Cold war over Ukraine?

Moscow is sending a strong signal that it is not going to tolerate an unstable Ukraine on its border.

Russia has sent 6,000 more troops to Crimea [AFP]
Russia has sent 6,000 more troops to Crimea [AFP]

Well, that was not a good move by US President Barack Obama to use that sort of patronising tone of his inthe short address on Ukraine the other day. You know, hinting that America would not look kindly on Russia making any dramatic moves in response to the crisis raging over its western border and warning of possible “costs” of any military action.

I hear Russian President Vladimir Putin was so angered by Obama’s verbal exercise that he told his aides he has had enough of all that lecturing coming from Washington and other Western capitals, giving orders to start moving quickly, to respond to the request from the pro-Moscow Prime Minister of Crimea, Sergey Aksenov, to provide protection for the Russian speaking population from the new interim regime in Kiev.      

Inside Story – Ukraine: Warnings of war

Since then the Federation Council, the upper chamber of the Russian Parliament, has approved Putin’s request to use military force on the territory of Ukraine in Crimea, in case the need arises, and even called on the Kremlin to recall the Russian ambassador to Washington.

All of a sudden what looked like a manageable crisis in Ukraine from the point of view of the world suddenly started to resemble a serious Cold war style international stand-off, with a possible military conflict erupting in the south of Ukraine.

The thing about all those statements, which have been coming from Western capitals as of lately, warning Russia to stay away from Ukraine, if we sum up their essence, is that they were nothing more than words.

What is it exactly that the West can do if Russia would actually increase its military presence in Crimea, from the current 25,000 troops that it has there already under the terms of its agreement with Ukraine about manning its naval base in Sevastopol, and the recently added 6,000 troops? Not much really.

It’s one thing talking tough to the likes of the late Saddam Hussein of Iraq or Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, or the current Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, threatening them with military force, and it’s a different matter altogether to issue ultimatums to President Putin and Russia, a nuclear superpower.

For one of the main rules of politics, and the underworld as well, incidentally, states that you don’t make threats if you’re not ready to back your words with deeds. (Obama has suddenly been confronted with this reality.)

Some hotheads in the West, including all sorts of experts on Russia, are openly discussing what sort of punishment could be inflicted on Russia, if things “get out of hand”, by which they mean, obviously, the situation in Ukraine developing in the direction that America and the European Union would like to see it.

But one thing is certain: Moscow is sending the strongest signal since the war in Georgia in 2005 that it is not going to tolerate an unstable, Western dominated Ukraine on its border.

As in Ukraine “becoming part of Europe” and turning its back on Russia. Some suggest boycotting the G8 summit in Sochi in June while others say that some sort of sanctions can be applied, including so-called smart sanctions which would include freezing the supposed accounts of Russian politicians abroad and restricting their visits abroad.

Civilised debate?

What these people are missing is that such public discussions on how to punish Russia are not helping anyone. Civilised debate, it isn’t. Especially as Russian experts may start similar discussions and wonder whether Russia can flood the markets with those US Treasury IOUs which it possesses in large quantities, or do something else that would send the world markets into a spin.

Up to now Russia has been restrained in its rhetoric. President Putin has been silent about the situation in Ukraine, holding phone conversations with world leaders, including President Obama, Chancellor Angela Merkel and others, stressing that it is in the interest of everyone that Ukraine stays as one and that stability is achieved as quickly as possible.

With all the so-called “muscle flexing” over Ukraine, politicians, on both sides of the conflict, are probably well aware that compromise and flexibility would be the best way out.

But here’s the problem: The new people in Kiev, who have suddenly found out that the West is not really rushing to provide them with financial aid, are starting to panic, realising that if they wouldn’t be able to pay salaries and pensions to government workers they might find themselves facing similar protests that had brought down President Viktor Yanukovich and the previous cabinet.

And that realisation prompted the interim government to talk about the threat of “Russian aggression” and even “intervention”, because it is what desperate regimes do when it finds itself in trouble.

The problem with the “revolution” in Kiev that broke out in supposed response to the decision by President Yanukovich not to sign the deal of free association with the EU, is that it undermined the delicate balance that had existed in Ukraine and with all its faults still provided stability.

Once the elected president had been deposed, the whole system simply fell apart and no one really knows now what the consequences will be.

Nevertheless, I would suggest to all easily excitable people not to draw too many conclusions from the latest developments, as a lot of political posturing is going on, on all sides involved, and not all decisions and statements are going to be implemented and carried out.

But one thing is certain: Moscow is sending the strongest signal since the war in Georgia in 2008 that it is not going to tolerate an unstable, Western dominated Ukraine on its border.

I hope President Obama and other Western leaders are getting the message.

Alexander Nekrassov is a former presidential and government advisor.     

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