Near abroad or shared abroad? The arrival to the presidency of the Russian Federation of Vladimir Putin (2000) resulted in a good performance in overcoming critical situations that had characterized the life of the country in the nineties, with the establishment of the so-called “sovereign democracy” (considered by the leading Western think tank as a new form of authoritarianism), the adjustment of the national economy to free market rules (WTO entry in 2012) and the restoration of order in the South Caucasus (end of the second Chechen war in 2009). In parallel with the resolution of the problems of internal order, Putin planned the international re-launch of Russia, if not in the sense of a real global power, at least in that of a major regional power in the Eurasian space. The main objective in this regard, was the restoration of Moscow’s influence over the former Soviet republics. The presence of large ethnic Russian or Russian-speaking minorities in nearly all these States, on the one hand, reinforced the possibility of an endogenous conditioning on their domestic political life and, on the other hand, provided – when necessary – the legal pretext for a diplomatic or military exogenous intervention (drawing on the diplomatic tradition of the Russian Empire, guarantor of the Orthodox and Russian populations outside its borders. Moscow, in other words, tried to re-establish on this area a leadership similar to the one built by Washington in Latin America, traditionally depicted as its “backyard”.
The alleged exclusivity of Russian influence on this area, however, has not met the consent of either the United States or the main European countries, that rather preferred to regard it as a “shared abroad”, i.e. a region over which they would have momentarily exercised an equal influence with Russia, but with the intent to lay the foundations for a power imbalance gradually favorable to the West. The question of Ukraine Association Agreement with European Union, recalling the ghosts of the past international weakness of Russia, led to a political spiral that has kept the whole world with bated breath for months. .The tumultuous protests of the Euromaidan movement, the deposition of President Yanukovych, the appointment of an interim president and prime minister, the secession of Crimea, the approval of its annexation by the Duma, the signing of the Association Agreement with the EU by the new Ukrainian government, the clashes in the eastern regions of the country between the army and the pro-Russian “volunteers” and, finally, the announcement – through a referendum – of the independence of the regions ofDonetsk and Lugansk, are only the main pieces of the process that – until now – has been taking on the contours of a domino effect. If the current situation of creeping conflict turned into a real civil war, its contours would hardly be contained and, probably, would become the subject of a dangerous internationalization. Moscow could not prevent the two new referendums of 11 May, but took note of the fait accompli without ventilating the possibility of new annexations. It is interesting, therefore, trying to reflect on the possible change in the balance of power caused by the crisis in Ukraine and the strategic interests of the Powers moving behind the rift that is tearing the country between western-oriented and pro-Russian regions – and ethno-linguistic communities.
A more powerful Russia? Despite a widespread narrative describes the Kremlin as the winner of the Ukraine crisis because of the annexation of Crimea (although not recognized by any state), the real effect of this event on the international position of Russia will be evaluated only in a few months and will not necessarily correspond to its strengthening. The annexation of the peninsula is a retaliation to the public defenestration of a pro-Russian government (despite Viktor Yanukovych had accompanied the momentary approach of Kiev to the EU) in a State that, more than any other among those of the former Soviet space, is deeply tied to Russia, both culturally and politically. It should be remembered first, that Kiev was the capital of the first Russian State, whileCrimea has been part of it, from the Russian-turkish Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca (1774), before moving from the Rss of Russia to that of Ukraine in 1954 at the behest of Nikita Khrushchev. Moreover, before the annexation of the peninsula, 17.3% of the Ukrainian population was ethnic Russian and 24% was Russian-speaking, mainly concentrated in the eastern regions of the country (as well as in Crimea). To this must be added that the Russian Black Sea Fleet is primarily anchored in the port of Sevastopol, guaranteeing to Moscow the partial control of this inland sea and the access to the Mediterranean Sea, and that in 2010 there was an agreement between Kiev and Moscow to extend the use of the bases until 2042-2047. Finally, it is necessary to consider that the main element of continuity in the foreign policy of the Russian Empire, of the Soviet Union and of the Russian Federation is the purpose to ensure a “strategic depth” around the capital. In this sense, the loss of influence on Ukraine and its integration into the European Union may be prodromal events to the entry into NATO. The boundaries of this organization – which, during the Cold War, had Italy, Germany and Turkey at its Eastern borders – would reach 650 km south of Moscow, adding in a pincer movement to the presence of NATO in Latvia, whose border is separated from Moscow by the same distance.With the exceptionof the Crimea,Moscow shouldpave the way fortherestoration of Kiev’s authorityin Eastern Ukraineand for ageneralreturn to orderin the countryand to peaceamong the variousethnic groupswithin it.
In order to returnto influencethepolitical lifeof Ukraine, it is also expected touse democratic tools, as already happenedin the past,withthe Russian minority that several times came to the government(in recent years due toYanukovych’s Party of Regions), thanks to a greaterpolitical unityof the Russian community. This choice, however, constitutes acceptance of the major American and European influence on the most western regions of the country, which could also be accepted, given that most of these areas before the Second World War had never depended politically from Moscow.
On the other hand it should use the instrument of energy resources, because – EU or non-EU – Ukraine is dependent on Russia for its own needs and any government will be interested in preserving the revenues that come from the passage of the pipelines coming from across the border, on the national territory. The result would be a balance of power that would often be more favorable to Moscow, so as to prevent Ukraine’s entry into NATO, keeping it in the position of a diaphragm towards the West, also useful to the cause of Russian security.
Back to the West for the United States. Bill Clinton was the last American president whose political attention – without prejudice to the crisis in Somalia and Iraq – primarily focused on European dynamics (the Balkans in the head), as was the case with his predecessors, who had to face for nearly half a century the Soviet leadership for the influence on our continent. His successors, however, have increasingly moved American strategic interests to the East. George W. Bush jr. to the Middle East, with the belief that this constituted the so-called “arc of crisis” closely linked to national security, Barack Obama to the Asia-Pacific quadrant, with the purpose to encircle China with a “crown of American pearls” (i.e. of allied states) in order to limit future international ambitions. If the former, however, had the strength – and met with favorable conditions – for the pursuit of its objectives (not quite achieved), the latter collided with the re-emergence of a profound instability in an area considered “secured” as Europe. It should not be forgotten, however, the unfortunate coincidence between the American president’s trip to Asia, where he had gone to meet all the major allies, and the deterioration of the Ukraine situation. During those days, it was clear to the White House that it could not rely on either a response capabilities of the European Union, as evidenced by the appointment of the former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski as special representative for the Ukraine crisis, or an increase of support for the new Ukrainian government, too subject to the moods of the crowd and influenced by ideologically anti-Russian components. The instrument of sanctions also proved to be short-lived because of the few states willing to apply them effectively against important political and economic players, causing a dangerous boomerang effect on their image.
In this perspective, the U.S. strategy has two ways. The first is the continued integration of the “New Ukraine” within Western organizations, the first step was taken by the new government of Kiev that found a solution to the stop of November. An effective enlargement of EU to Ukraine still seems complicated because of the revision of trade relations with Russia that would result. Even more difficult is the accession of Kiev to NATO, which, if accomplished, would mark the greatest retreat of the Russian security zone from the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and the control of the Atlantic Alliance on some areas (eastern Ukraine) where there are industries involved in the strategic security of Russia. The second solution is to launch a new intermarium plan (named after the strategic plan of the Polish leader Jozef Pilsduski that in the interwar period was intended to create a security system between the Baltic and the Black Sea) by the United States, that would consist in strengthen some “strategic pillars” next to areas at higher risk of contagion from the Ukraine crisis, in order to support them both economically and militarily. These “sensitive” regions are those with Russian and Russian-speaking minorities or those looking to Russia as a guarantor of their rights against governments considered hostile. The countries considered most vulnerable in this respect would be – besides Ukraine – Georgia, Moldova, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which should be shored up by US “stable” allies, put in a position to carry out an effective containment action in their respective areas: Azerbaijan for Caucasus, Romania for the region near the Black Sea and Poland for the Baltic area.