Testing the boundaries of Russia’s goodwill

The crisis in Ukraine, which as of May 2nd 2014 we may well be justified in referring to as civil conflict, ignited inside Russia a public debate of enormous intensity. Op-ed pages in the press, television talk shows, radio broadcasts and blogs feature an endless stream of experts, representatives of political and cultural elites as well as civil society leaders.

To an outsider, unable to review publications in Russian, the fact that 91% of the population supported reunification with Crimea, is what lies on the surface and feeds into all kinds of ignorant assumptions on personality cult or the degree to which the entire country has been propagandized. In reality, there are all sorts of people writing all sorts of things. Some approve of every action already taken and are becoming increasingly frustrated that Russian troops have not yet crossed into Ukraine. Others, though happy with the way Russia handled herself in Crimea, do not want further involvement in the southeast. Still others, a minority it should be noted, are unhappy with this entire affair and warn of impending doom. One such ‘pessimist’, Andrei Zubov, a professor at Moscow State University of International Relations, was fired over an article in which he compared annexation of Crimea to Hitler’s Anschluss of Austria, but was reinstated a few weeks later when Presidential Council on Labor Rights found his dismissal to be illegal. I hate to disappoint those of you who obsess over the despotic Kremlin, but that seems to be the only half-scandal over dissent. Ilya Ponomarev, the lone PM, who voted against Crimea joining Russia, is still in the Duma – although I am certain he no longer has a political future (people in Novosibirsk, where Ponomarev had mayoral ambitions now see him as ‘Euromaidan representative’). And Abby Martin, who, to all-out Western groupthinking delight, condemned Russia on air – on a state funded news channel – is still with RT doing her “Breaking the Set” thing. Much unlike Chris Hedges who has this to say about his own stand against NYT Iraq narrative:

I think a lot of journalists at the beginning of the war in Iraq, whatever doubts they had, they put them aside because they realized that challenging that Bush narrative was a career killer. And I speak as somebody who denounced the war in Iraq, while I was in NY Times and lost my job because of it… I was given a formal written reprimand for denouncing the cause to invade the Iraq, predicting exactly what was going to happen – I’ve spent seven years in the Middle East, I’m an Arabic speaker. And a formal written reprimand under the rules means that after you’re given this reprimand, the next time I spoke about the war they would have grounds to fire me. But I quit before [they could], because I wasn’t going to stop speaking out.

Much, as well, unlike this fair American lady:

But anyhow, in Russia these days, whichever horn you feel like tooting, the sentiment shared by all debating camps is that Ukrainians are a ‘brotherly people’. If you promote further Russian incursion – you argue that the ‘brotherly people’ need help defending themselves against ‘junta’s aggression’. If you disapprove of it – you argue that occupying and/or annexing territory belonging to the ‘brotherly people’ is all kinds of wrong, and is bound to lead to us ‘losing Ukraine’.

Neither of these perspectives leads to good political decisions and exists merely for the public’s debate. In reality, I am positive that the Kremlin’s greatest asset in this stand off is ice cold blood, and that the axis of their rationale rests on the fact that Ukraine is, first and foremost, a sovereign state next door. In order for it to survive, however, it is essential that Ukrainians sober up and realize: ‘brotherly people‘ or not, Moscow will stop at nothing defending, above all, the national interests of Russia within her current borders.

Russian business magazine Эксперт #18-19 (897) on April 26, 2014 published an article titled “Кто дружит, тот и цел“, which could be translated as “Friends remain whole”. The author, Gevorg Mirzayan, points out that nearly every time a Russian neighbor tries to score political points by provoking conflict, they inevitably come out of it weakened, and possibly even, as both Georgia and Ukraine have learnt, – with significantly less territory than they had at the start of confrontation. This has nothing to do with Russia being inherently evil, or seeking to expand territorially. It does have everything to do with basic common sense: there is no action without reaction/consequence. If you openly declare yourself to be my enemy – I will treat you as such. Or, as one Russian saying goes – “Once you’ve called yourself a mushroom, jump into the basket.”

This is true planet-wide – one always pays a price for starting a fight. Whether that price is a bloody nose or an amputated limb depends on how good a fighter you are as well as the skills of your adversary. Unfortunately for Russia’s neighbors – who constantly complain how they can’t come out from under her shadow – she is big, so big it’s daunting, and she isn’t going anywhere any time soon. As if that wasn’t bad enough, these days Russia has a rather bold manner about her – she is in relatively good shape and more than capable of standing her ground. If you want out from under the shadow – you have to relocate (if only getting away from Russia was as simple as buying a house elsewhere!). If you want to remain a country where you are – you have no choice but to remain reasonably sane; if not passionately friendly – then at least as neutral as possible. And this is where I think real danger lies for Ukraine – something in their current revolutionary nationalist paranoia Ukrainians, unfortunately, don’t seem to be able to grasp – hysteria doesn’t make them good strategists, and they face potentially devastating consequences having initiated a confrontation they, realistically, cannot be expected to win.

Here allow me to clarify what I mean when I say Moscow “will stop at nothing”. Hostile, bloody invasion with subsequent occupation against popular will is a fantasy, a boogeyman concocted by Western politicians looking to advance their personal military-industrial agendas. Such a step would instantly wipe out even Putin’s approval ratings – and serious political analysts should know that serious politicians do not willingly decimate the support of their electorate. Nevertheless, I hear the Baltics are worried… Worried Putin will send the Red Army virtually everywhere, provoke mass outrage of his population, destroy the entire economy within months – i.e. willingly unseat his own administration. Anyone who genuinely believes this – I’m sorry, but I can’t take you seriously, not especially in the aftermath of President Putin’s statements from May 7, 2014 following his meeting with the President of Switzerland. The Russian Army, possibly as part of UN peacekeeping force, could be used if the internal conflict disintegrates into full-scale war. In such a case, I am positive Russia will first seek approval from UNSC.

Since the feelings of kinship between Russians and Ukrainians are still relatively strong among Russian population – publicly the Kremlin’s policy won’t be intentionally aggressive or destructive. But should Ukraine firmly step on the course of ‘warfare‘ once a legitimate, long-term cabinet is installed in Kiev – Russia will mobilize all her resources to weaken, destabilize and neuter the territory as a whole.

For as long as the Kremlin (regardless of who occupies its top chair) is able, it will continue to disrupt Ukraine’s efforts directed at becoming a NATO member. Crimea already effectively cripples this trajectory, considering that it has to be officially recognized as part of Russia to remove it from Ukraine as ‘territorial dispute‘ standing in the way of alliance membership. For Kiev to do so in an increasingly nationalistic Ukraine is to risk another popular revolt. For NATO to disregard one of its key membership provisions and extend the invitation to Ukraine anyway is more detrimental still, as it would clearly demonstrate the alliance’s expansionist greed, as well as give credit to Russia’s claims of NATO looking to encircle her at any cost. There is absolutely no alternative to this predicament either – Moscow will never again negotiate Crimea’s status, sooner or later everybody will have to adjust their maps.

Next up Ukraine is likely to experience the aftertaste of trying to spite the Kremlin when their very survival depends on Moscow’s totalitarian money. ‘Brotherly‘ political as well as business elites in Kiev have grown accustomed to loans and subsidies – indeed, why bother with genuine internal health of Ukraine when there is billions available next door whenever you need them? This absurd conviction that Moscow will prop up the disintegrating country anyway is what continues to enable people like Mr. Shlapak, currently Ukrainian Minister of Finance, to make the following type of statements:

When we spoke of our gas conflict, we suggested going back to the idea of $15 bn, returning to regular cooperation. Pay us the $2 bn tranche promised in January, and we’ll use this money to pay off our gas debt right away. Unfortunately, we didn’t receive a positive response.

I wonder why…

No, our dear neighbors – enough is enough. That well has now dried up it seems. Unless, of course, your reformed Constitution perhaps contains a ‘non-bloc status‘ clause? If so, we might be able to locate the $15 bn after all. Until then – no loans. Period.

As far as trade between the two countries is concerned – I do not believe we will be seeing Russian businesses severing ties on the spot in order to coerce. Dmitry Medvedev, speaking at International Energy Forum in Moscow on May 15th, 2014 stated:

Russia values all of her partners – be they Asian or European – we are not refusing cooperation and have no plans to reject anyone.

In this context, although referring to energy sales, he made clear Russia also values her “reputation as a reliable supplier”. I do not see any urgent need to tarnish that image in Ukraine. It is imperative that we fulfill our contractual agreements – be they for chocolates, juice or military helicopter engines:

Ukraine-WhatRussiaNeedsOur Ukrainian partners, in the meantime, are very likely to violate such agreements – whether in the midst of hostile passions, austerity reforms glitches or simply due to poor management. And once they do, they should be penalized and/or taken to court whenever appropriate. In other words, Russia should not grant extensions on delivery or allow payment delays, and should not issue own payments to Ukraine in advance where it isn’t warranted by contracts already signed. The steps thus far taken by Gazprom, in accordance with its contract with Naftogaz, follow precisely such logic. The effort is already under way to replace Ukrainian imports – especially military ones – and according to the government’s estimates this would take between 2 and 2,5 years to accomplish. Regardless of how the crisis develops in the next few months, this process must be completed. Even if Ukraine remains in its current borders and finds a way to stabilize itself, continuing to rely on it for military purposes is irresponsible, as the country has visibly opted to give in to its nationalistic inferiority complex and is likely to follow in the footsteps of the Baltic states, i.e. cement hatred for the neighboring nation into the foundation of their national identity.

Unless military and political neutrality becomes new and indisputable reality for Ukraine currently in the making – the country will be limping forever. Russians will understand that their government is intentionally undermining someone they used to call ‘brothers‘. Russians won’t object because their primary concern is their own security and a hostile, nationalistic neighbor must be treated in accordance with the tone it chooses to set.

Russian public affinity for Ukrainians today still plays a crucial role in Moscow’s policy towards Kiev. But it will not always remain so. An April survey of the public’s Ukrainian moods cites a curious detail: asked what emotions they currently experience towards Ukrainians overall just 15% claimed indifference. However, further breakdown by age groups reveals that among respondents aged 60 and older the indifferent only make up 10%, while among 18 to 24-year-olds it is 25%. Naturally, this percentage can only be expected to grow – and with time the Kremlin will be able to adjust its policies accordingly.

There is no tragedy here. It simply is. Alliances form and break up. Countries, like people, drift apart. Sometimes history returns them to one orbit, other times it does not. Russians must not allow themselves to be pulled back by fond memories of days gone by. We must see the reality for what it really is, instead of what we wish it were. At the end of the day, with or without Ukraine, there are plenty of friendships to cultivate and fruitful partnerships to nourish. We must now see to it that they are not neglected over the maintenance of this one crisis.

Featured image borrowed from BBC.

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