March 2, 2014
Putin's Russia has taken over Crimea which is a major part of Ukraine, a neighbouring sovereign state. Russian forces have gained control of Crimea, which looks as if it will vote to secede from Ukraine.
If the big fear is that Moscow is planning a full-scale annexation of Crimea, with its majority ethnic Russian population, it may also be the case that Russia may primarily trying to secure its naval base and to destabilize the Ukrainian government.
This is Russia's response to three months of protest, with 82 people being killed in clashes with riot police and thugs deployed by Viktor Yanukovych's corrupt authoritarian regime; a response to a classic popular revolution that was pro-Europe in orientation. The opposition demonstrators in Kiev were ordinary citizens who were fed up with the corruption and misrule of President Viktor Yanukovych and his clique, and who were opposed to the country's slide into an outright dictatorship.
It was a bottom-up revolution. The Euromaidan ‘protesters were armed with little more than homemade shields, rubbish helmets and molotov cocktails. The Euromaidan protests appear to have been essentially pro-democratic, pro-European and multicultural whilst including far-right nationalists and neo-fascists.
The trigger appears to have been the enormous Russian political and economic pressure on Ukraine, combined with the pro-Russian policies of Yanukovych, and his grotesque corruption, coupled to Ukraine's inequality, economic stagnation and poverty.
Now there is an interim government with new presidential elections in May. Ukraine is facing default on its various debts and the transitional government has to deal with only two major problems in new Ukraine: (1) the Kremlin-backed separatism and (2) the economic crisis.
Ukrainians are deeply divided about European integration largely along an axis between the largely Russian-speaking east and south and the traditionally nationalist western Ukraine.
Ukraine's economy is in a mess as it was beggared by the neoliberal shock therapy and mass privatisation of the post-Soviet years. The country does not have the resources to pay for a major economic change programme. The interim president has said that a return to the path of European integration is his priority. This means that the EU needs to set out the conditions Ukraine would have to meet in order to become a member of the Union. Some of those conditions would involve significant economic reform and loans for austerity, as part of a German-led drive to open up Ukraine for western companies.
It is highly unlikely that the US, Britain or France will respond militarily to Russia's invasion of Crimea and Crimea's secession. NATO likewise, rhetoric notwithstanding. Ukraine is not a member of an expansionist NATO, and Russia is very resistant to Nato's undisguised ambition to continue two decades of expansion into what used to be called "post-Soviet space".
Putin's post-Soviet Russian nationalism sees the borderline states ---Moldova, Armenia, Belarus Georgia--- as being within Russia's sphere of interest/influence in eastern Europe and a part of Russia's planned economic integration in the post-Soviet space. Russia lost an empire and the vacuum is being filled by Putin's geopolitical project, which is the creation of an Eurasian Union. Russia sees Ukraine, given its strategically important location, as the lynchpin to establishing its Eurasian Union. Without at least parts of Ukraine integrated into the Customs Union (a single market bloc) Putin's Eurasian Union won’t really work.
If the ostensible purpose of Putin's new integration project for Eurasia is economic, then its primary objective is geopolitical to be achieved in large part by economic means with Russia ruling supreme. A crucial question in relation to the concept of regional hegemony, in the form of a Eurasian economic union, is whether the wider public in post-Soviet countries, where opposition to Russian domination, and a sense of grievance and injustice, remain strong, will passively accept Putin's scenario.
Memories of the seven-decade experiment in totalitarianism that was imposed on them by Russia are bound to resurface and the wider public would be understandably be wary of an economic union becoming a vehicle for the reduction of their political sovereignty by the Kremlin.