No region for buffer countries

by Rhodri C. Williams

Events in Ukraine continued to metastasise since my earlier post reporting on the Yanukovich defenestration last week. I spent a long weekend in Finland, ironically enough reading a fascinating history of that country’s long and troubled history as a buffer country between Russia and Sweden. I was also sans internet, which always seems like a blessing until you get back and realise that the world moves on without you, occasionally in distressing directions.

What I missed of course, was the creeping Russian military takeover of the Crimean Peninsula, which is now by and large recognised as a fait accompli, with the only remaining debate focused on how to keep the de facto Russian border from moving into mainland Ukraine. Its impossible to keep track of the tsunami of commentary that has been triggered by these undoubtedly tectonic events, but it is revealing that much of it focuses on the role of the big blocs putting the squeeze on Ukraine, rather than the poor buffeted Ukrainians themselves.

One of the interesting things about the Western end of the discussion is the dizzying range of responses. At the most parochial end, the mid-term election attack ads on how Obama lost Ukraine are already in the make. However, such arguments only underscore how remarkably far the West has already penetrated the vast territory consigned to Soviet Russian tutelage after World War II. Imagine if Putin was coming under criticism in Moscow for failing to block an extension of the NAFTA, and you might get the idea.

Nevertheless, many commentators do genuinely see the march of Western institutions and ideologies into Eastern Europe as a kind of manifest destiny. Writing for the Washington Post, for instance, David Ignatius decries President Putin’s “atavistic vision” of a restored Soviet Union as a historic error. In effect, Russia is pissing in the ideological wind and can only delay but not defer the march of progress:

What Putin misunderstands most is that the center of gravity for the former Soviet Union has shifted west. Former Soviet satellites such as Poland and the Czech Republic are prosperous members of the E.U. The nations that made up what was once Yugoslavia have survived their bloody breakup, and most have emerged as strong democracies. …. To the tens of thousands of courageous Ukrainians who braved the cold and police brutality to protest, Yanukovych’s submission to Moscow looked like an attempt to reverse history.

All very well, but Ignatius is forced to concede that even if the ‘error’ is formally attributable on Putin, that will be cold comfort when its consequences settle all over the region. In this vein, there has been extensive criticism of the West for failing earlier on to give manifest destiny the little pushes it needed now and then to manifest itself. Most notably, the Washington Post shellacked Obama’s foreign policy as “based on fantasy”, namely that other leaders will act rationally, and that a little lull in global leadership is therefore in order:

There were similar retrenchments after the Korea and Vietnam wars and when the Soviet Union crumbled. But the United States discovered each time that the world became a more dangerous place without its leadership and that disorder in the world could threaten U.S. prosperity…. Today Mr. Obama has plenty of company in his impulse, within both parties and as reflected by public opinion. But he’s also in part responsible for the national mood: If a president doesn’t make the case for global engagement, no one else effectively can.

Anne Applebaum was early out in accusing Europe of being at least as asleep at the wheel on Ukraine as the US. However, Gerald Knaus of ESI recently provided more context in the form of a very helpful historical overview of how EU enlargement peaked in 2005 and faltered thereafter, leaving those pulling for EU integration in Kiev unsure of what was at the other end of the rope. As Knaus points out, even reasonable criticism of the transformative potential of EU integration could not patch over the fact that no other policy has had nearly the track record of resolving conflict, building trust and spurring reform:

This failure to find alternative policies to avert regional conflicts is the conundrum facing European policy makers today. Neither Europe nor the US have shown any evidence that they can remake either Afghanistan or the Middle East. But in South East and Eastern Europe, all the tools exist to prevent a return to the tragedies of the 20th century. In this case, it really is a matter of will and vision. Or sadly, lack thereof, as we see now in Kiev.

Political arguments in favor of a more activist West have generally been accompanied by economic arguments that Russia will pay many times over in treasure for even a bloodless victory in Ukraine. For instance, this commentary in The Week asserts that the true weapons in this struggle involve frozen bank accounts, visa bans and substitution of Russian gas, rather than tanks and helicopters. However, given the state of Ukraine’s economy, economic arguments can easily be turned back on the West. For instance George Friedman paints up a scenario in which Ukraine will either “move into the Western camp an economic cripple” or “recognize its fate and turn to Russia”:

In turning toward Europe, parliament has to address refinancing its debt and ensure that the Russians will continue to discount natural gas. The Europeans are in no position politically to underwrite the Ukrainian debt. Given the economic situation and austerity in many EU countries, there would be an uproar if Brussels diverted scarce resources to a non-member. And regardless of what might be believed, the idea that Ukraine will become a member of the European Union under current circumstances is dismal. The bloc has enough sick economies on its hands.

In fact, there has been more criticism recently of Western activism rather than inactivity, as being the heart of the issue. Jonathan Steele in the Guardian accused NATO of a relentless policy of expansion into former Soviet buffer space that has needlessly raised tensions and reduced the space for Russia to play a constructive role in international affairs. In calling for the West to tone down its “hysterical reaction”, he portrayed Western triumphalism as self-defeating: 

The deposed Viktor Yanukovych, for all his incompetence, corruption and abuse of power, was the first president to oppose Nato membership in his election campaign and then persuade parliament to make non-alignment the cornerstone of the country’s security strategy, on the pattern of Finland, Ireland and Sweden. Nato refused to accept it.

As recently as 1 February, before the latest crisis, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the empire-building secretary general, told a security conference in Munich: “Ukraine must have the freedom to choose its own path without external pressure.” The implication was clear: if only it were not for those beastly Russians, Ukraine would be one of us. Had Rasmussen said: “Ukraine has chosen nonalignment and we respect that choice,” he would have been wiser.

Also in the Guardian, Malcolm Fraser charts the West’s missteps since the fall of the Berlin Wall and draws a worrisome conclusion from China’s recent and slightly cryptic endorsement of Russia’s incursion in the Crimea:

There is another aspect of this which should give western powers even greater concern for the future. The US has embarked on what many regard as a foolish and dangerous policy in the western pacific: a policy of containment of China…. There have been discussions about possible strategic arrangements between China and Russia. Are the mistaken policies of the US and the unfolding drama in Ukraine going to push both Russia and China towards a strategic partnership?

Meanwhile, other commentators such as Julia Ioffe argue that Putin will take as much as he can get of Ukraine because he is driven by domestic and psychological factors that most Western actors do not get and cannot affect. And with the most recent developments – an ultimatum for remaining Ukrainian military facilities in the Crimean to surrender and apparent preparations for a landing in Eastern Ukraine – there is little reason to doubt her analysis.


3 responses to “No region for buffer countries

  1. To put the regional spin on, here are the current top four stories in Hufvudstadsbladet, Finland’s main Swedish language broadsheet:

    1. “Sweden’s defences near collapse” – Swedish commander-in-chief quoted as estimating the country could hold out one week against a (Russian) attack before needing to be rescued by NATO.

    2. “Major Russian military exercise in the Baltic” – 3500 men off Kaliningrad, 500 km from Helsinki, but apparently all planned long ago and unrelated to Ukraine.

    3. “Putin could start a third world war” – Demonstrators outside the Russian Embassy in Helsinki.

    4. “EU threatens sanctions against Russia”

  2. Pingback: Responsibility to provoke? Self-determination and the Ukraine crisis | TerraNullius

  3. Pingback: TN mellows out at five | TerraNullius

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