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Weekend catch-up: Ukraine in focus

Weekend catch-up: Ukraine in focus
Published 8 Mar 2014   Follow @SamRoggeveen

Bringing together the best longer Interpreter articles you were too busy to read this week.

 We tend to highlight the previous week's best articles in this space, but we've featured some excellent analysis on the Ukrainian political crisis in recent months, and it's worth looking back at some of it. 

Back in November 2013, John Besemeres was writing about the Russia's opposition to the potential Association Agreement between the EU and Ukraine:

It has appeared increasingly likely that if Yanukovych finally committed unequivocally to signing the Association Agreement, the EU would respond with economic aid to save Ukraine from pending crisis and protect it from the effects of the punitive trade sanctions Russia has been overtly threatening. But recently, the autocratic Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, who has been tacking west very strongly for several months, seems to be hedging or even reconsidering his options. In particular, he has failed to free his domestic arch-enemy, ex-premier Yulia Tymoshenko, whom he narrowly beat for the presidency and who has been in jail since 2011. If she is not released under reasonable terms, if not pardoned outright, the chances of an Association Agreement being ratified by EU members would be slim.

With Ukraine, Russia is an empire; without it, it cannot be one, to paraphrase Brzezinski's bon mot. Which side of the mountain Yanukovych finally lumbers down will be of great strategic significance. After European Russia, Ukraine is the largest European country by territory, and the fifth largest by population (46 million), with a very substantial resource endowment and great economic potential. It was a vital part of the Soviet military-industrial complex, and Russia is very keen to regain full control of those assets.

The strange thing about the geopolitical struggle for the heart of Eurasia is that Moscow seems to be the only contestant taking it fully seriously.

Then a couple of weeks ago John was drawing parallels between the current political crisis in Ukraine and events earlier this century:

With his crude but effective intrusion into Kyiv's strategic decision-making, Russia's president has comprehensively destabilised Ukraine with unpredictable consequences and triggered a reprise of the 'Orange' events of 2004-5.

Then, with Putin's overt support, Viktor Yanukovych deployed 'administrative resources' to rig the presidential election. Mass street protests, with some brokering from Western emissaries, forced a rerun, which Yanukovych lost decisively to the pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko, a humiliating reversal which has haunted both Yanukovych and Putin since.

 A couple of days later, following the collapse of the central government in Ukraine, Matthew Sussex cautioned against assuming that what happened in Ukraine represented a clear-cut victory for democracy: [fold]

Past events suggest the prospects for Ukraine are bleak. In 25 years of independence it has been hopelessly mismanaged, riven by infighting, and teetered close to bankruptcy. Each side in Ukraine's complex political elite has conducted shady deals that enriched a small kleptocracy. Its currency is artificially overvalued, the economy has stagnated, and nearly a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line. It came in at 144 out of 177 nations inTransparency International's 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index, and its GDP per capita in 2012 was about US$3866 (Australia’s, by contrast, was over $67,000).

More disturbingly, the demonstrators in Maidan Square were a loose amalgam of pro-democracy forces and the nationalistic far-right. Many of them were armed. It remains to be seen how much influence they will have in post-Yanukovych Ukrainian politics, and whether there will be reprisals against the 17% of the population that is ethnically Russian.

Ukrainians now justifiably fear a fully-fledged civil war. But the major players in the Eurasian chess game will fear being drawn in if that happens. Yes, Russia wants Ukraine as a buffer zone against the West: united and weak, but not Balkanized. But Putin may yet decide to make Ukraine the West's problem by simply walking away from his deal with Yanukovych. The EU wants closer association with Ukraine, but not full membership. The US is keen to use a democratic Ukraine as a check against Russia, but doesn't want to foot the bill for its failure to manage its own affairs.

Although the status quo is increasingly untenable, any optimism that Ukraine might become a triumph for democracy this time around should be tempered. As the Arab Spring showed, virtually all the recent 'democratic' revolutions have resulted in murky outcomes. In Ukraine, donning rose-tinted glasses once again will likely lead to disappointment.

This week the Lowy Institute's own Rory Medcalf looked at the global strategic ramifications of Russia's intervention in Ukraine

Do not assume that the leadership in Beijing will be rejoicing that strategic partner Russia has poked a stick in America's eye and got away with it. China and Russia are partners of convenience, not allies, and have their own long-term currents of mistrust, including over Russia's far eastern territories (which, incidentally, have a large and growing Chinese population).

For now, China will draw some comfort that American attention has been distracted away from the maritime disputes on China's eastern edge. But Russia has now blatantly breached a bedrock principle of China's declared foreign policy: non-interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state. It will now be harder for Beijing to deflect future international interest in what goes on in Tibet or Xinjiang.

Yet for China to support some kind of international mediation or monitoring of the Ukraine situation or to keep up its earlier call for 'respect for international law' would raise awkward questions about its present rejection of an international legal process over its maritime dispute with the Philippines. No wonder the current Chinese 'objective, just, fair and peaceful' propaganda line can't do much better than the exquisitely anodyne ('There are reasons for why the situation in Ukraine is what it is today').

Meanwhile, China's rapid military modernisation proceeds apace: today, it announced yet another double-digit annual increase in defence spending.    

Here's Matthew Sussex again, analysing Russia's Crimea strategy:

Russia’s Crimean move is part of a broader strategy to preserve sub-regional primacy. It is intended for both international and domestic audiences. Its main aspect is institutional: to construct political, economic and security architecture in and around the former USSR. It includes the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, which Russia dubiously touts as a military-security counterweight to NATO. It also incorporates the CIS, Putin’s Eurasian Union, various energy trading clubs, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

While comparatively little has yet come of them, Putin's intention is for these institutional carrots and sticks to bind neighbouring states closely to Russia. Ukraine, as an energy transit corridor and with a large manufacturing base, is an important part of that vision. By intervening in Crimea, Putin's calculation is that it will show any vacillators how far he is prepared to go to secure Russian interests.

An equally important aspect of Russian strategy is to use the West’s own logic against it. This makes it look hypocritical and ineffectual, and highlights how malleable 'global' international legal and human rights rhetoric can be. Putin’s justification for intervening in South Ossetia in 2008 was the Responsibility to Protect. Similarly in Crimea, Putin is pushing the line that he is protecting ethnic Russians from right-wing nationalists. His message is simple: if the West can back a coup against a democratically elected government, Russia can too.

And last but not least, the G20 Studies Centre's Mike Callaghan and Hugh Jorgensen discussed the implications of Russia's action in the Ukraine for the G20:

Any decision to exclude a country from either the G8 or G20 would have to be unanimous. If not, it could result in the breakup of the forum. The G7 countries would all have to agree not to go to the G8 summit in Russia this June. However, German officials have already signaled that such action would accomplish little. Europe and Germany have strong economic and energy ties with Russia – Gazprom alone supplied around 30% of Europe's gas in 2013.

In the case of the G20 Summit in Brisbane, Australia could say that Russia is not welcome to attend. But if this is not supported by all other members, they may also not attend, and that would effectively result in the break-up of the G20. Of note, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has been keen to highlight 'the coincidence of Russia's and China's positions on the situation in Ukraine'.

The idea of threatening Russia's involvement in the G20 is a hollow one. Yet Julie Bishop's threat to exclude Russia from the troika arrangements, which in itself is of little meaning, would set a precedent. If (or when) political or security tensions arise between G20 members in future, the incumbent chair might call upon 'the Ukrainian precedent' and say this has implications for a particular country's involvement in the G20. If this approach gained momentum , it would likely lead to the demise of the forum.

Photo by Flickr user magnusfranklin.

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