Thursday, 23 July 2015

Putin's Power Play

This is an extended version of my recent article in The Epoch Times

Putin’s Power Play

In the past months since the unrest in the Ukraine led to Russia’s unofficial occupation of eastern areas and the Crimean region, the international community has appeared shocked and appalled. Many have argued the world is entering a new era. Phrases like ‘a new Cold War’ have been suggested and many countries have been struggling to respond coherently, seemingly stunned by Vladmir Putin’s audacity to openly take advantage of neighbouring political instability. The lack of real world consequences for Russia has meant that Putin has no plans to withdraw any time soon. If anything it appears he only plans to consolidate his initial acquisition.

But is Russia merely being a peacekeeper or mirotvorchestvo in the region[1]. Or is it the latest move by Russian authorities, in a territorial game of Hungry Hippo with the European Union? The goal of course being that you grab as much territory bordering Europe as possible in the hope you will stop the EU and NATO encroaching on your economic and political interests. Alternatively is this a hard-line Putin keeping his precious Russia safe and protecting Russians lost during the dissolution of the Soviet Union? Or is this the start of the creation of a Eurasian superpower to rival China and the United States?

Russia the Eurasian Bear

Bridging both East and West, Russia has never viewed itself as a ‘western power’. Hemmed in by European powers to the west, Russia has often engaged in an eastern facing foreign policy. Clearly identifying its eastern territory’s and its soft underbelly of strategic importance. Thus by the time of the 20th century and the Soviet Union, the empire of mother Russia stretched from the Pacific to the Baltic and had control over territories bordering Iran and Pakistan.

But in creating such an empire and then the soviet experiment it became apparent that ethnic Russians were often regarded as the ‘body of loyal servants’[2], who could assist in governing the vast land. So despite its 1920-1930’s nativisation policy and the attempt to create a soviet man, the Russian Soviet authorities still took the advice of Machiavelli, elevating their own trusted agents, mobilising their own people to monitor other populations and integrating Russian communities into other regions in an attempt to enhance the unification of the state and society.

As a result, historically Russian regions like the Crimea [3] and Donetsk were attached to another country and territory. While this was not a problem under the Soviet Union, the dissolution of the Union meant that many of these former Russian territories and populations were suddenly an ethnic minority and small enclaves and Russian regions formed creating a network of communities that longed to return to the ‘motherland’.

In Kazakhstan, for example, in the early years of independence many predominantly ethnic Russian territories wanted to return to Russia’s fold. In 2000 ethnic Russian leaders from northern regions met with the newly elected president Vladmir Putin to discuss the pressures they faced and strategies for their return to Russia. This meeting resulted in a proposal of a mass immigration of the remainder of Russians from Kazakhstan and the plan was to use these returning Russians as a revitalizing force for the depopulated areas of central Russia[4].


But do ethnic Russians in the states bordering Russia facing the daily grind of ethnic abuse? The presence of ethnic Russians within the former soviet states has been a cause of tension within many of the former soviet republics. In Latvia for example, many ethnic Russians consider themselves to be second class citizens as they were not granted immediate citizenship upon the creation of the new state. Currently it is reported that 270, 000 Latvians do not carry citizenship and many are living in areas that border Russia[5]. Being unable to vote or gain entry to the public services and various other benefits has left many disgruntled. Calling themselves second class citizens, many Russian speaking Latvians have endured being called occupiers and argue that racial abuse is a real problem in the former soviet states.

In 2006 for example, many Russians in Central Asia argued that they faced racial discrimination in Kazakhstan due to the implementation of the national language policy as a requirement for employment in government. Effectively this excluded many ethnic Russians from holding positions of power and the nationalism established from this policy made these Russians easy targets for Kazakhs who felt justified in shaming the Russians for their years in privilege.

I myself experienced this when on my fourth day in Kazakhstan I was entering the national library in Almaty and was told it was closed. Not immediately being familiar with Kazakh I replied in Russian only to be told in Russian that I should not speak Russian as I was in Kazakhstan and that the gentlemen was speaking Kazakh and I was extremely rude for not knowing the language of the country. While I was not beaten or attacked, the vehemence with which I was told off was quite surprising. Likewise many young Russian men I met were regularly attacked when they went out with friends due to their inability to integrate themselves into the status quo. Kazakhstan is not the only post-soviet state where such acts of aggression have occurred.

In the Ukraine, according to a report by Luke Harding in the Guardian on the 21st of March 2014 there have been several serious attacks on pro-Russian supporters in the different regions. Harding reports that in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkhiv pro-Russian supporters clashed with the Patriots of Ukraine leaving two confirmed dead. While in the Russian speaking cities of Kharkiv, Donetsk and Luhansk the Russian media has reported a swathe of attacks by, neo- nationalist supporters[6].

Unquestionably public sentiment towards ethnic Russians in the Western parts of the Ukraine has also been decreasing. According to a poll taken in 2010 by the Institute of Sociology of National Academy of Science of Ukraine, positive attitudes towards Russians have continued to decrease since 1994. In response to a question gauging tolerance of Russians, only 15% of Western Ukrainians responded positively. In Central Ukraine, only 30% responded positively (from 60% in 1994); 60% responded positively in Southern Ukraine (from 70% in 1994); and 64% responded positively in Eastern Ukraine (from 75% in 1994). Furthermore, 6-7% of Western Ukrainians would banish Russians entirely from Ukraine, and 7-8% in Central Ukraine responded similarly. This level of sentiment was not found in Southern or Eastern Ukraine.[45]

While these attacks in the Ukraine have formulated the backbone of Putin’s main argument for his reclaiming of the Crimea, all is not as it seems. Many Ukrainians have heaped derision upon the Russian assertions. According to many Ukrainians all the pro-Russian protests and attacks have been orchestrated by the Kremlin. In Kharkiv, 20-40 buses of Russian activists were brought in to protest from the nearby Russian city of Belgorod. The new Ukrainian government has stated that these protestors were paid provocateurs. An argument supported by a Kharkhiv journalist and pro-Russian Andrei Borodavka who admitted ‘around 200’ Russian citizens had been bussed in to support these rallies[7].If the Russians are actually agitating in the eastern and southern areas of the Ukraine, is this part of a new direction in foreign policy?

Just another Case of Protecting Russia from its near Abroad

So while there is some merit to Putin’s assertion that he was keeping ethnic Russians safe, there is also a shadow of doubt that this is all part of a more orchestrated strategy for territorial dominance. According to Jonson and Archer, since 1993 Russia has had an aggressive foreign policy mandate. In 1993, for example, the then Foreign Minister, Kozyrev, argued that the entire former Soviet Union was understood to be Russia’s sphere of influence and that it was therefore Russia’s responsibility to maintain peace and security within its former empire. Any other incursion by a foreign player into this sphere was unacceptable. Primarily it argued that this was because a third party intruding in this sphere could create the conditions for a large scale conflict[8]. As a result Russian foreign policy engages in conflicts outside its homeland in an effort to protect said homeland from outside forces influencing its satellite states.

This reasoning was the motive behind stationing Russian forces outside of their home territory. Likewise it was the motivation for Russian involvement in Abkhazia and Ngorno-Karabakh (Azerbaijan) conflicts. In Azerbaijan for example, the Russians became concerned by the election of the Leader of the anti-Russian pro-Turkish Azerbaijan Popular Front Elchibei. Seeing the possibility that Turkey and Iran could enter into its zone of interest Russia tried successfully to manipulate the domestic political environment in both Azerbaijan and Armenia. This direct involvement in Azerbaijan resulted in the 1993 coup that removed then President Elchibei and brought Aliev to power.

With Aliev in power Russia brought Armenia and Azerbaijan to the mediation table and Azerbaijan joined the new Russian led economic union the Commonwealth of Independent States or the CIS. It is speculated that, as a result of this interference, Russia also managed to renew an agreement to station it troops in the territory and receive a share of Azerbaijan’s offshore oil profits[9].

Further proof that Russia likes to keep everyone out of its backyard came from the Abkhazia conflict in Georgia. Abkhazia has traditionally held close ties to Moscow to offset the power of its Georgian rulers. But in 1993 Russia utilised the conflict between the two states to move forward its defensive line. Supplying Abkhazia with military personnel and weaponry Russia undertook a series of destabilizing actions (including not stopping the military incursions by the Abkhazians on the 17 of September 1993) which forced the Georgians to accept a peace deal that brought them into the CIS and gave Russia special base rights and other military privileges[10].

Interestingly it appears that the Russians have utilised this tactic time and time again to secure sections of their outer rim which they fear are being coerced by foreign powers. Using a variety of military and domestic agitation Russia in each of these scenarios and various others, like Transdniestr in Moldova, have managed to create a conflict through which they could then ‘enforce and secure a peace’ and leave them firmly in Russia’s zone of influence.

Putting the Ukraine in their Place

In terms of the Ukraine it could be argued that Russia has entered into different territory. Far more aggressive tactics have certainly been applied, for the annexation of an entire region is not their usual modus operandi. But then again in each of the above conflicts there has never been a large Russian speaking minority. Nor was there a historical belief that the territory was and is ultimately a part of the Russian Federation as was the case with Sevastopol the Crimean capital[11].

Thus, the annexation of the Crimean peninsula is simply another step in the Russian ‘peacekeeping’ mission. Certainly this does fit in with both Russian 21st century foreign policy but it also provides a resolution to the Russo-Ukrainian decade’s long dispute over the former soviet military assets.

Unlike various other states that agreed to participate in the joint CIS military the Russians wanted to create, the Ukrainians had always had the resources, economic power, and strategic location to challenge Russia’s sphere of influence. Certainly the Ukrainian governments claim to the majority of the Black Sea naval fleet has always been a barb in the craw of the Russian Navy which has always highlighted the protection of the country’s southwest flank[12].

Thus deposing the corrupt pro-Russian president Yanukovich, while a necessity, was certainly waving a red flag to the Russian bull. Strategically, economically and politically Russia has simply acted in accordance with its nationalistic foreign policy and protected what it considered to be its own by historical right. Thereby putting the Ukraine, but particularly the European Union, on notice that it will not tolerate further European encroachment into its territory.

Western Impotence Vs Russian Impudence = Civil War

So as the Ukraine heads deeper into the territory of civil war, it appears for all to see how impotent the western powers are to help the Ukrainians. Certainly it would appear that while the western nations supported the protestors on the Maidan, the whole conflict could have been avoided had Brussels and Washington not been so intent upon forcing the Ukraine to choose between the East and the West. Knowing as they did how Russian foreign policy plays out it seems negligent that both the European Union and America were not prepared for this latest development. Regardless of the events leading up to this can the west help the Ukraine in what appears to be a conflict that the Russians are fully prepared to manipulate as they did in Georgia, Moldova and Azerbaijan.

Unfortunately the Western powers have a poor track record aiding countries within Russia’s sphere of influence. The lack of aid given to Georgia, Armenian and Azerbaijan and Moldova is illustrated clearly by their capitulation to Russian demands in the end. It has also illustrated clearly to Putin that he may do as he sees fit in his sphere of influence.

Thus, unless NATO is prepared to provide military and economic aid to the Ukraine to counter the Russians domestic manipulations, and demonstrate that they are willing to engage Russia on behalf of the Ukrainians, the Ukraine may enter into a protracted period of civil strife and even war against agitators that are not domestic but are channelled from across the border. This period of instability is sure to create much difficulty for the eastern territory’s and drive them further into the arms of mother Russia forcing the Ukrainian government to cede the eastern half of the state.

In doing so the Ukraine secures peace for its western half but Russia will gain more control over Europe’s gas and oil rents and enable Putin to create his dream of a New Eurasian Empire.

Putin’s New Economic Empire
Putin’s new goal for his next term in office is for the creation of a new Eurasian Economic Empire. Wanting to rival the European Union and Asia, Putin has outlined a plan to establish a Russian led Eurasian Union by 2015. This year was set as the deadline Nicklas Gvosdev argues because until 2015 the United States and NATO are tied up strategically in Afghanistan. But after this period they will again be free to focus on the European situation. He stated that

‘With the eastward expansion of Euro-Atlantic institutions sputtering to a close, and with China still primarily focused on South and East Asia, Moscow feels it has the window to begin consolidating a new Eurasia. Rather than have the territory of the former Soviet Union effectively "partitioned" into European and Asian "spheres of influence," Russia instead can re-emerge as a leading global power by creating a new bloc of states that will balance the European Union in the West and a Chinese-led Asia in the East.’[13]

Putin’s goal appears to be to establish a mighty Russian run Eurasian economic empire which creates another economic bloc to rival Asia and the West. To do so he needs to convince his surrounding neighbours he has the bravado to defend this new economic union as he is currently demonstrating with the Ukraine.

Certainly it would appear that Putin’s government is becoming increasingly active in the protection of their petroleum interests in Europe. According to the former Secretary General of NATO Anders Fogh Rasmussen the environmental movements in countries like Britain have been infiltrated by Russian sources. Mr Rasmussen declared at a briefing for the Chatham House Foreign Affairs think tank that,

“I have met allies who can report that Russia, as part of their sophisticated information and disinformation operations, engaged actively with so-called non-governmental organisations - environmental organisations working against shale gas - to maintain European dependence on imported Russian gas.[14]

While derision has been heaped upon this suggestion from British environmental groups, it does demonstrate the wariness that many in NATO feel towards the Russian government. Such wariness is also a major obstacle to the completion of Putin’s grand. For as the European Union views Russia with increasing derision its desire to infiltrate the territories around Russia will increase exponentially. Creating the potential for a new geopolitical race that may engulf the Eurasian continent.

The Possibility of a Bridge too Far
The most likely scenario though is that the extension of Europe into Russia’s will create a situation that breaks the proverbial Russian foreign policy camel’s back. For if Russia follows its usual tactics of arming, or even supplying ‘rebels’, the Ukraine will push back and given its military capability it may even succeed in driving these militant forces into making a mistake that will destroy the movements support within the Ukraine . But the cost to Russia’s standing may be huge.

Previously Russia has only played these black op destabilisation games with smaller less significant nations. If mistakes occurred it was not played out in an open international context. But within the Ukraine this is no so. Western Ukrainians are highly motivated to draw the Ukraine and other Russian satellite states into the E.U’s. sphere, and this is reciprocated by the European Union which wants to capitalise on gas and oil accessibility of many of these states.

If Russia is proven to have had a hand in any major international incidents within the Ukraine this could incite many European nations to seek direct intervention in the Ukrainian conflict. Peacekeeping missions or even the arming of western Ukraine could become a reality. When faced with the combined fire power of Europe, NATO and the United Nations Putin would be forced to shelve his plans of a creating a Russian led political and economic empire.

[1] Jonson,L & Archer C, 1996, ‘Russia and Peacekeeping in Eurasia’, in, Peacekeeping and the Role of Russia in Eurasia, eds. L.Jonson and C. Archer, p.3-32 Westview Press.

[2] Machiavelli, 2012 , p.43

[3] Crimea was made part of the Ukrainian territories in 1954s by Nikita Khruschev a former head of the territory.

[4] Peyrouse, "Nationhood and the Minority Question in Central Asia," 495-96

[5] Krutaine, A & Mardiste, D, 2014, ‘Disquiet in Baltic’s over Sympathies of Russian Speakers’, Reuters.



[8][8] Jonson and Archer, 1996, 10-11.

[9] Jonson and Archer, 1996, 14-15

[10] Jonson and Archer 1996, 16-17.

[11] This belief was enshrined in 1993 by a resolution of the ex-Supreme Soviet that Sevastopol was and is a fundamental part of the territories of the Russian Federation. (Tuminez, A, 1996, Nationalism and the Interest in Russian Foreign Policy, in The Sources of Russian Foreign Policy After the Cold War,eds. C.A Wallander, Westview Press, pp.41-68.

[12] Russell, W, 1995, Russian Relations with the Near Abroad, in Russian Foreign Policy Since 1990, ed. P. Shearman, Westview Press, pp. 53-70.

[13] Gvosdev, 16/4/2012, The National Interest,

[14] A. Rasmussen , 19/6/2014 , ‘Nato boss claims Russia has secretly infiltrated green groups fighting fracking’, in the The Independent,

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