Putin’s Crimea incursion, Western double standards, and…a coup?

This week, Russia’s occupation of the Crimea has been attended by hysteria from prominent western officials.

A pair of chief diplomats, whom one might reasonably expect to exercise caution in their choice of words, have launched into vituperative condemnations of Russian president Vladimir Putin. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry—without the merest trace of irony—denounced Russia’s “incredible aggression,” insisting that the invasion of one country by another is an act unbecoming of international relations in the twenty-first century. And in an interview with Evan Solomon of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Canada’s minister of foreign affairs, John Baird, urged a diplomatic resolution to the crisis and the eschewal of inflammatory rhetoric—right after comparing Russia’s actions to the Nazi seizure of the Sudetenland.

British prime minister David Cameron and U.S. president Barack Obama quickly issued Putin an ultimatum: withdraw troops from the region forthwith, or face “costs and consequences.” Awkwardly, Russia is slated to host a summit of the leaders of the world’s eight largest economies (G8) this summer in Sochi; representatives of the other seven have decided to withdraw from the planning stages of the conference in protest. (Sochi is also home to the Paralympic Winter Games from March 7-16; Cameron and others have pledged to boycott the opening and closing ceremonies.)

Every military occupation is cause for alarm, and the present situation in Ukraine is no exception. Most likely, some sort of diplomatic compromise will soon emerge, and Russian troops will withdraw—as they withdrew from Georgia following a brief war with that Caucasian republic in 2008. However, there is potential for a more protracted standoff, due to the gravity of the issues at play and the intransigence of both sides. Obviously, the least desirable outcome for all parties is a multilateral military confrontation—improbable, but still within the realm of possibility.

Western double standards

Kerry is a noted “hawk” in the realm of U.S. foreign policy. In 2002, he voted in favour of the George W. Bush-led conquest of Iraq, under the ruse of promoting democracy; twelve years hence, Iraq remains in tatters, racked by violent insurgency, while its vast petroleum reserves are under the thumb of multinational corporations.

Baird’s boss, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, was an ardent proponent of that invasion at the time, and loudly decried then-Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s refusal to join traditional allies Britain and the U.S. by declaring war on Iraq.

In fairness, these individuals have since had a change of heart. Kerry twice claimed in 2013, dishonestly, that he opposed the Iraq War from day one. Harper tepidly acknowledged his error in supporting the Iraq campaign years later, during a leadership debate, though the misgivings he cited had more to do with faulty U.S. intelligence than any question of ethics. In principle, the willingness of western powers to carry out military interventions beyond their borders has not diminished.

Hoping, perhaps, to reinforce his denunciation of Russia with an appeal to authority, Baird has cited a principle of respect for territorial sovereignty to which he claims the “liberal democracies” adhere—despite abundant evidence to the contrary. France conducts regular military operations in its African former colonies, eliciting no comparisons to Nazi irredentism. Israel’s periodic barrages of Lebanon and the Gaza Strip have tended to draw more praise than criticism from the U.S. and its allies; all the while, the long-term projects of ethnic cleansing and annexation continue in the occupied territories, with western acquiescence. Colombia invaded Ecuador in 2008 with the support of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency; Colombia remains one of the foremost recipients of U.S. foreign military aid. And since the early 2000s, the CIA has executed an international drone assassination campaign in countries on which it has not declared war, often leading to civilian fatalities—an enormity that has greatly intensified under Obama’s watch.

Hence, although western powers have striven to adorn their condemnations of Russia in the trappings of international law, it is apparently the agent, and not the action, that they most disdain.

The EuroMaidan uprising, which began late last year, has re-aggravated a point of discord between rival spheres of influence—the West, led by the U.S. and the EU, and Putin’s Russia. (The population of Ukraine is effectively divided between the two poles.) Nearly a quarter century after the fall of the Soviet Union, inveterate cold warriors still dominate the conversation—a cultural hangover reflected both in the hyperbolic (and hypocritical) rhetoric of some Western statesmen, and in Putin’s habit of projecting Russian state power into the former Soviet republics.

Ukraine’s strategic value

For both sides, Ukraine holds enormous significance. The Crimea had been home to the Soviet Black Sea fleet for decades. In 1997, Russia and Ukraine consummated a military partition agreement and a twenty-year lease, allowing Russia’s portion of the fleet to remain in the Crimea until 2017. In 2010, Ukraine’s (now deposed) president, Viktor Yanukovych, extended the lease in exchange for a 30 per cent discount on Russian natural gas imports. (The country’s previous leader, Viktor Yushchenko—pro-Western and relatively hostile to Putin—had instead demanded that Russian forces quit the Crimea upon expiry of the initial deal.) The new accord—commonly termed the Kharkiv Pact—was one of a series of decisions by Yanukovych that deepened bilateral integration with Russia, and stoked controversy at home.

EuroMaidan is not without historical precedent—in 2004, the Orange Revolution erupted in response to suspicions of widespread fraud in a run-off electoral victory by Yanukovych over Yuschchenko (who survived an apparent assassination attempt by dioxin poisoning during the campaign, but was left disfigured). The movement succeeded in prompting Ukraine’s supreme court to schedule a re-vote, in which Yushchenko prevailed. He would serve as president from 2005 until 2010.

Importantly, during his tenure, Yushchenko sought membership in NATO—the world’s most powerful military organization, founded in 1949 for the purpose of “containing” the Soviet Union, and still openly antagonistic toward Russia. Turkey, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia are all NATO members—thus, Ukraine’s entry would leave Putin virtually flanked along the western frontier (save for Belarus and Finland) by a belligerent military alliance with a trillion-dollar budget—hardly an enticing prospect.

Economic motives are central to this conflict as well. Natural gas pipelines connecting Russia to Europe wend through Ukraine, and Ukrainian membership in the EU and NATO would likely enhance the EU’s negotiating position. On March 2, finance ministers from the other seven G8 countries released a joint statement, describing the governmental transition in Ukraine as a “unique opportunity” to implement IMF-style reforms—structural adjustment programs, including austerity, pension cuts, and the annulment of gas subsidies, which would disproportionately harm Ukraine’s poor.

Two sets of interests collide

Ukrainians have every right to assemble in the streets and voice their displeasure with their government; the prerogative of popular dissent is a core pillar of a free society, and Yanukovych was undoubtedly a venal president with authoritarian proclivities. But it would be disingenuous to assert that EuroMaidan has been a thoroughly docile movement, and downright mendacious to suggest that officials in the western liberal democracies would not have met a comparable situation at home with violent force.

Imagine, as a thought exercise, how the state would react to rioters in Washington, D.C. who began occupying government buildings in the heart of the city, blockading major roads, hurling molotov cocktails, smashing windows, shooting at police, taking hostages, and setting law enforcement headquarters ablaze. Might peaceful protesters find themselves caught up in the ensuing crackdown? And if a mass movement—primarily peaceful and moderate, but featuring a minority of unsavoury extremists (in Ukraine’s case, armed neo-Nazis)—were to force a regime change in Washington, would western leaders accept this as part of a legitimate democratic groundswell? Or would they condemn the overthrow as a coup d’état?

Several western officials have lent vocal, unconditional support to EuroMaidan. But in so doing, they have aroused a moral conundrum with problematic implications for liberal democracies everywhere, including their own. At what point is it legitimate for a citizens’ uprising to remove an elected government? And are the rules of extra-electoral ousters the same for everyone, irrespective of their congruency with the geopolitical aims of the U.S. and its allies?

Putin has sidestepped that intellectual quagmire, insisting that the overthrow of Yanukovych is indeed a coup d’état. (After all, an elected government has just been replaced by an appointed provisional cabinet, following an armed uprising backed by foreign powers.) Putin has an interest in standing with Yanukovych, keeping the former Soviet republic out of NATO and maintaining economic ties, and in keeping Russia’s Black Sea fleet in the Crimea. All of these aims have been threatened in recent years by westward-facing leaders in Kiev.

A former KGB lieutenant colonel and an icy, calculating tactician, Putin casts a long shadow over Eurasian geopolitics. Westerners of liberal inclination rightly recoil at many of his domestic policies, including a suite of laws barring “homosexual propaganda,” and the persecution of ideological adversaries, like members of dissident music troupe Pussy Riot. In a nation with a long lineage of totalitarian rulers, he is a polemical figure—reviled and respected in different quarters of Russian society.

In keeping with his disposition, Putin’s dispatch of troops to the Crimea is the product of dispassionate calculus. The aversion of western leaders, and their attempts to isolate him economically and diplomatically, are unlikely to faze him. From his point of view, the entry of Ukraine into the EU and NATO could have a far more isolating and debilitating effect than any temporary western sanctions. And as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, his regime holds a trump card.

Putin has sought to rationalize the occupation on the pretext that Russians in the Crimea may be in danger from local extremists, but there is little evidence to justify such alarmism. More likely, he is motivated primarily by a desire to protect Russian strategic interests from a potentially unsympathetic Ukrainian administration. Like a soldier sporting desert fatigues in the jungle, he has chosen a curiously flimsy disguise.

But western statesmen, led by Kerry, are guilty of even more outlandish pretenses. They portray Yanukovych as an uncommonly brutal dictator, single-handedly responsible for the violence in his country; thus, his overthrow was not only valid, but laudable. By logical extension, they have framed the street protests in Ukraine as a legitimate means by which to topple an elected government, a doctrine they would surely reject at home (assuming they have more than a passing interest in self-preservation). Finally, they maintain that Putin’s incursion into the Crimea is particularly egregious, and inconceivable to the benign, international law-abiding liberal democracies of the west—a sanctimonious fantasy.

Whatever the outcome of the present conflict, principals from both camps appear to regard the democratic will of the Ukrainian people—itself deeply polarized—as subordinate to their own plans.

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