My last blog post on the history and sociopolitical background of the Euromaidan crisis sets the stage for the argument I am planning to make here, which is the following: Russia is and has been implementing an expansionist foreign policy in which it directly seeks to expand its sphere of influence over select nations, solidifying control through economic, political, and even militaristic domination.
In the previous post I focused on Belarus. However, Russia plays this game in regions all along its borders. Chechnya comes to mind, but perhaps more important were Russian actions during the South Ossetia War of 2008. Russian naval, air, and land forces supported ethnic militias in military operations against Georgian forces on internationally recognized and sovereign Georgian territory. Although blame for the war and human rights violations during it rest on both sides rather equally, former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev spoke to Russian troops in 2008 saying, “If you…had faltered back in 2008, the geopolitical situation would be different now. And a number of countries which [NATO] tried to deliberately drag into the alliance, would have most likely already been part of it now.” (Source)
For that’s what it has always been about for the Kremlin: geopolitics. At Yalta, Stalin demanded a buffer zone of Soviet-occupied Eastern European nations. After 1991, Moscow dug its claws into fringe territories to prevent their loss. These claws have become sharper and longer with time, with Russia refocusing its foreign policy from direct confrontation the West to disruptive operations that prevent NATO and the EU from expanding into its strategic sphere.
For example, in 2010 the Russians received a 25 year extension on its lease of the Black Sea Fleet naval base in the Ukrainian city of Sevastopol. The Ukrainians received a 30% decrease in natural gas prices (valued at US$40 billion). A Ukrainian economic victory, but a strong Russian political victory; NATO membership prohibits the location of non-member military bases in member territory. An interesting analysis of the deal can be found here.
For years, Ukraine has traded long-term geopolitical power for short-term economic boosts. But now protesters are in the streets, standing firm against the harshest repression since Ukrainian independence. Twenty-six are dead, including police, after the most recent clashes. Hundreds are injured. Streets and government buildings burn. The European Union and the United States are developing stances and sanctions, all while the Russians watch in horror as years of pressure and planning, seemingly at fruition this November, crumble under the weight of the people.
Russian expansion can possibly be stopped here and now. Ukrainian officials are being targeted by US and EU sanctions, encouraging the emergence of a pro-Western government following the crisis. Russian offers of financial support must be countered with European offers of economic support and political empowerment. If Ukraine is to be drawn into the European Union, Ukrainians in the eastern portion of the country must begin to believe that economic growth can come from the West. Culturally, socially, and economically, this will be a hard sell, especially in regions like the Crimea where tensions between ethnic Russians and nationalist Ukrainians run deep.
But time and again, Ukrainians have shown they will not let their democracy and their individual rights die. With Western support, this wave of democratic and pro-Western fervor can prove to be a turning of the tide in post-Soviet Russian foreign affairs. This time, Russian influence can be shrunk, Russian authoritarianism rolled back, and the geopolitics of the Russian buffer zone can be turned on its head. A perimeter of economic diversification and political liberalism can emerge in a region of high strategic value.
International relations realists call this dangerous; the last thing we want is a threatened Russia. Some have drawn parallels to the face-off over Syria, in which Russia played the spoiler until the world forgot (the Russians have a base there, too). But right now, Russian foreign policy is more vulnerable. A massive crack has appeared in the sphere, with the Russians hustling to repair it.
The last time the Russians built a wall it took forty-five years of hardship, politics, and resistance to tear it down. The people are speaking. It’s time the West listened.