As tensions in Eastern Ukraine grow by the day, the situation is complex, fluid and very worrying. Neither side can appear weak, there is too much at stake. At the same time, they are very aware that pushing the limit too far could be a fatal error. In the west, our focus can sometimes be very one-sided. What is Russia doing? Certainly, Putin’s actions can be hard to understand, as can all geopolitical questions. The answer usually lies in the history of the region and that I believe, is certainly the case here. In no way am I trying to condone Russia’s actions in Ukraine. They are purposefully trying to destabilise the country to weaken Ukraine’s hold in the east. I am trying to look a little deeper at the possible fear and paranoia behind their reprehensible actions.
Russia’s borders have always been a fundamental weakness. To the North and South, there are no barriers to protect Russia. The Kremlin is very aware and deeply paranoid about this. Russia’s only strategy is to try to increase the distance between a potential ‘enemy’ and Moscow. This has led to the flashpoint that we are seeing today. Russia is always pushing west or at the very least trying to maintain its position. Europe is always pushing east expanding its sphere while weakening Russia’s. The collapse of the Soviet Union was a windfall for Europe, one from which Russia is still trying to recover. Ukraine and Belarus are thus of vital strategic importance to Moscow. Belarus is its most loyal neighbour. Minsk still mourns the fall of the Soviet Empire and is very keen to be involved in any Eurasian Union, which Putin has tried to establish. The key ingredient in any such Union however is Ukraine. Its location, history and population make it too big to lose.
As a measure of the logic of Russia’s paranoia, George Friedman, in his book, The next 100 years, describes the huge changes in Russia’s sphere of influence. Its treasured St. Petersburg was a thousand miles from any NATO troops in 1989; today the Baltic members of NATO make this distance a mere 100 miles. Moscow was 1200 miles from the western most point of the Soviet Sphere. Today it is a mere 200 miles. Russia’s western frontier faces the three Baltic States of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia as well as Belarus and Ukraine. A western backed “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine in 2004, followed by the EU’s attempts to draw Ukraine into the European fold has led Putin to act.
In the geopolitical game, Russia has no choice. Europe has tread on its toes and hit a nerve. What we are seeing in Eastern Ukraine is Russia’s push back. Just imagine the response if Russia attempted to station some troops in Mexico.
There is no one size fits all solution to an issue like this. The context is all-important and very different in each case. However, learning from the strong points of other country’s relations with its neighbours may be helpful. Zbigniew K. Brzezinski speaking at a CSIS conference proposed a Finnish solution for Ukraine. Finland has expertly crafted a stable status quo with its neighbours, Russia and the EU. It has done this by engaging in wide ranging economic relations with both Russia and the EU, whilst not participating in any military alliance viewed by Russia as a threat.
The UN is largely powerless in this situation. With Russia’s veto on the Security Council, the UN is very limited in what it can do or say. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has called for calm and issued various warnings that the situation could quickly spin out of control.
Ukraine is a victim of its geographical location. It is on the fault line between Russia and the West. This is not fair, but Ukraine must be pragmatic and play with the hand it has been dealt. Russia will always have a say in its future direction, as it cannot afford to let it go. Compromise is always better than war.
Post written by Board member and website writer Barry Hynes.