The ongoing Ukrainian crisis is undoubtedly the worst period in Russian-Western relations since the end of the Cold War. What happened during the last few months in Ukraine is well-known; likewise, it is almost useless to mention the support both Russia and the West have awarded to “their” sides, with a substantial role change when, in Kiev, the government became opposition and vice-versa. Russia and the West are now often waging against the other a Cold War language, and many commentators have talked about a “new Cold War”. Nevertheless, in spite of some similarities, we have not returned to the past. Nowadays, the struggle between Russia and the West is not ideological, but civilizational; Ukraine is not Vietnam, but a country torn by the invisible border which separates the West and the Russo-Eurasian civilization, and the best term to define the Crimean crisis and the ongoing guerrilla war in the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine is “fault line war”, an expression coined by Samuel Huntington to define “a war between two or more groups from different civilizations”(1).
This makes the ongoing Ukrainian crisis particularly dangerous, at least for the nations and the people directly involved in it. Fault line wars are indeed far longer and more dangerous than ideological wars and conflicts between interest groups, especially when they involve third parties who can claim cultural, ethnic, linguistic and – even worse – religious ties with the participants. The reason is in the same roots of these conflicts. Ideologies are not targets in itself, but means to achieve them, and ideological debates are not around “who we are”, but rather about issues such as “how to make a government function better” or “how to ensure equal opportunities to all citizens”. A Marxist-Leninist and a Liberal Democrat can usually debate without problems, last but not least because they share most of their vocabulary: words like “democracy”, “freedom” and “liberation” are very common among both of them (2). Moreover, switching from an ideology to another is not very difficult, and this explains why the main Western European far-left terrorist movements of the 70’s, like the Italian Brigate Rosse (Red Brigades) and the West German Rote Armee Fraktion (Red Army Fraction) were easily crushed once the myth of the proletarian revolution began to dissolve. Most ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious conflicts, on the other hand, are not rooted in some form of social disease, but rather in identity. This helps to explain why it was very difficult to crush, for instance, the Basque ETA, the Northern Irish IRA and the various separatist, irredentist and autonomist movements which have been affecting many regions in the former Yugoslavia and the post-Soviet Eurasia.
The irrationality involved in these conflicts makes the search for a win-win compromise very difficult. Most of them do not know long-lasting peaces, but only temporary truces whose main function is to allow the parties to “breathe again” before starting fighting again, while perennial peace, in many cases, is consequential of forced assimilations, population exchanges, ethnic cleansing or even genocide. The historical German communities of Silesia, the Sudetes, Prussia and Eastern Pomerania have almost completely disappeared, and the only visible mark of their former presence is the unmistakable mark of their genius loci in cities like Wroclaw (formerly Breslau), Szczecin (formerly Stettin) and Kaliningrad (formerly Königsberg). The Armenian Genocide, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the population exchanges with Greece in the beginning of the 20th century, made Istanbul, known for centuries as a hub of populations and religions, become overwhelmingly Turkish.
One of the worst mistakes of the West in the Ukrainian crisis has been the failure to recognize the “civilizational” nature of the Ukrainian conflict, with many preferring to see it as an episode of the Great Game between Russia and the West for Eastern Europe, or even as an attempt by Putin to divert the Russian public opinion from the long-standing problems of the country through a patriotic revival. Like Kosovo Polje for the Serbs, the Mount Ararat for the Armenians and Kashmir for Pakistan, Kiev is one of those places where nationalism meets spirituality. Chokan Laumulin, a prominent Kazakh political scientist, named it “the Eastern Slavs’ Jerusalem” because of its strong symbolical value for the Russians, the Ukrainians and the Belarusians (3). Such metaphor is successful for two reasons. On the one hand, both cities have a sacred value: it was in Kiev, after all, that the Eastern Slavs adopted Orthodoxy from Constantinople. On the other hand, like the Holy City, the Ukrainian capital is also a place of divisions. Does the Kievan Rus’ heritage belong to all Eastern Slavs, as most historians agree, or only to the Ukrainians, as the Ukrainian nationalists state? Is it possible to talk about a greater Russian people, with Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians being its sub-ethnoi? Are the Russians a “big brother” of the Ukrainians and the Belarusians, or are they a mere former colonial oppressor? The answers could be very different on each side of the Dnieper river.
If Ukraine did not become either a second Poland or a second Belarus, but it has remained stuck at a crossroad for over twenty years, this is due namely to the differences between the West-Central regions on the one hand and the South-Eastern ones on the other, with the two extremes being Galicia and Donbas. In the last twenty years, the interregional differences has somehow decreased, last but not least because of the consciousness of living under a single State, but the Crimean crisis and the Donbas War risk to create die-hard grudges both between the “two” Ukraines and between most of the latter and Russia. This puts Russia between the devil and the deep blue sea. On the one hand, Ukrainian nationalism is acquiring a distinct anti-Russian nature, and both the European Union and the USA have not given up threatening Russia with real economic sanctions. On the other, the rise of Russian nationalism, which so far has helped Putin to reach an unprecedented popularity level, could turn against Putin itself in case he would accept an unequal compromise over Ukraine. And, in this case, Putin will no longer be the champion of the Russian national revenge, but, like Milošević over Dayton, he would be accused of the worst war crime: treason.
It is virtually impossible to demonstrate that the Western leaders, and in particular their foreign affairs supervisors, took this into account when fixing their policy towards Russia. This, nevertheless, should not be excluded, last but not least because of their aversion towards Putin. History clearly shows how difficult is constraining nationalisms, and how it becomes almost impossible in the event of a war or a revolution. As the sanctions against many Russian oligarchs of the “inner circle” clearly show, the West aims at ousting a President it never liked, be it through a “Moscow Euromaidan” or some behind-the-scene coup. Even those who have a basic knowledge of Russia and its culture know very well that Putin – as any Russian leader – is very unlikely to acquiesce to what was actually a Western-supported coup whose main aim was to deprive the fledgling Eurasian Union of its most important potential member after Russia and (possibly) Kazakhstan. Geopolitics and culture go hand-in-hand once again, and in the rhetorical clash between Russia and the West identity plays a very important role, as clearly shown by the references to the “European values of freedom and democracy” on the one hand and those to the “moral decay of the West” and the “defence of traditional values” on the other.
There is therefore no doubt about the fact that the clash between Russia and the West is also a “civilizational” one; and, even worse, such consciousness is much stronger in the former than in the latter. The overall benefit-cost ratio of clashing with Russia over Ukraine is dubious, especially for Europe, the support of America’s hard line coming from the main European leaders is more rhetorical than real, and several forces expressed themselves overtly against the sanctions. These are not only the European nationalist and euroskeptic parties, many of them admire Putin for his pro-family stances and the role played in averting a possible American intervention in Syria, but also and more importantly some of the main Western multinational companies (note: I referred to them by calling “political forces” because their role in shaping policy can be crucial). Dissent is obviously present also in Russia, as shown by the stances of some liberal and pro-Western political forces such as Solidarnost’(4) and the Civic Platform (interesting enough, another Polish-sounding name) of the businessman Mikhail Prokhorov. Their role in the Russian political panorama, nevertheless, is very limited, and their influence is virtually absent outside the West-leaning elites and the main cities. On the contrary, most Russians see the ongoing clash as a kind of new Patriotic War, like those of 1812 against Napoleon and of 1941-1945 against Hitler, and it is often those educated Russians who speak English fluently and read the Western press regularly who are developing highly anti-Western (and in particular anti-American) feelings (5). Putin’s approval rate peaked 86% in the last June (6).
Did the anti-Putin hardliners expect this? There is little doubt that many Western politicians and diplomats have hardly any grasp of what the “real” Russia is, as they spend most of their time with the scant pro-Western minorities in the high-level social gathering of Moscow or Saint Petersburg, far away from the “khrushchyovki” and the high-rise buildings where the average Russian lives. “This also happened for practical reasons: they were often the ones who could speak English”, wrote a Der Spiegel’s correspondent (7). Nor they were able to do any parallel between the crises in Crimea and Donbas with some episodes of the Russian history, instead of recurring to the “usual” Hitler. The West has dealt with Russia in the wrong way, and it should not be surprising if the underlying question among Russians about its attitude in the Ukrainian crisis is not “what did we do wrong?”, but rather “why do they hate us?”. Anti-Americanism in Russia has soared after the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis, and the risk that the West, and in particular America, will become an easy scapegoat for Russia’s internal problems is rather high.
From a Western point of view, Russia’s behaviour and attitude seems even more inexplicable while taking into consideration how history was going on only three years ago. Russia was then led by Dmitry Medvedev, a Westernized technocrat with an excellent personal relation with Barack Obama; USA and Russia had just signed the New START agreements around nuclear weapon reduction; Russia and the main European countries were signing hundreds of commercial treaties. There were some divergences, from Syria to the NATO anti-missile shield. The latter, in particular, was a particularly sensitive issue: the NATO proposed an active role for Russia in its realization, but in fact was hesitant in meeting Russia’s demands to be included in it, with Medvedev threatening to build its own anti-missile shield in case his request would be refused. Nevertheless, these looked like secondary issues, and the “reset” seemed to work. History seemed to go on, and Russia seemed to be on the right path towards building a democratic system.
The seeds of the ongoing crisis, on the other hand, were already present, and the problem was not if they would have sprouted, but rather when. The strategic plans of Russia and the West for the former Soviet area are naturally incompatible indeed. After the dissolution of the USSR, the former Soviet countries were declared Russia’s zone of privileged interest, to be shielded from outside (especially Western) influences. The only exception were the Baltic Republics, culturally Western and whose annexation by the Soviet Union after the Second World War was not recognized by many Western Bloc countries. On the other hand, as put by the American columnist Walter Russell Mead, “Western policy towards Russia has been dictated by two vetoes. The West had two grand projects for the post-Soviet space: NATO and the EU would expand into the Warsaw Pact areas and into the former Soviet Union, but Russia itself was barred from both. There would be no Russian membership in NATO and no Russian membership in the EU”(8). According to the Russian political scientist Dmitri Trenin, “Washington’s prevailing policy preoccupation was to prevent the restoration of the USSR, however fanciful that might have seemed, including to some senior American diplomats” (9), while the attempts to include Russia into a Greater Europe “from Lisbon to Vladivostok” have been rather fruitless so far. Moreover, there have been several cases of misunderstanding and overreliance on a “democratic transition” for Russia. A clear example was the attitude towards Putin during Medvedev’s presidency: Angela Merkel, for instance, tried to limit meetings with the then-Russian Prime Minister in order to make it clear that she supported the “new modernizing Russia” rather than the “old Putin Russia” (10). Barack Obama went even further, and did not meet Putin for over three years since July 2009 (11). Last but not least, the euphoria caused by the dramatic movement eastwards of the European eastern borders after the end of the Cold War has inevitably led the West to an overreliance on its strength. It should not be forgotten that in 1990 Europe ended in Lübeck, but fifteen years later it arrived at around 150 km from St Petersburg.
The outcome of the contraposition between Russia and the West is likely to be indecisive. In the most likely outcome, Donbas will become an autonomous region, but without an autonomous foreign policy (or, at least, without the power to join the Eurasian Union without Ukraine); Russia’s control of Crimea will be tacitly accepted, but not recognized; Ukraine will establish more tight relations with the West, but it will not join both the EU and the NATO and will keep a free trade regime with the Eurasian Union. Ukraine, meanwhile, will partially overcome its traditional divisions “thanks” to displacements. According to the latest UNHCR estimates, around 110,000 people escaped Eastern Ukraine to neighbouring Russia since January, and other 42,000 moved westwards towards other Ukrainian regions. The number of refugees from Crimea to Ukraine is about 12,000 (12), while around the same number of people have moved to Crimea from Eastern Ukraine (13). Not only most of them are unlikely to come back, but the number of Eastern Ukrainian refugees is likely to further increase.
The strategic consequences of the crisis are more difficult to predict and will be clear only in some years. They will depend not only on Ukraine’s future political course and on the foreign policy priorities of the West, but also on the ability of Russia to modernize itself and its economy and, in particular, on the country’s ability to play its card between China and the West. In the 90’s, Huntington noted that Russia’s position in the post-Cold War era is similar to the Chinese one during the Cold War. According to him, while a Russo-Chinese alliance would make the Western fears of the 50’s arise again, a Russo-Western alliance would reawaken the long-standing Chinese worries for a possible invasion from the north (14). Given its Euro-Pacific dimensions, neither a definite pro-Western orientation nor a definite pro-Chinese one is convenient for Russia. Nevertheless, a Western-leaning Russia or a Chinese-leaning Russia could still be crucial in slowing down – or even stopping – the decline of the Western power or, on the other hand, hastening the ongoing rise of China towards a global superpower status.
The real stakes, so, are not in Ukraine, but in Asia. It is indeed here that Moscow will face its main challenges for the future, and its priorities in the region should be:
– strengthening its relations with China without compromising those with India and Vietnam, two traditional Russian allies whose relations with Peking are rather tense (in particular in the case of the latter);
– strengthening the transport infrastructures of the Russian Far East and favouring the influx of export-oriented investments towards the region, in particular from Japan and South Korea;
– solving the long-standing Kuril Islands Dispute with Japan and promoting a tripartite forum between with Japan and China, also in order to reduce the possibility of third powers to play it off with China or Japan;
– strengthening the commercial ties with the countries of South-Eastern Asia, possibly through the promotion of free-trade agreements with countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia;
– keeping a balanced position between China and the United States.
A truce with the West and a serious engagement in reforming the economy and making the country an attractive destination for foreign investments, nevertheless, are two main prerequisites for such balanced policy. In the absence of these conditions, there would be an exponential increase of the risk that Russia would become a mere Chinese vassal state and, in turn, would be embedded in the disputes between China and many of its neighbours (15), with an inevitable burst of new tensions and a worsening of the good relations Russia enjoys with some Chinese foes, first of all Vietnam.
This, of course, is not a desirable outcome for anyone, and it is not surprising that the last weeks have been characterized by a moderate de-escalation. On the one hand, Putin has retired its troops from the Ukrainian border and has officially relinquished the possibility of an armed intervention in Ukraine; on the other hand, Poroshenko has accepted to introduce a ceasefire – although it exists more on paper than in reality – and to negotiate with the representatives of the separatists. Economic sanctions are continuously threatened, but in fact they are unlikely to be introduced, and the Association Agreement between Ukraine and the EU was signed without any particular reaction from Moscow’s side. It is obviously too little to talk about an end of the Donbas War, and a climate of trust between Russia and the West – which actually never existed – is unlikely to be established in the near future. There will not be a “new Cold War”, but rather a cold peace, at least so far there is no government change in either Russia or the US, or no powerful crises somewhere else. Resentments on both sides will continue to play an important role for still a long time. Last but not least, the peace which will be reached in the future will more likely be a kind of truce, as in the tradition of fault line wars. The desire to stop the bloodbath in Donbas and to avoid further tensions, nevertheless, seems real.
In the meantime, we should carefully watch the situation in another country that is likely to become another battlefield between Russia and the West: Kyrgyzstan. This little Central Asian republic is important not so much for its economic resources – it is the second poorest country in the former Soviet Union –, nor for its population, whose cultural distance with both Russia and the West is great, but rather for its geographical position. The country, indeed, lies between Kazakhstan – and so Russia –, China, Tajikistan – and so Afghanistan and India – and Uzbekistan – and so Iran and the Caspian Sea. If Kyrgyzstan joined the Eurasian Economic Union (ECU), the perspective to create new transport corridors which bypass the ECU or Russia would greatly diminish: the only “free” nation between China and the West would then be Tajikistan. The Kyrgyzstani President Almazbek Atambayev is a great supporter of his country’s adhesion to the ECU, and in May he declared that he hopes to “celebrate New Year’s Day in the Eurasian Union” (16). Nevertheless, there are still some obstacles to the adhesion. The most important is economic: the country needs a modernization programme and has asked for grants to Russia and Kazakhstan. Nevertheless, there is also another issue: the American influence in the country. In the last April, the U.S. Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Nisha Desai Biswal visited the country together with a delegation in order to stand for the right of territorial integrity of the Central Asian states; and, during the visit, the delegation met also some members of the anti-Eurasian opposition. Regarding the ECU, her position is rather ambiguous: on the one hand, she stated that “its terms and its conditions are still quite unclear to us”, on the other that “our Kazakh friends…have made it clear they don’t see this as an exclusive relationship, and that they intend to pursue WTO accession and that they would like to see increasing trade with the United States, with the West, with South Asia” (17). Are the USA organizing a new Maidan in Bishkek? The possibility exists, although it is not certain. After all, while on the one hand it would be helpful to further shrink Russia’s sphere of influence, on the other one there is a risk that a de-Russified Kyrgyzstan will move towards China or, even worse, become a free haven for the international terrorism. What will happen in Kyrgyzstan in case it will join the ECU may be indicative of the US foreign policy priorities.
1) S.P. Huntington, Lo Scontro delle Civiltà e il Nuovo Ordine Mondiale, Garzanti, Milan 2000, p. 374.
2) Some examples of the use of the word “democracy” among Communists are the German Democratic Republic, the Democratic Army of Greece (the Communist Greek guerrilla) and the World Federation of Democratic Youth.
4) Not to be confused with Solidarność, although its name is an obvious reference to the Polish trade union.
5) As an example, it is enough to read the comments to the article Why Putin says Russia is exceptional, published by the Wall Street Journal on 30th May (link: http://online.wsj.com/articles/why-putin-says-russia-is-exceptional-1401473667).
9) D. Trenin, Post Imperium, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington DC 2011, p. 16.
10) S. Meister, An alienated Partnership: German-Russian relations after Putin’s return, The Finnish Institute of International Affairs 2012,p. 4.
14) S.P. Huntington, p. 357.
15) These are namely the Senkaku Islands Dispute with Japan, the Paracel Islands Dispute with Vietnam, the Spratly Islands Dispute with Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia and the Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh disputes with India. There is also the eventuality of an armed conflict with the Republic of China (Taiwan) – which is also a claimant to the territories formerly mentioned – in case the latter proclaims its independence. It is not unlikely that China will ask Russia to support its positions on the aforementioned claims.