High stakes for Moscow in Ukraine

By F. Michael Maloof

WASHINGTON – While the stakes are high for Ukraine in the current crisis with Moscow, they may be even higher for Russia, according to regional analysts.

Ukraine could succumb to Russian pressure, due to limited options open to the West to assist the country to look westward.

With Ukraine roughly split between its western portion, which leans toward Europe, and the eastern and southern regions with a majority of ethnic Russians, the challenge to the interim government in Kiev will be daunting enough.

However, it will also have to deal with an economic crisis that could plunge the country into default, as well as possibly having to confront a superior Russian military force.

The western portion of the country wants to join the European Union. The Russian majority eastern and southern sections of Ukraine want to link up with the Eurasian Union, a duty-free undertaking by Russian President Vladimir Putin to resurrect the former Russian Empire that, ultimately, would encompass all of the Caucasus and Central Asia.

For Russia, however, the stakes could be even greater.

Regional analysts say that if Russia were to lose its influence over Ukraine to the wave of democracy from the West, the fabric of Russian influence over countries that seek closer ties with the Wes, including Georgia and Moldova, could unravel and threaten the autocratic regime in Moscow itself.

Pro-democracy elements in Russia are watching closely the outcome in Ukraine.

Pro-democracy and opposition leader Aleksey Navalney, for example, the leading critic of Putin’s policies, has been sentenced to house arrest and ordered not to use the Internet or telephone.

Sergey Nikitin, head of the Russian branch of Amnesty International, told the New York Times that with the Olympics over, “there’s no need to put up a kind face for anyone anymore. We are all witnesses to Russia’s growing pressure on any kind of independent opinion.”

Nikitin was referring to the recent end of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, where a G8 economic summit of the West and Russia had been expected to convene in June.

Now, the summit appears to be off, and Russia could be voted out of the G8 altogether, as one form of Western reaction to Moscow’s action in Ukraine.

Given the western wave of democracy also threatening Russia, Putin isn’t hesitating in the use of the military option, just as he did in the lead-up to the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia. Prior to the end of the Cold War in 1990, Georgia was a republic of the Soviet Union.

Georgia, which lost that five-day war in 2008, even now looks to join the western alliance of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO. However, it knows it cannot become a full-fledged member without risking the wrath of Moscow again.

Following that 2008 war, Moscow implemented a new defense doctrine to use military force where Russian citizens and associates are threatened.

For that reason, Moscow, following the 2008 war, made Russian citizens out of the residents in the two breakaway Georgian provinces it took over, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and issued them Russian passports.

For all intents and purposes, Russia has annexed those two provinces.

Moscow is doing the same again for the ethnic Russians in the eastern and southern portions of Ukraine, beginning with the Crimean Peninsula.

Moscow also has positioned its troops on the Crimean Peninsula, where it has a major naval facility with a lease that doesn’t run out until 2042.

That lease was renewed in 2010. The Kiev interim government wants to scrap it, but that won’t be possible.

Given the stakes for Moscow, its use of military force as an extension of its foreign policy and maintaining control over people whom it considers to be in its sphere of influence will not be matched either by NATO or the Ukraine itself.

This comes despite Ukraine’s call-up of all reservists. Meantime, in Crimea, Russian troops have surrounded a Ukrainian military base in a standoff. The Russian commander has called on the Ukrainian commander to give up, but he is holding firm.

Russia’s military forces are superior to Ukraine’s, but its troops are spread out in other trouble spots.

Nevertheless, the Ukrainian military is in a weak state of readiness, especially when its country needs it most.

“That and Western reluctance to get involved militarily will make Kiev hesitant to provoke the Russians by using military force,” according to a report by the open intelligence group Stratfor.

However, President Bill Clinton, along with the British, signed in 1994 a nearly forgotten agreement to protect Ukraine’s borders. Ukraine now is appealing to the countries that signed the agreement.

As the British Daily Mail points out, it means that, technically, if Russia were to invade Ukraine, it would be difficult for the U.S. and Britain to avoid going to war.

Given that the late Russian president, Boris Yeltsin also signed it, it was apparent that it wasn’t expected that the Russians would take the action that Putin now is undertaking.

In 1991, the U.S., Britain, Russia and Ukraine signed the Budapest Memorandum to protect Ukraine’s borders in return for Ukraine giving up its nuclear weapons.

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