SINOGRAPH Geography and ideals clash in Ukraine
By Francesco Sisci
The crisis in Ukraine is about many things, but it is chiefly about an important difference in the global perspectives of Russia and the United States. While Russia is concentrated on land and geography, the US has a vision focused on ideas and ideology. Both parties tend to forget the role of economics and global interactions.
Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin believe it is important to protect the legacy of the Russian empire (with or without its Soviet garb). For hundreds of years, Russia was about its land and its people - the Russians and their Slav brothers. Good or bad, this is part of Moscow's cultural heritage.
Putin therefore moved troops (but significantly, not tanks) to reclaim Crimea, which is home to a Russian majority and an
important military harbor projecting power into the Mediterranean Sea. He did this without explaining to the world his position and without making a historical case (which may have had many valid points). He also did so without presenting to the world his disagreements with Ukraine - a country that for decades had been stealing gas from the Russian pipelines to Europe, where some 20 people have pillaged around 80% of the national wealth, and where former president Yulia Timoshenko, a democratic icon of the West, was in prison for a mind-boggling case of corruption.
By moving troops into another country without any warning for the second time in six years (the first was in Georgia in 2008), Putin has shown to the world that he is unpredictable. This may be good for politics, but it is very bad for business. To trade successfully, businessmen first and foremost need a stable political environment where things are highly predictable. If Putin can start a war on a whim, perhaps when unhappy he will bang his hand on the table and forget the international norms of behavior and regulations. That could drive away both Russian and foreign businessmen, with or without Western sanctions.
This unpredictability, in turn, weakens Russia economically and thus politically. In the end, Moscow may end up losing much more than its gains in Crimea or Ukraine.
The US has started many wars and revolutions in recent years, but it has always had a preceding "propaganda campaign" aimed at warning the world and the potential target that a storm was coming. In theory, any businessmen involved could back out off any country and divert their funds.
Putin has made sudden moves that ignored principles, objections, and borders, and this drives Europe (and possibly also China and other parts of Asia) closer to America. European leaders may have understood Putin's motivations regarding Ukraine and may have wanted to distance themselves from US support for demonstrations against the pro-Russia exiled President Viktor Yanukovich, but Putin's abrupt actions were a different thing.
On the other hand, the US is also burdened by its history. For the past 100 years, Washington has battled evil ideas across the world. It fought fascism in Germany, Italy, and Japan until 1945; after that, it fought communism until 1989. Since 2001, its foe has been Muslim fundamentalism. The common denominator is a belief in freedom through democracy, something that may be used as an instrument for ulterior or convenient motives but it has a deep element of truth for the American people.
For Moscow - and some cynical Europeans - talk of freedom appears to be just a too naive or too clever veneer covering bigger, dirtier aims. But for a nation of immigrants mostly from Europe, many of whom fled oppression and poverty and fought totalitarian ideologies for a century, these concepts have a deep ring of truth.
This heritage has some problems. Ideologies can be defeated and mostly vanquished (as happened with fascism and communism), but nations typically cannot. Russia, its history, and the history of its geography cannot be wished away. In centuries, Russia will still be there, at the eastern borders of Europe, on the northern shores of the Black Sea, and almost at the Mediterranean.
The US may support freedom for the Ukrainians, and it may be wary of the ambiguous fascination Europeans have for the totalitarian regimes Putin seems to represent (in the past, fascism and communism did not meet total resistance in Europe). But there is also the fact that Russia will not simply disappear. A further breakdown of Russia could bring far eastern Asia, China, closer to Europe, and this perhaps could be worse than Moscow creeping into the European Union.
Geography can't be changed, and history moves slowly. The European Union and America have to deal with Russia, its history, and its ambitions. That does not mean surrendering, but it also can't mean completely blocking Russia. The balance could be difficult to find, and here the abilities of US President Barack Obama will be greatly tested.
How Obama approaches this could remake or fracture Europe. Sure, former Soviet subjects such as Poland and the Baltic states are scared now as much as ever of Russia; but Italy, farther away, thinks only of its fuel supplies, as oil and gas from Libya has virtually stopped coming in.
In finding this balance, perhaps the US should consider that this is no longer a time of regional problems. Globalization, driven by the US at the end of the Cold War, has powered Asian growth and brought China, India, and Indonesia closer to Europe than ever before.
During the Cold War, America needed the EU to fight off the Soviet Union, now or tomorrow the US may need the help of a closer-knit Europe to deal with a burgeoning Asia full of economic, political, and strategic potential. This, not Ukraine, is the real big game for the rest of the century. Too much concentration on Ukraine and Europe may make everybody lose focus on the rest of the world, with severe repercussions for the future.
Europe cannot ignore Russia. Despite the rhetoric, Putin is wounded by his Crimean feat. People at home doubt his wisdom, and Europeans question his dependability as a business and political partner. These are two of his main constituencies at home and abroad.
This may be a time for healing, and it would be very wrong and crazy if some European leaders were to now support, publicly or not, Putin. This support would encourage hawks in Russia and America, for parallel and opposite reasons, to take further action now or in the future. This would deepen the present crisis. Paradoxically, healing in Europe and Putin would be best served by a period of reflection. A fast can cure indigestion, but this does not mean someone will stop eating forever.
Francesco Sisci is a columnist for the Italian daily Il Sole 24 Ore. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org