Westerners are still in disbelief that what is unfolding on their TV and internet screens is happening in the real. Is it really about Mr Putin securing personal access to his beloved Harley Davidson rallies in Crimea? Or is it about shoring up domestic support in the wake of reduced dollar liquidity in the emerging markets, including Russia? Analysts have to be excused for feeling a bit of cognitive dissonance because not even knowledge of (and understanding for) Russia’s deep geostrategic insecurity can palliate the stark inconsistencies in the Kremlin’s argumentation:
1. The move to annex Crimea (and threats to other parts of Ukraine) has been undertaken ostensibly to ‘protect’ Russian speakers abroad. This neocolonial project sets the bar very high for other ex-empires. What will Spain do to protect Spanish speakers abroad? And Saudi Arabia? Should Turkey invade Xinjiang in China, just because the Turks trace their origins to central Asia? Or should the State of Ukraine now invade Krasnodar or Stavropol in Russia because significant numbers of Ukrainians live there?
2. The move has been justified by alleged parallels in history – from the predictable (Kosovo) to the abstruse (Mayotte). A diplomat as astute and intelligent as Lavrov sounded quite desperate throwing this last argument on the table (my French friends went, like, ”il parle de quoi, déjà?”). But if those various historical parallels did, indeed constitute geostrategic mistakes of the said nations, then why is Russia today emulating the West’s errors by taking over a part of a territory belonging to a foreign state?
3. It is possible that beyond the choreographed nationalistic amok, there is some commercial interest – not so much in Crimea proper, whose budget was always subsidized by Kiyv, but in the adjacent waters, which could contain significant hydrocarbon resources. But Russia’s economy is already over-dependent on hydrocarbons and success in resource identification is not concomitant to success in marketing and sales. If anything, Russia’s longer term market access has now been severely constrained by EU’s and US newly found strategic prudence, leaving behind Gerhard Schroeder’s eastern-leaning enthusiasm as little more than a quaint reminder of happier days.
It would have been perfectly possible to negotiate, under international aegis, a workable solution for all parties involved in Ukraine and Crimea. At least in Europe, after decades of trial and error, minorities with strong group identity have today a range of options – as exemplified by the (very different) pathways of the Scots and the Basques. It was not necessary to press the case in just several days with armed militias and their ”locally purchased” assault helicopters. Economically gouged by its deposed mafias, Ukraine now needs friendly assistance to rebuild its statehood. The neighborly betrayal during this crucial period will long be remembered in this part of the world. But by alienating Eastern Europeans further, Mr Putin is in effect strengthening Germany's economic stranglehold on Mitteleuropa - a region that Russian revanchists would dream of controlling again.
Some Russian nationalists hail the arrival of the ‘multi-polar’ world, supposedly ushered through the farcical 'vote' in Crimea. We will continue to love Достоевский, Рахманинов, Лермонтов, Шишкин and your uniquely beautiful language. But, as the UN vote showed, your political and economic ‘pole’ will now be given a wide berth. However graceful your pole dancing may very well be.