The international crisis in Ukraine, which has escalated into a civil war between pro-Russia separatists in the East and the pro-West government in Kiev, has taken a turn for the worse since the crash of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17. Immediately, despite the fact that investigations had not even begun, the United States accused rebels of having shot the plane down. This increased tensions between Russia and the West, as both the United States and several European countries held Moscow responsible and called for more sanctions against Russia.
The idea that everything that is happening in Ukraine is the result of Russia’s aggressive, expansionist policy is almost consensual in the Western media, which are remarkably uncritical of the claims made by their governments. Some prominent figures, including Hillary Clinton, even compared Putin to Hitler after Russia annexed Crimea. Many others clearly have the same idea, although they have not said so explicitly. Indeed, the widely accepted explanation of what is happening is that Putin, who is bent on resuscitating the Soviet empire, wants to annex eastern Ukraine. We are told that he should be stopped, though it is not clear exactly how.
This analysis is completely wrong and can only lead to disaster. People who denounce Moscow’s expansionist agenda have forgotten that it is NATO, not Russia, that has systematically expanded since the end of the Cold War. The result of that expansion is that almost every country in Europe that used to be part of the Warsaw Pact is now a member of NATO. Yet at the end of the Cold War, the United States assured Moscow that NATO would not expand further east, so that Gorbachev would agree to Germany’s reunification and to united Germany’s NATO membership. In 1999, NATO illegally bombed Yugoslavia, one of Russia’s last allies in Europe. More recently, the United States announced plans to deploy a missile defense system in Europe, which Russia has every reason to believe is directed against it, despite Washington’s repeated denials.
The fact is that every Russian action over the last few years that has been presented as part of Putin’s imperialist agenda has merely been a reaction to the interference of the United States into its sphere of influence. Moscow’s concerns about NATO’s expansionism are quickly dismissed in the West as paranoia. Those who think that should ask themselves how the United States would react if Russia was seeking a military alliance with its neighbors and installing military bases at its borders. This requires no great effort of imagination, for one just has to remember that when the Soviet Union tried to install missiles in Cuba, the United States almost started a nuclear war. The problem is that people in Washington, who think of US hegemony as benign, apparently have a lot of difficulty understanding how anyone could find it threatening. Yet for some reason, the Russians cannot bring themselves to rejoice at the prospect of being surrounded by the most powerful military alliance in the history of the world.
Washington has been massively funding pro-West political movements in Moscow’s sphere of influence ever since Russia started to show signs of recovery at the beginning of the 2000s. At the end of last year, the United States pushed the deal between Ukraine and the European Union that, although often presented in the West as a mere trade agreement, was perceived by the Russians as the first step in Ukraine’s integration into the European Union and, ultimately, NATO. With characteristic hypocrisy, Western governments brushed aside that worry as if it were completely ludicrous, even though they know perfectly well it is not. Russia therefore offered a more generous deal to Kiev, after which Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych decided to reject the EU deal and took the one Russia was offering instead. This sparked protests in Kiev that culminated in a coup against him. The United States immediately recognized the government resulting from that coup, which, under the influence of fascist parties that had chased from Kiev the democratically elected Yanukovych, took several measures against the Russian minority in the east. This is what started the civil war and prompted Russia to annex Crimea.
Washington’s interference into Russia’s traditional sphere of influence is completely irrational. It can only bring about a rapprochement between Moscow and Beijing that will not benefit the United States. Facing isolation in the West, Putin will have no choice but to turn to the east, as the thirty-year, $400 billion gas deal recently struck between Russia and China illustrates. Yet such a rapprochement is not inevitable, for Russia fears that China’s enormous population might flow into Siberia and threaten its sovereignty over this immense territory.
The United States is reproducing the mistake that France and Great Britain committed when they condemned Italy after the invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. Up until then, Mussolini had been Hitler’s most determined opponent in Europe, but the condemnation led him to seek an alliance with Germany in order to avoid isolation. Of course, China is not Nazi Germany, and Putin is not Mussolini (let alone Hitler, despite what Hillary Clinton might think). But this episode illustrates what can happen when governments let ideology and emotion dictate their foreign policy.
In fact, Washington’s strategy in Ukraine is doubly misguided, for not only is provoking Russia counter to US interests, but what the United States is trying to do in Ukraine cannot possibly succeed. In order to see why, one must understand the historical and geopolitical importance of Ukraine for Russia. Indeed, for the Russians, Ukraine is the cradle of their civilization. It is around Kiev that Russia was first born, though after centuries under the yoke of the Mongols, Moscow emerged as the center of the Russian world. Moreover, Russia’s only warm-water port, the naval base of Sevastopol, is or at least was on Ukraine’s territory before Russia annexed Crimea.
This is why America’s strategy in Ukraine is doomed to fail: Russia will go to war over Ukraine if it has to, whereas the United States will not. If the pro-West government in Ukraine does not stop its attempt to suppress the rebellion in the east, then Putin may have no choice but to intervene directly, at which point there will be nothing the United States can do that would help. Indeed, if this came to pass, the United States and the European Union would have no choice but to impose harsh sanctions against Russia, which it would answer in kind. This would considerably hurt both the European and the Russian economies and would only push Moscow further away from the West and bring it closer to Beijing. Everyone will lose, except perhaps China.
Despite what is often said in the West, Putin has no intention of seizing more Ukrainian territory, though Washington’s actions may leave him no choice. It is not in Russia’s interest to snatch the pro-Russia provinces from Ukraine, for it would cause Moscow to lose much of the influence it has over Ukrainian politics. In the long run, this would result in Ukraine’s permanent alignment with the West, which is precisely what Putin wants to prevent. The fact that Putin allowed Crimea to join the Russian Federation is surprising and probably shows that he is not as much in control of the situation as people in the West think. It is doubtful that he would have done that had it not been for the pressure of public opinion in Russia after the inhabitants of Crimea announced their intention to detach from Ukraine. In any case, what is certain is that Putin would never have dreamed of annexing Crimea a year ago and that he would never have done it had Washington’s misguided strategy not given him a pretext.
The way to solve this crisis is not to impose more sanctions against Russia, for that would only inflame Russian public opinion against the West and make it politically impossible for Putin to negotiate. It is not to offer unconditional support to the pro-West government in Ukraine, which is brutally suppressing the pro-Russia rebellion in the east. Were Kiev to succeed in the attempt, it would become difficult for Putin not to intervene directly by invading Ukraine. The United States must accept that Ukraine is part of Russia’s sphere of influence or at least offer credible guarantees that it will remain neutral, which might prove difficult given Washington’s lack of credibility in the Kremlin. It must persuade Kiev to negotiate with the separatists and accept a federal solution. And more generally, it must take seriously the security concerns in Russia that stem from NATO’s expansionism since the end of the Cold War.