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Napoleon is supposed to have warned his generals never to ascribe to malice that which could be explained by incompetence. The general tone of reportage and analysis on the riots in Ukraine, however, challenges the Little Corporal’s advice. For weeks, Western coverage has focused on the unsettling situation in Ukraine and the unhealthy relations of its oligarchs and President Viktor Yanukovych with Russia. Many have urged the European Union and the United States to adopt a firmer posture with Kiev and Moscow to win Ukraine over to the “European side” without giving any thought to what the region means strategically to Russia and how such ventures might precipitate a sharp response from Moscow.

When the Russian parliament finally did respond by authorising the use of military force to protect Russian minorities in Crimea, there was much shock and horror (at least feigned) in Washington and the capitals of Europe. In an eerie encore of their surreal commentary before Russian military manoeuvres, analysts suggested that the crisis may have been thwarted had Ukraine been a member of NATO as the organisation had spread to the Baltic republics ten years ago. Lithuanian foreign minister Linas Linkevičius invoked NATO’s Article IV which calls for immediate consultations upon the violation of territorial integrity of a NATO member while others have pointed to the 1997 Charter on a Distinctive Partnership between Ukraine and NATO which promises (Art. V:14) that the latter will support the former’s “sovereignty and independence, territorial integrity, democratic development, economic prosperity and its status as a non-nuclear weapon state, and the principle of inviolability of frontiers.”

The absurdity of this boilerplate rhetoric becomes clear in the light of some history. Ukraine remains close to the Russian heart as the homeland of their ancestors. A large part of Ukraine came under Russian control after the Treaty of Pereyaslav in 1654 and the rest in the late 1700s. Several waves of Russification has left Ukraine without any strong identity and an uncertain sense of nationhood. Despite overwhelmingly voting to secede from the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine remained in the Soviet – and then Russian – orbit out of necessity as well as in recognition of the fact that many Ukrainians still have close familial and cultural ties to Russia.

Since independence, Ukrainian politics has swung between leaning West and leaning towards Russia. Leonid Kravchuk’s desire to integrate his country into the EU did not sit well with Moscow but he allowed the Russian Black Sea Fleet to remain in Sevastopol. Similarly, his successor, Leonid Kuchma, entered into a special partnership with NATO as well as Russia. As long as Ukraine did not drift too close to the West, Russia protested and tried to win Kiev back through a crude combination of coercion and enticement. Russia’s red line, when it came to it neighbours, became clear in 2008 when it used military force to delay Georgia’s membership to NATO. Russia also fiercely opposed US ballistic missile defence installations in Poland and Ukraine, threatening to counter with the deployment of Iskander, a short-range ballistic missile, to Kaliningrad. In this light, a Russian military response in Crimea ought not come as a surprise.

Ironically, as former British and US ambassadors to Russia, Rodric Braithwaite and Jack Matlock, have both pointed out, most Ukrainians do not wish to join NATO and they lean towards the EU only as a symbol of the good governance their own country has been sorely lacking since independence.

The sudden reversal of the situation in Kiev stunned Moscow. On February 18, the riot control Berkut were deployed to quell the protests at the Euromaidan; on the 20th, orders emanated from unknown quarters for snipers to open fire and the death toll shot up from 25 to 80; the next day, Yanukovych reached an agreement – capitulation – with the foreign ministers of France, Germany, and Poland, but the protesters, enraged by the death of their comrades, demanded that he leave the country by February 22. Within four days, events had made a 180-degree turn.

From the Kremlin’s perspective, the speed and manner in which Ukraine had waltzed into the EU camp indicated that the radical nationalists had received covert assistance from the West. The new government was proceeding with the plan Yanukovych had rejected in November 2013 bringing Ukraine closer to the EU. With NATO’s interest in Ukraine no secret, there was every chance that Kiev might also repudiate its 2010 promise to remain non-aligned and instead seek membership of military organisation. The new government’s decision to remove Russian as an official language only served to underscore its political leanings for Moscow.

The Russian decision to use the military option in Crimea fits into an older pattern of the Kremlin creating buffer states between itself and its threats. In fact, Moscow’s security concerns could even be understood from Washington’s response to the discovery of Soviet missiles stationed in Cuba 52 years ago. US and European concerns about the freedom of the Ukrainian people are risible given their own support of Islamists in Syria and several unsavoury leaders worldwide.

Tragically, empty and thoughtless Western rhetoric may have worsened the situation for Ukrainians in much the same way as Radio Free Europe did for Hungarians in 1956 – they aroused expectations that could never be fulfilled. During the negotiations between the European Union and Ukraine in November, Kiev and asked for loans and assistance to shore up its flagging economy amounting to $20 billion. Aware of the rampant corruption in Ukraine, the EU unsympathetically offered $827 million. As in Hungary, the gap between what the West said and what it was prepared to do was substantial. Russia, on the other hand, has agreed to provide gas to Ukraine at a steep discount of 33% in addition to $15 billion in loans. Were Ukraine to slip into the European fold, it is doubtful whether an anaemic Eurozone will be able to buttress the Ukrainian economy or if the International Monetary Fund would be willing to.

Western response to Russia’s intervention has been swift. US Secretary of State John Kerry, while ruling out any military countermeasures, has hinted that the G-8 would isolate Russia with visa bans, trade and investment penalties, asset freezes, and boycotts. This will certainly hurt Russia, but it remains to be seen how effectively the threat can be implemented. Japan, for example, might express reluctance as Tokyo seeks allies in the region to balance a belligerent China. Additionally, the West also needs Russian cooperation on Syria and Iran, and Europe depends on Russian energy more than it remembers in the heat of the moment.

Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci defined hegemony as the power accrued to a group when they are able to exercise a role of moral leadership in a system. In other words, it is the additional power a socially dominant group achieves when its claim to represent the general interest goes unchallenged. The hegemon is able to place all the issues around which conflict rages on a universal plane. By framing the Ukrainian crisis in terms of abstract ideas such as freedom, Washington is (clumsily) diverting attention from the very simple and realist dimensions of the conflict.

As for the Ukrainian people…whoever said geopolitics had anything to do with people?

This post appeared on Daily News & Analysis on March 03, 2014.