Putin’s Russia has more than once demonstrated its readiness to use force in order to repress both its internal turbulences and to defend its interests outside the borders. While the Chechen crisis and the one in North Caucasus, namely South Ossetia, have ended up in victories, but at the same time put a huge shadow on the international image of the country, the Ukrainian crisis seems to have produced a totally different outcome.
In order to better comprehend the actual Kremlin’s perspective, it is important to clarify the historical development of the relations between Russia and Ukraine. The latter’s independence was recognised on December, 25th 1991,on the very day when Gorbachev was dismissed, thus leaving a historical wound for its symbolic, national and strategic significance.
Symbolically these two countries are deeply interconnected and the roots of this connection go back to the times of Rus of Kiev, with its capital in Kiev(IX century a.c.). Besides, many among the most important politicians of the soviet past originally came from Socialist Soviet republic of Ukraine (Nikita Khruschev was ethnically Ukrainian, Leon Trotsky and Leonid Brezhnev were born on the territory of nowadays’ Ukrane and finaly, Konstantin Chernenko had ukranian roots).
As far as the national component is concerned, 17,3% of the Ukrainian population is ethnically Russian (while The World Factbook’s statistic states that the Russian speaking population quote is 24%). The ethnic and cultural presence of Russians in Ukraine has always been quite solid both for historical and geographical reasons, but has drastically increased after 1954, when the Crimean peninsula was ceded to Ukrainian SSR by Russian SSR.
From the strategic point of view after the end of the Cold war and dissolution of the Soviet periphery, a big part of the Russian Military Fleet remained anchored in the port of Sevastopol in Crimea. The maintenance of these positions has guaranteed to Russia a condition of a partial control of the inner sea, that remains its main access to the Mediterranean Sea (from 2008 the Russian Marine is again present in the Syrian Port of Tartus, which is under a constant threat of a Civil War).
To these considerations of a general character, one should add the new balance of powers in the soviet rimland which formed after the Cold War. The political and diplomatic management of the independence process of the ex-Soviet Republic represents another important aspects in the Kremlin’s policy comprehension. From the Moscow’s point of view, the comeback of the Ukrainian sovereignty did not mean its automatic shift to the western orbit: Europe or the United States. According to the unspoken agreement between Moscow, Washington and the main European capitals, its territory along with the territories of other ex-Soviet Republics, with the exception of the Baltic countries, were meant to form a bridge between Russian Federation and the Western world, a so-called “buffer zone”, aimed at rebuffing any possible instability factors in the moments of major tension. The power balance on these territories has always been subject of intentional misunderstanding. According to the Kremlin’s prospective, it should remain in the orbit of Russian influence, that is why the definition “near abroad”, while the western countries consider this area to be the area of common influence, defined as “shared abroad”. This concept, which relates to Ukraine, Belarus, Moldavia and Caucasian countries, describes the area, considered by Russia its “backyard ”, from which the Western countries should keep away.
After the rapid integration of the Ex-Socialist States in Central Europe, including the Baltic States, in the European Union and Nato, the West started to think about strengthening the ties also with some States from the shared abroad, launching negotiations on possibilities of Georgia and Ukraine’s joining the European Union. In the last 15 years Nato has moved its military bases to the East, installing radars and Anti-Missile Systems on the territories of the Ex-Warsaw Pact nations, thus encouraging the rebirth of the traditional feeling of being surrounded by enemies and “not friends”, historically wide-spread in Russia. Since the very beginning of his presidency, Vladimir Putin has adopted an intransigent position in regards to the ex-Soviet Republics, trying to impose the “near abroad” paradigm.
These factors have influenced the Kremlin’s latest moves on the scenario of Ukraine, after the anti-Russian movements on Maidan square have achieved the goal of ousting the President Viktor F. Yanukovych, who had refused to sign the association agreement with the European Union, yielding to the pressure of Putin. Probably aware of the mistakes made in the past, when the Russian soft power had been sacrificed on the altar of the effectiveness of the recourse of hard power, the Russian president has tried to give a legal basis to an immediate separation of Crimea from Ukraine with the integration in the Russian Federation. More than in other occasions, Putin appeared attentive to legitimize his moves, on one side claiming the duty of Russia to defend the Crimean Russians from the alleged oppressions by the new pro-Western government, on the other claiming the similarities that would make the independence of Kosovo a precedent for the separation of Crimea from Ukraine.
The use of force, in fact, remained at a very low level of intensity, as Moscow has been able to count on the support of a substantial majority of the local population. To avoid putting the world public opinion in front of a fait accompli, it was also attempted to legitimize the option of separating the peninsula from Ukraine with a popular referendum, whose outcome was quite predictable and did not require the use of fraud or violence. The United States and the major European powers—Germany in particular—have not been able to go beyond protests and ineffective forms of retaliation, such as blocking personal assets of prominent figures—but still of second level—of the pro-Russian political establishment of Ukraine and of some generals of the Russian armed forces.
But is the move of Putin in Crimea really a checkmate to the West? Only time will tell, as the true outcome of the event is still uncertain. For the moment, however, the annexation of Crimea appeared to be more a sign of weakness. It happened, in fact, after the substantial defenestration of a pro-Russian government (although accompanying the momentary approach of the country to the EU) in a land that, more than others, Moscow regarded as a sort of its “backyard.” Although Russia has regained full sovereignty over Crimea, it is equally true that—if the region with Russian majority that remained within Ukraine won’t obtain an official recognition—an ideologically anti-Russian Ukraine could ask for and obtain the gradual integration into NATO and the EU, bringing the boundaries of the Western alliance about 400 km from Moscow.
Despite these risks Putin is perceived by the public as the winner of the crisis in Ukraine, in the presence of the impotence of his counterparts in front of his attacks. The Russian “muscular” politics also might have awakened the desire of the Russian minorities spread in all ex-Soviet states and in some parts of Eastern Europe to hear again their political weight in the certainty of being able to count on the support of Moscow. At the same time Putin has achieved a great political success inside his country, evoking a never-faded-Russian national pride that brought him support even from his opponents. We face, therefore, an increase of “the power of persuasion” of Russia, even in the presence of a regression of its safety zone. But we must not exclude the possibility that, if in the future the United States and European partners will continue to appear submissive in this geopolitical region, the new balance may not turn into a boomerang controlled by the Kremlin.
Therefore, the most intense phase of the diplomatic negotiations is opened, however, in presence of a crisis that could be aggravated by bloody episodes. The latter could occur especially in the Russian-speaking part of the country at the same time with an election campaign that in the next two months could take harsher tones, even for the presence of strong nationalist formations (Svoboda, Pravy Sektor). If incidents occur, the outside powers would find themselves forced to intervene, risking reproducing scenarios similar to those that had occurred a hundred years ago or that are still present in the Balkans.