How to deal with Russia’s annexation of Crimea? Last night’s Iannucci-esque leak of a photograph of a document carried into Downing Street by a government official laid out in black and white the difficulty that America will face in imposing their much vaunted ‘costs’ on Russia. The City of London, the London housing market, and one particularly unpleasant London football club, all float on a sea of Russian money. Westminster is loath to rock this luxury yacht. While Cameron and Hague deem it necessary to register disapproval of Russia’s actions in the Crimea, economic isolation of Russia, as described by John Kerry, is seen contrary to the UK’s national interest. America may have overestimated its ability to marshal European nations into shunning Russia.
Chris Murphy, chairman of the US senate’s Europe Committee said yesterday that “Unilateral U.S. sanctions against Russia are not going to have much an effect if Europe remains a haven for Russian banks and Russian oligarchs to stash and invest their money… If the United States shuts its economic doors to Russia and Europe leaves its doors open, there won’t be much change in behaviour from Moscow”. Implicit in this statement is the fact that economic sanctions against Russia would hurt the EU more than they would America.
One reason is gas. The EU does not depend on Russian gas to the extent that it once did, but the prospect of taps in the east being turned off is still a worry. Germany’s more conciliatory approach perhaps shows that one better learns from defeat than victory, but also that their interest lies in compromise. Gazprom, whose awful animated adverts at half-time during the Champion’s League are in many ways worse than the Cold War, has threatened to increase the price of Ukrainian gas. Given that western nations are faced with the task of bailing out Ukraine’s economy- and the German public have had their fill of altruism- this would represent a further addition to a tab already running into the tens of billions.
Why, then, does America feel compelled to impose sanctions on Russia?
The line from Washington is about upholding international law and preserving Ukrainian sovereignty. Meanwhile Moscow uses the foggy notion of the Responsibility to Protect, and the dubious claim that Ukraine’s interim government has no legal authority as justification for its actions. Of course neither believes its own argument. America respects international law and the principle of non-intervention like I respect the law against urinating in public: I can see why it’s there, but I’ll break it as soon as it becomes inconvenient. And Moscow, a few months ago, was arguing against the Responsibility to Protect applying to the bloodbath in their ally Asaad’s Syria. There is only one principle Washington and Moscow seek to uphold: the furtherance of their own geopolitical interests.
They say the Soviet Union preferred republican presidents. Democrats’ rhetoric didn’t reflect America’s naked self-interest in the same way; one had to decipher the true intentions of the duplicitous liberals. Republicans, on the other hand, favour candour in their pursuit of presenting a firm line. John McCain accuses Obama of folly in adhering to the old Democrat trope. ‘This (Russia’s annexation of Crimea) is the ultimate result of a feckless foreign policy in which nobody believes in America’s strength anymore…
The president of the United States believes the Cold War is over; fine — it’s over. But Putin doesn’t believe it’s over”. According to McCain and co. Obama failed to act strongly enough in 2008 when Georgia was invaded and acquiesced in the face of Russian pressure- and a few gunboats- when the time came to incinerate Damascus. Putin, so the hawks believe, nolonger respects America’s might. He senses that Obama lacks his predecessor’s taste for blood, and may even have that most fatal weakness; genuine moral qualms about a projectionist American foreign policy.
Despite the myopic claims of the hawks, Russia has legitimate fears with regards Ukraine and American hegemony. There is a widespread view in Russia that it was betrayed by NATO, which continued to expand eastwards after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In the last 15 years NATO has taken under its wing Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Albania and Croatia, with Georgia, Montenegro and Bosnia keen on joining the club. As any eagle-eyed readers (do we have readers?) will have noticed, when arranged correctly, the first letters of these countries’ name spellE-N-C-I-R-C-L-E-M-E-N-T. Ukraine came close to joining too, before Yanukovich changed the country’s tact.
With a naval base in Sevastopol, Russia fears a further reduction in its powers of projection. When the crisis in Ukraine is placed in the context of the US-sponsored uprisings in Syria and Venezuela, both of whom cooperate militarily with Russia, the larger picture that the American right-wing hawks seek to obscure becomes clear; America is engaged in an active policy of undermining Russian military alliances. “This is not a zero-sum game, this is not West versus East. It is not Russia or the United States” said John Kerry last week. Earlier in the month the USS Donald Cook, a destroyer capable of ballistic missile defence took up its new residence off the cost of Spain, three more are scheduled to join soon. This is explained as protection against the emerging threats of Iran and the Middle East, an excuse that stretches credulity somewhat. Russia suspects that NATO has designs on developing first-strike capability.
If Putin doesn’t believe the Cold War is over, can you blame him? As US-Russo relations continue to chill, perhaps the fact that the EU serves only mammon will prevent a similar cooling on this continent. America desires global hegemony, Russia regional hegemony, and Ukraine is caught in the middle. The Tory government are more interested in the London housing market, however, and that may prevent the UK becoming drawn into America’s pact of hostility towards Russia.