Ukraine crisis — five issues behind it

by Chris Zappone

The crisis in Ukraine has dragged on for more than two months now, with Russia, the EU, Germany and the US all weighing in. The list below attempts to explain what’s at stake and why countries as far away as the US have an interest in the outcome of the struggle.

1) Putin’s power: It’s a test of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s ability to maintain his country’s sphere of influence two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union. Ukraine, a former Soviet state, is a crucial buffer for Russia, which, given the history of invasions, is and will remain a highly sensitive issue. Russian deaths during WWII alone were a staggering 21-28,000,000 – much higher than elsewhere.

2) Russia v Europe: Ukraine is a tug of war between Russia and Europe, particularly Germany. Relations between Germany and Russia have been rocky over a number of issues in recent times including the fate of artwork seized by the Russians at the end of WWII. But Russian-German relations probably hit a low point when outgoing German FM Guido Westerwelle took it upon himself to visit the protesters days before his term was finished. Again, history is everything between the countries. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and President Vladimir Putin asked rhetorically what the EU would do if the Russians sent their foreign minister to Greece or Cyprus during the recent crises there? Germany, after the Snowden revelations, is reportedly considering a more activist foreign policy. Given Germany’s place at the geographic and political center of Europe, as well as its 20th century history, more tension in this area is possible.

3) Russia v US: Ukraine is a test between the US and Russia, whose relationship has been sliding steadily downward for years.  Setting aside human rights issues, diplomatic spats and one Edward J. Snowden, the whole concept of a European missile shield is received as a sign of American aggression in Russia. Ex-US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said Putin would probably see any toppling of the current Ukraine government as a “dress rehearsal” for regime change in Moscow – although you would have to think the US may have learned its lesson with regime change as a policy for now. Nonetheless, a recent report concluded that Russia violated an anti-nuclear missile treaty considered the bedrock of post-Cold War nuclear non-competition. US Senator John McCain visited protesters in Independence Square.

4) Economics: One of the fallouts of the shale gas revolution (involving fracking) is that it has undercut the leverage Russia’s rich gas and oil reserves had given it in the past. In 2006 and 2009 Russia cut off gas supplies to Ukraine during negotiations and Moscow has expected to rely on this cudgel to create a regional order in its own favor. As the Economist notes: “The shale revolution is changing the balance of power between the Russian bear and its European customers. In the past Russia was so confident of its producer power that it felt able to bully clients.” This economic shift is leaving Russia feeling vulnerable. Further, Russia’s poor transition from the state-controlled Soviet economy to a market economy has seen insiders and oligarchs take advantages that have crippled the entrepreneurial class, which has further damaged its prospects. It’s not clear Russia has a plan in place for an economic revival. A history of using hard power and coercion (cutting off gas supplies to neighbors) may mean Russia opts to use more hard-power in the future. Also, while China and Russia collaborate on security issues, competition for economic influence in Central Asia will only grow between the two powers.

5) Civil war: There is a chance a civil war could erupt in Ukraine, with opposing sides receiving direct or indirect support from Russia and the West. Ukrainians in the East are politically close to Russia. “The Western areas of the country (which include Kiev) are strongly anti-Russia and heavily favor European integration,” writes Daniel Lewin of the USC Annenberg site neontommy.”These eastern regions have, to this point, been relatively quiet (they have nothing to protest against given the administration’s current pro-Russian tilt) but if it begins to look as if the protestors in Kiev are going to succeed at removing [Ukraine President Viktor] Yanuovych from power and replacing him with a pro-European leader you can expect that level of inactivity to change dramatically.”