For Moscow, Ukraine was the ‘final straw’ as Nato expanded eastwards

Moscow's anger over its treatment since the end of the cold war reached tipping point when the EU moved to draw Kiev closer to the West

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 March, 2014, 10:10pm
UPDATED : Friday, 21 March, 2014, 8:23am

The crisis over Crimea is more than a dispute over whether the strategic Black Sea peninsula should be considered Russian or Ukrainian. At its root is a deeper issue: Russia's simmering anger over its treatment by the West since the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union.

Russia's biggest grievance has been the absorption into the Nato alliance not only of former Soviet allies, such as Poland and Romania, but also three republics that were part of the Soviet Union: Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. The last straw was a European Union move to draw Ukraine closer to the West through a political association agreement. That set off a chain of events that led to the ousting of Ukraine's pro-Russian president and, ultimately, to Russia's annexation of Crimea.

[The West] have constantly tried to drive us into a corner

Russian President Vladimir Putin recounted the post-cold war history during a speech on Tuesday marking Crimea's annexation, accusing the West of cheating Russia and ignoring its interests in the years that followed the Soviet collapse.

"They have constantly tried to drive us into a corner for our independent stance, for defending it, for calling things by their proper names and not being hypocritical," Putin said. "But there are limits. And in the case of Ukraine, our Western partners have crossed a line. They have behaved rudely, irresponsibly and unprofessionally."

Few Western observers and students of East-West relations condone Putin's actions in Ukraine: the military takeover, the hastily organised referendum about Crimean independence or Moscow's equally rushed annexation of the strategic Black Sea peninsula on Tuesday. But there is an understanding that the Ukraine crisis marks a Kremlin decision that more than "20 years of trying to develop a better relationship with the West has been a failure", said Keith Darden, a professor of international service at American University in Washington.

Moscow's rapid takeover of Crimea, said Jack F Matlock Jnr, the US ambassador to Moscow at the end of the cold war, must be understood in the context of how Washington had handled relations with Moscow since the Soviet Union fell apart.

"The common assumption that the West forced the collapse of the Soviet Union and thus won the cold war is wrong. The fact is that the cold war ended by negotiation to the advantage of both sides," Matlock wrote in The Washington Post. Since the Soviet collapse, he said, the problem was that the US had "insisted on treating Russia as the loser".

Nato's move into the Baltic countries and the Balkans was "the diplomatic equivalent of swift kicks to the groin", he wrote.

Russia's strategic and emotional ties to Crimea are especially deep. The Kremlin views Ukraine as essential to its attempts to establish a Eurasian Commission modelled after the European Commission, the governing arm of the EU.

Crimea's population is majority Russian and the Kremlin has a long lease on a base there for its Black Sea Fleet. Tens of thousands of Russian military personnel were already stationed there. Russia also has deployed a big force opposite Ukraine's eastern border, the industrial heartland with a big Russian population that would welcome restoration of Kremlin power.

Western and central Ukraine, on the contrary, are eager to slip the ancient Russian leash and to join with the EU and Nato.

Few could have foreseen that then-Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych's rejection of the EU's association agreement last year would lead to massive, months-long demonstrations and ultimately Yanukovych fleeing to Russia.

In his place, a Western-oriented government, with many of its members from the protest leadership, took control of the France-sized country.