Putin’s Ukraine Policy is Dividing Europe

Western insistence that Kyiv choose between the EU and Russia, claims Putin, is responsible for breaking up the country. Yet despite all odds, on June 27, Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia signed association agreements with the EU. As a result, Russia redoubled its efforts, overtly and covertly, to assert itself regionally and internationally, threatening Ukraine with “serious consequences.” 

By Nicholas Dima | July 21, 2014

The ongoing crisis in Ukraine is dividing Europe and creating more friction with the United States, and could lead to a new international alignment. Putin’s Russia is engaged in a multi-layered offensive policy with these aims in mind, while Washington is cautious and reactive rather than pro-active. A case in point is Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which seems to have been already accepted as a fait accompli.  Current negotiations are focusing on ending the violence in Eastern Ukraine and on compelling Russia to stop supporting the rebels. But, did Moscow trigger the conflict just as a cover up to annex Crimea, or annexing the peninsula is only the beginning of a new policy? The current status quo raises serious questions about the determination of the United States to oppose Putin. However, Russia’s aggression also places Putin in a difficult dilemma. An article published by the Christian Science Monitor on July 7 summarizes the situation: With Ukrainian rebels on the ropes, some Russians ask: Where is Putin? Problem is, how far can the West and Russia stretch their interventions in Ukraine without risking a potentially devastating war?

For now the international confrontation consists mostly of declarations and sanctions, but the conflict may take on a life of its own and get out of hand. Associated Press of July 3 remarked that Moscow has toned down its threatening rhetoric recently, but many Russians expect Putin to take resolute action against Ukraine. Indeed, Putin cannot let down his supporters without eroding his political power base. He accused the West of having caused the crisis and said that he had no choice except to protect ethnic Russian in Ukraine because they “feel themselves a part of the Russian world.” And Putin promised to use all means at his disposal to defend them. If not honored, this promise may turn against him.

The current crisis started when Ukraine’s then-President Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign a treaty of association with the European Union. The decision triggered a violent uprising and the ousting of the pro-Russian president.  Moscow’s reaction was to encourage rebellions in eastern Ukraine and to threaten the territorial integrity of the country. Now Putin claims Western insistence Kyiv choose between the EU and Russia is responsible for breaking up the country. Yet despite all odds, on June 27, Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia signed association agreements with the EU. As a result, Russia redoubled its efforts, overtly and covertly, to assert itself regionally and internationally, threatening Ukraine with “serious consequences.”

Today, Russia’s threat of “serious consequences” rings ominously true, following the shoot down on Thursday of the Malaysian passenger jetliner Flight 17 killing 298 innocent people over eastern Ukraine.  Perhaps it is truly time to revisit Putin’s role in the Smolensk air crash of April 10, 2010, which involved “the deaths of Poland’s president, and almost one hundred members of the military and political elite of a key U.S. – Central European ally on NATO’s border with Russia” and largely overlooked by the West.

What Russia dreads is that in the future Ukraine may become a NATO member and will threaten its regional hegemony. Apparently, to placate Russia’s fear, NATO announced that it was not going to expand any further in the near future. However, Moscow does not accept this pronouncement and continues to take drastic measures to foster its ambitions. Thus, Ukraine will be pressured economically and kept under a permanent threat of further dismemberment if it continues a pro-Western policy; Georgia, which was already punished militarily in 2008, is now kept under observation; and Moldova is under strong Russian economic pressure and is blackmailed with dismemberment.

As the poorest European country, Moldova’s economic existence depends on exporting several agricultural products and on receiving gas and oil from Russia. The very day Moldova ratified the EU association agreement Moscow banned the imports of its agricultural products and began to harass Moldovans working in Russia threatening them with deportation. The European Union reacted by easing Moldovan exports to the EU and by eliminating visas for Moldovan citizens. The country is currently caught in a state of economic war between Russia and the West and its impoverished population is already feeling the pain.

Politically, Russian pressure is open and direct, as well as indirect. On July 2, for instance, the Moldovan Parliament ratified the association agreement with the EU with a majority of 59 votes. Knowing that they would lose the vote, 39 communists and ethnic Russians, members of the Chisinau legislative body, boycotted the meeting. These members, however, are working hard to turn the population against the West. Furthermore, since Moldova was once part of Romania, Moscow fears the reunification of the two countries, thus bringing NATO closer to Russia. To prevent such an outcome, Moscow intensified its relations with the break-away Moldovan region of Transnistria. It also began to incite the small Gagauz minority of southern Moldova to split and possibly try to join Russia as Crimea did. At the same time, Moscow is taking shrewd measures to isolate Romania economically and to punish Bucharest for siding with Washington.

Russia is also dividing Eastern Europe by enticing some countries with favorable energy deals. Bulgaria, Serbia and Hungary have already signed up for the Russian energy project “South Stream.” Other Balkan countries, including the NATO members Greece and Turkey, have also joined the project. For now, Moscow’s efforts are mostly economic, but the implications are political as well. Slovakia, located strategically in central Europe, is highly dependent on Russian gas and is also siding with Russia. In fact, these countries did not condemn Moscow for its aggression and instead have advocated accommodation with Putin’s policy.  Russia is splitting indeed Eastern Europe and the title of an Associated Press release in this regard is very illustrative: EU’s United Front on Russia  Falling Amid Gas Needs.

In this new climate Romania and Poland have remained the best American allies in Eastern Europe and the strongest supporters of Ukraine independence and integrity. There are, however, certain misgivings and hesitations even in these countries. For example, Boreslaw Sikorski, Poland’s Foreign Minister, stated in a private discussion with a former finance minister that “the Polish-American alliance is worthless, even harmful, as it gives Poland a false sense of security.” According to Time of June 14 this statement was taped, leaked to a magazine and published on June 22. Such a statement reflects Poland’s disillusion after President Obama’s “reset” of U.S.-Russian relations and the canceling of the project of installing an American anti-missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic. As for Romania, the government is deeply divided between a strongly pro-American president and an ambiguous prime minister who is trying hard to suspend the president, while the population at large is becoming increasingly cynical about Washington’s policy in the region.

Putin is also cozying up economically to Germany and France with the covert aim of isolating America. A case in point is the deal signed by Russia to buy advanced French navy ships of the Mistral type for Russia’s Black Sea fleet. The United States accused France of violating an international embargo, threatened the French banks with huge sanctions, and asked Paris to cancel the transaction. The largest French bank, BNP Paribas, admitted that it violated the sanctions, but refused to cancel the deal. According to Bloomberg News, France’s president, Francois Hollande, also refused to cancel the transaction. Reacting to Washington’s interference with the deal, Putin declared that America is trying to blackmail its own European allies.

The late Nobel Prize winner, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a well-known Soviet dissident, once said that the Second World War never ended, but continued in different forms. Apparently, he was right. Since that war ended, the world went through a long period of cold relations, a rather short period of relaxation, and is confronted now with an era of neither war, nor peace, but some kind of a new realignment. In Asia, for instance, President Putin is warming up to China and Iran to attract them into what can only be a new anti-American bloc. And all that while in a typical Russian style Vladimir Putin wished President Obama a happy Fourth of July and called for improved relations. In the meantime, the stalemate in Ukraine continues and these days Kyiv appears to have the upper hand. Will Russia stand idly by? That’s always been doubtful and, indeed, it appears it has not.

Nicholas Dima, Ph.D, is a former professor and author of numerous books and articles including the autobiographical memoir, Journey to Freedom, a description of the effects of communist dictatorship on a nation, a family and an individual. He currently lectures and is a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.