16 June 2014

Ever since the establishment of the Taurida Governorate in 1802, Crimea has been seen as Russia’s western-most extension. Last stop before the enchanting dream of a Russian Constantinople, Crimea, in the 19th Century, came to be known as the ‘heart of Russian romanticism’. The peninsula, shining forth its idyllic myth, has remained a touristic spot attracting millions of visitors, especially Russians. But, through the years, the old fantasy seems to have petrified into a cornerstone of the post-USSR Russia’s belated nationalist imagination, and in its resultant power struggle, and regional imbalances. The latest of these saw the pro-Russia separatists shooting down a Ukranian military transport plane two days ago, killing all 49 crew and troops aboard. So, is Crimea’s startling return to the foreground of the world’s attention affirming that it is still the heart of Russia’s fervent pre-occupations, yet, a bleeding one? In this week’s Inter-actions, we bring you an international exchange on the geopolitical stakes of/on Crimea. Political editor MD Nalapat traces the roots of the annexation back to the severe ties imposed by the US-led Western powers of the late 1990s. South African author Willie Mc Loud evaluates the options of Russia and its remaining allies, and worldwide repercussions of the crisis. Finally, researcher Dominik Tolksdorf offers an internal view of the prospects and opportunities of Poroshenko’s Ukraine.


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The Origins of a Re-Taking

Madhav Das Nalapat

A Cloudy Forecast

Willie Mc Loud

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The re-taking of the Crimean peninsula by Russia has old origins. It traces back to the interaction between the Clinton administration in the US and the immediate post-Soviet regime in Moscow led by Boris Yeltsin.

Instead of showing any magnanimity toward a fallen foe, the Clinton administration adopted the same approach as did the Allied powers at Versailles in 1919, of seeking to degrade the Russian Federation’s technological and scientific capabilities to a level that would cripple it from challenging in future not only the US but its major partners in North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) — Germany, France and the UK. In their eagerness to ‘slash and burn’ indigenous S&T capability in Russia, and acting on the principle that, while Moscow was at the time docile, it could in future once again become malevolent – in the US and NATO perception – the need to degrade its systems and capabilities once and for all became urgent.

Bill Clinton still enjoys worldwide popularity,
but what marks did he leave on international geopolitics?

While President Clinton has remained immensely popular in his own country and in much of the rest of the globe, when examined with a lens undistorted by the type of pseudo-scholarship that passes for geopolitical analysis in some countries, his record has been abysmal. It was, for example, under Bill Clinton’s watch that Al-Qaeda became a significant force during the 1990s. Rather than seeking to eliminate the Wahabbi fanatics who suffuse quasi-terrorist bodies such as the Talibans, the Clinton administration went out of its way to assist them in the 1990s, quietly celebrating when they took over Kabul in 1996. A decade later, Hillary Clinton led the disastrous policy of backing Wahabbi extremists in Libya, and thereafter in Syria, to overthrow dictators who were indeed brutal but truly secular.

The initial rejoicing over Gaddafi’s fall did not last for long

When NATO turned on Muammar Gaddafi in Libya in 2011, and against Bashar al-Assad in Syria a year later, it dealt with two leaders who were brutal only in a ‘micro’ sense, taking action selectively against specific opponents rather than against the vast swathes of the population that Wahabbi extremists invariably target. It is the giving of weapons, cash and training to Wahabbi extremists in Libya, and thereafter in Syria, which has led to the present revival of Al Qaeda. This includes the efforts from offshoots of that organisation to take control of more territories in Iraq and Syria, in addition to what they already hold as a result of the backing given to them by certain states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

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Another grave error made by the Clinton administration in the 1996-2001 period was to seek to enforce terms on Moscow that would in effect make it a dependency of NATO. An eastward expansion of the alliance was carried out at the precise moment when its military justification – as a bulwark against a Soviet invasion – got reduced to insignificance. The contradiction between the lessened need for NATO and the massive scale of its expansion can be explained as simply another means of humiliating the Russian Federation, much the same way as Germany was shamed in 1920 by the French military occupation of the Rhineland. Of course, with Boris Yeltsin, the alliance had a Head of State in the Russian Federation who was a prisoner of the mafias controlling vast portions of the post-Soviet economy. These mafias were almost always close to intelligence agencies in the NATO bloc, who manipulated them in order to subserve the Clinton policy of steady degradation of the indigenous capabilities of the Russian Federation. It was only after Vladimir Putin took over from Yeltsin that the country finally got a leader who put Russia rather than NATO first. Both Yeltsin and his predecessor Mikhail Gorbachev had done the reverse.

The involvement of NATO in US-Russia relationships
contributed to the geopolitical weakening of the latter

Initially, Putin ignored the fact that neither Germany nor France would allow the Russian Federation to either enter the European Union or to reach the level of primacy within Europe that the Russian Federation’s size and capabilities entitle it to. In fact, after two terms, Putin handed over the Presidency to a Europeanist in much the same mould as Gorbachev or Yeltsin: Dmitry Medvedev. But, thanks to the continuing dominance of Putin in the inner councils of government in Moscow, the damage done by Medvedev was not on the same scale as that which took place under Yeltsin. Nonetheless, the Medvedev interregnum emboldened the US and its partners to continue with the Clinton policy of seeking to tether Russia down, rather than to embrace it in an equal partnership.

Russia’s claim for Georgian lands was probably
the first phase of a larger demand

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Finally, and despite his surrounding himself with St Petersburg Europeanists, Vladimir Putin understood that the US and the EU would never accept a Russia that was anywhere close to being an equal partner of these two entities. The first symptom of that was his takeover of a Russianised segment of Georgia. The next was the takeover of Crimea. This will be followed by the partition of Ukraine and a policy of linking hands with Delhi and Beijing in order to dilute the impact of the Versailles-style policies pursued by NATO towards Russia, since the time when Bill Clinton was President of the United States of America.

Unfortunately, taken as a collective, the NATO alliance still responds as though the globe followed a 19th century or, worse, a 20th century matrix. The 21st century is witnessing the re-emergence of Asia, and there will certainly be a coming together of the major powers of the continent rather than the intra-Asia conflict predicted by scholars in the US and the EU. Today, the ground realities do not permit the same depth, speed and range of NATO intervention as in the 19th or even the first half of the 20th century. That the Russian Federation has been subjected to the same effort to downsize any potential challenge to NATO indicates acceptance of the fact that Moscow is tethered within Asia rather than Europe – irrespective of what the St Petersburg intellectuals say. Following the mindset of past eras, the key member states of NATO refuse to accept that countries outside the bloc have the chemistry and the potential to be equal partners of the alliance, rather than remain in a subsidiary position. By seeking too much, the alliance is having to settle for much less, as in Ukraine.

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On 21 March 2014, the sudden takeover and annexation of the Crimean peninsula by Russia, and the subsequent destabilisation of the eastern parts of Ukraine shocked the world. Although these may seem local events, they are of wide-ranging consequences. We should view them within the framework of the geopolitical game that is being played out currently between the major world powers.

A few years ago, many Western strategic thinkers banned ‘geopolitics’ to the dustbin of history. They thought that such politics are too confrontational and that consensus politics is the new unanimity. But they were wrong: geopolitics holds the most important concerns of the major powers at the moment. Geopolitics refers to the role that geography plays in the considerations of the major powers, in their political ambitions to expand and project their power, or to restrict others from doing so.

To understand the present situation in Crimea, we must take the geopolitical concerns of Russia into consideration. The expansion of the EU, which now includes 28 countries, can be regarded as the ‘geopolitical rise of the EU’ at the cost of Russia. The EU is certainly viewed, today, as a diminished military power, and some have taken the economic crisis in the EU to signify its decline. Thus, the rise of the EU has not really drawn much attention. But in geographical terms, the EU has dramatically expanded its reach. And it is, precisely, this eastern expansion of its influence that has brought it into conflict with Russia over Ukraine.

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Slowly but steadily, the EU has incorporated the geographical area surrounding Russia, especially in Eastern Europe. This reduced Russia’s sphere of influence dramatically. In fact, would the ex-Soviet states of Ukraine and Armenia have signed association agreements with the EU as part of the Eastern Partnership programme (EaP) at the end of 2013 (with Moldavia, Georgia and Azerbaijan), it would have been the first step to contain Russia beyond the Ural mountains. Such a Russia would effectively be stripped of all geopolitical possibilities to expand and project its power, thus becoming a large but impotent country.

The Eastern Partnership programme, attempted in 2013,
would have closed off Russia behind the Ural mountains

Viewed in these terms, Russia’s recent moves can be seen as a ‘fight back’ strategy. Russia’s annexation of Crimea, where its Black Sea fleet is stationed in Sevastopol, aimed at securing its own options for future power projection through the Black Sea. The destabilisation of eastern Ukraine gives Russia some leverage in the dispute with the West. A long-term interest in annexing these and other regions should also not be excluded from the analysis. But Russian President Putin’s action in this regard appears not as a sign of confidence and power, but rather of desperation and weakness. The geopolitical rise of the EU has cornered the Russian bear and forced its move, and this can escalate geopolitical tensions around the world.

What would be the consequences of these events in international relations? They could have a profound impact, far beyond Ukraine. The reason for this is that the geopolitical fault-line where Western and Russian interests are coming into conflict runs from Ukraine through Syria. And Russia is not only under pressure in its own near abroad. It is also under enormous pressure in the Middle East, where its partners, the Syrian regime and Iran, are also being strangled, respectively, by a civil war and international sanctions.

Syria is one of the last countries in the Middle East where Russia still has some influence since the fall of the USSR. It has a Mediterranean naval base at Tarsus. Would the Syrian regime fall, Russia would lose this important geopolitical hold in the Middle East. This is why Russia has defended that regime before the UN Security Council, in spite of its monstrosities. And this is also why Russia provided Syria with large quantities of heavy weaponry.

The Ukrainian and Syrian conflicts are therefore linked, and they would become even more closely interwoven in the future. The US would exert pressure on Russia to withdraw its support from the Ukrainian rebels by threatening to increase its support for the moderate factions among the Syrian rebels. We can read US President Obama’s recent foreign policy speech at the US Military Academy at West Point in these terms. Obama reversed his past opposition to large-scale American arming and training of Syrian rebels, suggesting that strengthened moderate rebel groups could serve as a counterweight to radical Islamist groups. This would escalate the Syrian conflict and it could eventually lead to the fall of the Syrian regime.

An increase in Western support for the Syrian rebels could provoke an increase in Russia’s support for Iran, who is also intensely involved in the Syrian civil war with its ally, the Hezbollah. Russian geopolitical concerns in Syria are closely intertwined with those of Iran. The Iran-Syria-Hezbollah Shiite axis allows Iran to project its power across the Middle East. Thus, the Syrian regime serves as barrier against any Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear installations.

Hassan Rouhani and Vladimir Putin

Iran is currently in negotiations with the six powers, including Russia and China, over its nuclear programme. But the Iranian authorities do not trust the West, and they believe that giving up its nuclear deterrent (the capability to produce nuclear weapons) would leave it wide open to possible attack by a US-led alliance that would include Israel. The Iranians certainly remember that Gaddafi gave up his chemical weapons only to be attacked a few years later. A final breakdown in the nuclear negotiations would most probably lead to exactly such an attack on Iran.

Since the interests of Russia and Iran align, while both are under (Western) sanctions, they can strengthen their alliance against Western powers in the eventuality of the escalation of these conflicts. And such an alliance would be most effective if it includes China.

China is involved in a similar geopolitical game in the East and South China seas, where it is becoming ever more assertive in its claims on regional reefs and islands. Where Russia is fighting back in desperation, China’s expanding power is frustrated by its containment by Western allies and partners. This common experience of strangulation by the Western powers can lead to closer ties between China and Russia. This was also signalled by the recent 400 billion dollar gas-agreement between them.

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Both Russia and China are at a paradigmatic moment in their geopolitical interests. If they work in concert, they can force the US into a weakened position where it must contain two areas of conflict, both in the West and the East. They can calculate that US involvements in conflict situations elsewhere (such as an escalation in the conflict with Iran) would open space for sudden moves with which they can get away, since these would not endanger US core interests. But that could also further escalate the worldwide situation as a whole towards more confrontation, even leading to another major worldwide war. This could be the ‘third world war’, which the Ukrainian prime minister, Arseny Yatseniuk, warned against.

At this stage such extreme outcomes seem unlikely. But in the world of geopolitical games, it would be a grave mistake to discard this kind of forecast. Let us hope that cool heads will prevail and that world peace will not be disrupted by a global war over the next few years.

Madhav Das Nalapat is Professor in International Relations (Manipal University), Editorial Director at the Sunday Guardian and was editor of the newspaper, Mathrubhumi. MD Nalapat has been influential in a number of policy and geopolitical initiatives involving India and foreign countries. He regularly writes on security, policy and international affairs, and he has authored several books.
Willie Mc Loud is a South African author and blogger who has written various articles and books on current affairs, among which Die Arabiese Opstande (Griffel, 2011). He has a special interest in international affairs, focusing on mega-trends, futuristic analysis, geopolitics as well as eschatology. He holds a PhD in physics, as well as MBL and Honors in philosophy. He also writes on a variety of other contemporary issues on his blog.



A Time of Opportunities

Dominik Tolksdorf



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Ukraine has found itself in a volatile position since the beginning of the ‘Maidan revolution’ in November 2013. But the recent election of President Petro Poroshenko holds the promise of mitigating domestic and international tensions through political and economic reforms. A complex combination of issues, indeed, which requires tactful actions to bring back Ukraine to a more stable and serene state.

In the coming years, Ukraine will have to navigate increasing expectations and conditions from the West in order to secure badly needed support in different areas. Following the ouster of former President Viktor Yanukovych from office in February 2014, the interim government in Ukraine has received significant international support from the EU and the US, who have declared their commitment to support the interim government’s efforts to undertake political and economic reforms. Their backing led the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to approve a $17 billion loan. Ukraine will also receive a $1 billion loan guarantee from the U.S. as well as military assistance.

A greater economic independence in terms of gas
is currently at stakes for Ukraine

Even more significant for Ukraine is the direct support offered by the EU. Ukraine could avail of an aid package of at least $15.5 billion over the coming years. Furthermore, in March, Ukraine signed an association agreement with the EU that cut customs on nearly all Ukrainian imports while allowing Ukraine to maintain current customs on EU imports. The EU is also supporting Ukraine in its negotiations with Russian state-owned energy company Gazprom over natural-gas prices, and will help the country in the modernisation of its natural gas transit system and its work on reversing the flow of pipelines through Slovakia.

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However, the support of the West and the disbursement of loans are often conditional on the Ukrainian government’s commitment to comprehensive reforms. For instance, the EU requires a variety of structural reforms in order to promote good governance, accountability and socio-economic development in Ukraine. The Ukrainian government has secured the support of a large number of international partners for these objectives, and is now expected to demonstrate that it will use the support efficiently. Doing so will require the country to use measures to stimulate the economy, but also effective legislation to reduce corruption, illicit enrichment, the lack of transparency and the abuse of office in public administration – all among the main requests of the Maidan protests. Lasting international support will also require judiciary reforms, so as to ensure the separation of judicial and political powers in future. And, in order to reduce tensions between the regional and the central levels, a decentralisation reform seems inevitable to give greater powers on taxation, spending, and the election of local executives to the regions and districts.

Complying with many of these conditions, nonetheless, does not guarantee a future prospect of EU membership for Ukraine. Following the economic and financial crisis in Europe, the appetite for a further expansion is limited within the EU. EU members like France argue that the Union needs to be consolidated before it can discuss further enlargements. In addition, the Balkan countries and Turkey have applied for EU membership long ago and are waiting in the ‘accession line’. Many observers within Europe argue that it will be hard for the EU to ‘absorb’ further accessions and that the EU…

… should therefore not consider granting a membership prospect to countries like Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. In fact, the only serious advocates of Ukraine’s EU prospect are Poland and the Baltic States – they see Ukraine’s membership in the Western alliances (EU and NATO) as a strategic priority.

Poroshenko knows the chances of Ukraine
joining the EU are not high

The Ukrainian government is likely aware that a potential EU membership is also controversial within Ukraine itself: sharing a long history with Russia, Ukraine retains deep social and economic ties with its big neighbour. Many people in Ukraine are not interested in cutting these ties just in order to align closer to the EU. In addition, a serious EU accession would require a significant political will to implement a large number of reforms to comply with EU norms and standards.

Similarly, Ukraine has already recognised that its NATO membership is highly unlikely. It would bear the potential for serious conflicts not only between Ukraine and Russia, but also between NATO and Russia, as neither is interested in instigating a new Cold War. In its foreign policy, Ukraine is therefore more or less forced to remain in a neutral position between Russia and ‘the West’.

As an influential oligarch and member of previous governments, Petro Poroshenko is well known to the Kremlin. Chances are high that he will be able to re-establish good working relations with Russia. Whereas his foreign policy will remain a balancing act between intensifying relations with the West and cooperating with Russia, foreign policy is not a priority topic at the moment. Apparently more important is to secure Ukraine’s unity and to overcome the polarisation within Ukraine in the long run.

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While the insurgencies in the eastern regions demonstrate that there is discontent in parts of eastern and southern Ukraine with the new political authorities in Kyiv, the approach of the insurgents does not seem to find much support among the local population. In the end, a large part of the citizens in eastern Ukraine wants to remain in Ukraine, although with greater autonomy from the central government. President Poroshenko has been elected with an impressive majority, making a run-off unnecessary. This legitimacy would allow Poroshenko to initiate a broad national dialogue in which the social and economic interests of all constituencies in Ukraine would be taken into account. Such actions might increase trust among the citizens in the eastern regions, till now still sceptical about the authorities in Kyiv. Based on the national dialogue, the president, in cooperation with the government, could pursue a comprehensive reform agenda amenable to all constituencies in Ukraine.

While Poroshenko faces many expectations from Ukraine’s international partners, his political capital within Ukraine and the support he has received from the West presents him with the opportunity to achieve stability and progress in Ukraine. The degree of his success in this complex conjuncture will depend on his tact in opting for a long-term political vision.

Dominik Tolksdorf is a Transatlantic Post-Doctoral Fellow for International Relations and Security (TAPIR) at the US Institute of Peace in Washington, DC. His research focuses on political developments in the post-Soviet space and the Western Balkans. Since 2006, he has worked for several think tanks in Europe and the U.S., and as an adjunct professor at Vesalius College in Brussels. He has published various peer-reviewed articles, policy papers and a book on the European Union’s policies in Bosnia and Herzegovina, in 2012.

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