Interests Always Need to be Protected

8 march 2014

Gevorg Mirzayan

Resume: Russia had to move its troops into Crimea. If we confine ourselves to addressing the initial tasks and do not rush ‘to take Vienna’, to borrow Bismarck’s words, the West is unlikely to impose tough sanctions against Russia.

Before talking about the consequences and the cost of the Russian intervention, one has to make it clear that, under the circumstances, Russia had no choice. It was not that, as the West claims, Russia wanted to subjectUkraine. First, that country saw a violent coup which toppled the legitimately elected president. The people who took his place, instead of setting about to consolidate the country, acted on the ‘woe to the vanquished’ principle. In thiscase, the ‘vanquished’ were thought to be the Russian-speaking population of the country’s south-east. Thus, the Supreme Rada voted to repeal of the law on languages that granted regional status to the Russian language (acting president OleksandrTurchynov has now vetoed the move, but it was too late) and launched a lustrationprocedure with regard to them. The newly appointed Ministerof Education,SerhiyKvit, a nationalist, lost no time in declaring his intention to rewrite history and ban all the textbooks that children used under the previous government. There is a danger that West Ukrainian nationalism might become the official state ideology. The authorities are turning a blind eye to the sway of the representatives of that ideology from the Right Sector. Under the pretext of ‘defending law and order, the local Nazis are plundering, extorting, persecutingundesirables and committing other acts of lawlessness. They have promised to come to the south-east soon“to protect law and order” there. In this situation, Russia was duty-bound to protect its citizens and Russian-speaking people in the south-east of Ukraine.

Second, the course elected by the new authorities posed a serious threat to Russian interests in the whole country. This was not only because the new authorities might renounce Yanukovych’s obligations to Moscow (credit, debts for gas, the Kharkov Accords). The new Prime Minister, ArseniyYatsenyuk, said he wasready to sign an association agreement with the European Union at any moment, ignoring Moscow’s position. For Russia, that would spell a total loss of economic ties with Ukraine and the future loss of Sebastopol as the base of the Black Sea Fleet, as Ukraine would turn into a kind of cordon sanitaire.

Finally, there was thequestion of losing face. The agreementof February 21 was signed to a large extent because Vladimir Putin, at the request of the Western countries, demandedthat Yanukovych make a compromise with the opposition. In return,we were promised that the agreement (that envisaged the creation of a national unity government and the withdrawal of demonstrators from the streets) would be honoured. But we were cheated. The agreement was thrown out within hours, and Russia is supposed to reconcile itself to that. A great power cannot turn a blind eye to such things.

As a result,the decision was made to move troops into Crimea. The move was‘demonstrative’on a number of counts. It sent a signal to the West that Russia would not tolerate the grossviolation of its interests and was prepared to take radical measures. It also sent a signal to the Ukrainian authorities that Moscow would not abandonthe country’s Russian-speaking citizens. To the Russian-speaking citizens in the south, the message was that if they acted like the Crimeans and came out in support of their rights, they would get the fullsupport and protection of Moscow (Vladimir Putin’s assurance that if the new authorities threatened the Russian-speaking population in other regions, Russia would do everything to protect them, was not an empty threat).

Moscow’s move evoked predictable criticism from the West, but there is no reasontoexpect harsh punishment at this point in time. The reason is that the West is aware that our demands are moderate and in some ways justified. The Russian army is not going to seize Kiev and Putin has said firmly that there is no question of annexing Crimea. Russia’s task is to force thecentral government in Ukraine to stop discriminating againstand lustratingthe country’s Russian-speaking people, and get the country tofederalizeits territory by giving the regions more powers and possibilities to defend their way of life. The Russian demand has already been met with some support in Europe, which is also tiredof the constant inter-cultural crises in Ukraine. Germany has discreetly come out in support of the federalization of Ukraine. The European media is also aware of this and has refrained from roundly condemning Russia as it did over Syria.

Furthermore, any serious economic sanctions against Russia on Europe’s part would create a problem for the Europeans themselves. Our economies are closely interconnected.And in terms of reliability, Europe has no alternative but to buy its energy from Russia (and once the South Stream is launched, it will also have no alternativein terms of transit). Europe does not want to risk its investments in the Russian economy, nor does is want to break off relations with Moscow over Crimea.

As for the United States, which is Russia’s fiercest critic, its statements are either a kind of bluff, or they are playing against the countriesown national interests. It is no secret that some East Asian states are poised to start a ‘battle for Moscow’ because in a future conflict between China on one side and the United States and Japan on the other, Russia’s position will be key. Without us, the United States and Japan would not be able to form a collective security system against China, and Beijing would not be able to ensure the stability of its north-western regionsor thereliable supply of energy bypassing the Straitof Malacca. It is no accident that the Chinese have informally supported us during this crisis and have even shown a willingness to blackmail the United States: Beijing understands how important Ukraine is for Moscow and hopes that it will reciprocate on issues that are important toChina. If the United States continues to exert pressure on Russia and starts imposing harsh economic sanctions, China will step in and the Russian–Chinese agreement will be implemented. That in turn would create serious problems for the United Statesin East Asia.

So if Russia does not go on to invade the whole of Ukraine and keeps its demands to the Ukrainian authorities moderate, the worst we can expect is token political sanctions. For example, disruption of the G8 summit. However, even if we are thrown out of the G8, it would be nothing compared to the threats that would have arisen if Russia had chosen not to protect its interests in Ukraine.

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