Russia’s takeover of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula clearly appears to be a move to assert its interests in its own backyard, and marks a turning point in post-Cold War Russia’s foreign policy behavior. Yet Russia’s actions are also likely to weaken the very influence it seeks to preserve in its neighborhood over the longer run, as its Eastern European neighbors accelerate the forging of ever closer ties with the West and its institutions.
Since the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia and Ukraine have experienced a number of disagreements. There has been discord over the Black Sea Fleet, natural-gas pipeline disruptions, and controversial Russian-influenced elections in Ukraine.
The Orange Revolution
The November 2004 presidential run-off in Ukraine is a case in point, initially won by Moscow-backed Viktor Yanukovich amidst reports of widespread vote-rigging. Following the vote, opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko organized demonstrations in the streets. The mass protests proved successful and a new vote was held, won by Viktor Yushchenko. The episode came to be known as the Orange Revolution.
Subsequently, in February 2010, Moscow’s preferred candidate did succeed in winning the presidential contest in an election which observers called free and fair. But since that election, the government had proven unresponsive to a number of EU requests and indifferent to his people’s demands. In particular, in what appeared to be a vengeful act, Yanukovich had his 2010 electoral opponent, Yulia Tymoshenko, imprisoned on allegations of abuse of power.
Hence when the Yanukovich government finally backpedaled on signing an agreement with the EU on closer trade ties last November and instead declared that it was seeking closer ties with Russia, crowds of up to 800,000 converged on the streets. Anti-protest measures rushed through Parliament only served to galvanize the opposition. Finally, following the February 20th bloodshed, during which over 80 people died, Yanukovich fled, only to turn up in the eastern part of the country. Ukrainians hailed the establishment of a new interim government.
Russia’s military response, and its attempt to punish Ukraine by supporting Crimean separation, serves neither Crimea nor Russia’s own interests in the region. It may be that it was meant to send a signal to Ukraine and to other countries in its neighborhood not to defy its sphere of influence or move too close to the West. Perhaps the takeover of this territory, which is largely Russian speaking and was once part of Russia, was intended for domestic consumption, since it is a move widely applauded at home. Alternatively, as some Eastern European leaders worry, Crimea is part of a pattern that began with Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, and presages further incursions into neighboring countries.
Russia – Awakening The West
No matter the calculations involved, what is certain at this point is that the authorization by the Russian Parliament for President Putin to send in troops to the Crimea not only opens up a new chapter in post-Soviet Russian foreign relations, it paradoxically is likely to weaken, rather than strengthen, Russia’s longer term influence in its own backyard. The unsurprising reaction of leaders of neighboring states to the Crimean crisis has been to reaffirm Eastern Europe’s desire to seek closer ties with the West and its institutions – notably NATO and the EU. The United States and the EU, quite understandably, are likely going to heed these calls for greater assistance and for the deepening of cooperation with Russia’s regional neighbors. Such developments would be to Russia’s detriment.
David Felsen, Ph.D., holds a doctorate from Oxford University and is an occasional commentator for IBTimes.com.