Beyond Ukraine Russia's Imperial Mess
Russia's occupation of Crimea has violated international law and created a new crisis among world leaders. Now the EU and the US are fighting over the best means to address Russia's reawakened expansionary ambitions.
Everything in Simferopol, the capital of the Ukrainian Autonomous Republic of Crimea, has suddenly changed. Shortly after noon on Thursday of last week, Cossacks from Russia sealed off the Crimean parliament building. The Russians, who had identified themselves as tourists a short time earlier, claimed that they were there to "check identification papers." Now Russia's white, blue and red flag flies above the building.
Two men accompany us as we walk up the steps to meet with the new premier of Crimea, who has taken over the office in a Moscow-backed coup. Under his leadership and with instructions from Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Crimean lawmakers have just voted to join the Russian Federation. Their decision is to be sealed with a referendum scheduled for Sunday, March 16.
Prime Minister Sergey Aksyonov, 41, a former businessman with a highly dubious reputation, tries to make a serious impression, but so far, he has been unsuccessful in his attempts to shed his reputation as an underworld figure nicknamed "Goblin." Despite the Russian flag on display in the reception room, Aksyonov insists that rumors that he was installed by the Kremlin are nothing but lies. "The people here asked me to do it," he says. But he knows that neither Kiev nor the West will accept the annexation of Crimea. "No one dictates anything to us," he insists.
The new premier speaks rapidly, as if to drown out any skepticism. "We want no violence or casualties," he says, adding that everything should proceed peacefully. "However, we are not letting the Ukrainians out of their barracks, so that they can no longer act on any criminal orders from Kiev." He says that his people are in control of all of Crimea, but NATO experts claim that at least 2,000 Russian soldiers have been brought to the peninsula by air, for a total of 20,000 troops in Crimea. Another 20,000 are supposedly standing ready nearby.
"Nonsense," says Aksyonov, still insisting that Moscow has not sent in any soldiers at all. This, despite the fact that the men in ski masks and uniforms -- which have been stripped of Russian insignia -- are grinning under their disguises. If the situation weren't so serious, it would almost be comical.
At this point, no one is laughing. Russian soldiers have repeatedly prevented military observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) from entering Crimea. Pro-Russian "civil defense squads" have threatened United Nations special envoy Robert Serry in Simferopol. "Militarily speaking, Crimea is already lost," says a NATO general. "The Ukrainian army is fighting a lost cause." According to a German military internal situation report, the events in Crimea could be repeated in eastern Ukraine.
So far, Moscow's provocations in Crimea haven't resulted in any deaths. Nevertheless, all it takes is one murder or one gun battle to ignite the powder keg of tensions in the region. It begs the question: Almost 100 years after the beginning of World War I, and almost 25 years after the end of the Cold War and the realignment of Europe, could there possibly be a new military conflict between the major powers in Europe?
'Most Serious Crisis' Since Cold War
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has called it the "most serious crisis since the fall of the Berlin Wall" -- seemingly ignoring the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. US President Barack Obama characterized Moscow's intervention as a "violation of international law," while former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton compared Putin's alleged concerns over "ethnic" Russians in eastern Ukraine to Adolf Hitler's actions in Sudetenland in 1938.
Officials at NATO and the European Union have been meeting almost around the clock. Late last week, Obama spent more than an hour on the phone with Putin, who has shown no sign of backing down. The Western leaders now face the challenge of exerting pressure on Russia while simultaneously keeping the channels of communication open.
They are also being confronted with a different series of questions: What kinds of sanctions could even persuade Russia's aggressive leader to withdraw? What does Vladimir Putin want? Does he want to annex Crimea or even eastern Ukraine, or perhaps seize control of even more territory along Russia's borders? And are these merely the actions of a cornered fighter or does he truly believe he can create a modern reincarnation of the Soviet Union?
The United States and the EU approved initial sanctions against Moscow late last week, Washington sent military reinforcements to Poland and the Baltic countries and the German federal police promptly suspended half a dozen cooperative programs with Russia. On Sunday, the Polish Defense Minister announced that the US was sending 12 fighter jets to Poland.
But aside from these measures, the situation has thus far been characterized by a horrifying sense of helplessness. On the one hand, Russia is part of the globalized community of nations, tightly interconnected through regular political consultations, the economy and tourism. Russia's commodities exports to Europe make up close to half of the central government budget, and its connections to the rest of the world are obvious. But then, on the other hand, there is the Russian president, who is apparently trying to break ranks with this interdependent, civilized world.
Ignorance and Incomprehension
The events of the last few weeks have underscored a lack of understanding between East and West, as well as the West's crass ignorance and incomprehension of Putin's motives. As much as the leaders on both sides feel that they know each other, vast differences remain.
"Putin is living in another world!" German Chancellor Angela Merkel reportedly exclaimed in a phone call with Obama last week. Putin, for his part, voiced almost identical opinions about the West in a press conference with handpicked journalists, saying, "They sit there across the pond as if they're in a lab running all kinds of experiments on rats, without understanding consequences of what they're doing." By "rats" he apparently meant the new Ukrainian leadership, which Putin believes is being controlled by Washington.
But the Kremlin leader has succeeded in one respect: He has divided the West. This process began months before his foray into Crimea, when he granted temporary asylum to US whistleblower Edward Snowden. Snowden had leaked documents on the massive surveillance activities of the NSA, heightening the distrust among the Western allies to levels unseen since World War II. And the fact that Washington has made no effort to conclude a no-spying agreement with Berlin has only worsened the sense of alienation between the two countries.
Searching for the Right Measure
Germany is playing a central role in resolving the current Ukraine crisis. Both the United States and Russia see Merkel as the politician who is best equipped to defuse the explosive situation in Ukraine. She addresses Putin with the informal "du" in German, and has met with him dozens of times. Despite their many differences, their close partnership has created a bond between Berlin and Moscow. And with its aspiration to embark on a new, more active foreign policy, the German government has placed itself under more pressure to succeed.
But Europe's impotence and trepidation are not as clear-cut as they appear. Even though a reversal of the Russian takeover of Crimea may seem hopeless at this point, joint EU actions against Moscow could be promising in the long term. Putin is not as strong as he makes himself out to be, and Russia is vulnerable, particularly on the economic front.
It is merely a question of finding the most effective way to make an impression on Putin and curb his expansion plans -- and of whether the West has the will to follow a course of action that will be painful for everyone involved. Either way, the decisions now being made in Crimea, Kiev, Moscow, Brussels and Washington will shape policy in the coming years and possibly even decades.
In Kiev: Pride and Powerlessness
While Russians and Ukrainians continue to face off in Crimea -- with US President Obama threatening to skip the G-8 summit in Sochi in June and the Russian parliament, the Duma, considering the seizure of Western company assets in response to sanctions -- the new government is meeting in Kiev. Less than two weeks after entering office, it is desperately trying to regain control over the situation in Ukraine.
The seat of the government, located in a massive Stalin-era building on Kiev's Grushevsky Street, seems caught in the past. The hallway floors are covered with sound-absorbing green carpeting from the Yanukovych era, the names of the country's new leaders have already been engraved onto brass signs on the doorways.
Room 460, on the fifth floor, is the office of the new economics minister, Pavlo Sheremeta. The office hasn't been completely furnished yet, and there are only two pictures on the wall -- a portrait of national poet Taras Shevchenko and a photo, titled "Heavenly One Hundred," depicting the photos of the 67 people who died on Maidan Square. The view from the window is of a barricade on Grushevsky Street, now covered with flowers, where many of former President Viktor Yanukovych's opponents died.
"We owe a great deal to the dead," says Sheremeta. It angers him that Moscow is calling the change in government in Kiev a "coup" and the protesters "fascists." Radical right-wing agitators, he says, were clearly in the minority among the protesters on Independence Square.
Sheremeta is not a member of any party. He is part of the contingent of ministers selected by the Maidan protesters and his position is now probably one of the most important in Kiev. The 42-year-old economist teaches business strategy in Eastern Europe and Asia and, most recently, was president of the Kiev School of Economics. When he received the call asking him to join the new government, he was skiing in the Alps with his wife and two daughters.
He never saw his predecessor, who held his last meeting at 11 a.m. on Feb. 27 and then left the building. Sheremata was appointed at 2 p.m. that day. Since then, he and other members of the new government have been working around the clock.
A staff member walks into the room. He has brought along Ukraine's daily economic figures, which look like the fever chart of a deathly ill patient. Industrial production declined by another half a percent in January, while inflation is sharply on the rise, tax revenues are down 20 percent and the national currency, the hryvnia, continues to lose value.
"We are going to review government contracts, where corruption is taking a heavy toll," says Sheremeta. But first he has to meet with experts from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), who have been in Kiev since Tuesday to discuss a $15 billion (10.8 billion) loan the country urgently needs. But natural gas prices will also be a topic of discussion. It is clear that, effective April 1, the Russians will reverse the substantial reduction in prices they had promised Yanukovich. It is also clear that Naftogaz, Ukraine's national oil and gas company, is unable to pay the current bill for gas deliveries, which has grown to $2.1 billion.
This means Ukrainians will now -- in accordance with the IMF's conditions -- have to pay up to three times as much for heat and hot water, a change which will hurt the new government's popularity and thus play into Putin's hands. "We have to explain this to the people. If we are not willing to pay more for the gas, then we truly belong in the East. But then what did those 67 men die for?" asks Sheremeta.