BY Jim Harding
The political crisis in Ukraine, Russia incorporating Crimea and NATO talking of building up its troops have created a Cold War-like international unease. We must prevent such geo-political conflict from escalating if we are to shift world politics to a sustainable path. And we should be thankful that, in spite of strong rhetoric on all sides, diplomacy continues.
But we need to have a fuller grasp of the conflict for there to be any chance of it being contained or resolved without military escalation among the nuclear powers. But where do we start?
INTERNATIONAL LAW VIOLATIONS
While necessary, condemning Russia for violating international law isn’t likely to have much effect. The U.S. has reacted similarly when it perceived a threat in its “hemisphere”, for example with its botched invasion of Cuba at the “Bay of Pigs” in 1961. George Bush Jr. breached international law when invading Iraq, using trumped up threats of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) to justify the superpower assault. The U.S. continues to justify breaching the sovereignty of countries with the use of its sometimes deadly drones.
How does Russia’s justification for taking over Crimea compare? Since 1783 Crimea has been part of Czarist Russia and then the Soviet Union. When Ukraine was still a Soviet Republic, Moscow agreed to Crimea being governed within Ukraine and, in 1991, after the Soviet Union imploded, Crimea became an autonomous Republic within Ukraine.
Putin justifies his intervention as necessary to respect the self-determination of the vulnerable Russian majority inhabiting Crimea. But we know that Russia, a mostly land-locked country, depends upon Crimea for navy ports and for access to the Black and Mediterranean Seas.
It’s not surprising that Russia perceives the Ukrainian revolt as a security threat. Talk of Ukraine joining the EU and possible joining NATO would be unsettling; it might even be the “last straw”. Since the Soviet Union imploded, NATO has steadily spread towards Russia’s borders. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Hungary and Romania are now NATO members; even Belarus has a relationship with NATO. If Ukraine joined, NATO forces would be all along the European-Russian border. If you try to imagine a Russian-led military alliance stationing troops all along Canada’s or Mexico’s border with the U.S., you might get the picture from Russia’s perspective.
THE CONTEXT: REGIONAL WARS
And what of the broader context?
My understanding dramatically altered in 2005 when I went to Turkey to speak at the Iraq War Tribunal. Regional specialists continually reminded us of how U.S. military intervention had destabilized an already unstable area, trying to free itself of the yoke of colonialism. Some called the region a tinder box.
Look closely at a regional map. Iraq borders Iran on its east. Remember that Iran became an Islamic theocracy with closer ties to Russia after the U.S.-backed military regime was overthrow in 1979. Its regional status as a predominantly Shia country has increased since the Iraq war.
Iraq has Syria on its west. Syria is another Russian ally, now in disarray from civil war and facing one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. It borders Lebanon where conflict is reoccurring. Just west is nuclear-armed Israel, which occupies Palestinian lands, and right next to it is increasingly polarized Egypt.
Then, Iraq has Turkey on its north. It is a NATO country with a large military, and increasingly in civil conflict over its waning secular and fledgling Islamic democracy. Turkey is just across the Black Sea from Crimea.
And finally, Iraq has Saudi Arabia on its south. It remains an authoritarian oil theocracy, still backed by the U.S., which, we mustn’t forget, is the founding and funding homeland of the Sunni-leaning, Al-Qaeda terrorist network.
Many of the 30 armed conflicts presently on the planet are in this region. If these expand into regional wars, things will become very dangerous. Turkey is already having conflicts with the Kurds within Iraq, and also with Syria on its borders. If you consider Syria’s ally Russia and Turkey’s ally, the U.S., you start to get the bigger picture. No wonder Obama and Putin are keeping the channels of communication open. A civil or regional conflict escalating into a superpower conflict would be a global threat to us all.
Thankfully democratization can become a force for peace and Putin already faces some stiff domestic opposition. His declining support among the middle classes has, however, led him to appeal to ethnic nationalism. In his speech to the Russian Duma, when it voted to reincorporate Crimea, Putin spoke of “ethnic Russians”, not citizens of Russia. According to Doug Saunders in the March 22, 2014 Globe and Mail, Putin is starting to voice the ultra-nationalist views of neo-Eurasianism, which draw on various pre-modern traditions. Dealing with a rash of challenges, including from Islamic regions within or adjacent to Russia, Putin may be embracing a more dangerous rhetoric to help reconsolidate a “Greater Russia”. The complexity of the region’s quickly changing politics is, however shown by NATO-backed, Afghan President Hamid Karzai supporting Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
But Putin has far more than “big ethnic ideas” working for him. When asked if he liked the term “Energy Superpower” Putin said this reminded him too much of the Cold War. But it is Russia’s ascendancy as an energy exporter that gives it such strong bargaining power in this crisis.
Not only does Ukraine depend upon Russian energy but one third of Europe’s natural gas comes from Russia. To put this into perspective: Europe is now more dependent upon Russian energy than the U.S. is upon Canadian energy. 40% of Russia’s pipelines pass through the Ukraine, so Russia’s economic interests will continue to penetrate Ukrainian politics. Imagine if Canada interfered with pipelines going from Alberta to the U.S. market.
Phasing in renewable energy to replace toxic nuclear or coal plants has also made Europe more dependent on Russia’s gas, at least in the short term. One unintended outcome of the Crimean crisis may be the loosening of limits or bans on fracking within Europe.
Fracking is primarily what has given the U.S. its greater energy independence; since 2004 the U.S. had reduced its imports of oil from 60% to 30% of the total used. The U.S. is now considering exporting liquefied natural gas (LNG) to Europeans to help them become less dependent on Russia.
Meanwhile G7 leaders know full well that economic sanctions, even with new sources of energy for Europe, will have limited effects on Russia’s resource economy. While Russia doesn’t want to lose its lucrative European energy market, it has the world’s second largest economy, energy-hungry China, on its back door.
It’s also quite hypocritical for our Prime Minister to oppose Putin’s actions in Crimea as though Harper speaks for the “free world”. I understand that Canada has the largest Ukrainian population outside of Ukraine, and so there are lots of votes, but barely a month goes by without Harper making another assault on Canadian democracy; most recently his attempt to alter the Elections Act.
Harper’s one-dimensional, economistic vision of Canada as an Energy Superpower is no more likely to promote democracy here than is Putin’s view in Russia. It also makes us quite vulnerable to emerging geo-politics. Energy analyst Daniel Yergin has noted that since the Western military interventions into the Middle East, it is China that is gaining in energy imports from this war-torn region. One unintended consequence of the Crimean crisis could be that the Asian market for Canada’s oil may begin to shrink.
The emerging geo-political dynamics cannot be understood through nationalist or “free world” rhetoric. The sooner that all countries transition to a sustainable energy system, the sooner that energy-driven and militarily dangerous geo-politics will cease to threaten international peace and security.