It’s now eight months since Russia took Crimea in response to the Maidan revolution in Kiev. Few at the start of the year forecast how badly East-West relations would have deteriorated in such a small time, and how many innocent lives would be lost.
This situation is going to be seen as a defining moment for the next twenty years. While most European leaders will be gone in the next five years, Putin will remain. And his memory, which is long and holds grudges, will remind him of how, in his narrative, the West betrayed Russia.
Never again will Putin allow European companies to win Russian defence contracts. The construction of the Mistral-class aircraft carrier in France was a sign of improved relations and growing trust. The Kremlin will see to it that European shipyards will never again win strategic Russian contracts, threatening skilled manufacturing jobs in the EU.
The EU could also lose up to seven billion Euros of food sales to Russia from Russia’s retaliatory bans on EU food imports, and even after the sanctions are dropped, it will be more difficult for Western products to re-enter the Russian market, given the surge in nationalism and finding of alternative suppliers in South America, Asia and Africa. Subsequently, the European Commission has been forced to build an emergency fund to bail-out the EU food manufacturers who have been hit hardest.
Putin’s own approval ratings, following the sanctions on Russia, devaluation of the rouble, increase in the cost of living in Russia and rise in inflation, are now near 90%. What further evidence is needed of the pointlessness of sanctions? The EU, meanwhile, is struggling to hide the re-emerging Euro crisis, facing growing separatist movements from within, and could not hide the fact that the sanctions were a clear compromise placing the economic interests of principally one state above the fears, rights and beliefs of many others.
And, as things stand, both Ukraine and Brussels are now nowhere further forward: both have been forced to deal with Moscow in order to make any meaningful steps towards the future. This is exactly where they were in January this year. Meanwhile, Russia has turned inwards and towards Asia, reducing Western market opportunities and leading to long-term economic limitations.
How did Putin beat Brussels?
Essentially, Putin cared far more about Ukraine than the EU did. That was clear in the size of the financial package offered by Russia before the Maidan revolution: as noted here in February, Russia offered many millions more to Ukraine than Europe ever did.
The money however did not speak as much as the soft-power image of Europe as a place of prosperity and wealth. Many Ukrainians, fed up of the incompetence of their own elites and inspired by their idea and image of Europe, rebelled on the streets and, following Yannukovich’s incompetent handling of events, led a revolution.
This however started other events rolling. The presence of hard-line anti-Russian protestors in the movement caused concern in Crimea and the East of Ukraine, and, foreseeing a serious threat to the strategic Russian Black Sea Fleet based at Sevastopol, Moscow decided to take Crimea, and covertly support the rebellion in the East.
Crimea went well; the Eastern rebellion did not. Trying not to be too involved, Moscow handed over serious equipment to the rebels, and flight MH17 was tragically shot down. This was the nadir of Putin’s Ukrainian adventure, the point at which he almost lost the initiative and control.
He was faced with the option of pulling out completely, continuing to covertly support the rebels, or getting stuck in. He chose to blatantly escalate things, and his threat that he could ‘take Kiev’ was no empty statement of bravura. He was serious – as we have argued, Putin is a nationalist who understands that nationhood and identity politics are issues that are not dead but very much alive. He knows how to use them, and understands that his vision – of a Slavic people, united under Moscow’s leadership – cannot be achieved while Kiev, one of the founding cities of Slavic and Russian history, is under American influence. Kiev was the heart of Kievan Rus, the motherland that birthed Ukraine, Russia and Belarus. It is sacred, holy ground that simply cannot belong to foreign, hostile, forces.
Thus Putin, in escalating the conflict, forced President Poroshenko to accept certain facts. Europe was not going to go to war over Ukraine; Russia was. If Poroshenko wanted a country over which he could exercise authority, he had no choice but to work with Russia and take Moscow’s interests into account.
The Russian President has established himself as the defender of Russians, wherever they are. This is an ominous move: potentially, wherever Russian minorities live, they can call on Putin to defend their interests. It drives a fifth column into the heart of some European states, and assaults the very foundations of the European Union’s dream of ending conflict by destroying national identity.
Brussels is discovering that national identity is something far deeper than economics. The irrationality of Scottish nationalism, whipped up by the SNP that came close to destroying Britain; the rise again of Bosnian nationalism, frustrated at European snubs to join; the victory by the Front National in France at the 2014 European Parliament elections; and even the emergence of the mildly Eurosceptic Alternative fuer Deutschland in Germany all points to deep disenchantment with the European project and attempts by politicians to impose identities from the top-down. Ironically, Conservative proposals to renegotiate the EU and challenge the very founding Treaties could actually be the very things that save Europe from itself.