By Sandeep Tripathi
Ukraine has always been, and still is, a very special country: first, for its geographical location, and second because of its historical linkage with the Russian Federation. Ukraine’s strategic importance (a powerful state with a large and skilled population; the second largest territory in Europe; substantial economic weight) has always been crucial to Moscow. Yeltsin had rightly observed, “Without Ukraine, it is impossible to imagine Russia”. Two decades ago, realist thinker Zbigniew Brzezinski had underscored Ukraine’s geo-political clout in the following words:
“Russia can be either an empire or a democracy, but it cannot be both ...Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire, but with Ukraine suborned and then subordinated, Russia automatically becomes an empire.”
The Ukraine crisis which erupted unanticipated in February 2014 brought core issues to the fore: to what extent is NATO’s expansion policy responsible for the Crimean crisis; how did it spark a new period of direct confrontation between former Cold War adversaries? Is Putin right in asserting Russia "has its own national interests that must be taken into account and respected?” The Crimean crisis might be multifaceted and complex; however the role of NATO’s eastward enlargement policy is the first and foremost in exacerbating the crisis in Ukraine, says neo-realist thinker Mearsheimer.
NATO Enlargement and Russia’s Geo-strategic Concerns: Strategically, Ukraine stands as a borderland between Russia and Europe. Its proximity to Russia’s economic heartland in the Volga region makes the country key to Russia’s geopolitical strength. Historically, Russia has defended its geostrategic objectives in the region. Preventing Ukraine from becoming a rival power center, keeping Ukraine in its sphere of influence and within the Commonwealth Independent States (CIS) trading bloc, sustaining its strategic presence on the Black Sea coast, and retaining control of the port of Sevastopol in the Crimea as a naval base are crucial strategic objectives. The strategic importance of Ukraine is its economic function as an important export route to the European Union. Over 80% of Russia’s gas is transported to the EU through Ukraine. Ukrainian pipeline routes account for 75% of EU oil imports from Russia and Central Asia, which is a huge source of revenue for Ukraine.
Since the mid-1990s, NATO’s eastward expansion has threatened Russia’s core strategic interests. In an article in The Moscow Times, American Scholar Stephen F. Cohen unveiled antagonistic relations between Russia’s core interest and NATO’s eastward expansion. The process of redeploying its forces closer to Russia’s border triggered a restoration of the Cold War military standoff. Both Brussels and Kremlin seek to realize their own geopolitical projects by re-integrating Ukraine economically and strategically. Eventually, both Moscow and NATO came to see Ukraine’s choice as a zero-sum game and worked hard to influence the outcome. In this context Stephen Meister argues that an ever-growing NATO’s enlargement policy is one of the key factors that provoked the Crimean crisis. Neo-realist thinker Mearsheimer also refutes the notion of “Rebuilding the Grater Russia” and holds that annexation of Crimea from Ukraine is the outcome of the West’s longstanding triple package policies: NATO enlargement, EU expansion, and democracy promotion. He stated that expanding NATO closer to Russia’s border and incorporating former Soviet satellites has deepened Russia’s insecurities. With NATO’s increasing influence over Ukraine and the Black Sea, it became imperative for Russia to reintegrate Crimea and secure its Black Sea fleet. Responding to NATO’s expansion policy, Putin said:
“When the infrastructure of a military bloc is moving toward our borders, it causes us some concerns and questions. We need to take some steps in response…Our decision on Crimea was partly due to considerations that if we do nothing, then at some point, guided by the same principles, NATO will drag Ukraine in.”
However, Bertil Nygren’s analysis indicates a different dimension of the Crimean crisis. In his book “The Rebuilding of Greater Russia: Putin’s foreign policy towards CIS countries,” he holds that rebuilding ‘Greater Russia’ is the single and comprehensive goal of Putin’s foreign policy towards the CIS, through a skillful combination of economic, political and military means. Within the context of the Crimean crisis, Putin adopted a ‘soft-power’ approach with energy diplomacy to deal with Ukraine and the EU. Moreover, Putin used social and cultural instruments in consolidated the voices of eastern Ukraine. Putin’s speech represents a remarkable historical document for the comprehensive narrative, which offers a deep insight into the logical underpinning of the Kremlin’s decisions. Addressing the federal assembly, Putin (2014) stated:
“Millions of people went to sleep in one country and woke up in a foreign country - part became ethnic minorities in former Soviet republics. Our souls are aching over what is happening in Ukraine. We are one people. We simply cannot exist without one another.”
Immediate Cause and Putin’s Involvement: The most immediate cause of the conflict in Ukraine was Yanukovych’s rejection of the major economic deal with the EU and acceptance of Russia’s $15 billion counteroffer. It triggered a full scale political crisis in Ukraine. Then-President Victor Yanukovich had refused to sign the Association Agreement with the EU at the Vilnius summit in November 2013. The agreement with the EU was perceived by Moscow as a direct threat to its interests. It lead to anti-government demonstrations backed by Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and the ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt. They were symbolically supported the protests by distributing cakes on Maidan in Kiev. Eventually a coalition of pro-Western elites and anti-Russian Ukrainian nationalists sought to control Kiev. In the Kremlin’s eyes, it could have undermined the Russian language, culture and ethnic identity. It provoked Putin to directly intervene in the Ukrainian civil war, says Damitri Trenin.
Ramifications of the Ukrainian crisis: Over a half century earlier, American scholar Kennan asserted that NATO enlargement would deteriorate relations with Russia. The 1997 Act reaffirmed “NATO and Russia do not consider each other as adversaries. They share the goal of overcoming the vestiges of earlier confrontation and competition and of strengthening mutual trust and cooperation”. Nonetheless, the NATO’s constant enlargement plan, US-proposed missile defense system in Poland and in the Czech Republic, and visible involvement of NATO in the Maidan protests have further intensified the Cold War rivalry. The trust deficit between U.S. and Russia, which was prevalent during the Cold War era, had been restored by Yeltsin’s pro-western policy and increased further in the 2000s by the Putin’s pragmatic foreign policy. However, the United States’ ‘reset’ policy with Russia in 2009 had derailed decisively. In his first visit to Moscow, Obama said of the ‘reset’ policy: “In 2009, the great power does not show strength by dominating or demonizing other countries. The days when empires could treat other sovereign states as pieces on a chess board are over.” After the Crimean crisis, the ‘reset policy’ took a turn back towards Cold War hostility. Now, Moscow is no longer considered as a reliable partner in “War against Terror”, but rather as an adversary. Under the backdrop of the Crimean crisis, the Russian leadership is desperately seeking to restore its dominant role and reconstruct the Russian state’s glory in the CIS.
Conclusion: The Ukrainian crisis brought decisive change in the post-Cold War status quo. Moscow has openly challenged a U.S.-dominated world order based on ‘sponsored democracy’. The unanticipated Crimean crisis brought about a radical transformation in the balance of power between Russia and U.S. Putin’s effort to re-integrate the post-Soviet space through the CIS has elicited concern in the West. That is why Putin has strongly voiced its concern against NATO’s expansion policy towards the CIS.
Sandeep Tripathi is a Doctoral Fellow at Centre for Russian and Central Asian Studies, SIS, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.