Events commemorating the 70th anniversary of D-Day in Ouistreham, France in early June had one unwelcome guest: distrust. Relations between world leaders were tense during ceremonies marking the pivotal World War II battle which ultimately led to the liberation of Europe from Nazi tyranny. Even though the then Soviet Union did not directly participate in the D-Day battle, Nazi Germany’s defeat would not have been possible without the immense sacrifices the Russian people in the European theatre of war’s eastern front. So Vladimir Putin was a necessary, if not an entirely wanted, guest at the events marking that historic day. But his presence required some immediate testing of old political alignments. Pundits noted that representatives of European nations with significant economic ties with Russia, particularly France and Germany, greeted Putin graciously; President Obama publicly distanced himself but met for a short, serious discussion on the Ukraine crisis; and Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper markedly rebuffed the Russian President.
Putin’s swift annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in March, after the overthrow and removal of Ukraine’s President Yanukovych — who had been supporting closer alignment with Russia — has wreaked havoc on the world’s geo-political landscape, which had been relatively stable for the decades since the breakup of the Soviet block of nations. The reverberations of Putin’s Crimean gambit continue to be felt in this new “Cold War,” distrust now permeating international relationships and severely straining existing political alignments.
Restoring a semblance of normalcy
A White House news release stated that de-escalation of tensions with Russia “depends upon Russia recognizing President-elect Poroshenko as the legitimate leader of Ukraine, ceasing support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, and stopping the provision of arms and materiel across the border.” In a political pecking order routine, France’s President Hollande had personally invited President-elect Poroshenko to the D-Day events in the hopes of arranging a meeting with President Putin to break some ice between Russia and Ukraine. A short meeting was orchestrated for the embattled leaders, which included German Chancellor Angela Merkel. D-Day’s diplomatic dances demonstrate how desperately European leadership wants some resolution of the Ukraine crisis. Putin and Poroshenko did agree that the battles in eastern Ukraine need to stop. There may be little else they agree on, however.
Poroshenko assumes Ukraine Presidency
On June 7, immediately following the D-Day events, Petro Poroshenko was inaugurated as President of Ukraine. His strong mandate, however, was gained with little support from the eastern provinces bordering Russia, where voting had been made next to impossible because armed insurgents shut down most of the polls. People stayed home either in support of the insurgents or in fear of their lives. While democracy won the day in most of Ukraine, the insurgent forces in Luhansk and Donetsk made sure the people’s right to vote there was not exercised. Instead, the insurgent leaders held their own far from democratic but successful secession votes in those regions, proclaiming their regions as independent from Ukraine.
Poroshenko, known as the “Chocolate King” because he is a self-made billionaire tycoon in the confections industry, now assumes control of a badly divided country where astute political acumen will be the order of the day. His inaugural address started to pave the way to regaining some political stability by demanding that the insurgents lay down their arms in exchange for safe passage to those who wished to go to Russia.
Immediately after the inauguration, Russia announced it would tighten its border security with Ukraine, reacting to criticism that many of the Ukraine insurgents were Russians who had recently crossed in to help foment secession. While Ukraine and Russia may find common ground on settling the eastern Ukraine insurgency, Poroshenko’s bold claim that Crimea will “remain” part of his country will not find a conciliatory Putin. How Poroshenko, and the world, deals with a nation that so blatantly disregarded most international conventions in annexing Crimea is still not very clear. Putin is not making any moves to enable Crimea’s return to Ukraine, and apparently the vast majority of Crimeans like it that way. There may be a new balance of power asserting itself in eastern Europe, and there is little western nations can do to change that.
Putin neutralizes the gas supply card
One of the issues underlying western Europe’s consternation in how to deal with Putin’s actions is its dependency on Russian fuel exports. If that dependency could be reduced, the west would be freed from greater Russian influence and would also reduce Russia’s huge cash flow from gas sales, which finance most of its national needs, including re-arming the military. As if the Crimea gambit was not enough of a bold strike, Putin next struck an enormous, multi-year deal to deliver gas to China. If western Europe was able to wean itself from Russian fuel supply (and whether that’s possible is unclear), Russia will just divert delivery to the energy-hungry Chinese economy. It is pure Orwellian, emulating the constant change in international allegiances which underpinned the need for Big Brother’s care in 1984.
Canada, which has been the most vocal western nation supporting Ukraine and criticizing Russia throughout this crisis, was delivered a hard blow in this new Sino-Russia gas deal. British Columbia has been exploring ways to develop its liquid natural gas industry in the hopes of finding a need in the lucrative Chinese economy. With this long-term supply commitment from Russia, China may no longer need the gas we had hoped to sell. Now China may still need the fuel oil that pipelines are to deliver to tidewater, but as we know construction of the Gateway pipeline and the extension of the southern XL Pipeline is far from certain. Canada may be stuck with supply it has no place to deliver.
Uncertain steps forward
Poroshenko will be putting together a leadership team to enable Ukraine “to live in a new way,” as his campaign slogan promised. He has the support of western nations to carry out his plan, and a closer relationship with the European Union is part of that plan. Putin will be watching these efforts closely. It may be that the west has to accept that Crimea remain part of Russia, while Putin will have to accept that Ukraine will move closer to western Europe. It will certainly take a lot of monetary support initially from the west. In this Poroshenko has some bargaining power; now that Ukraine has resisted closer ties to Russia and has had a democratic election of a new, west-leaning president, the west must deliver relief to the Ukrainian people. In some respects, Ukraine is a beachhead in this part of Europe, similar to that established on the beaches of Normandy 70 years ago. While Putin is not a Hitler, nor is his regime as evil as the Nazis, his unilateral annexation of Crimea cannot go unchallenged in a world that must respect international borders. The western nations delivered then in a unified alliance. It has the opportunity do so again.