NATO's steady expansion has inflamed Russia's historical sense of siege
By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 12th Mar 14
Russia’s march into the Crimean Peninsula in Ukraine at the end of February, and a planned Crimean referendum on Sunday on whether it should accede to Russia, has outraged western capitals. Russia faces mild economic sanctions, threats of visa restrictions, asset freezes and possible expulsion from the G-8. On March 5, the US increased military cooperation with Poland and the Baltic republics. By way of a military response, this is as far as Washington can go.
Yet Russia’s Crimean intervention was entirely predictable. The psyche and mindset of Russian strategists, shaped by four centuries of European history, made it inevitable that Moscow would draw the line at Ukraine after a quarter century of unrelenting NATO and EU expansion towards Russia’s frontiers.
The Russian psyche, forged in the fires of history, sees European expansionism as a primary threat. Every century, beginning from the 1700s, an expansionist Western European power has bloodily invaded Russia, twice advancing up to Moscow. In 1709, an invasion by Sweden, then Europe’s pre-eminent power, was defeated at Poltava by Tsar Peter the Great, who established the Russian empire. In 1812, Napoleon’s “Grand Army” of 600,000 soldiers actually occupied Moscow before capitulating to fatigue, hunger and the Russian winter.
Then, between 1941-1944, Hitler’s armies invaded the Soviet Union in the defining campaign of World War II, and the bloodiest in human history. Millions of Russians died in a cruel, scorched-earth withdrawal to Moscow and in the Red Army’s push back all the way to Berlin.
As a Stanford University professor, Condoleezza Rice, wrote in 1986: “(T)he battle against the Germans became a struggle for Mother Russia, a struggle that had been waged many times in Russian history.”
Determined that future invasions would not touch Mother Russia’s soil again, Joseph Stalin established his iron-fisted control over a swathe of Eastern Europe, including Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and half of Germany. The Warsaw Pact between Russia and these allies created a security buffer for Russia and, for 45 years, maintained a balance with NATO.
This equilibrium was shattered with the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1989-90. Mikhail Gorbachev recounts that President George Bush (Senior) assured him then that NATO would not expand eastwards. Yet NATO did exactly that, giving membership to East Germany in 1990; to Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic in 1999; to Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in 2004; and to Croatia and Albania in 2009. Today, NATO has 28 members, up from 16 in 1990.
With NATO now at Russia’s doorstep; with US bases created in Central Asia; and with US missile defences possible in the Czech Republic and Poland, Moscow drew its first red line at Georgia. After the pro-democracy “Rose Revolution” in 2003, and blandishments to Georgia to join NATO, Russia invaded in 2008.
Now Moscow has drawn an equally firm line at Ukraine, which was moving towards NATO and EU membership. After earlier creating de facto independence for two pro-Russian regions of Georgia --- Abkhazia and South Ossetia --- Moscow is now set to sever Crimea from Ukraine.
Henry Kissinger wrote in the Washington Post last week: “The West must understand that, to Russia, Ukraine can never be just a foreign country. Russian history began in (Ukraine in) what was called Kievan-Rus. The Russian religion spread from there. Ukraine has been part of Russia for centuries, and their histories were intertwined before then… The Black Sea Fleet — Russia’s means of projecting power in the Mediterranean — is based by long-term lease in Sevastopol, in Crimea. Even such famed dissidents as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Joseph Brodsky insisted that Ukraine was an integral part of Russian history and, indeed, of Russia.”
Since 1990, Russia has tolerated NATO and EU expansion, largely because it did not have the resources to counter it. Now a hydrocarbon fuelled economy and President Vladimir Putin’s nationalistic politics are driving a tougher response.
The Crimean peninsula’s complex relationship with Russia gives Moscow the excuse to intervene. During World War II, Stalin deported the entire population of 200,000 Crimean Tatar Muslims as punishment for allegedly collaborating with the Nazis during Hitler’s invasion of the Crimea. Their place was taken by large numbers of Russian army veterans, transforming Crimea’s demography in favour of ethnic Russians. In 1954, Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khruschev, himself a Ukrainian, gifted the Crimean peninsula to Ukraine.
After Russia’s easy takeover of Crimea, Moscow faces vulnerabilities too. The Tatars, who have returned to Crimea, constitute a danger point with Tatar leaders warning of radical Islamist mobilisation amongst them. Moscow’s worst scenario would be of Crimea becoming another Chechnya.
Furthermore, with Russia a part of the globalized economy, and doing $460 billion worth of business with Europe alone, Moscow is no longer economically insulated as it was during the Cold War. The Ukraine crisis has hit the Russian stock market and the value of the ruble, both of which have fallen by 10 per cent. Even with its leverage as the world’s largest exporter of hydrocarbons and industrial metals, Moscow knows it can be hurt by economic and social reprisals.
In 1923, Stalin had written that the capitalists would surely attack, and that a “ring of brother states” was needed to safeguard the revolution. Those states are now in NATO and Soviet-style socialism is dead. Even so, Moscow has signalled that NATO and EU will be stopped from entering what it still regards as Russia.