Ukraine caught in Russia's tussle for power with the West

Andrew Leung considers the implications of a more autonomous Crimea

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 March, 2014, 5:06pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 March, 2014, 2:12am

Over the years, Vladimir Putin has been building a Russian empire of energy pipelines throughout Europe. In aggregate, Russia provides about a quarter of the natural gas consumed in the European Union, of which over half is carried through pipelines across Ukraine.

Building on this powerful energy network, Putin harbours a vision of a "Eurasian Union" to rival the EU. This vision seems to be part of his dream of restoring the lost glories of the former USSR.

It is possible that the vision goes beyond Eurasia, to include countries with historical, political or cultural ties, such as Finland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Vietnam.

Ukraine is a lynchpin for Russia's energy supplies to Europe, while Russia's Black Sea Fleet based in Crimea's Sevastopol is the core of Russia's Eurasian power projection. So the loss of Ukraine to the fold of the West would not only threaten Russia's national security but also unravel Putin's Eurasian dream.

For the West, Ukraine's about-turn presents a hard-won opening for bringing the country, whose western part is fiercely anti-Russia, into the EU fold - a further step to diminish Russia's stranglehold over Eastern Europe.

Russian armed forces are already deployed to Crimea. Will Putin use military force to reverse the status quo in Kiev or occupy pro-Russia eastern Ukraine? This seems unlikely.

The people in western Ukraine have clearly spoken. It's no use reclaiming a ticking anti-Russia political time bomb. Moreover, excessive military aggression will backfire on Russia's weak economy, vulnerable to energy demands in Europe. From a cost-benefit perspective, Russian energy supply would seem to be a more effective leverage over Ukraine.

The US is warning against Russian military intervention, threatening visa bans and asset freezes. But any response stops short of direct military confrontation, given that America's hands are tied with a war-weary electorate, budget constraints and rising pressures on the US pivot to Asia.

Taking advantage of America's military handicap, the EU's dependence on Russian energy, and the anti-Kiev sentiments of Crimea's Russian majority, Putin has moved with lightning speed. The parliament of Ukraine's Autonomous Republic of Crimea has proposed holding a referendum on Sunday to determine the region's future. This is presumably to present a fait accompli before the West gets its act together.

The Russian president is likely to stick it out in Crimea, waiting for the predictable outcome of the referendum. If the outcome is for joining the Russian Federation, he would approve it, thereby annexing Crimea formally.

If the outcome is for Crimea to have much greater autonomy, he is likely to use it as a pretext for strengthening Russia's military presence there, ostensibly to protect Crimea's Russian majority from an anti-Russia Kiev leadership. Either way, Putin is likely to be able to achieve his aim of securing a permanent home for Russia's crucial Black Sea Fleet.

Henry Kissinger, writing recently in The Washington Post, has proposed a "Finland model" to solve the Ukrainian crisis, comparing the Scandinavian country's fierce independence while maintaining cordiality with Russia.

This consists of: first, letting the Ukrainian people choose their collective future; second, not letting Ukraine into Nato, to avoid provoking Russia; third, leaving Ukraine free to create any government compatible with the will of its people; and fourth, in exchange for Russia's recognition of Ukraine's sovereignty, Crimea's autonomy would be reinforced in elections.

Kissinger's formula would help de-escalate the rising tensions. Whether it could ensure that Crimea remains intact under Ukrainian sovereignty remains to be seen. What is clear is that the recent events for Ukraine's future are but moves on a grand chessboard between the West and a resurgent Russia under Putin.

Andrew K. P. Leung is an international and independent China specialist based in Hong Kong