Strategic Portents of the Ukraine Stand-Off

BY MUNIR AKRAM
The most renowned culinary offering named for Ukraine’s fair capital is probably not being consumed extensively in Kiev as Ukraine faces the loss of Crimea and possibly other eastern parts of the country. But the ‘heroes’ of Kiev’s Maidan Square, egged on by their Western patrons, probably brought this fate on themselves by playing ‘chicken’ with the Russian bear.
The portents for the denouement of this crisis aren’t pleasant. There is an assertive leader in the Kremlin for whom the Soviet Union’s dissolution was the 20th century’s greatest tragedy. On the opposite side, is a wordy US president vulnerable to pressure from Republican hawks demanding penalties on Putin.
Fortunately, the West understands it has no viable military option to reverse Russia’s Crimean takeover. Yet, additional Nato fighters have been deployed to Poland and the Baltic states evoking Moscows deployment of its fighters in Belarus. Latest reports of Russian military concentrations along Ukraine’s northeastern border have intensified fears of wider military intervention by Moscow.
So far, the West’s penalties against Russia remain symbolic — a few travel bans and suspension of (non-existent) military cooperation and (unpromising) trade talks. However, the threatened trade restrictions and exclusion of Russian financial institutions from dollar transactions would hurt the economy.
Yet, given the strategic stakes and national prestige involved, these are unlikely to move Moscow. They may harden its posture and evoke retaliation such as ending subsidies and supply of Russian gas to Ukraine and Western Europe and, more dangerously, extending Russian control to additional parts of eastern Ukraine. This would trigger a further cycle of reciprocal punitive measures, if not military conflict.
Russia’s economy would of course suffer from sanctions and trade and financial disruption. It could ameliorate the pain by diverting its oil and gas exports and trade to China and securing Beijing’s financial support.
Europe too would feel the pain. Although Europe’s trade with Russia is only 1pc of its GDP, it consists largely of oil and gas imports which, despite the optimistic claims in Washington, cannot be met by the US or other friendly sources, at least in the near term. The present glimmers of European economic recovery could be dimmed as growth, dependent on stable energy supplies, stalls and risk-averse external investment shies away.
A European slowdown would have a knock-on impact on the nascent US economic recovery given the intimate mutual dependency across the Atlantic. All would suffer as the integrated global economy goes into reverse.
The strategic shift may be even more dramatic. Europe would once again be clearly divided between West and East. As the economic pain is felt, dissent is likely within the Western alliance, threatening the cohesion of a European Union already in disrepute with several of its oldest members.
With the US newly preoccupied by a European crisis, and still engaged in the Middle East turmoil, China’s rise in Asia would be more pronounced. The Russia-China partnership would be reinforced. China may be uncomfortable with Russia’s trampling of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, a principle vital to prevent the breakaway of Taiwan, Tibet or Xinkiang. But it has lived with other instances where the West has supported the territorial division of sovereign states. While China’s formal position on the Ukraine crisis will remain neutral, it is likely to support Moscow because its main preoccupation is with Western attempts to contain its rise as a global power.
Russia’s cooperation on a number of issues — Afghanistan, Middle East, Syria, Iran, terrorism, etc — would no longer be available. The international management of these and other global challenges may become virtually impossible. As in the Cold War, the UN Security Council could face paralysis.
Yet, a new Cold War is not inevitable. Apart from some Cold Warriors, there seems to be a desire on both sides to find a peaceful solution. However, positions remain far apart on the nature of such a solution and how it should be achieved.
The US and its Western allies see the ‘victory’ of the pro-Western Ukrainian ‘nationalists’ as an established fact. The Western aim is to reverse the Russian takeover of Crimea and prevent further ingress into eastern Ukraine. They want direct negotiations between Ukraine and Russia. They have offered more extensive autonomy for Crimea in exchange for Moscow’s military exit from there.
Moscow, on the other hand, considers the ouster of President Yanukovych to have been achieved by forcible and illegal means and the interim government in Kiev as illegitimate. It wants the process to commence from the Feb 21 agreement reached between Yanukovych and the then opposition parties, and signed by three West European foreign ministers (but not by Russia), to form a national unity government to organise new elections.
Until there’s agreement on the starting point for talks, substantive negotiations are unlikely. The Lavrov-Kerry London encounter has not made much headway. Putin has conveyed he will not take a decision regarding Crimean accession to Russia until after the hastily organised March 16 Crimean referendum. If Putin accepts the referendum’s foregone result, the crisis may reach boiling point.
Urgent and innovative diplomacy is needed to devise an agreed basis for the talks and, to explore in these, ways of accommodating the concerns of the Russian’s and all Ukrainians. Success would be the occasion for a celebratory dinner with Chicken à la Kiev as the main course.

-the writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN
-by arrangement with dawn.com