Ukraine, Russia and Crimea

In the fast pace of the events unfolding in Ukraine, in particular on the Crimean peninsula, any article on the developments

In the fast pace of the events unfolding in Ukraine, in particular on the Crimean peninsula, any article on the developments there may well be outdated by the time it appears in print.

But it might still be worthwhile to take a deeper look at the background against which the current turmoil is developing and ponder on possible outcomes.

While the history of Russia and Ukraine has been a story of very close association between the two peoples (Russians and Ukrainians speak very closely linked languages, almost like distant dialects of the same language and culturally they share a lot of traits; in terms of religious confessions, Ukrainians are mostly Orthodox Christians like Russians with only about 10 per cent of the total population declaring allegiance to Roman Catholic or Greek Catholic church), the current conflict has its roots in the trauma that left deep scars in the psyche of both nations: their joint destiny under the rule of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and by extension, how the two nations suffered as a result of the Nazi onslaught during the WW II.

Both Russians and Ukrainians had to endure the mass collectivization of farms and the resulting hunger in late 1920s and early 1930s under the rule of Stalin, possibly the only dictator that could match the monstrosities of his arch enemy, Adolf Hitler.

When Hitler trampled on the secret non-aggression pact he signed with Stalin prior to the WW II, his mind was on the vast plains of Ukraine, which he planned to use as the breadbasket for not only his massive army but also for all the European nations he intended to keep as colonies of the Third Reich.

And invade Ukraine, he did. More important than his invasion of the land per se, its consequence could have proven existential for Russia: Once Ukraine was under the control of the German armies, there was no natural strategic barrier for Hitler’s troops to advance into the heartland of Russia, no mountain range to surpass, no thick forestland to hinder the movement of panzer divisions or a big waterway which could have delayed a military operation. Hitler’s troops did reach Russian heartland within a matter of weeks and that led to the legendary battle of Stalingrad (now Volgograd), which lasted more than five months until the Soviet armies repelled German forces.

The Soviet Union lost 24 million of its people in WWII and this has led to the foundation of a fundamental defense policy: Russia, being the core of the Soviet Union, would not be rendered defenseless at any cost.

The collapse of the Soviet Union meant that Russia would lose the buffer zone around it constituted by the other republics within its federation and this could not be tolerated.

Witness the five-day war in Georgia in 2008, when Russia practically created a buffer zone between its own territory and the Georgian controlled lands, by establishing a military presence in South Ossetia, originally part of Georgia.

What is happening in Ukraine could be seen in the same context.  Moscow will do everything it can, not to allow Ukraine to be a theatre where NATO or any other Western military deployment can become a reality. If that cannot be prevented, there will be a buffer zone created between Russia proper and unfriendly military presence.

The 75-year history of the Soviet rule in Ukraine has allowed enough time to Russians to put mechanisms in place to prevent undesired developments in Ukraine. What has been happening in Crimea is just one of those mechanisms at work.

Crimea also happens to be the headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, Moscow’s only tool to be able to project power in the warm waters of the Mediterranean.

Vladimir Putin’s Moscow is taking a big but well calculated risk in challenging the West by claiming the control of Crimea.

Britain has already ruled out resorting to military action. President Obama of the US probably does not have all his ducks in order just to venture into another military campaign as he is trying to manage a pullout from Afghanistan. As for the possibility of economic sanctions/warfare, Russia could not care less if it were expelled from the group of G8. If the west moves to impose economic sanctions against Moscow, it will be hit at least as much as Russia: Western Europe, which is dependent on Russia for some 40 per cent of its natural gas supplies, will be facing a huge energy crisis; Germany, which has a sizeable trade surplus with Russia will be devoid of a massive market and the price of oil will skyrocket, something which will hit the global economy as a whole.

Add to this the possibility of another global financial meltdown following a potential Ukrainian default on its sovereign debt, one can see why Russia can feel audacious enough to go ahead and challenge the west to force its claim on Crimea.