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First we take Crimea, then we take Brighton Beach (and then Alaska?)

This blog first appeared on the website of the Centre for Security Governance on 1 May 2014.

Vladimir Putin’s ideology has three basic tenets. The first is that Russia has a right and a responsibility to protect Russian speakers outside the country, no matter what. The second is that Russia’s natural borders have been reduced by questionable diplomatic and political deals that must be reversed. The third is that Russia, like the America he recently criticised for just this reason, is an exceptional country. For Putin, Russia has a historical calling to reshape not only post-Soviet realities but also spaces beyond.

By this logic, Russia should have a determinant say in what happens in Brighton Beach, the mainly Russian-speaking area of Brooklyn, notwithstanding the fact that many its burgers are there precisely because they no longer wanted to be ‘under the protection’ of the Soviet Union or its Russian successor state. All the evidence suggests that the majority of people in Eastern and Southern Ukraine, despite their issues with the central government, do not seek Russia’s protection either. That said, Putin now has a mandate to protect Russian speakers outside the Russian Federation by virtue of a decision of the Council of the Federation. This gives him the right to send troops into Ukraine.

If one extends the logic further, Russia can also demand the return of Alaska on the grounds that it was relinquished to the United States unjustly: in fact, this decision, taken in 1867, was considered a good deal for Russia at the time. Opponents to the transaction in the United States labelled it “Seward’s Folly,” after the primary American negotiator U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward.

Calling for the return of Alaska is not the equivalent of demanding back Crimea, which for reasons still much debated was awarded to Ukraine by Khrushchev in 1954. In 2014, the handover of Crimea was done more democratically but not by much: a hastily organised referendum, a loaded polling question conceived in Moscow, a highly constricted debate, and a referendum overseen by heavily-armed men of “uncertain” origin. Just think how this approach would have gone down in Quebec’s two previous referenda on independence, or would go down in the impending referendum in Scotland or a potential one in Catalonia.

Putin’s strategy focuses on feeding on his opponents failings. He has a feast in front of him in the countries of his immediate visier. In particular, contemporary Ukraine is a young state, only twenty-three years old, trying to overcome a long history when different parts of the country were under different national jurisdictions and political systems. Ukraine is almost by definition a fragile state – one that is highly fragmented and still finding its way. But almost all of the evidence suggests that the vast majority of Ukrainians, despite their not to be underestimated differences, want to remain just that.

Ukraine’s constituent parts are looking for the best model for organising their decision-making prerogatives. Should Ukraine remain a centralised state (the current situation)? Should it be decentralised (as proposed by the current government in Kyiv)? Should it become a federalised state (as demanded by Moscow and activists in eastern Ukraine)? A federal solution might make the most theoretical sense. But, for this to work, there has to be a consensus among the various components of the state on its fundamental viability. Such a vision has yet to be articulated in concrete terms by mainstream political forces in Ukraine. Without it, federalisation would be exploited by Moscow for reasons that have little to do with Ukrainian interests.

Language is, of course, also a driving issue. I may be the only Canadian (of non-Ukrainian origin) who has been twice to conferences in Lugansk/Luhansk, in the extreme eastern reaches of Ukraine. Franco- and Anglo-Canadians alike would have been flabbergasted by the extent to which delegates from all over Ukraine were comfortable speaking Ukrainian or Russian and listening without issue to those who were operating in another idiom.

Nonetheless, there is an objective need to secure Russian as an official language of state in those regions where Russians speakers are predominant, especially after this was called into question in the wake of the overthrow of former President Viktor Yanukovich in February. It might be hard for Ukrainian nationalists in mainly Western Ukraine and among the Diaspora to accept but it is a small price to pay for keeping Ukraine intact. However, that the vast majority of Ukrainians can function in both Ukrainian and Russian makes it largely a political question, not a linguistic one. It should be resolvable.Then there is the question of Ukraine’s geopolitical orientation. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU) have been weak-kneed about Ukrainian membership for all sorts of reasons. The main one has, however, been how this would be interpreted in Moscow. It is now abundantly clear that the less Ukraine is integrated into western structures, the less secure Ukraine will be.

Ukraine is far from being a full-blooded democracy, but neither was Portugal when it became a founding NATO member in 1949. NATO membership helped Portugal make the transition to democracy that blossomed some 25 years later.

Putin is not, of course, going to occupy Brighton Beach or retake Alaska. Despite their current political disarray, strategic short-sightedness, military weakness, and overwhelming focus on domestic issues, Western countries will sooner or later mount a rigorous riposte to Putin’s machinations. Tragically, this will cost Putin’s Russia heavily.If we are to limit the losses in Russia and elsewhere, the EU and NATO need to provide reassurance that they are prepared to stand up for what they purportedly believe in. Whether they are is not yet evident.

(The west also needs to think about the different ways the Russia-China relationship might evolve, and what this could mean strategically. Canadians also need to reflect on what all this could mean for their northern territories. But this is the stuff of future blogs.)

*With apologies to Leonard Cohen. I still wonder what his song First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin is really all about, but my gut feeling is that it was a reflection on how momentum in one place could lead to momentum in another.

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