We do not feel the need to explain what might appear as an editorial preoccupation with events in Ukraine. For the rapidity of the events in Kiev leading to the overthrow of President Yanukovich and his government, and their replacement by what is said to be a temporary authority pending new presidential elections, has now riveted the attention of the globe on the Ukraine-Russia relationship. And in a flash, President Putin has been transformed from the status of global recognition as successful organizer of the Sochi Olympics, to a virtual rogue intervener in the Ukrainian territory of Crimea, an area with a strong historical and ethnic relationship with Russia.
There is a sense in which the countries of the western world – in the European Union and in Nato – would hardly have expected less from Putin as events evolved. Much Russian commentary had been devoted to the close ties between Russia and Ukraine, and incipient hints of an intense interest of the Russian government on what was occurring there. And perhaps not unexpectedly in the West, it was not difficult for Putin to invoke various agreements with Ukraine to justify what is now described as an intervention.
As events evolved over the last few weeks, it became clear that the European Union in particular, was becoming intensely concerned with the virtual revolution against Yanukovich in a country which he had by then led into a situation of intense economic difficulty, portending a substantial economic dependence on either the EU or Russia.
But then, as the implications of Yanukovich’s sudden lurch from intensifying discussions towards some form of institutional involvement with the EU that would, in the Russians’ view, involve substantial efforts at halting the pace of the increasingly disintegrating national economy, and as senior EU officials seemed to become increasingly involved within Ukraine itself, it obviously became clearer to the Russian leadership that Ukraine could be drawn into the Western sphere. And so too, did the anxiety of that leadership increase to ensure that Ukraine remained, more or less, in its own sphere of influence.
As is often the case in events of this kind, one side of the dispute, in this case Russia, has used the excuse of a potential pogrom against people of Russian dissent, to justify intervention in that part of Ukraine which, by treaty, houses Russian military facilities including a substantial naval system.
The EU, even more fiercely than the United States initially, has insisted that the revolutionary events in Ukraine in the last few weeks did not portend any substantial ethnic or civic conflict, and that which has evolved in Ukraine was a progressively-building coalition hostile to Yanukovich’s government. The EU insists too, that its interpretation has been justified by Yanukovich’s decision to flee the centre of power.
Indeed, when the persistence of the protesters, and their increasingly organized activities are taken into account, the conflict had all the characteristics of a budding civil war. But the very nature of the outside backers of the forces contending internally, Russia and the European Union, did not permit any direct intervention by either of the supporters until Yanukovich’s flight forced the issue. For it appeared for some time that the United States seemed unwilling to forcefully diplomatically intervene in the issue with any substantial conviction, leaving it to the EU to take care of what might well have seemed as a potential dispute among regional powers – Russia and the EU on the European continent.
American diplomacy now seems to be willing to play a stronger hand. But it may be that President Obama perceives that the options that could induce Putin to withdraw from the Crimea which Russia’s troops now occupy in large numbers beyond the pre-crisis status quo, are limited. The Americans will be cognizant of the extent to which Russia has become integrally involved in its Middle East diplomacy, a fact that is not favoured by some congressmen in either the Senate or the House of Representatives. Yet, the Russian interest in that arena of diplomacy is seen as critical.
So while America’s spokespersons, in particular Secretary of State John Kerry have become more vocal in their denunciation of the Russian intervention, there are signs that if there is to be a Russian withdrawal from the Crimea it is likely to be a negotiated affair following determined negotiation between the United States and President Putin.
Of course, the United States will be taking care to ensure this process is handled in such a way as to inhibit any talk in Washington about American capitulation. But at the same time, the EU will wish to see any conclusion to this affair to be demonstrably favourable to the strong stand that they have taken, including suggestions that at this point, the Russian economy can be destabilized by joint financial action by the collective Nato powers.
The world awaits Putin’s next move in relation to US initiatives, cognizant as Putin must be, that Russia is no longer the closed economy of Soviet and Stalinist times.