December 15, 2014

Conflict Escalation in Eastern Ukraine — Not “If” but “When”

People keep asking, “Will there be an escalation of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine?” which is invariably followed by “Can Russia really be so irrational to launch a major armed conflict in Europe?” Sadly, I must answer “Yes” to the first question and then explain why Russia’s behavior is all but irrational.

People keep asking, “Will there be an escalation of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine?” which is invariably followed by “Can Russia really be so irrational to launch a major armed conflict in Europe?” Sadly, I must answer “Yes” to the first question and then explain why Russia’s behavior is all but irrational.

But first, let’s take a step back and take a look at the global context. Of three major (current, former, and wannabe) powers, the US is clearly a status quo power, whereas China and Russia are revisionist. However, there are crucial differences between the challengers: China is well aware that it is on the rise and thus believes it can wait until the time is ripe to claim its “rightful role.” In other words, China assumes that time is on its side. Russia is quite the opposite: a country with a declining population; on the verge of becoming a Muslim-majority country in two decades if current trends continue; a country with crumbling infrastructure, where a major transport or industrial catastrophe with many civilian casualties could happen any day; a country that is technologically at least two generations behind in virtually all sectors of economy. Thus, time is running out for Russia. It cannot even pretend it is anything more than a regional power, something of which the current leadership is painfully aware. It is desperately attempting to exploit its rapidly closing window of opportunity to remain a global player. Alas, instead of investing in the creativity and well-being of its people—the true source of any sustained development—it opted for an essentially 19th century method of bullying the rest of the world guided by an old slogan of tyrants: “Let them hate me so long as they fear me.”
As for the conflict in Ukraine, we tend to forget what triggered the events that lead to the vicious reality of today. It was Russia that blackmailed Ukraine into backing off from the association agreement with the EU. In the words of one young entrepreneur from Western Ukraine quoted by the New York Times about a year ago, “They stole my future.” Needless to say, many other people in Ukraine felt the same way. Yet, even as activists seized the Maidan, nobody expected the protests to last long into the approaching winter. It turned out that analysts did grossly underestimate the degree to which people were fed up with the corrupt regime and hoped that things could become better if Ukraine adopted more Western-like rules of the game. Then, blood was spilled and events spun out of control leading the ancien régime to crumble. It looked like the people had the upper hand.
And there’s the rub. The very idea of the Ukrainian people taking their destiny into their own hands and, God forbid, perhaps even leading better and more prosperous lives was anathema to the Kremlin’s high priests of “guided democracy” and “power verticals.”(Of course, the possibility that Ukrainians would become an inspiration to the people of Russia itself was simply terrifying.) Hence, the approach has been this: Ukraine must not succeed, whatever it takes. All means to this end—from energy blackmail to manufactured civil unrest to special ops to not-so-secret military invasions—were and still are on the table. It’s not about the protection of economic interests, or even about the obsolete idea of spheres of influence. It’s about the survival of the Putinist regime. And from this perspective, all that happened so far is perfectly rational. We have not seen the last of it.

Filed under: BlogTagged with: ,

No comment yet, add your voice below!


Add a Comment