SPEAKING FREELY Reading Putin's mind over Crimea
By Mikhail A Molchanov
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
Western pundits cry foul over Russian intervention in the Crimea and deplore a purported resurrection of 19th-century power politics by President Vladimir Putin. They forget he learned his tactics from the US's and North Atlantic Treaty Organization's constant reliance on brute force.
Why exactly is NATO still in existence 23 years after the end of the Cold war? Back in the 1990s, Russia's liberal reformers expected it to go the way of the Warsaw Pact. This hope was
bluntly defeated by Western proponents of global interdependence and co-prosperity. Instead, the Euro-Atlantic alliance started an eastward creep, with plans to encircle Russia and gobble up Moscow's former allies.
Perhaps NATO means to include Russia as well? This is what Putin suggested in an early 2000 interview with the BBC: "We believe we can talk about more profound integration with NATO, but only if Russia is regarded as an equal partner." Not so fast, was the response from Brussels. No equality between the Cold war "winners" and "losers" was ever on the cards.
Putin was the head of Russia's Federal Security Service when the NATO bombs were falling on Belgrade. Russia could do nothing at the time. In 2003, the United States led the so-called "coalition of the willing" in the unlawful invasion of Iraq in clear violation of the UN Charter. Again, Russia could do little.
In 2004, United States spent US$40 million on the "orange revolution" in Ukraine, when street crowds forced the government into an unprecedented re-run of the presidential election. The ensuing government of the inept, US-dependent president Viktor Yushchenko succeeded in damaging Russian-Ukrainian relations and creating an atmosphere of intolerance for Ukraine's ethnic Russian minority and their linguistic and cultural rights.
Corruption proliferated. Ukrainian people's response to the "orange" lawlessness was the election of Viktor Yanukovych - the same person that Yushchenko defeated, with American help, in the third round of 2004 elections.
By the end of his second term in the office, Putin must have lost all doubt as to the real motivation behind the US championing of "democracy" world-wide - to expand its sphere of influence and prolong its global hegemony while eliminating and weakening potential rivals by all means available, not excluding crude military power. He witnessed, and could not prevent, the unlawful dismemberment of Serbia and the quick recognition that Western powers hastened to grant to the self-proclaimed Republic of Kosovo.
Power politics was clearly what mattered. If Kosovo could do it, why not South Ossetia or Abkhazia? Russian support ensured that these former ethnic enclaves, which suffered substantial losses in several wars of independence from Georgia, would finally see their right of national self-determination fulfilled.
As far as Ukraine goes, we hear that the Kremlin wants to reverse the so-called democratic revolution; that it wants to advance its military interests in the Crimea or that it has an appetite for shale gas deposits off Crimea's coast. Moscow says that it interfered in support of an elected president and ethnic Russian compatriots living in Ukraine, but no one is taking these statements at the face value.
The fact is, no matter how corrupt or weak Ukraine's Yanukovych is, he remains the democratically elected president deposed in a revolution which had full support of the West from the beginning. The impeachment procedure, which is meticulously described in the country's constitution, has not been followed. The new cabinet was picked up by the street in contravention of the constitutional procedure. While the choice of the street was subsequently rubber-stamped by the parliament, it does not make the interim government any more legitimate. According to Ukrainian law, even if the parliament has the right to dismiss the cabinet, it may not form a new government until new elections have been held.
The parliament itself, the Verkhovna Rada, is hardly an independent seat of power. After it was occupied by nationalist protesters, it came as little surprise that one of the Rada's first post-revolutionary decisions was to annul the law that gave Russians an official status in the few regions where Russophones constituted a substantial minority.
In the Crimean Autonomous Republic, they constitute a majority. The attack on their linguistic rights signaled something very unpleasant for the future of Ukraine's Russian community. The destruction of monuments to Russian and Soviet war heroes, including those commemorating victory over German Nazism, and the display of swastika-like insignias by some in the Maidan movement. Russia's vital interests in Ukraine were indeed affected.
Those interests have little to do with money, shale gas, or the form of Ukraine's government. A truly democratic, yet Russia-friendly government in Ukraine would be applauded by the Kremlin. A government that, rather than dealing with impending economic collapse, starts by browbeating Russian-speaking minorities, is clearly something Putin must react to, especially if that government bases its legitimacy not on democratic elections or an established constitutional procedure, but on a successful street riot.
Once again, Putin learns from the West. If a street riot in Kiev can legitimize a new government, why not a street riot in Simferopol or Donetsk? If the prime minister of Crimea, Sergei Aksenov, and the deposed, yet still unimpeached President Yanukovych both call for Russia's help in dealing with unconstitutional powers in Kiev, why can Russia not respond with a limited military help - in the same way the US responded by extending its help to the anti-government protesters in Kosovo or Libya?
To the readers of Putin's mind, this is not about money, nor is it about Russia's Black Sea Fleet, which the new government would not dare touch. This is not about Ukraine's democratic choice, which, at any rate, is not furthered by people throwing Molotov cocktails at policemen, or those wearing the Wolfsangel insignia and staging torch-lit marches for a late Nazi leader. Putin's actions are also not aimed at a party that until recently was called the Social-National Party of Ukraine - and which now controls six of Ukraine's 25 regions.
Rather, Putin's actions are dictated by two simple motifs: a desire to pursue what he believes is just and a desire to respond to Western power politics in kind. Russia's aversion to Western double-standards is the key to understanding of the whole situation in Ukraine.
If dismantling of Ukraine is to be avoided, the West had better stop threatening Russia with sanctions and sit down to some serious four-way talks on how the United States, Russia, Ukraine and the European Union can find a common ground without accusing each other of duplicity and old-fashioned power politics. After all, the era of power politics is always current, and it is plain naive to lament it.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Mikhail A Molchanov is the author of Political Culture and National Identity in Russian-Ukrainian Relations and the co-editor of Ukraine's Foreign and Security Policy: Theoretical and Comparative Perspectives.