Beyond the predictable nationalist rhetoric and massive propaganda out of Washington, NATO as well as Kiev and Moscow, there are the basic realities of how far is each country willing to go on an issue that is strictly regional but with broader implications regarding the balance of power. The Eurasian balance of power in question comes down to the Ukraine. However, the Ukrainian question drags with it the unsolved questions of the Middle East where the US and its European partners have intervened through very subtle methods to create instability by providing weapons, funding and other support to disparate groups trying to bring down regimes the West wants overthrown. Western intervention, direct or through various indirect means, to achieve regime change as in the case of Ukraine in 2014 and throughout the Middle East and North Africa from 2011 to 2014, is not just NATO and US vs. Russia matter, but rather a question of what powers determine the global power balance and where the lines are drawn.
Because in the Ukrainian power struggle, China has everything to gain by supporting Russia, while a lot to lose by supporting the West, the China factor cannot be ignored just as it cannot be ignored in the case of Syria and Iran that forced the US to seek a diplomatic solution instead of a military one. The economically and militarily weaker Russia of the early 21st century notwithstanding, the Kremlin still has enormous leverage and the US and its allies know it. Besides using economic sanction threats, which naturally are a double-edged sword, the US and its allies are hitting the airwaves with a massive anti-Russia campaign to gain world public opinion on their side, something they clearly lacked when they invaded Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and carried out covert operations in Syria to achieve regime change and determine the balance of power in the Middle East/North Africa.
The world has changed so rapidly in the first and a half decade of the 21st century that the Eurasian balance of power is now largely determined by China that actually holds a great deal of leverage even in the Ukraine. The reason for this is simply because China is a major military power and the world's second largest economy with prospects of becoming number one at some point later in the century. While China wants a weaker Russia, as it did even under Mao, it certainly does not want the US and its junior partners in Central Asia and the Middle East having monopoly in determining the balance of power. In short, China has watched the US rapidly fill the power gap the USSR left when Communism collapsed, and it appears that course of moving ahead with further consolidation is continuing in the second decade of the century.
Although the US made bold moves to penetrate all the former Soviet republics, at least militarily, allowing the EU to integrate them economically, the reality is that there is a huge difference between the balance of power in the Baltic republics and Poland, on the one hand, and Eurasia on the other, where Russia and China enjoy and will continue to enjoy dominant regional roles. The US has a military relationship with Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, ostensibly to combat terrorism, but in reality to have a role in the Eurasian balance of power. This only confirms that the goal of imposing a new containment policy on Russia and to a lesser degree on China, combined with exploiting energy reserves across the trans-Caucasus region with Azerbaijan as another US sphere of influence, with Georgia looking to become a NATO member entails the encirclement of Russia by the US.
Overcoming the realities of collaborating with Central Asian and trans-Caucasus countries that have among the worst human rights records in the world, the US pushed ahead because its goal has been to check both China and Russia's regional influence. Besides the obvious geopolitical advantage of the US in Central Asia, there are the economic goals of securing energy sources bypassing Russia entirely and further isolating Iran in the process. The central Asian countries, with which the US and EU have been collaborating, are dictatorships posing as democracies. Nevertheless, the US and the EU insist that one of the goals for penetrating those spheres of influence is to help them fight terrorism and promote democracy. The issue of freedom and democracy, of course pertained to the Ukraine as well.
1. Is democracy an issue?
The elected Yanukovych regime was replaced with elements that include neo-Nazis, openly hostile to pluralism and hostile not just to Russians, but actually foreigners in general, as well as minorities that include Jews and gypsies.The neo-Nazis that the West has been supporting through various organizations have a record of racism and xenophobia as well as hate crimes that ostensibly the US and EU adamantly stand against, except when it comes to securing the Ukraine as a Western sphere of influence. This is not to argue that Yanukovych was a Western-style democrat, because that is far from it. Just as his jailed predecessor that the neo-Nazis freed from jail and Germany invited to visit the country, the Ukraine has had elections but not a trace of democracy since the downfall of Communism. Both Russia and the West want a regime serving their respective interests, not one that serves the Ukrainian people. Neither is China interested in Ukraine having a democratic regime accountable to its citizens because its only concern is to continue the economic relationship based on cheap labor and cheap raw materials benefiting the Chinese economy.
2. Is a free market an issue?
Unlike Poland that has seen its GDP nearly triple since the downfall of the Communist regime, Ukraine has not seen anything but flat line growth in its economy that is about the size of bankrupt Greece. This despite the fact that this is a very rich country in natural resources and has the potential of having an economy five times its current size, or roughly one trillion dollars. Why has not free market worked and is this issue for the West? One reason is massive public-private sector corruption based on crony capitalism, not much different for that matter than what exists in Russia, or in Greece and Turkey. The EU and US want access to Ukraine's cheap labor and cheap natural resources, as do some Ukrainian oligarchs linked to Western interests, while there are also other economic interests that favor integration with Russia. This is a power struggle of oligarchs and foreign corporations, not a struggle for free market that would foster a large middle class and benefit the majority of Ukrainians.
3. Is national sovereignty and social justice an issue?
Neither the West nor Russia are interested in the Ukraine's national sovereignty, for that would mean they would not be able to manipulate it as a sphere of influence. National sovereignty is something Ukrainians want but realize that they cannot have so their only choice from among the Great Powers, either the Russian neighbor or the EU that holds the promise to make Ukrainians affluent like the northwest Europeans, and hopefully not as impoverished as the southern European EU members. An impediment to reducing the Ukraine as a dependency, national sovereignty is not in the cards, any more than social justice.
While there are degree of social justice, Norway scoring very high while some Central Asian republics score very low, Ukraine will not realize progress in this domain because the Great Powers interested in securing it as a sphere of influence see social justice as an impediment to their economic and political interests. This includes not just Russia, but also the West as well as China that have no problem with the lack of social justice in Ukraine as long as their goals are met. Nor is any Great Power interested in protecting the rights of minorities as Moscow insists, any more than the West is interested in democracy, given that neo-Nazis are in the Kiev government.
4. Is the issue violation of international law?
The US claims Russia violated international law, while Russia insists that it has been following its treaty obligations with regard to military maneuvers in the Crimea. The question is one of who defines international law and what constitutes legitimacy. Given that Moscow argues that the new regime in Kiev lacks legitimacy because it is unelected and took power by force, and given that the former president Yanukovych as well as local Crimean officials "invited" Russia's intervention, how is legitimacy to be determined? Moreover, did the US (and its EU partners) abide by international law or did they define it as they wished when invading Iraq, Afghanistan and bombing Libya, while covertly carrying out operations in Syria? Is using drone warfare a violation of international law as is holding war prisoners indefinitely without due process, simply by labeling them "terrorists"? Ultimately, who defines international law?
5. Is Russia hungry to revive the glory of the past?
Without a doubt, Putin is a nationalist with strong leanings toward reviving Russia's glorious past, not as it was under Communism but under the Czars. However,to move ahead with military action against a neighboring country as Russia did against Georgia in August 2008, would mean that either it perceives its national security threatened or that it has become an expansionist aggressor, led by a person who has lost touch with reality as Merkel accused Putin. While it is true Russia wants to preserve a zone of security around its borders, it is doubtful that it has proved at this point ready to undertake expansionist schemes. This is because it lacks the ability to revive the imperial status it once enjoyed, largely owing to its weak economic status and the reality that it spends 90 billion on defense in comparison with the US that spends about eight times that amount, and this without taking NATO into account.
6. Is energy the issue?
This is a desired goal of the EU and US and it has been since the fall of Communism, but Russia cannot ever be eliminated from the picture and this means that it will continue to exercise influence in the international energy domain. The problem with the energy card is that Russian gas pipelines headed for the West go through the Ukraine and Russia controls the supply and price. The US and its EU partners want to reduce the leverage Russia enjoys, using their own leverage of trade and spheres of influence with which Russia trades and depends on foreign exchange receipts for its economic development, and using the Ukraine as a satellite that has the gas pipelines.
While the US and EU have worked very hard to isolate Russia from the rest of the republics in the trans-Caucasus region and Central Asia, Russia remains the dominant energy supplier for the EU and that affords it enormous negotiating leverage. Kremlin foreign policy is based on energy policy of Central Asia, but it includes Iran in the mix and it takes China into account as an end-user. The question is whether China is interested in the US having a hegemonic role in Central Asia, or does it prefer that Russia counterbalance its Western rival. Does China want the West to enjoy dominant role in the energy sector of Eurasia, or does it prefer Russia, a weaker partner, to have a dominant voice?
7. Is geopolitics the issue?
Geopolitics is a core issue for Russia for obvious reasons, given that in the 1850s there was the Crimean War fought over Russia's ambitions to expand into the Mediterranean, but British-led campaign managed to contain Russia's expansionist schemes. Today, it is simply out of the question that Russia will lose the Crimea, although no power would go to war over it. Nevertheless, securing the Ukraine as a sphere of influence would afford the US and EU enormous leverage to further contain Russia and keep its ambitions in check. In this respect, the West is following a long-standing containment policy of Russia that has its roots in 19th century imperialism and continued throughout the 20th century. The Chinese official position, however, has been that the US is stuck in a Cold War mentality driving its foreign policy toward the Middle East as well as Eurasia.
8. Is the issue US losing its "world policeman" role?
Ironically, many conservatives in the US as well as outside would argue the Ukrainian crisis and Russia's reaction are the result of US demonstrating weakness at the diplomatic, intelligence and military levels. In short, if the US had been even more interventionist, more militarist, more overtly imperialist instead of simply resorting to covert operations and rhetoric about freedom and democracy, then Moscow would be in no position to challenge Pax Americana, and neither would China side with the weaker rival Russia. In a strange way, this is an admission that Pax Americana must remain alive and well to determine the Eurasian balance of power and to challenge both Russia and China, even in their own traditional zones of influence. Never mind that such thinking fails to take into account the massive costs and failures for keeping the dying Pax American alive, the right wing ideologues want to go down fighting, as long as they take with them the entire society and potential enemies around the world.
9. Does China have a stake in the Ukraine?
While initially the position of Beijing was to permit national sovereignty for Ukraine, it changed its tune to siding with Russia once it became clear that its economic interests were threatened by Kiev becoming closely integrated with the EU. Contributing to the near-bankruptcy of the Ukraine, China has pursued legal action against Kiev over a multi-billion dollar loan-to-grain agreement; this at a time that Ukraine has only a few hundred million dollars in reserves.
China had multi-billion investment plans for the Ukraine at many levels from arms manufacturing to port development, but those arrangements assumed a regime such as that of Yanukovych, not a pro-EU-US one that would undermine its plans. Neither does China want to see Moldavia and other former Soviet republics follow the route of the Ukraine, creating both economic and geopolitical instability that undermines the steadiness of the Chinese economy at a time of declining growth prospects for the next five years. Finally, China hardly wants a ripple effect of mass demonstrations throughout Eurasia because it fears its domestic variety variety of pro-democracy elements finding encouragement from foreign movements.
Does the US have any moral authority to accuse Russia of 19th century style imperialist designs when the US has been the number one interventionist power in the world in the last sixty years, and when their goals in the Ukraine are clearly imperialistic? Does Russia have any moral authority to argue that it is acting on behalf of repressed minorities in Ukraine when the Russian government has a horrible record toward minorities, especially Muslims and a tainted human rights record? Do the northwest Europeans have any moral authority to speak of democracy in the Ukraine considering that they are backing a regime with neo-Nazi elements?Do the people of Ukraine, regardless of their ideological/political affiliations want the Great Powers to manipulate them in such manner as to bring the country into a de facto civil war and possible division that would only weaken the country no matter the outcome?
It is absurd to assume that anything other than a diplomatic solution can bring and end to the crisis of the Ukraine that the struggle between the West and Russia to reduce it into a sphere of influence has created. It is equally absurd to assume that the specific case can be solved without taking China into account and at the same time addressing the larger issue of the balance of power in Eurasia. The US and its EU partners using economic leverage to make sure Ukraine becomes a Western satellite is predictable, but dangerous because the world economy is so well integrated "punishing Russia" economically has consequences for the countries imposing the punishment.
Just as predictable is Russia's military response in the Crimea, expensive and unlikely to deter the West from continuing to try to determine the Eurasian balance of power in the future. Both sides are using the leverage they have to negotiate the best deal in dividing spheres of influence, but at a high cost to their immediate and intermediate interests in the hope they gain longer term. Increasingly, the post-Communist world of the early 21st century resembles the dreadful imperialist power struggles of the early 20th century, power struggles that eventually led to a global war because the Great Powers refused to set limits on their imperialist ambitions.