Gordon Campbell on our response to Russia’s actions in the Ukraine

To the Russians, the current crisis in the Ukraine must seem like a no-brainer. Ukraine has always been treated as vital to Russia’s self-defence, and to its role as a modern world power. (Russia has had a fleet stationed in the Crimea since 1783.) The Crimea had been gifted by Russia to the Ukraine only 60 years ago and it is now being taken back, apparently with the enthusiastic support of the pro-Russian population of the region. In the process, the territorial integrity of the modern Ukraine now seems doomed. We seem headed for a re-run of the crisis in 2008 when the Russian military annexed parts of Georgia (namely, the regions of Abhazia and South Ossetia) after the pro-Western leadership in Georgia over-reached itself, only to find that the response of the European Union and United States was limited to expressions of deep moral outrage and hand-wringing regret. Similarly, the interim government in Kiev is about to discover that the support shown to it by that nice Catherine Ashton of the European Union will be of little use in stopping a Russian tank.

Internally, the divisions in modern Ukraine have – if anything – only come further to the fore since the country won independence in 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. (The 1991 election was the only time the leading candidate won over 50% in the first round.) In the elections of 2004 and 2010, the outcome saw almost a perfect 50/50 split between a pro-Russian south and east on the one hand, a pro-European west of the country on the other and a central region evenly split between the two. The Russian military is now poised to make that electoral divide into a geographical reality.

In doing so, the Russians are acting in what they consider to be their vital national interest. Last December, even the right wing think tank Stratfor agreed, and usefully spelled out just how Russia views the Ukraine:

Ukraine is as important to Russian national security as Scotland is to England or Texas is to the United States. In the hands of an enemy, these places would pose an existential threat to all three countries…and this reality shapes the core of Ukrainian life. In a fundamental sense, geography has imposed limits on Ukrainian national sovereignty and therefore on the lives of Ukrainians. From a purely strategic standpoint, Ukraine is Russia’s soft underbelly. Dominated by Russia, Ukraine anchors Russian power in the Carpathians. These mountains are not impossible to penetrate, but they can’t be penetrated easily. If Ukraine is under the influence or control of a Western power, Russia’s (and Belarus’) southern flank is wide open along an arc running from the Polish border east almost to Volgograd then south to the Sea of Azov, a distance of more than 1,000 miles, more than 700 of which lie along Russia proper. There are few natural barriers.

For Russia, Ukraine is a matter of fundamental national security. For a Western power, Ukraine is of value only if that power is planning to engage and defeat Russia, as the Germans tried to do in World War II. At the moment, given that no one in Europe or in the United States is thinking of engaging Russia militarily, Ukraine is not an essential asset. But from the Russian point of view it is fundamental, regardless of what anyone is thinking of at the moment. In 1932, Germany was a basket case; by 1941, it had conquered the European continent and was deep into Russia. One thing the Russians have learned in a long and painful history is to never plan based on what others are capable of doing or thinking at the moment. And given that, the future of Ukraine is never a casual matter for them.

Besides its crucial role in Russian self defence, Ukraine is an essential gateway for Russia, to the outside world.

Ukraine controls Russia’s access to the Black Sea and therefore to the Mediterranean. The ports of Odessa and Sevastopol provide both military and commercial access for exports, particularly from southern Russia. It is also a critical pipeline route for sending energy to Europe, a commercial and a strategic requirement for Russia, since energy has become a primary lever for influencing and controlling other countries, including Ukraine.

None of which, of course, gives Russia the right to invade Ukraine and subdue it by military force. One can certainly sympathise with the brave protesters in Kiev who toppled Vladimir Putin’s puppet, only to be directly confronted by Russia’s own military might. Back in 1994, the United States, Great Britain, and Russia had all agreed to respect and to safeguard Ukraine’s territorial integrity, in exchange for Kiev’s agreement to destroy its stockpile of nuclear weapons. Regardless, Putin would have considered it unthinkable to let Russia remain a mere bystander while the Ukraine drifted into the Western sphere of influence. His own survival required some kind of meaningful action – and if he could get away with annexing parts of Georgia in 2008, why not those parts of the Ukraine that are (a) pro-Russian and (b) strategically important to the Kremlin?

As even Prime Minister John Key and Foreign Minister Murray McCully said yesterday, Russia does have ‘valid strategic interests’ in the Crimea. Which in diplomacy-speak sounds like a greenlight to go right ahead and protect those interests. But hold on…red light, red light: Russia’s current actions were “unacceptable”, a cause for “grave concern” and New Zealand would be calling in the Russian ambassador. Yet from Key’s statements at yesterday’s post Cabinet press conference, it was initially hard to discern just what New Zealand would be asking the Russian ambassador to relay to the Kremlin, much less what we would consider to be an acceptable way for Russia to protect its ‘valid strategic interests.’ Was the invasion of Crimea regrettable (but understandable) but would sending Russian troops anywhere else be considered beyond the pale? What would actually Russia need to do, Scoop asked, to be in compliance with New Zealand’s position? Ultimately, Key agreed that we would be asking Russia to remove its troops from the Crimea entirely. (Fat chance of that.)

In the meantime, New Zealand would also be shelving its ongoing talks to finalise a free trade deal with Russia, Kazhkstan and Belarus. Now isn’t the right time to finalise such a deal, Key said, but we would be “re-visiting” the situation in the months ahead. Formerly of course – during the days of the old Soviet Union – Belarus, Kazahkstan and the Ukraine used to be treated alike, as a bloc of loyal Soviet republics. Next time we revisit our free trade deal with Russia, we may well find that a militarily subjugated Ukraine could be part of the fresh configuration for our FTA, alongside Kazahkstan and Belarus. Would we still be feeling so morally outraged that we could not possibly countenance such a deal? Given sufficient time to elapse in order to observe the diplomatic niceties, probably not.