and Spain still refuse to recognise this infringement of international law - as does Ukraine.
Ukraine has three priority tasks: restoring geopolitical equilibrium between Russia and Europe; reinstating cultural and linguistic equality between eastern and western Ukrainians; and ending corruption among the elite (democratic and pro-Russian politicians have helped themselves from the same funds and used the same PR consultants) (11). Only then will Ukraine's territorial integrity become inviolable; in spite of the assertions of diplomats with short memories, it is no more inviolable today than Serbia's in 1999, Czechoslovakia's in 1992 or Sudan's in 2011.
Ukraine's problem is internal. In the words of sociologist Georg Simmel, "The boundary is not a spatial fact with sociological consequences, but a sociological fact that forms itself spatially."The question is not whether Putin is a reincarnation of Ivan the Terrible, but whether the Ukrainian elite will be able to transform themselves into social engineers and restore unity to their pluralist country. On that day, which we must hope will come, Ukraine will deserve its borders.
(1) See Bernard-Henry Levy, "Ukraine's Revolutionaries are Not Fascists," The Daily Beast, 26 February 2014.
(2) See Steven P. Bucci, Nile Gardiner and Luke Coffey, "Russia, the West, and Ukraine: Time for a Strategy - Not Hope", Issue Brief, no 4159, The Heritage Foundation, Washington, DC, 4 March 2014. The signatories to New START want the US to withdraw from the treaty, as they feel it is too favourable to the Russians and hinders the deployment of the US's missile defence shield.
(3) See Stéphane Mund,Orbis Russiarum: Genèse et développement de la représentation du monde "russe" en Occident à la Renaissance, (Orbis Russiarum: Origins and development of representations of the "Russian" world in the West during the Renaissance) Droz, Geneva, 2003, and Marshall T Poe, "A People Born To Slavery": Russia in Early Modern European Ethnography, 1476-1748, Cornell University Press, Ithaca (New York), 2000.
(6) During a telephone conversation with the US ambassador to Ukraine, leaked in February, Nuland, the US assistant secretary of state for European affairs, said: "Fu-k the EU."
(7) See Emmanuel Dreyfus, "Ukraine beyond politics", Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, March 2014. (8) John McCain, "Obama has Made America Look Weak", The New York Times, 14 March 2014.
(9) See Jean-Arnault Dérens, "Kosovo: still ready to explode", Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, March 2007.
(10) See the work of Robert O Kehoane, K Boulding or A Wendt on the importance of perceptions in international relations theory.
(11) US lobbyist and political consultant Paul Manafort was an adviser to Yanukovych from 2004 to 2013. He had previously worked for Ronald Reagan, George W Bush and John McCain. See Alexander Burns and Maggie Haberman, "Mystery man: Ukraine's US political fixer,"Politico, 5 March 2014; www.politico.com