As part of the closing ceremonies for the Sochi Winter Olympics, Russian children walked through a virtual forest before entering the stadium under the watchful eye of a nearby bear. Although not menacing, it kept an eye on the children as they slowly moved forward. Inside, President Putin and his few guests from around the world enjoyed the spectacle first-hand, while millions more watched from the comfort of their homes. Russia was savouring what may be the ultimate end of the benefits of glasnost. What commenced as a grand re-opening of the old Soviet society under Mikhail Gorbachev well over two decades ago, ultimately bringing the Berlin Wall down and ending the Cold War, appears to be coming to an unceremonious end under Russia’s new grand dictator, Vladimir Putin. What very well may be bringing it to an end is the Russian fear that the eastward expansion of western influence has gone too far in Ukraine.
Throughout those decades since glasnost, Russia has become a much more open society, but it has seen a great deal of its previous sphere of influence diminish. At the same time, the European Union has made strides throughout the old Soviet bloc as many of the countries closest to western Europe have been eager to join the Union, taking geo-political advantage of a weakened Russia. Vladimir Putin believes he came to, and continues to wield, power in Russia to stop that. And he is willing to suffer the wrath of western nations to achieve it.
A Resurgent Russia
Putin’s goal has been to stabilize Russia economically and to stop the erosion of its influence, particularly in those nations nearest the Russian borders. The first goal was attained primarily through exporting its vast energy resources, contributing OPEC levels of wealth into the Russian treasury. That energy export strategy also enabled Putin to stop the decline of Russian influence and power in two ways. First, much of Western Europe is dependent on the gas exports from Russia for its energy supply, particularly the economic powerhouse, Germany. Secondly, the energy wealth financed a resurgent Russian military, which had fallen into serious disrepair at the end of the Soviet Union. Putin has demonstrated that he is not hesitant to use that military power as he did to defend Russian interests in South Ossetia within Georgia in 2008. Russia remains in de facto control in that part of Georgia.
Politics in Ukraine have never really stabilized since the fall of the Soviet Union, but democracy has prevailed through many elections since then. Notwithstanding their election through democratic ballot, the governments vie for most incompetent or most corrupt. The final guise of combined incompetence and corruption was the Viktor Yanukovych government, in power since 2010. Yanukovych’s government vacillated over which direction to take his country. Through years of protracted negotiations, his government appeared ready to accept a trade accord with the European Union, which included harsh economic conditions that his government had to accept. Balking at those conditions, in November 2013, Yanukovych instead accepted a more generous offer from Russia, which would have put his country into Putin’s economic bloc alternative to the EU — the Eurasian Union. However, this change in support did not go well back on the streets in Kiev.
The proposed Eurasian agreement led to street protests for Ukrainians who had no desire to realign with Russia or its leader Putin, who was seen to be too much cut from the old Soviet cloth. While the protests remained peaceful, their intent was to topple the Yanukovych government and let an opposition, which was more sympathetic to western interests, lead the government. As the government increased its use of force to quell the rebellion, western nations interceded to facilitate a transition in government. As violence became more widespread and deaths mounted, Viktor Yanukovych and his government leaders fled Kiev on February 22, enabling the parliament’s Speaker Oleksandr Turchinov to become acting president until elections are held in May. Turchinov, also a Baptist pastor, freed his longtime ally from jail, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Tymoshenko always enjoyed popular support even though she was jailed for personally benefitting from gas contracts her country negotiated. Interestingly enough, her involvement in those gas contracts brought her into negotiations with Vladimir Putin. That may be a strength if she either leads or is part of the interim and future Ukraine governments that must find a way out of the current stalemate.
Putin Looks on and is Not Amused
Meanwhile, events in Ukraine no doubt had the attention of the Russian bear, even as he hosted the world at the Olympics. Putin was certainly resolved to act, but did not intervene in Ukraine until his international guests had returned home. The docility the big bear demonstrated in blowing out the Olympic flame soon gave way to the Russian bear we know much better on the world stage, one that is very protective of its home territory. Clearly, the West has underestimated Putin’s resolve not to let the Ukraine buffer be brought unchallenged into the western sphere of influence. An absolutely bottom-line, non-negotiable issue is Russia’s access to its Black Sea port, which also has access to the Mediterranean. And that access happens to be in none other than the Crimea, at the port of Sevastopol.
Successive Ukraine governments have wanted to renegotiate Russia’s naval base leases. In 2010, Ukraine agreed to extend the lease to 2042; however, the new administration had raised the prospect of another renegotiation which would limit Russia’s long term access. With much of the Crimean population supporting Russia, and given its strategic importance, it is not surprising that Putin decided to use force and to negotiate from the strength of occupation. His decision to occupy the Crimean peninsula will soon be reinforced by the hastily called March 16 referendum, which will most assuredly indicate that Crimea prefers to side with Russia and would be open to annexation.
How can the West Compromise?
While it seems that Russia has de-escalated military operations in the Crimea even as it strengthens its stranglehold there, western nations appear impotent. Obama, weakened by Putin’s Crimea gambit, will not seriously consider using NATO military action to re-secure Crimea as part of Ukraine, and yet the NATO countries cannot readily accept territorial expansion through such blatant use of force. Economic sanctions will be used to penalize Russia, but given western Europe’s dependency on Russian energy supplies, the sanctions need to be judiciously imposed so that they are not counter-productive.
It is also uncertain whether the G-8 group of nations, scheduled to meet in Sochi in June, will move to become the G-7 and suspend Russia’s membership. Again all nations will tread carefully, as some western European countries’ fragile economies are still going through painful recovery after facing the brink of collapse, particularly Greece, Spain and Italy. Their continued recovery will depend on securing long term international economic stability. Western European partners must also consider a long term Ukraine economic stability package. The challenges are many. The room to respond to Russia’s military incursion is very narrow. Vladimir Putin, looking on at the opening of the Sochi Paralympics, appears to be happily in control of his destiny.
Pray for the Christian Reformed World Missions rep Rev. Gerard “George” de Vuyst, originally from Grand Rapids, Mich., his wife Sarah and their three children, in the Ukraine since 1998. Among prayer requests for the wisdom of the interim government, de Vuyst added in an email back home, “Pray for Putin. […] Pray that God will work a miracle in of transformation in Putin’s heart, mind and will.”