Ukraine has now become a proxy Grand Chessboard between Russia and the West.
Over the years, Vladimir Putin has been building Russia's empire of energy pipelines throughout continental Europe. Download Russia's pipelines to Europe Download EU Imports of Russian Gas In the north, the Druzhba pipelines extend through Belarus to Poland and Germany. In the south, they pass through Ukraine to Central Europe and the Balkans to Italy. This gives Russia immense leverage over a host of European countries. Those heavily dependent on Russian energy include countries in Eastern Europe, the Baltic States, Finland and Turkey.
Ukraine remains a key transit country for Russia’s energy supply to Europe. In aggregate, Russia provides about a quarter of the natural gas consumed in the European Union, of which some 80% is carried through pipelines across Ukraine.
Building on this powerful energy network, Putin harbours a vision of a "Eurasian Union" Click here conceived during his third term as Russian President. It hopes to capitalize on the success of the Eurasian Customs Union between Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan to embrace other former Soviet Union member nations, growing them into a "powerful, supra-national union" of sovereign Eurasian states.
It is possible that the vision goes beyond Eurasia. It was reported that at a November 2011 round table in Moscow organised by the ruling United Russia party, Russian political scientist Dmitry Orlov opined that membership could be extended to countries with historical, political or cultural ties, such as Finland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Vietnam, Mongolia, Cuba and Venezuela. Click here
Ukraine is a lynchpin for Putin's Eurasian blueprint. As part of Ukraine, Crimea, where Sevastopol is the base for Russia's Black Sea Fleet, is at the core of Russia's Eurasian power projection. So the loss of Ukraine to the fold of the West would undermine Putin's Eurasian dream.
For the West, Ukraine’s about-turn presents a hard-won opening for bringing the country, or at least its anti-Russian western part, into the fold of the European Union.
However, a bankrupt Ukraine would soon implode without a substantial financial lifeline. According to an analysis in YaleGlobal, an online platform for international and Asian studies, Ukraine is likely to need $35 billion for economic survival. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) comes up with only $5 billion while the EU offers only $610 million in “macro-financial assistance.”
Former US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinsky, a doyen of US foreign policy, calls for Germany to lead the EU in mounting a financial rescue. He hopes Russia could also do its part. Click here
Brzezinsky is an advocate for the United States to maintain global leadership through a "Larger West" with the ultimate aim of integrating Russia into the Western fold. (Zbigniew Brzezinsky, Strategic Vision, America and the Crisis of Global Power, Basic Books, New York, 2012) Click here Embracing Ukraine first would be an incremental tactical move on the Grand Chessboard.
Russia has suspended the remaining $12 billion of its $15 billion December bailout for Ukraine. Would Russia be persuaded to re-open the spigot? It may, if a deal could be struck to maintain its influence in the whole of Ukraine, perhaps through a less anti-Russia leadership at Kiev. However, any bow to Russian influence is unlikely to be accepted by the people in Western Ukraine. Nor is Russia likely to agree to pay and to smooth the way for Ukraine's ultimate entry into the fold of the European Union. The prize is not just Ukraine. It's Putin's Eurasian dream.
Meanwhile, Western Ukrainians see their hope of closer ties with the European Union re-kindled. They also want to hunt down ousted President Viktor Yanukovych for civilian massacre, corruption and betrayal. On the other hand, pro-Russia Eastern Ukraine and Crimea are getting more and more agitated with the power seizure by an anti-Russian Kiev leadership. The viability of Russia’s Black Sea port is staring Putin in the face.
Peoples on the two parts of Ukraine seem now to be poles apart, torn by opposite aspirations, not to mention different language and cultural links. However, although as pointed out by The Economist, Ukraine is a "Tale of Two Countries" here, there is considerate support even in the pro-Russia eastern part for national unity.
As a strategic counterweight against a resurgent Russia, the United States has been pushing for the creation of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the European Union, which is expected to become potentially the world's largest trading bloc. Additionally, America's "shale gas revolution" opens up the possibility of future supply of U.S. energy to Europe, undercutting the stranglehold of Russia's extensive European pipelines.
In response to the risks of falling European demand for Russian energy, Russia is developing a much closer, though still guarded, relationship with China, the world's largest energy consumer for many decades to come. Russia became President Xi's first overseas port of call, where the two sides agreed to triple Russian oil exports to China to 45-50 million tonnes, possibly by 2018, making China sooner or later the largest consumer of Russian oil. Click here
But these are longer-term counterweights for both Russia and the United States. They are unavailable in arresting a fast-developing crisis.
On the pretext of protecting Russian citizens in Ukraine, Putin has put the Russian military on full alert and is deploying armed forces to Crimea. But is Russia likely to restore the status quo ante in Kiev by force? This extreme action does not seem likely. This is because the Yanukovych regime has crumbled. The people in Western Ukraine have clearly spoken by taking to the streets. It’s no use reclaiming a ticking time-bomb. Moreover, excessive military aggression will backfire on Russia’s weak economy, vulnerable to energy demands in Europe Click here
For the West, immediate options are limited. The European Union is not equipped militarily or financially against such a formidable adversary as Russia. Nor is war between America and Russia conceivable. Short of economic and other sanctions, America’s hands are tied with a war-weary electorate, severe budget constraints, and rising pressures on the U.S. Pivot to Asia, including not least an unpredictable North Korea and volatile situations in the East and South China Seas.
Reality therefore dictates that both sides are likely to explore the next best alternative at minimum costs. For Russia, in the rush of events, a bird in the hand may be worth two in the bush. Putin may therefore feel inclined to grab the best of a bad bargain by engineering a Yugoslavian split of Ukraine one way or another, perhaps through Crimea's (if not Eastern Ukraine’s) call for independence. Then, with levers of a financial bailout and energy supplies, he may hope to gradually bring the western part of Ukraine back into the Russia sphere of influence.
Crimea independence will split the country, and may not be the best option for any side, including the peoples themselves. However, while Russian control of Crimea is to be condemned for violating Ukraine’s sovereignty and unity, this is almost a fait accompli. Ironically, if this serves to push Western Ukraine closer to the European Union, this messy outcome may not be too undesirable to the West from a cost-benefit perspective, sanctity of national unity notwithstanding.
Sadly, as with Syria, the Ukrainian peoples in many ways may not be full masters of their own fate. They are liable to having to negotiate their future on a much larger Grand Chessboard involving the world's powerful stakeholders.
An excllent analysis of the question "Is Crimean independence or annexation a good outcome for Russia?" is provided by Helena Yakovlev-Golani and Nadiya Kravets in the Washington Post of 6 March here