What’s happened in Crimea is serious. Russia’s invasion is a violation of international law and a threat to the peace of Europe. The Russian-manufactured bid for secession seems destined to create a lasting political crisis.
But while this is serious – the response should be harsh and unanimous – we should not pretend that it is more serious than it really is.
Something about the sight of uniformed Russians marching across the western steppe causes great chunks of rusted-out rhetoric to be ripped from the overgrown subsoil of history and bolted unadorned onto the page by otherwise sane and sober writers and politicians. This is not 1919, or 1944, or 1991, and using those old tropes is not just wrong but dangerous. If we pretend this Russian standoff is more than it really is, we could be in danger of making it so.
This is not a new Cold War. Some of Russia’s language may sound the same: Vladimir Putin is unapologetic in his nostalgia for the supposed strength and unity of the Soviet Union. He uses Cold War terms to describe what he sees as a Western threat to his state and its borders. And he uses his military, and other less visible means, to poke at those borders.
But this is nothing like a Cold War.
The USSR was a closed economy: At its 1985 peak, foreign exports and imports accounted for just 4 per cent of the Soviet economy, almost all of it with satellite states and de facto colonies. This attempt at state-run self-sufficiency failed, and led to the out-of-control foreign borrowing that contributed to the collapse of communism. But it meant that Moscow’s pre-1991 leaders saw the non-communist world only as an ideological rival and a territorial threat.
Mr. Putin may see the outside world this way, but he also has to see it as something much larger: a client and a partner, and the sole source of his regime’s sustenance.
Oil and gas export revenues make up about 60 per cent of Mr. Putin’s federal budget, and an estimated 75 to 80 per cent of the Russian public sector is dependent on those exports. These petroleum markets are no longer captive: Most Europeans could shift to Middle Eastern heating fuel over new pipelines within two years, so an embargo is a genuine and ruinous threat. And it’s not just the oil – an estimated $130-billion in Russian earnings will be shipped off to foreign banks this year, and about 8 per cent of the country’s economy is tied up in foreign direct investments.
Without its direct connections to Western economies, there is no Russia. A new Cold War, in any genuine sense, would instantly destroy Russia before it even began in earnest. The world is dealing with a difficult territorial challenge with a powerful authoritarian, but to pretend that this is a return to the threats of 1989 (for example, to pretend that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization needs to extend its reach to the Russian border) would produce the worst possible outcome.
This is not a game between two superpowers. Ukraine is indeed caught between East and West, as the cliché has it, but to say that Western countries have been “meddling” in Ukrainian affairs to the same degree that Russia has been politically manipulating Crimea and Kiev – as some observers have – is to ignore modern reality.
Ukraine is intimately linked, in well-established ways, to the economic and political systems of both the 28 European Union members and Russia. Its economic dependency on Russian gas subsidies – and the corrupt oligarchies created by them – means that it needs badly to develop those westward economic relations, ideally through the well-established Eastern Partnership that links Eastern Bloc states with the EU. The living standards of Poland and the Baltic states are three times what they are in Ukraine; to catch up and end its terrible poverty, Ukraine needs to develop in both directions.
Western governments have never tried to cut off Ukraine from Russia: Most of the world understands that Kiev requires trade and political relations in both directions. That was the goal of the EU trade deal whose surprise Russian-driven rejection in November triggered this crisis. To support democratic and economically open forces in Ukraine is not to meddle; it is necessary assistance to maintain Ukraine’s important connections to both East and West.
This is not the dark days of the 20th century, and countries such as Ukraine have no reason to be caught in a zero-sum game between powers. This crisis can be resolved, using economic and diplomatic persuasion, if we can all stop living in the past.
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