Why it is improbable that Russia ever considered annexing eastern parts of the Ukraine

Recently I’ve read an article on Vox.com in which author Max Fisher states his opinion that it’s the effect of limited sanctions imposed by the USA and the EU that is preventing Russia from acquiring new territories to the west. His thesis is based primarily on the notion that these sanctions caused, not so much as a direct assault on the Russian economy, but a drop in the value of the Moscow Stock Exchange Index, disruptive enough to cause a shift in Putin’s allegedly aggressive policies toward his neighbour(s). Now, I’m not defending Putin nor am I trying to downgrade the imperialist nature of modern-day capitalist Russia, but I do think that we need to be very careful in assessing the true character of the recent turmoil in the Ukraine and Russia’s role in all this. It is not enough to simply equate the two opposing imperialisms (Russian and American) and leave it at that. Yes, there are striking similarities but there are also significant differences which doesn’t mean that we, as Marxists and anti-capitalists, need to choose sides. Our only allegiance has to be given to the interests of the international working class.

That said, our obligation is to find a realistic explanation (allowing the possibility of irrational behaviour by the parties involved) which would cast aside any prejudice-driven propaganda flung carelessly around by the mainstream Western media, in service of their corporate masters. Living in this particular part of the world (Croatia, the most recent member of the EU), I cannot say that I’m exposed to its Russian nationalist counterpart all that much so I can’t really compare the two. But that’s beside the point which I’m trying to make.

Let us first delve into Mr. Fisher’s choice of words. He talks about Obama “abandoning” Crimea in similar fashion in which those early cold warriors loved to talk about “losing” China (like China was their own plaything or personal property to “lose” or “displace”). He then proceeds by saying that Russia “invaded and annexed” Crimea. He never mentions the fact that Crimea had a referendum in which voter turnout was over 80% and which resulted with an almost unanimous decision (over 95%) that Crimea should secede from the Ukraine and (re)join the Russian Federation. The West considers this referendum to be illegitimate because it circumvented Ukrainian laws. Well, then we should apply the same rule to the American war of independence because George Washington never asked or received permission from king George III. Further more, he waged war against the British without asking the people of the Thirteen colonies if they even want to declare independence. In an alternate history timeline where these colonies never seceded from the British crown, a person like George Washington would today probably be labeled terrorist. By his opponents, of course.

But we need not go so far in history or reality to find precedents for Crimea’s decision. Take Kosovo. Did Serbia have any say into the matter of Kosovo’s independence? The West clings to the idea that Kosovo and Crimea are incomparable because Serbia committed crimes against the people of Kosovo. Did Serbia commit crimes there? And if so, was Serbia the sole perpetrator of these crimes? Hardly. But wait a moment! If the Albanian majority also committed crimes against the Serbian minority, how does that knowledge relate to the issue of Kosovo’s independence? In short, it doesn’t. Kosovo declared its independence on the basis of popular vote and it had every right to do so. As should the northern (Serb-populated) provinces of Kosovo retain their right to rejoin Serbia (by organizing a referendum). But no one cares about reciprocity. Might makes right. Kosovo’s sovereignty was and is guaranteed by the U.S. Currently, there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

Mr. Fisher then reminds his readers of Putin’s shift from tough rhetoric where “after weeks of looking like he could roll into eastern Ukraine unchallenged” it ended in the official policy of backing down. Why is that? What could possibly motivate such behaviour? Mr. Fisher later claims that the reason must be economic in nature, specifically, sanctions- or market-related. We’ll get to that in a few moments. I just wanted to present an alternative possibility, that maybe, just maybe, the original tough stance towards Ukraine was nothing more than – a bluff. The goal of which might’ve been to force the Ukrainian interim-government to accept negotiations with the separatists in the east where they could both agree to some type of federal reconstitution of the Ukraine. The concentration of Russian troops in the vicinity of the Ukrainian border doesn’t necessarily imply that these troops are going to be used in any lethal manner. Perhaps their purpose is only to deter, not conquer. In fact, if I was a betting-man, that’s where my money would go. But that doesn’t mean that the Russian troops are there only for show. They might yet intervene, if only to prove a point to the Ukrainian government if it decides to launch an all-out assault on the separatist enclaves. But they also might stay put, no matter what happens next. This is yet to be seen.

Finally, we arrive at the center-point of Mr. Fisher’s thesis where he presents several graphs (from Forbes’ Mark Adomanis) which appear to demonstrate a relatively sharp decline in the trading index at the Moscow Stock Exchange. This drop, he says, is the clear proof that the markets are punishing “Russia’s aggression” and that this must be the reason why Putin isn’t sending his troops westwards, as planned. This opinion is based almost exclusively on speculation and wishful thinking (that the global/free markets somehow prevent wars). First, let’s assume that this stock-market drop isn’t just a “normal” occurrence and that it’s mostly or even entirely (as the aforementioned authors claim) due to Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Let’s assume that the western investors panicked and sold-out their stocks en masse. Why would this automatically imply Putin’s prompt surrender? Couldn’t he have survived a couple of days or weeks of bad index values on Russia’s stock markets? Couldn’t he simply storm into eastern Ukraine, take those provinces quickly (if that’s what he really wants), force the Ukrainian government to accept a peace treaty and return to Moscow as a conquering hero? How would the markets respond to that scenario? Would it be worth the risk? If Russia’s mind was actually bent on annexing these provinces, I don’t think we’d be having the time to ask ourselves these questions.

The Western media keep telling us that Russia wants these territories and that none of her neighbors can feel safe anymore. But why? Is it because Russia is greedy? Is it because of Putin? Is Putin’s Russia simply a monster among nations, ready to devour everything that crosses its path? Although it certainly deserves a lot of criticism and condemnation (on say, issues of imperialism, private wealth, inequality, homophobia, racism, etc), breaking it down to a simplistic and propagandistic view of Russia that will devour its neighbors simply because it’s hungry for more territory doesn’t make any sense. First off, Russia already has more land than it will possibly ever need. Her interests need to lie elsewhere.

There are some crucial differences between the Crimea region and those eastern separatist parts of the Ukraine. For example, the fact that Crimea was part of Russia for centuries before Khrushchev reorganized it and placed it under the Ukrainian SSR. This is related to the fact that Russia’s biggest trump card in the geopolitical confrontations across the Mediterranean (e.g. recently in Syria) is its Black Sea Fleet which depends almost entirely on the Crimean ports and bases. Next, Russia has a space center (Center for Deep Space Communication) on the Crimea (Yevpatoria) which it operates jointly with the Ukrainian government agencies. We cannot neglect the fact that there’s an absolute Russian ethnic majority living in the Crimea whereas in the eastern separatist provinces of the Ukraine, this composition is roughly 50-50. All these factors indicate that an attempt at copy-pasting the Crimean example in the eastern Ukrainian provinces is highly unlikely. Presumably, Putin and his government are well aware of that and have never planned to annex anything besides the Crimean peninsula. Which, we have to remind ourselves over and over again, democratically decided to secede from the Ukraine and (re)join Russia. It’s pretty simple, come to think of it. It’s all the propaganda that makes it blurry.

Addendum

This is really not my area of expertise so I reserve the possibility of being wrong but I couldn’t help but notice something that seemed rather odd to me. I googled my way towards the website of the Moscow Stock Exchange and found an annual (2013) review on trading results. There was a graph in that review which represented the fluctuations of several indexes which showed quite a substantial drop in all of them starting with the month of March and plummeting in mid-April after which they started to rise once again. Note that this happened last year. See what I mean? Mr. Fisher (quoting from the work of Forbes’ Mark Adomanis) gave us incomplete graphs. Why are they starting from November 2013 or January 2014? Why didn’t he show us the results for the entire previous year or maybe even the year before? Would we discover that the sudden drop in index values wasn’t actually such a big deal? Who knows, maybe it did had something to do with the annexation and the sanctions. But can this recent drop be attributed solely to the Crimean events? I don’t know, that review from 2013 made me suspect otherwise.

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If someone can explain this to me, I’d much appreciate it. Leave your thoughts in the comment section below.

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