Things have slackened off again here, what with one thing and another. But here is the hefty piece I wrote about Ukraine last week for the Daily Telegraph. To be precise, I did not write it. I dictated it into my iPad from my hotel room in Gjakova (also known as Djakovica, down near the Kosovo/Albania border).


The Ukraine problem now poses a genuinely dangerous threat to European security. A case can be made for redrawing the map of this part of Europe to allow those parts of Ukraine that wish to integrate closely with Russia to do so, leaving the rest to move closer towards western Europe. Making any such policy happen through calm negotiation will be next to impossible. Moscow is already accusing the opposition in Ukraine of “acting illegally” in trying to topple President Yanukovych. Does this open the way to Russia intervening to “protect” those elements that call for protection against such illegality?

It’s not likely that Russia will want to swallow a formal partition of Ukraine, even if that option were available. That would amount to conceding that much of the country is falling away from Russian influence. It’s more likely that Moscow will try to “punish” Ukraine for its ingratitude by creating a situation in which it is effectively divided and unable to function as a coherent unit, except on Moscow’s terms.

Quite a good prediction, if I say so myself.

That said, I have been impressed that Russia has moved so explicitly or even crudely to establish some new realities on the ground in and around Crimea.

The key to understanding Russian policy in the former Soviet Union is found in an interview Vladimir Putin gave back in 2003. Asked what his foreign policy was, he said something to the effect of “I aim to keep what’s ours.”

So much said, in so few words. All hail technique.

Thus, for example, what Russia sees as ‘its’ might include:

  • any territories ever conquered by the Tsars or Stalin (including eg the three small Baltic republics, large chunks of Poland and Finland etc)
  • any territories that belonged to the USSR
  • any territories that belonged to the Russian SSR
  • any territories where Russian influence ‘naturally’ belongs
  • anywhere where non-trivial numbers of Russian citizens find themselves outside Russia’s current borders (hence the busy policy of handing out Russian passports to Russian-speakers or others showing due fealty to Moscow, eg in Georgia/Abkhazia and now in Ukraine)

The Putinist point, of course, is never to define precisely what Russia sees as ‘its’. In Crimea and other parts of Ukraine now a combination of arguments is being deployed to suit different audiences. But the overall result is clear: to cut Ukraine down to size and make the country work only on Russia’s terms.

Faced with this openly expansionist and impressively direct policy, Western leaders are trying to find something meaningful by way of reply. Here is what President Obama is said by the White House to have said to President Putin in their long telephone conversation yesterday:

President Obama made clear that Russia’s continued violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity would negatively impact Russia’s standing in the international community. In the coming hours and days, the United States will urgently consult with allies and partners in the UN Security Council, the North Atlantic Council, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and with the signatories of the Budapest Memorandum. The United States will suspend upcoming participation in preparatory meetings for the G-8. Going forward, Russia’s continued violation of international law will lead to greater political and economic isolation.

The basic problem with this sort of high-profile ‘personal’ diplomacy is that it needs to be balanced to be credible. I suspect that if Obama walked out of the Oval Office and was tasked to write down all he knows about Ukraine he would struggle to fill more than a couple of pages. Putin by contrast could write a short book about it. 

See the Russian acount of this conversation. Full of sharp specifics:

In response to Barack Obama’s concern about the possible use of Russia’s Armed Forces on Ukraine’s territory, Vladimir Putin called attention to the provocative, criminal actions of the ultra-right elements who are in essence being encouraged by the current government in Kiev. The Russian President accented the very real threats to the lives and health of Russian citizens and numerous compatriots who are currently on Ukraine’s territory. Vladimir Putin underscored that, in case of the further spread of violence in the eastern regions of Ukraine and the Crimea, Russia reserves the right to defend its interests and those of the Russian-speaking population living there.

So Putin is unlikely to take seriously much of what Obama says on the subject: he may be the US President, but what does he actually know or (more importantly) care about Ukraine and Russia or indeed central Europe? Not much?

Over at Brian Barder there is an interesting e-discussion emerging between some senior former UK diplomats who really know the region. I have chipped in, as has Roland Smith (previously Ambassador to Kiev) and Sir Rodric Braithwaite, one of the UK’s very top experts in this area who was in Moscow when the USSR collapsed. Check it out.

My concluding thought there (and here) with added FCO in-joke:

I suspect that in years to come this flailing by Putin will be seen as a colossal Russian blunder that wrecked the credibility of Moscow’s Eurasian Economic Union initiative (which CIS country will want to be subject to the sort of bullying Ukraine is now getting)? Plus Putin seems to be making a striking mistake in alienating Ukrainian speakers who are being treated as traitors and ‘fascists’ simply for wanting to become more European. Ukraine may come to signal the beginning of Russia’s own eventual disintegration into smaller units.

Bottom line (Lyne?)? Russia seems to define its ‘interests’ under current management by insisting that you must be crushed in a hug of Russian affection until you can scarcely breathe, and if you ask for some fresh air you’re being hateful.

That sort of policy is about as unsuited to the emerging modern world of easy-going e-pluralism as can be imagined. It will fail. But how many people including Russians themselves will die or suffer as it lumbers around before it crashes?