By Paul Irikefe
It is strange that Ukraine, a country that is resource-strapped, economically bankrupt and ethnically and politically polarized should be top priority for world powers, and the international community at a time of bloodbath and potential state collapse in Syria and Central African Republic. Putin has already dangled $15 billion to Kiev before the Crimean crisis, and in response to it, the EU plans to provide $15 billion as soft loans, and the U.S. $1 billion as aid package to it.
The truth is that it is not Ukraine and its people that drive world powers but geopolitics and the strategic significance of that country. It has always been the sly ways of the international community. Putin is looking at Ukraine and seeing its own sphere of influence sliding into the Western orbit, and with it all hope of establishing a Soviet-lite Eurasian Union that can rival the E.U. itself.
Therefore the occupation of Crimea by Putin—where ethnic Russians make up of some 60% of the population of 2 million people—was to halt that process, and the precedent it might set for the regional allies, mostly part of the former old Soviet Union. It was for this same reason that in 2008, Russia invaded Georgia and asserted control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
But ostensibly Putin has argued “that fascists threaten the safety of Russian-speakers in Ukraine; that the elite troops surrounding Ukrainian bases are not Russian, but irregulars who bought their uniforms in the shops; that the Budapest memorandum, which Russia signed in 1994 and guarantees Ukraine’s borders, is no longer valid because the government in Kiev has been overthrown.”
Of course a lot of history and culture are shared by the Crimean Peninsula with the rest of Russia: the Crimean region is part of East Ukraine that was a key source of Soviet industrial wealth, and the site of mines, metalworking plants and barrack towns for the workers and their families who came from all over the Soviet Union; Sevastopol has been home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet since the 18th century; and much of the industrial and business model of East Ukraine was built following the model of post-Soviet Russia, with a criminal carving up of the region’s factories and development of an oligarchy class. All of these mean that Russia has a bigger dog in the fight, but the overarching ambition of Putin is much more: it is to reclaim a power whose fragmentation he considers the greatest geo-political tragedy of the 20th century.
However he has largely been lucky, especially with his timing. In 2008, his aggression met a George Bush that feared that American natural gas supplies might have dwindled to the level that Russia’s supply may be needed. In this time, he has met a nation trying to recover from two wars and a president who believes that foreign policy must be an appendage to the task of rebuilding the economy at home, and an European Union that depends on Russia for 40% of its imported fuel. The fact that he waited for the end of the Sochi Olympic games reflects a well planned and thought out idea.
In this crisis, Putin has served the world a notice of his pattern of aggression, and it will be an ill-advised world that ignores it. He is armed with a logic and a playbook that only Hitler in the 1930s is familiar with when he seized part of Europe. As a result of this new foreign policy of annexation, countries from Asia to the Baltic must have reason to be worried and even panic. Unconstrained by law, unchecked by a peace-loving America, and unhindered by an energy hungry EU, the world faces the prospect of destabilizing and dangerous Petrolist dictator of the 21st century.
This image is not helped when one thinks of Syria and Bashar al-Assad who has been propped up by a Russia not moved by humanitarian disaster, not fazed by the used of chemical weapons, and not persuaded by the UN accusation of systemic torture by the regime. Russia stands by al-Assad over and against its own people, and even the democratic and peaceful future of that ancient land.
One line of action that the U.S. must contemplate is the use of its new-found energy glut (as a result of the revolution in shale gas, the U.S. now surpasses Russia as the largest producer of natural gas) to undercut a Russia that considers its resources as first and foremost an instrument to upend the international system. Already a sizeable constituency in the U.S. Senate wants Washington and rightly so, to meet the Kremlin head on, not “into the Valley of Death rode the six hundred” kind of way, but by a more peaceful but purposeful line of action that seeks to undercut Putin’s influence.
Although the U.S. does not yet export natural gas, the Energy Department is reportedly issuing permits to companies to export it starting from 2015, while most natural gas export terminals are in the early stages of construction. Additionally the Bureau of Energy Resources is helping Ukraine, Poland, the E.U. and many other countries discover and tap into their natural gas resource.
Unleashing a global glut of energy is good not just for Russia and the countries of former Soviet Union, but also for the world. In too many places, and in too many ways, free oil and gas rents have subsidized all kinds of impunity, arbitrariness and bellicosity. If we can move into a world where wealth comes only from people and their talent and their government dependence on it, that will be the end of ‘Putinism’ and the arrogance that feeds on it.
Rev. Fr. Paul Irikefe is a the author of Why Nigeria is not Working: The Predicament and the Promise. He currently teaches at the Catholic Major Seminary of Saints Peter & Paul, Bodija, Ibadan.
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