Ukraine, Victim of a Geopolitical Power Struggle

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor

Guest Commentary

The problem with people power is that it often sets in motion unintended consequences. Right now it’s impossible to predict how those consequences will impact Ukraine. But civil war or a full-scale Russian invasion of the Moscow-leaning eastern and southern part of the country cannot be ruled out.  What is certain is that this clash of big powers makes our world a far more unstable place than it was just weeks ago.

Those remaining in Kiev’s Independence Square are said to be anxious about the potential loss of the Crimean Peninsula to Russia based on the results of a referendum scheduled for March 16th.  The US and Europe consider the vote a violation of the Ukrainian constitution and international law. Moscow is eager to welcome Crimea – Russian territory until 1954 when Khrushchev gifted it to Ukraine – back “home”.

President Obama strongly disapproves. “In 2014, we are well beyond the days when borders can be redrawn over the heads of democratic leaders.” That may raise a few eyebrows.  Ukraine’s interim leadership were not democratically-elected and do not represent the country’s ethnic Russian and Russian-speaking population. Furthermore, the US has at times encouraged secessionist splits, including the break-up of Yugoslavia and the carving-up of Sudan.

This is a zero-sum game for all involved. Ukrainians hope that the signing of an association agreement with the EU is a guarantee of improved living standards. They’ll need patience. Their country’s bankrupt; it requires an injection of US$ 35 billion over the next two years just to pay its bills. The US has offered a US$ 1 billion loan guarantee. The EU is willing to cough-up US$ 15 billion in loans and grants contingent upon the signing of a deal between Kiev and the IMF that’s insisting on radical economic reforms.

Former assistant of the US Treasury Paul Craig Roberts has highlighted a report published in Kommersant-Ukraine outlining the IMF’s demands. “The austerity plan will cut social services, funds for education, layoff government workers, devalue the currency, thus raising the prices of imports which include Russian gas, thus electricity, and open Ukrainian assets to takeover by Western corporations…This is Greece all over again,” he writes. Sounds like a sure fire recipe for civil unrest down the road. The EU doesn’t have the resources to prop-up Ukraine long term. Putin can just sit back watching the tide turn in Russia’s favour as soon as the EU’s current fans find themselves burdened with higher energy prices, increased taxation and joblessness.

White House threats to force Russia into economic isolation amount to an “own-goal.” President Obama has made an executive decision to freeze the US assets of Russian and Ukrainian individuals along with visa bans. He’s stressed there’s not a chink of light between Washington and Brussels on the need to pressurize President Putin to change course. That’s simply not true!

EU leaders try to show a united front but there are divisions. Some EU member states are in no position to take the heat from Moscow’s retaliation against Western sanctions. Russian lawmakers are preparing a bill permitting the seizure of American and European assets. It’s worth noting that the European Union not only relies on Russian energy, it is also Russia’s largest trading partner; some 41 percent of all EU trade is with Russia

Germany, which receives 60 percent of its gas requirements from Russia, is particularly vulnerable. Some 6,200 German companies are operating on Russian soil where they’re believed to have invested 20 billion Euros. Moreover, trade with Russia has produced 300,000 German jobs. 

Britain is also hesitant to wrestle the bear. Prime Minister David Cameron likes to talk tough, but a document photographed in the hand of a senior official tells a different story. “The UK should not support for now trade sanctions or close London’s financial centre to Russians…and should discourage any discussion of contingency military preparations,” it read. Russians have heavily invested in London’s property market, spending £500m last year alone. If they are barred, the capital’s property bubble could be short-lived. 

I suspect Putin sees Western allies in the guise of a paper tiger; growling loudly but lacking bite as was proven last year when they stepped back from bombing Syria’s chemical weapons sites.  President Obama and Secretary Kerry were shuttling between Washington, London, Paris and Geneva to end the slaughter of Syrian innocents through diplomatic means. They worked closely with “Friends of the Syrian People”. And what happened? Assad stepped up his military assaults with impunity and rather than punish his sponsor, Iran, the US seeks detente with that country. Syrian men, women and children are being butchered daily by the regime, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and terrorist groups aligned with them. Promises from Obama and Kerry to rescue them have proven to be nothing but hot air. Ukrainians take warning! Put your trust in the White House at your peril!

Senator John McCain has blasted Obama’s foreign policy as “feckless” and partly responsible for the advance of Russian forces into Crimea. If those Ukrainians veering towards Europe believe the West will ensure their country’s territorial integrity and pave their streets with gold, they’re dreaming. My advice to them is not to rely on the empty promises of Secretary Kerry, EU politicians or NATO. Western interests will trump people’s concerns every time.

The contest between Russia and Europe has little to do with Ukrainian aspirations. In essence, it’s a geopolitical tug-of-war harking back to Cold War enmities.  It’s a battle to test which side will blink first. Both are behaving like bullies; neither is willing to deescalate tensions. Hillary Clinton, who’s tapped to succeed Obama, further poisoned the atmosphere comparing Putin to Hitler. 

Sticks and stones won’t make Putin fold. In fact, threats and sanctions could have a reverse effect.  Defeat is alien to his character. Russia’s military intervention in Georgia in 2008 transferred the Georgian breakaway republics Abkhazia and South Ossetia to Moscow’s control, where they remain, and there’s a general consensus among analysts that he’ll succeed in walking off with Crimea. 

“I think Putin is playing chess, and I think we’re playing marbles. It’s not even close,” said the Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee Mike Rogers. Donald Trump agrees. He bemoans the decline of US power globally blaming a “weak and pathetic leadership.”

I’m not siding with Putin and I’m 100 percent against his policies, but I do respect his firm decision-making and resilience. Putin is a man of his word – and that’s a quality lacking in many of today’s leaders.

There’s a lesson here: Big nuclear-armed powers can foment revolution, invade and re-arrange the borders of sovereign nations anywhere, anytime, without serious repercussions. The principle of might is right is clearly alive and well in the 21st century – and that should make all of us shudder.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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