This is perhaps the most dangerous point in Europe’s history since the end of the Cold War. Direct confrontation between Russian and Ukrainian forces will draw in the US, one way or another. While there is still time, it is extremely important to understand what each party involved is aiming for.
Over the past days, Moscow has been unpleasantly surprised several times. The first surprise came when then-Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych halted an operation which would have cleared his opponents from central Kiev. Given the clear order, the Berkut riot police were closing in on the Maidan protest movement named after Kiev’s Independence Square and whose leaders were desperately calling for a truce, but suddenly the Berkut advance was stopped. Instead, Yanukovych invited the opposition for negotiations.
The second surprise came when the negotiations turned into talks about Yanukovych’s concessions, with the participation of three EU foreign ministers.
The agreement, signed on Feb. 21, was a delayed capitulation by Yanukovych — who had been seen as triumphant just a couple of days earlier. An even bigger surprise was the rejection of these capitulation terms by the radicals and the opposition supporting Yanukovych’s immediate resignation.
Finally, the German, Polish and French governments, who had just witnessed the Kiev accord, raised no objection to the just-signed agreement being scrapped within hours.
Russia, whose representative had been invited to witness the signing of the Feb. 21 document, but who wisely refused to cosign it, was incensed. What Moscow saw on Feb. 21 and Feb. 22 was a coup in Kiev. This development led to a fundamental reassessment of Russian policy in Ukraine and vis-a-vis the West.
Viewing last month’s revolution in Kiev as a coup engineered by Ukrainian radical nationalists from the west of the country — assisted by Europe and the US — the Kremlin believed Russia’s important interests were directly affected.
First, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plans of economic integration in the post-Soviet space would have to proceed without Ukraine.
Second, that radical nationalist components were among the beneficiaries of the Kiev revolution left no doubt about Ukraine’s future foreign and security policy and its domestic policies.
Ukraine’s EU Association Agreement, the signing of which was suspended by Yanukovych in November last year, would now be signed, putting Ukraine, in principle, on track to long-term integration with the EU.
In domestic terms, the triumph of western Ukrainian nationalists threatened discrimination against the Russian language, including in the largely Russophone eastern and southern regions and a separation of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church from the Moscow Patriarchate.
The new official Ukrainian narrative, Moscow feared, would change from the post-Soviet “Ukraine is not Russia” to something like “Ukraine in opposition to Russia.”
Moscow has always been thoughtless, lazy and incoherent in its strategy toward an independent Ukraine.
It preferred to focus on specific interests: denuclearization; the Black Sea fleet; gas transit and prices and the like.
During the early days of the present crisis, it remained largely passive. Now, things are changing at breakneck speed.
With the delicate post-USSR balance in Ukrainian polity and society destroyed, Russia has begun to act — decisively, even rashly. Again, there is hardly a master strategy in sight, but some key elements are becoming evident.