The End of the Beginning

By Volodymyr Kish

Most Ukrainians, both in the homeland and abroad, were thrilled several weeks ago when the EuroMaidan movement succeeded in ousting the vile regime of Victor Yanukovych and his odious band of kleptocratic leeches. The will of the Ukrainian people had triumphed over the forces of evil and their scheming Russian master Vladimir Putin.  A new era was finally dawning on Ukraine and its long suffering citizenry. Or was it?

A humiliated Putin decided to up the stakes, and the Ukrainian euphoria evaporated like the dew in the morning sun.  It is clear that Ukraine and the rest of the world for that matter underestimated the perfidy and evil of the Russian bear.  Putin is not one to accept defeat graciously, so today we are faced with the specter of nothing less than a full blown invasion of Crimea by tens of thousands of unidentified “green men”.  Putin strives to claim with a straight face that they are not Russian soldiers, yet offers no explanation as to how all these thousands of disciplined, well-armed, well supplied, Russian speaking troops all of a sudden materialized all over Crimea taking over government buildings and blockading Ukrainian military installations in a well-coordinated and planned military initiative.  The brazenness of it all is as impressive as it is appalling.

As the US, the EU and the rest of the world try and make sense of and respond to Putin’s irrational behavior, it is starting to sink in that what we all thought was a new Russia arising from the ashes of the USSR is nothing more than another reincarnation of the old imperialistic and predatory Russia that has been the bane of European and more lately, world history.  Putin and Russia’s political elite are afflicted with an age old inferiority complex that manifests itself by a need to bully and conquer its neighbours to assert its geopolitical machismo.  Regrettably Ukraine by virtue of its location has been a primary victim of Russia’s political xenophobia and paranoia.

History is repeating itself as so many political analysts have rushed to make clear.  Yet in today’s economically and technologically interconnected world, the consequences are likely to be far different than they were in previous centuries.  In the past, Russia was self-contained and self-sufficient in most aspects, and could thumb its nose at the rest of the world without suffering any real economic consequence. 

The same is no longer true.  Russia’s economy is heavily dependent on exports to Europe, particularly petroleum and natural gas products.  Should Europe choose to impose serious economic sanctions on Russia for its unconscionable behavior vis a vis Ukraine, the Russian economy could be brought to its knees in very short order.  Although Europe does get a significant portion of its gas supplies from Russia (35%), their dependency has lessened in recent years and new alternative sources have come onto the market, particularly from Norway and the US.  Correspondingly, Europe accounts for 76% of Russia’s gas exports which is the single largest revenue producer for the Russian economy and government.  As per a recent McLean’s magazine article, oil and gas make up some 70% of Russia’s exports and supply over half of the government’s revenues.  Further, most of Russia’s ruling oligarchs have significant asset holdings in European banks and countries, and a freeze on these would be a damaging blow with escalating social and political consequences in Russia.

Putin is clearly gambling that the west’s reaction will be mostly vocal with little bite.  It is therefore incumbent on the US and the EU to quickly implement an escalating series of sanctions and initiatives to show Putin that they mean business and will not stand for further Russian encroachment on Ukraine’s territory.  I have no doubt that Putin has a clear plan of taking over Crimea first, and then, barring any kind of effective response from the US and EU, going after Eastern Ukraine next. 

The political and military situation in Crimea and Ukraine may seem complex, but the reality of the dynamics is quite simple.  Putin is a bully.  He will keep bullying and pushing until somebody firmly and effectively pushes back.  So far the US, NATO and the EU have stood by on the sidelines and done little more than issue pleas for diplomatic dialog.  The time for speaking softly is past.  It is time to bring out the big stick and let Putin know that bullies are not tolerated in the European neighbourhood.  If he does not behave, he will not be allowed to play in this playground.

The Euromaidan revolution was obviously not the end of the struggle.  Putin chooses to see it as only the beginning of his efforts to dominate this end of the world.  It is up to the rest of the world to make sure that it is the beginning of the end for Putin.