The Crimean Monkey Trap

Things were going badly enough for Russia when Ukraine’s pro-Russian government came ever-so-close to formally embarking on EU membership – nearly following the Baltic states and many former Warsaw-Pact Slavic countries in Central and Eastern Europe into economic and military alliance with the West, expanding the EU and NATO 1000 miles east, right up to the Russian border. To thwart Ukraine’s turn toward the EU, Russia paid through the nose. While the EU was only offering $1 billion in loans conditioned on government reforms, Russia put up $15 billion in unconditional loans, plus other aid. Even though a majority of Ukrainians preferred the path of EU membership, Ukraine’s president took the Russian money – and was deposed by the popular uprising that ensued.

Russia thought they had the deal sewn up, securing their ancient ally and halting at last the EU’s (and with it, NATO’s) inexorable advance. When Ukrainians rose up and deposed their government, demanding that EU negotiations resume, Russia was left as the spurned lover. Putin, it seemed, did everything he could to obtain his desired result. He used politics and propaganda, applied pressure, and when all else failed, he coughed up a fortune to buy Ukraine’s loyalty – only to fail.

This was not Eastern European business as usual, where strongmen strike deals and ordinary people resignedly accept their lot. When the Ukrainian government adopted a position the Ukrainian people found intolerable, Ukrainians overthrew not just their government – they broke the chains of 300 years of subservience to self-dealing leaders, rejecting Russia and turning to the West.

Putin understands that if oil and gas money cannot buy Russian allies, then she is destined to lose them all. After Ukraine’s revolution turned Russian victory into defeat, Putin seemingly couldnt resist trying to snap off one part of Ukraine that he might be able to keep. Had he been a better tactician, he might have tried to manipulate the formation of Ukraine’s nascent government onto a pro-Russian track – perhaps to find a middle path for Ukraine, between the Western and Russian spheres, as he sought last fall. But his seizure of Crimea now all but guarantees Ukraine’s defection to the West. They would be joining Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Slovenia and Croatia – all former Russian allies who have joined NATO and the EU since the USSR’s dissolution.

Russia seems to have learned little from it’s 2008 war with Georgia, when it intervened to aid the secession of two Georgian provinces. The long-term consequence: Georgia, Stalin’s birthplace, is also on track to join both the EU and NATO; its relations with Russia have been ruined for decades to come. Crimea is another monkey-trap for Putin – by seizing it, he has lost Ukraine, and left Russia more isolated than ever, with Western alliances expanded to her border.

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