The Inside Agenda Blog
Ukraine's Premature Victory Lap
By Nikolas K. Gvosdev, professor of national security studies at the U.S. Naval War College.
The Ukrainian opposition (and many Western politicians) took a victory lap prematurely last week, assuming that the flight of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych from Kiev (ultimately taking refuge in Russia) would prove to be the end of the crisis. The storyline was that "people power" on the Maidan (Independence Square) had triumphed, a new Ukrainian government would cement closer relations with the West, and everyone would move on. Apparently Russian president Vladimir Putin didn't get that memo.
Yanukovych's decision to use force to end the months-long protests which erupted after his last-minute refusal to sign an "association agreement" with the European Union, killing or wounding hundreds in the capital city, cost him support even in his traditional political strongholds of southern and eastern Ukraine and made it clear to a Russian government which had sought to support Yanukovych by lowering energy prices and extending a $15 billion credit-line to the cash-strapped nation that his days were numbered. It did not mean, however, that the Kremlin had resigned its match in Ukraine.
Russia wants a government in Ukraine that is responsive to its interests. It would prefer that Ukraine join -- or at minimum associate with -- the emerging Eurasian Union which brings together the states of the former Soviet Union under Russian economic and political leadership. The EU association agreement was a threat because it would have made closer association with Putin's Eurasian Union an impossibility.
When it became clear that the interim government was not going to include any pro-Russian ministers and in fact might begin reversing some of the decisions taken by the Yanukovych administration, Moscow moved quickly. The crisis in Crimea and the deployment of Russian forces from its naval bases on that peninsula in support of the region's autonomous government is meant to signal two things. The first is that no government in Kiev can hope to exercise real control over the entire territory of Ukraine without the acquiescence of Russia -- and that the interim administration needs to reconsider its political stance. The second is to demonstrate to those counting on Western support that neither Western Europe nor North America will offer any real or substantial aid -- that no country in the West is prepared to risk a serious rupture in relations with Russia over Ukraine (just as they were not in 2008 during the conflict with Georgia). Putin is, in essence, calling the bluff of those Western politicians who traveled to the Maidan, gave powerful speeches promising support and passed out baked goods to the protestors. He is calculating that the West is neither prepared to bail Ukraine out financially or provide the military wherewithal for a Ukrainian government to regain full control of all of its territory, drawing on the lessons he absorbed watching the U.S. about-face on its declared "red line" in Syria. With these two points firmly burned in the minds of the Ukrainian people and their politicians, he expects a more chastened leadership to come to the table and negotiate on Moscow's terms.
There is, of course, the possibility of serious miscalculation. The West may be prepared to respond more decisively than it did in Syria. There is always the risk of incidents on the ground in Crimea or eastern Ukraine blowing up and spiraling the situation out of control. At ths point, however, Putin's gamble is that he can create new facts on the ground in Ukraine and that the rest of the world will reluctantly accede.
Image of Russian soliders guarding vehicles at a Ukrainian naval base courtesy of Susan Ormiston, CBC News.