Russia is at war. With America. Consequently also with us Europeans, America’s weak allies, and little does it matter if we do not wish to accept this. The Russians feel attacked in “their” Ukraine and react accordingly.
1. Russia is at war. With America. Consequently also with us Europeans, America’s weak allies, and little does it matter if we do not wish to accept this. The Russians feel attacked in “their” Ukraine and react accordingly. They draw red lines, move equipment and troops, dig real and imaginary trenches. They mobilise when hearing the sound of trumpets coming from the Kremlin, following the rhythm of state propaganda as monotonous and obsessive as a military march. They stand ready to tighten their belts, because it is on the battlefields of New Russia (eastern Ukraine to the rest of the world) that the destiny of their homeland will be fought over, where Moscow’s soldiers , in ill-concealed disguise, support the rebels who refuse to bow to Kiev’s coup leaders.
They are playing for the highest of stakes. At the end of the day “either we remain a sovereign nation, or we dissolve without a trace and lose our identity,” explained Putin, addressing the nomenklatura lined up among the marble and stucco of the St. George Hall in the Kremlin. This is the temple of imperial liturgies. It was here that the tsars pinned the Cross of St. George, the highest of honours, on the lapels of their generals. Under Stalin, it was here that the heroes of the victorious resistance opposing the Nazi invaders were decorated.
It was here that on December 4th Putin summoned his people and exalted his “formidable army” - “No one will ever attain military superiority over Russia” – against the obscure plots of the West, which, “left no doubt that they would gladly let Russia follow the Yugoslav scenario of disintegration and dismemberment.” The leader feels he must play the role of the supreme sovereign in the Great Patriotic War, Mark II, before a small group of those very loyal to him decides he should be pensioned off because he is too weak with the enemy; “If for some European countries national pride is a long-forgotten concept and sovereignty is too much of a luxury, true sovereignty for Russia is absolutely necessary for survival” (1).
The occasion, the president’s yearly message to the Federal Assembly, was effectively a routine event. But the head of state seemed to identify with St. George slaying the dragon, a recurrent symbol in imperial iconography, evoked in the hall’s main high-relief. As tradition dictates, when Holy Mother Russia calls, the state, be it tsarist, communist or post-Soviet, exhibits its millenary Christian roots as its entitlement to self-legitimisation.
Should anyone harbour any doubts regarding Moscow’s unwillingness to give back Crimea and Sevastopol – the two jewels in the crown recovered in March to soften the blow of losing all control over the rest of those Ukrainian lands many Russians continue to consider their own – they should listen to Putin. “It was in Crimea, in the ancient city of Chersonesus or Korsun, (…) that the Great Prince Vladimir was baptised before bringing Christianity to Rus’ (…) All of this allows us to say that Crimea, (…) have invaluable civilisational and even sacral importance for Russia, like the Temple Mount in Jerusalem for the followers of Islam and Judaism” (2). A mischievous exegesis could note that here the Russian Jerusalem is no longer Kiev, as the patriotic vulgate states, but the Chersonesos Taurico formerly so dear to the Greeks, consecrated by the new Vladimir (Putin) as the “spiritual source” of a “centralised Russian state”, now provisionally placed within the mobile borders of the Russian Federation (3).
When necessary, the president knows how to be pragmatic. The Russian Jerusalem will be moved to wherever he deems convenient, depending on power relations established in the course of a conflict one can expect to be long, and for which no one is able to predict the dynamics. But this rhetoric has a retroactive effect on those under the illusion it can be freely used, especially in Russia, where there is rarely a lack of emphasis and where geopolitics is also a philosophy of the spirit. “Russians are apocalyptic or nihilist,” said the Christian philosopher Nikolaj Berdjaev in Soviet times, and often quoted by Putin who recommends his work to his intimates and his underlings (4). Apocalyptic and nihilistic; two polarities that tend to mingle in the national spirit. Berdjaev warned that “Apocalyptic and nihilist feelings reject all middle ways in the process of life” (5).
When Putin manipulates this for strategic reasons – the first being the preservation of power – this peculiar mix reveals itself resistant to calculation and compromise. Those thinking they can dominate this, risk being dominated and find themselves having to continuously raise the stakes so as to not disappoint the public’s expectations. This was what happened to Putin at the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis, when he decided to annex Crimea, thereby exposing himself to Western sanctions in order not to look weak at home. Soon after, the words “There are more important things in life than financial markets” appeared on the Sadovoe kol'co in Moscow (6). It is also for this reason that today four out of five Russians side with Putin, in order to protect the threatened empire and the millions of Russians or Russian-speakers spread around other post-Soviet states, which the Kremlin’s dogma considers part of the Russkij Mir – the Russian World.
For us Westerners, who idolise science, believing all truths are verifiable and mathematising politics, dealing with this eschatological geopolitics overflowing with symbols and visions is an almost impossible challenge.
Even before rejecting it, we do not understand it, unless we control our rationalism, resorting to the lesson provided by a Catholic American biblical scholar (yes, an American), Raymond Edward Brown, who stated that ‘apocalypticism’ is tenacious testimony of a reality challenging all our calculations (7). Of course, like us, the Russians also love their children, as Sting sang in the days of Reagan and Gorbacëv, so much so that they now have started to have more children than we Westerns do. This, however, does not mean that their logical-strategic yardstick is the same as the one prevalently used in America and widespread throughout the West. If that were the case, they would not all (almost all) feel at war, while that thought does not even cross (almost) all our minds. This because it is a conflict of geopolitical manifestations, thus of ideas of self, of one’s own nation and one’s rights. These are points of view that have developed over centuries and continue to divide the Russians from the Westerners.
It is due to this reciprocal inability to read the minds and hearts of others that we have, like perfect sleepwalkers, ended up in a trap we do not know how to get out of. Prisoners of a crisis that is turning Ukraine into a European Somalia, threatening to dig a permanent rift between Euro-Americans and Russians, while accentuating the disintegration of the European Union, and obliges Moscow to cooperate with its historical enemies, the Chinese and the Turks. It could, finally, also induce the Americans to put boots back on the ground in a land in which they hoped to never have to put them again, thereby resolving the Euro-Russian controversy. It is not sufficient to observe that we have unresolved ideas about what our place in the world is, what our rights and legitimate geopolitical projects are. If we wish to stop the drift towards a perfectly avoidable global clash, we would instead do better to try and understand one another. In a war of perceptions, it is best not to surrender to propaganda, especially one’s own. The first thing we must do is understand what the Russians want and then what we want, which is more difficult.
2. Twenty-five years ago, with their red star clearly visible on their fur hats, Russian soldiers were in Berlin standing guard at the Brandenburg Gate, 999.19 miles from Red Square. Today, not seriously incognito, Russian soldiers patrol Donec’k (New Russia=Eastern Ukraine), a heavy artillery shell shot away from the Federation’s border. The collapse of the Russian empire had been completed in a quarter of a century, all the more painful for a geopolitical entity that always worshipped the centrality of space; control over boundless territories. From the heart of Europe, Russia shrank to the western periphery of the tajga, the northern habitat where the Russian bear rules without even bothering to ask for anyone’s permission, as metaphorically stated by Putin (8). According to the United States and the majority of European nations, this withdrawal is the legitimate result of the West’s victory in the Cold War. According to Russia, NATO’s advance into its imperial lands is an undeserved and undigested humiliation, one that overshadows its own role in the fall of the USSR. Was it not the Russians themselves, led by El’cin, who defeated the empire Gorbacëv was under the illusion he could reform? Was it not a pro-West Russia, tired of the Cold War, that deposed the last Soviet president, considered instead a good partner or at least a useful idiot by the United States led by Bush Sr.? Not to mention Europeans led by Mitterrand, Kohl, Thatcher and Andreotti?
Today the Kremlin no longer intends to back down. It believes it has conceded too much of its land and wishes to recover part of it. After losing Kiev in February, due to what the great majority of Russians consider a fascist coup led by American and British secret services, Putin felt he was at a crossroads; surrender or an armed reaction to defend the Russian minority in Ukraine. In the first case it was probable that a Red Square Majdan would have shortly followed, organised not in the name of siding with the West , however, as hoped by the more Russophobes among American or Baltic strategists, but instead to shoot the traitor Putin and his anti-patriotic clique. His choice was between raising his voice and fighting, at the risk of burning bridges with his American “friends” (as they continue to call them at the Kremlin revealing a vein of sarcastic humour) and his European “partners”, or suffer a coup d’état.
The Russian perception of the Ukraine crisis is that this is the ultimate chapter of a series of events that, between 1999 and 2004, have led NATO to absorb Moscow’s entire former empire and three former Soviet republics (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania). That was where Putin drew his red line. Should NATO try and advance further into former Soviet space, as happened in Georgia in 2008 and now in Ukraine, Russia would feel obliged to react. Seen from the Kremlin, “coloured revolutions” are not at all spontaneous protests, but general rehearsals for regime change in Moscow. Surrendering Ukraine to NATO, definitely considered the Enemy, would mean sharing two thousand kilometres of indefensible borders with the potential aggressor. What annoys Putin the most is that the American roll-back has thrown him into the arms of the Chinese.
Throughout the Nineties, the Russians had continued to see the West as a role model, with 90% of Russians loving the Americans (now the figure has fallen to under 10%). El’cin and the early Putin, had knocked at the EU and NATO’s doors, in order to become integrated or at least be treated on an equal footing. The Russian Federation aspired to be acknowledged as the third pillar of the Christian West, as an autonomous civilisation, but allied with the United States and the Europeans, persuaded that they shared the urgent need to contain China’s ascent and Islamist terrorism. Instead, as Foreign Minister Sergej Lavrov has bitterly observed, after the Fall of the Wall, “we have been treated as sub-humans” (9). And now, “as bullies say, they wanted Russia to “chicken out” (I can’t find a better word for it), to force us to swallow the humiliation of Russians and native speakers of Russian in Ukraine” (10).
One cannot fully understand Putin’s reaction to the ‘Jevromajdan’ if one does not consider feelings that are widespread in Russia and have nothing to do with events in Ukraine - to which they are if anything antecedent - and everything to do with the outcome of the Cold War. One of the most respected Russian strategists, Sergej Karaganov, summarises these feelings as follows, “The reason why this relationship has failed was mostly due to the reason that, as we believe, and I believe firmly, that the West never understood that it could not pursue the policy towards Russia as if it was a defeated nation. Russians never believed they were defeated first and, second, it's a national character. We were one of the very few countries in the world, there are only two in Europe, which have never been defeated seriously.” (11). The political analyst Sergej Mikheev clarifies that, “Russians are disappointed by the West (…) Russians destroyed the USSR and expected greater recognition. Instead the West behaved as if it had won the Cold War, as if our country had been defeated, and believing its national interests need not be taken into account in any way” (12).
Like all other stories, this one too has its own original myth. In this case it was the promise Bush Sr. made to Gorbacëv not to expand NATO into the former Soviet empire in order to persuade him to accept the German Federal Republic’s enlargement to the East. Russian leaders continue to complain about Washington’s “swindle”. Putin was explicit, “At one time we were promised that after Germany’s unification, NATO wouldn’t spread eastward. (…) Our decision on Crimea was partially prompted by this.” (13) Current American historiography, based on the analysis of recently declassified documents, establishes that “Moscow has reason to argue that the West broke a promise (…) In the end, the United States overturned the system it promised to bring about”; German reunification, a Soviet withdrawal, an Atlantic stalemate (14). The fact remains that Gorbacëv wanted to take his American interlocutors’ word on the matter. Entrusted to mere power relations, the issue concerning NATO’s borders was therefore decided by Washington and Moscow’s former satellite countries, who were not prepared to be reduced to become buffer zones between the “only super power” and what remained of its rival. In private, Russian leaders are divided between disdain for the amateurishness of the last Soviet president and the feeling that Bush would never have codified his promise in the form of a treaty.
As far as the Europeans are concerned, Putin is concise, “With whom should I negotiate over Ukraine? The Baltic States and the Poles hate me. The British do whatever the Americans want. The Germans and the Italians are on my side one day, and against me on the next” (15). According to the Kremlin, we are all, some more some less, on the U.S.’s payroll, including Mrs. Merkel, who Putin does not love, and the sentiment is reciprocated. Following the scandal over CIA wiretaps, the Russian secret services consider her too as blackmailed by the Americans. This does not mean that Russian diplomacy and its wielders of influence are not working to undermine the ragged European archipelago, hoping it might decide to suspend or at least reduce the sanctions that over the long term threaten to destabilise the country’s economic and social fabric, eroding the mass consensus surrounding Putin.
Is all this enough to explain the annexation of Crimea? The surreptitious but decisive support for the Donbas rebels? The barrage of rhetoric against the West, the game of provocations and counter-provocations between Russian and NATO armed forces as in the darkest hour of the Cold War? Would it not have been more logical for Putin to accept defeat in Kiev in the certainty that, sooner or later, Ukrainian leaders, fascists or non-fascists, would have begged for his financial aid in order to avoid the collapse of a country that has always survived thanks to Russian subsidies, starting with gas supplies at Soviet prices?
These questions have been answered by authoritative Russian interlocutors, who said, “Very reasonable. But you are Italian. You cannot understand what Ukraine means to us. If we had given in, Russia would no longer exist. You should reread what you published, even just these three quotes.” Old photocopies emerge from a briefcase, passages from Limes are highlighted in yellow. Let us see. The first is a quote from a December 1993 interview by our then correspondent in Sweden, Rolf Gauffin, with Vladimir Žirinovskij, now vice-president of the Duma. Tracing his ideal map of Russia, the ultranationalist leader established that the district of Lvov should be returned to Poland or to a western Ukrainian republic, “But, eastern Ukraine is entirely Russian” (16). The second was a passage from an article published in May 1996 by Dmitrij Furman, an expert analyst of Russian society who died three years ago, certainly not comparable to Žirinovskij’s importance, stating that, “All the problems in Russian-Ukrainian relations cannot be understood without taking into account the feelings Russians have towards the Ukrainians,” “They believe they are all God Almighty! Nezavisimye (independent) my foot!” (17). Finally there is the sermon Putin gave his friend Bush Junior in Sochi on April 6th, 2008, quoted in the editorial for the issue dedicated to “Project Russia.” “Do you understand George? Ukraine is not even a country? What is Ukraine? Part of its territory is in eastern Europe. But the rest, the most important part, was a gift from us” (18).
We asked whether that magna pars meant Crimea plus New Russia. “19-25 certainly, 14-15 perhaps” was the answer as a finger traced the map of a Russian project for the partition of Ukraine, a map published with that same article. Those numbers indicated the more eastern regions of Ukraine, but also Odessa and Mykolajiv (Nikolaev), assigned in October by Putin to New Russia when speaking at the Valdai Club (19). We now better sense the meaning and consequences of the rhetorical emphasis with which Putin, having denounced the attempt made by “some governments to create a new Iron Curtain around Russia”, sealed his speech in St. George Hall saying, “We are ready to take up any challenge and win” (20).
3. Let us now address the western front and all its geopolitical manifestations. This is a different world, as Angela Merkel confirmed stating the opposite, “Putin lives in another world” (21). But ours is not a planet, it is a rather heterogeneous constellation. The West is made up of many Wests, or self-styled Wests. Let us start with the Europeans. No one here wants to die for Kiev or for Odessa. Not even those Baltic citizens, who, when asked what Russia should do, answered “vanish.” Putin sees Ukraine as a matter of life and death. European leaders certainly do not. The Euro-Mediterraneans - and to a certain extent also the Germans and their associates – fear above all for their respective more or less depressed economies, affected very seriously by sanctions imposed on Russia. Nordic states and former Soviet satellite countries are convinced that national security is at stake, but they rely on NATO’s deterrent effect to protect them while exploring Russia’s availability to hold secret negotiations. Hungary’s attitude is different, siding with Putin, also because should Ukraine be definitely partitioned, it hopes to bring under its sovereignty a number of Hungarian-speaking districts in Zakarpattia (Trans-Carpathia).
There is a feeling beginning to spread among European leaders – perhaps excited by the World War I centenary? – that for the first time since the suicide of the USSR, the risk of a third World War, possible sparked by mistake, is not negligible. Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico quantified this risk as being 70% (22). Chancellor Merkel is concerned, and her Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a reference point for the “doves” in the German establishment, has invited NATO to immediately set up a pre-alarm system to prevent the conflict “ending up out of control and resulting in military escalation” (23). Who would ever have thought we would return to the days of red telephones for communicating with Moscow?
It is a paradox that the European Venus, mocked by the martial neo-cons still influential in Washington, became the incidental cause of the Ukrainian crisis. Unintentionally. Or perhaps intentionally, without envisaging the consequences. The first hypothesis concerns us Italians and the rest of “Old Europe”, Germany included. This archipelago did not seriously weigh the effects of the ultimatum imposed last autumn by the European Commission to President Viktor Janukovyc, stating he should immediately sign the EU association agreement. There was no awareness that by excluding Moscow from negotiations between Brussels and Kiev (“it is none of your business” explained EU negotiators to Russian diplomats) this apparently anodyne pact would look very different in Putin’s eyes; an agreement involving disassociation from Russia. A perfect case of a heterogony of ends.
The second hypothesis concerns the attitude of Great Britain, Poland and other Baltic states, encouraged or shielded by Washington, determined to put Russia back in its corner. These countries consider it unacceptable for Moscow to return to be important in Europe and in the world. According to former Kremlin subjects in Europe, if this were the case, recently reconquered national independence would once again be threatened. In Ukraine it was a zero sum game: either the Russians or us. Not permanently removing Kiev from the Russian sphere of influence would mean reviving imperial ambitions with an intact and independent Ukraine as the litmus paper for new/ancient central European nations’ right to exist. It remains to be seen if anyone would be prepared to pay or even fight in order to achieve this objective. It was from the short circuit of Western perceptions and intentions that the series of misunderstandings fuelling the escalation of this clash arose.
Such misunderstandings included the Jevromajdan revolutionaries’ illusion that their European “brothers” were ready to do anything to support them, and instantly welcome them into the European fold first with open arms, and then NATO, as well as Russia’s persuasion that some of the EU’s “partners” were participating in an American plot to repress them, tightening a new Iron Curtain around Moscow. There was also the decision made by the “hawks” prevailing in the Obama administration to use the Ukrainian crisis to weaken the Russian-German bond, founded on energy interdependence, before it could assume strategic characteristics, thereby cutting Putin down to size, or rather getting rid of him. Finally there was also the Euro-Atlantic front’s choice to use the weapon of sanctions – hence a trade war with Russia – because not prepared to become directly involved in the Ukrainian conflict and also in order to present an officially united front. How did things come to such a point? Let us explore five options.
A) Because the European Union is not a geopolitical entity, it is bureaucracy that comes into play when negotiations are undertaken by the Commission and/or the European External Action Service. The Ukrainian case confirms that every bureaucratic organisation, all the more so if international, when called upon to address political issues, behaves as if directed by enemy intelligence services. The result? An eminently geopolitical case was treated by Brussels as if exclusively an economic matter, in fact an accounting issue. When on February 25th, 2010 the person responsible for so-called foreign affairs, the British Baroness Catherine Ashton, and the Commissioner for Enlargement, the Czech Štefan Füle, presented to Janukovyc the terms of the agreement that was supposed to affiliate Ukraine to the EU’s wagon, within the framework of the Eastern Partnership, they presented a matrix. In the left column there were the conditions posed for accessing the agreement; European rules and the International Monetary Fund’s binding regulations and precepts. On the right, the money Ukraine would receive if it behaved. In this singular version of the doubles match, the exchange was standard (many) rules in exchange for money (not much). History, culture, space/time? Irrelevant. What do the Russians think? It is of no interest. Or at least not affecting the format involving conditions for both sides. It was only three years later, when the final offensive started to oblige Janukovyc to choose, that the meaning of this operation was fully explained by the then President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, “One cannot simultaneously belong to a free trade area with the EU and have a customs union with Russia” (24). An ultimatum: either with Russia, in its Euro-Asian Economic Union, or with us.
B) Having been dismissed through the front door, geopolitics re-entered through the window. The Eastern Partnership is a very different instrument depending on points of view. For the Swedes, the Poles and Baltic countries it serves to form a western sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. The contract of association with the EU must therefore open prospects for communitarian as well as Atlantic integration for all countries between NATO’s eastern borders and the Russian Federation. In the words of Poland’s President Bronisław Komorowski, “We never again want to have a common border with Russia” (25). According to the Italians and other southern Europeans, as well as for well over half of the German establishment – entrepreneurs interested in the Russian market, Social Democrats, anti-Merkel conservatives, some diplomats – the Nordic interpretation envisages an improper use of the Partnership, which is instead desired as being compatible with a profitable relationship with Moscow. Et et: Ukraine must side with us and also with them, because otherwise it will cease to exist, it will split along internal fault lines, becoming just a battlefield for a new East-West clash. Here too geopolitical representations are important; “You do not know the Russians because you have never had them in your country,” observes an Estonian leader when we ask him why he is a Russophobe . A Pole instead remembers “prometeism”, the ideology created by Piłsudski to save his homeland from Russian-Soviet aims and later the geopolitical basis for the Intermarium, the yearned for anti-Russian block from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, once again fashionable in the current Ukrainian match.
C) Western literature about the fall of the USSR dominates the backdrop. We won, not Russia at all. This thesis, however, results in divergent geopolitics. One in neo-Versaille style – vae victis – on the basis of which the winner decides the fate of the defeated. It is the subtext for Warsaw and the “Northern group”, a British-led coalition that also includes Denmark, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Norway and the Netherlands, determined to form a joint expeditionary force within the framework of NATO by 2018. The objective is to set up, as far to the east as possible, a Euro-Atlantic security barrier against Moscow. As far as the Italians and other inhabitants of the EU’s southern periphery are concerned, they are only able to oppose mutterings and reservations to such projects rather than a counter-strategy. Also because they presume that excessively close relations with Moscow would be met with Washington’s veto (Berlusconi’s fall docet). Germany sways between the Nordic winds and the calm Mediterranean seas, moved by an increasing idea of itself and a diminutive portrayal of Russian power. Almost as if it could dispose of Russia as it pleases. As a former German chancellor reminded us, “The Russians have such an inferiority complex where we are concerned, that in the end they will always do what we want.” Hence the recent surprise in observing that, when it feels hunted in the tajga, the Russian bear shows its claws and its teeth. It goes to war; an activity we Europeans, especially if Italians, were convinced belonged to another world, in the Merkelian sense of the word.
D) We overestimated ourselves. We do not have the money to get involved in an albeit indirect conflict with Russia. Fiscal rigour, monetary tapering and offensive geopolitics, with sanctions against Russia and non-refundable aid to Kiev to avoid it collapsing, portray an unsustainable triangle. This, especially considering that sanctions affect us more than the Russians, if for no other reason because our citizens are less prepared to put up with sacrifices. Let alone for Kiev…
E) While the Russians sway between the apocalyptic and nihilism, we serenely fluctuate between pan-juridicism – according to which relations between states are regulated by international law – and cynicism. From a moralising attitude and bombastic proclamations one easily slips towards any kind of compromise, so long as it will avoid a permanent collision course with Moscow, which would cost us too much, and not only due to a possible energy emergency. Hence, one day Russia’s scandalous theft of Crimea is unacceptable, and on the next is a fait accompli one is easily resigned to, while secretly negotiating with Putin about which other parts of Ukraine should be tacitly acknowledged as belonging to Russia, since he has already taken them or might do so.
4. Barack Obama told a European colleague at the G8 summit that Putin reminded him of a school friend who sat alone at the back of the classroom looking annoyed and standoffish, almost as if the world was against him and he against the world, this before the abduction of Crimea obliterated the enlarged format of the constellation of north-western powers. With Putin suspended, and while waiting for him to return to his senses – or for someone to replace him – it is back to the classic G7; although effectively the G8 was always a G7+1, not due to the solipsism of the president of the Russian Federation. Just like that august forum also a victim of sanctions, the NATO-Russia Council, created in 2001 by Berlusconi in Pratica di Mare in the name of a “re-composition of the West”, in reality expressed the 1+27-1 format, with the American ambassador pre-emptively instructing Atlantic members on what line to follow to ensure the Russians would remain isolated.
This way of (not) understanding the Russians expresses the image that all post-1989 American leaders have had of the Russian power. A residual entity, confined to limbo to meditate on its irredeemable faults. Not a real opponent, not a tangible resource, except perhaps in the “war on terrorism.” Absolutely not an equal. Yes, Russia is the only country that can obliterate the United States of America, only to suffer the same fate. It would only take 30 minutes of nuclear war. But it was said that all that belonged to the past; the Cold War is over and we won hands down. It took the clashes in Ukraine to awaken the State Department according to which, this year Russia achieved nuclear equality with the United States (26). And also to discover that Russian superiority as far as tactical nuclear power in Europe was concerned, is such (ten to one) to oblige Washington to study a nuclear escalation scenario should Moscow, exasperated by the Ukrainian crisis, by sanctions and the fall in the price of oil, decide to move on the offensive against NATO (27). Already the coup de main with which Putin’s “men in green” took Crimea and then allowed the rebels to consolidate two autonomous little republics in the Donbas, has given rise to a rare sentiment of technical admiration from the Pentagon’s specialists. They seem convinced that while Russia is not the USSR, it has all the same returned to be a not insignificant military power.
Putin is not bluffing when he threatens to take Kiev in two weeks. If he has not for the moment done so, it is only because it would prove to be too expensive from an economic perspective as well as affecting Russia’s image, certainly not out of fear of Atlantic intervention, which the current American leadership is not open to, also because it would result in the nuclear nightmare becoming reality. In any case, once Kiev is removed from Moscow’s sphere of influence, Obama is not inclined to become fully committed to a campaign for the reintegration of Crimea and the Donbas in the Ukrainian state, which could lead to the disintegration of the Russian Federation. All this for three reasons; the Americans do not really care much about Ukraine to the extent that almost no one can find it on a map. Secondly, the White House is too distracted by the Middle Eastern (re)emergencies to become heavily involved in a conflict with Russia that would only be to the advantage of the U.S’s only real competitor, China. Above all, the United States would not know how to fill the immense void caused by the eventual implosion of the Russian Federation, while they suspect that Beijing may have a few ideas on this subject.
Obama, of course, rode the wave of the Jevromajdan events. A number of Washington agencies, official or unofficial, have for years invested billions of dollars to support the popular movement that undermined Janukovyc’s regime, reserving a few coins for the armed militias – the “men in black” – which provided the final push, just when the Europeans appeared to have saved it (hence a “Fuck the EU!” from assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland).
Nothing strategic, however. The already weak president wanted to humiliate Putin, who had recently seemed to have become too big for his boots, intervening well beyond his regional sphere of influence (see: Russian and central Asian) assigned to him by the mental maps of decision-makers in Washington. The result was achieved with Janukovyc’s flight and the apparent triumph of Ukrainian democrats, as the oligarchs who replaced their rival colleague are publicly classified by Washington. Of course, if following defeat in Kiev, someone in the Kremlin had put a hand on Putin’s shoulder, inviting him to enjoy well-deserved retirement after decades of service rendered to Mother Russia, Obama would not have been displeased. It is quite another matter to attribute to him who knows what plans or even an outline for a new world order. As far as media reports of a “new Cold War” are concerned”, it is not remotely a priority for American strategists currently concentrated on the Asian-Pacific area.
If anything, it is educational to observe how Obama’s approach to Ukraine has been criticised by the two grand old men of American geopolitics, and former Cold War leading players, the best of enemies Zbigniew Brzezinski and Henry Kissinger. Both have challenged the amateurism and the desire to incorporate Ukraine within NATO instead of turning it into a new Finland, the only alternative to prevent Moscow from taking possession of its south-east. As far as the arrière-pensée regarding the getting rid of Putin, Kissinger reminded Obama that the United States’ objective during the most delicate phase of the East-West conflict was not to overturn the Soviet regime, but to contain its expansion. “The top item on the list for us was to manage the Cold War and to transform it into an international system” (28). According to the Nestor of the American diplomatic establishment, instead of resorting to sanctions, which increase popular consensus for the Kremlin and incentivise mercantilism at a global level, Washington should instead address the “fundamental problem, which is the long-term relationship of Russia to the West” (29). This because “For the West, the demonization of Vladimir Putin is not a policy; it is an alibi for the absence of one” (30).
5. The war in Ukraine is therefore not the result of a collision of irreconcilable strategies, but of an inability to understand the intentions of others. Here, along the frontier par excellence between the Russian empire and European nations, the mix between totally asymmetrical geopolitical representations lit a fire we may perhaps be able to contain, but that we will find hard to extinguish. Let us bear in mind what is essential. According to Moscow, Ukraine does not exist, it is a New Russia that is to be annexed rather than Kiev to be controlled, while the former Polish appendix of Lviv should be moved back to Warsaw. According to Kiev, Ukraine is a republic born in 1991 subtracted from the Soviet Union, Crimea and the Donbas included (the more extremist want back the lands, without their Russian or pro-Russian inhabitants). This is a vision shared in words by NATO and the European Union, and in facts only by the United States, Great Britain, Poland and other nations recently emancipated from Moscow’s grip, from the Baltic to Romania. The Euro-Atlantic front seems only to agree on not challenging Moscow head on, while sending their very best wishes to Ukrainians dying for their own cause because they were under the illusion it was ours too. Different representations generate different priorities. Any strategy must establish what comes first, for which objectives it is worth fighting to the bitter end, for how long a conflict can be sustained, especially on the internal front. The Russians know, or presume to know this, while we Westerners have different ideas. Or none. Of course almost everyone, even the “hawks” at the Kremlin, would like to avoid a direct clash between nuclear powers. This, however, is not a strategy, it is a healthy survival instinct.
The slope on which we are moving tends to lead, at best, to yet another “frozen conflict.” We are not, however, in classic regional matches in Transnistria or in the Nagorno-Karabakh. Ukraine is a stake of global calibre. If it were not, Russians, Americans and Europeans would not be involved. Until these players mediate a compromise, in this current context of instability and fragmentation between south-eastern Europe, the Gulf and North Africa, the risk remains that Ukrainian sparks may ignite a war or an ensemble of wars of far greater proportions – we will discuss this in the next volume.
An agreement is not at all impossible. In fact it seems logical. There can be no winners in this conflict. Even those who, like Washington, have less to lose and something to gain, (Putin’s humiliation when obliged to loosen his grip on Kiev, an indelible stain on a tsar’s career), seem unable to achieve more. Unless of course they are relying on regime change in Moscow, which is unlikely to bring one of Jefferson’s followers to the Kremlin. As far as the Russian people are concerned, once their hyper-patriotic binge is over, having put their hands back on Crimea and a devastated part of New Russia will seem little consolation compared to the enormous financial cost and the loss of image and geopolitical influence. Russian patience is legendary, not infinite and could cost dear even for a leader who is anything but unpopular.
It is not worth lingering on European performances, unless it is to underline our primary responsibility for the crisis, including that of those, like us Italians, who would have liked to avoid it, if only they had known how to, or wanted to know how to. There is a way for us to save face; we could take the initiative in the peace process. Should we do so it will not be because of sudden pride, but because sanctions hurt (in Italy this year sanctions cost the country almost 2 points of its GDP). The fact remains that in recent months even a number of Nordic countries, Great Britain included - perhaps only to protect the City’s interests and not lose Russian capital – appear to have adapted to the idea of a compromise with Moscow, to the extent of slightly distancing themselves from the “hawks” in Washington.
Everyone knows the general terms of the compromise. A neutral Ukraine that could not therefore be integrated in NATO, but only admitted to both European and Eurasian economic areas, whatever they may think in Brussels (we are certain that Federica Mogherini will have put the Baroness’ conditions in the order they deserve); broad autonomy for the Russian or Russian-speaking minorities in exchange for the reintegration of Luhans’k and Donec’k under Kiev’s formal sovereignty; Crimea de facto Russian, but not recognised as such by Westerners and those others unable to deal with such disregard of international law. Secret diplomacy is at work on these lines. Perhaps there is a light at the end of the tunnel. What is missing is the tunnel, due to a lack of brave builders. Is it so implausible for Italy to decide, together with other less unreliable Europeans, to open such a building site?
We owe it to ourselves, of course, but above all to the Ukrainians, in order to make amends for the damage inflicted by the West at its worst, testing the reflexes of the Russian bear on their skin, far quicker reflexes than almost anyone imagined. This war has already seen at least five thousand killed and hundreds of thousands of refugees. Ukraine is on its knees. The Porošenko-Jacenjuk pair, supposed to be at the tiller of the “new” Kiev, has already split up. The oligarchs continue to share what remains of the spoils and Majdan threatens to re-explode, this time amidst total chaos and with more and more people armed. To the East the ceasefire is rather virtual, while gangs of every possible colour - including Russian “volunteers” and the Nazi mercenaries of the Azov battalion, among them some Italians – lord it with impunity.
To some this may seem collateral damage. To us instead it seems to be the consequence of our abdication from the imperative of considering the effects of what we would like, or think we would like. In Ukraine we have confirmed that we are unrealistic. Now we are left with the task of cutting our losses. Otherwise we will have to bear the responsibility of having contributed to the destruction of a country, while swearing we wanted to save it.
(translation: Francesca Simmons)
1. V. PUTIN, “Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly”, 4/12/2014, eng.kremlin.ru/news/23341
4. N. BERDJAEV, Gli spiriti della rivoluzione russa, Milano 2001, Paravia-Bruno Mondadori, p. 31.
6. N. MACFARQUHAR, A.E. KRAMER, “With Russia on Brink of Recession, Putin Faces “New Reality””,
The New York Times, 2/12/2014.
7. R.E. BROWN, Introduction to the New Testament, Brescia 2001, Queriniana, p. 1056.
8. As said by the Russian president in a conversation with the members of the Club Valdai, see “Vladimir Putin Meets with Members of the Valdai Discussion Club. Transcript of the Final Plenary Session”, 25/10/2014, valdaiclub.com/valdai_club/73300.html
9. “Remarks by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the XXII Assembly of the Council on Foreign and Defence Policy, Moscow, 22 November 2014”, The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, official site, www.mid.ru/brp_4.nsf/0/24454A08D48F695EC3257D9A004BA32E
11. “U.S.-Russian Relations: From Bad to Worse?” Moscow Times, 25/11/2014.
12. M. BOFFA, “A cool political analyst explains where the West goes wrong with Russia”, Il Foglio,
13. Cit. in D. HERSZENHOM, “Away from Shadow of Diplomacy in Geneva, Putin Puts on a Show of His Own”, The New York Times, 17/4/2014.
14. Cfr. J.R. ITKOWITZ SHIFRINSON, «Put It in Writing. How the West Broke Its Promise to Moscow», Foreign Affairs, 29/10/2014.
15. In a phone call with Romano Prodi, which he referred to in an interview with Limes, “Why Europe and Italy no longer work”, by Lucio Caracciolo and Federico Petroni, n. 11/2014, pp. 10-11.
16. Cfr. V. ŽIRINOVSKIJ, “Le mie frontier”, by R. GAUFFIN, Limes, n. 1/1994, “La Russia e noi”, p. 30.
17. D. FURMAN, “Eulogy for an empire that will not rise again”, Limes, n. 2/1996, “Russian Shadows”, p. 37.
18. “The Tsar’s Sabres”, editorial for Limes, no. 3/2008, “Project Russia”, p. 7.
19. Vladimir Putin to the Financial Times’ correspondent Neil Buckley, “This was because there was essentially a single region with its centre at Novorossiisk, and that was how it came to be called Novorossiya. This land included Kharkov, Lugansk, Donetsk, Nikolayev, Kherson and Odessa Region.” Cfr. note 8.
20. Cfr. note 1.
21. Cit. in P. BAKER, “Pressure Rise as Obama Works to Rein In Russia”, The New York Times,
22. Cit. in A. CROFT, T. KÖRKEMEIER, “Germany Wants Russia-Nato Channel to Avoid Accidental Escalation” Reuters, 2/12/2014.
24. Cit. in CH. HOFFMANN, M. HUJER, R. NEUKIRCH, M. SCHEPP, G.P. SCHMITT, CH. SCHULT, “Gipfel des Scheiterns”, Der Spiegel, n. 48, 24/11/2014, pp. 27-33, here p. 29.
25. Ivi, p. 30.
26. See “New START Treaty Aggregate Numbers of Strategic Offensive Arms”, Department of State, United States of America, 1/10/2014, www.state.gov/documents/organization/232561.pdf
27. Cfr. G. RACHMAN, “Russia Is a Bigger Problem than Isis for Obama”, Financial Times, 11/11/2014.
28. “Henry Kissinger Looks Back on the Cold War”, Council on Foreign Relations, 4/11/2014, www.cfr.org/united-states/henry-kissinger-looks-back-cold-war/p33741
30. H.A. KISSINGER, “Henry Kissinger: To Settle the Ukraine Crisis, Start at the End”, Washington Post, 5/3/2014.
(7 Gennaio 2015)