Russia and Ukraine: Moscow's precedent

Russia's interference in Ukraine is more than a local border dispute. It's a continuation of Moscow's imperialist precedent which former KGB officer Vladimir Putin sees as a means of countering Western influence

Russia has previous when it comes to imperialism
Nick Gray
On 10 March 2014 22:08

To the casual observer, Russia’s interference in Ukraine’s affairs and her apparent determination to abscond with the Crimean peninsula looks like a local border dispute. But a deeper and longer look at Russia’s historical relations with Europe shows us exactly why President Putin is being so hard-nosed over a small diamond-shaped peninsula on the Black Sea.

Russia has a long history as an imperial nation, which once had a much bigger empire than she now controls. Despite this historical position of regional superiority, she has long held a suspicion and mistrust of Western agendas and intentions – the fuss over America’s “Star Wars” programme being a prime example.

To gain real perspective, it’s worth looking back to the end of World War I, a period when the geopolitical shape of Europe changed forever. Russia had disengaged from war with Germany as she fought her own civil war; the struggle that birthed what became known from 1922 as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).

In March 1918, following the previous October’s socialist revolution, the fledgling communist state ended her hostilities with Germany and withdrew from the World War I. She had been humiliated by defeats at the hands of Germany and Austro-Hungary, the last Czar had abdicated, and her army was on the verge of mutiny.

The closure of the Eastern front in the war meant increased German pressure on the trenches of the Western front. Additionally, Britain and her allies distrusted the Bolsheviks now ruling Russia and were concerned at possible German or Bolshevik capture of allied war materiel stockpiled in Russian ports.

Accordingly, in the midst of the last throes of World War I, the Western allies opened a little-known assault on Russian territory in an attempt to reassert pressure from the east on Germany, rescue the war materiel, and assist Czechoslovak forces who were trapped deep in Russia and were trying to escape eastwards along the Trans-Siberia railway.

Short of troops, the allies gained the assistance of America and Japan and opened a war front from both East and West. What followed was complex, with assaults on Russian territory by Western allies from all points of the compass.

A newspaper map of the time shows allied forces practically surrounding the Russian heartland from Murmansk in the North, the Urals in the East, Ukraine, Romania and the Caucasus on the South and Poland and “White Russia” in the West.

World War I ended in November 1918 but allied forces did not withdraw from Russia until 1920, with the Japanese (who had committed 77,000 troops) remaining for a further two years.

The point of all this history is that the nascent communist state was born into a war footing caused by allied aggression and known support for the “White Russian” opponents of the socialist revolution. She remained on a permanent war footing until the break-up of the USSR and the end of Soviet communism 70 years later.

Politically, the Western allied adventure, which arguably achieved nothing, left a deep distrust of Western motives in the Russian psyche. Even though the USSR was an ally of the West in World War II, she swiftly consolidated a belt of conquered east European states into a geopolitical buffer zone between the Soviet heartland and the West.

The Warsaw Pact was not signed until 1955, but its foundations were laid in the USSR seizure of as much territory as possible in the last months of the War, leading to the division of Germany and the conquest of the whole of Eastern Europe.

The Warsaw Pact was a mutual defence treaty between Soviet Russia and its vassal states in name but de facto it was Russia’s protection from Western aggression – aggression she believed could come at any time. It was also an answer to the formation of the West’s NATO defence treaty in 1949 and specifically a retort to the acceptance of West Germany into that alliance in 1955.

Starting in 1952, the Soviets began building the physical manifestation of Winston Churchill’s metaphorical “Iron Curtain”, which eventually stretched almost 1,400 kilometres from the Baltic Sea to Czechoslovakia. The Iron Curtain was also the prime symbol of Soviet Russia’s ever-deepening suspicion of the West.

In Western eyes, the end of the Cold War, the break-up of the Warsaw Pact, and the end of Soviet communism somehow made everything OK. We’re all good friends now, happy to work together on issues that help towards world peace, etc. etc. Or are we?

Not in Russian eyes, we’re not. To many Russians, the end of communism and the dissolution of the Soviet Union was a disaster. Russia had lost her empire – and her pride. And it was all because of the West. She had lost influence to the US in the Middle East, lost her fringe republics to assorted independent regimes, and lost her buffer from Western aggression.

Russian suspicion and distrust of the West and her intentions has not abated, particularly in the mind of an ex-KGB officer called Vladimir Putin. To him, the potential loss of Ukraine from Russia’s sphere of influence is also down to the West. He sees the tensions pulling that country apart as having been caused by European “intervention” in Kiev’s present troubles.

The threat of EU sanctions against President Yanukovich, seen as support for the opposition rioters, just confirmed Russia’s suspicions that the EU wants to seize Ukraine from Russia and extend her own influence even further eastwards.

Coupled with the loss of Ukraine’s agricultural exports and eastern Ukraine’s heavy industrial complexes, not to mention income from supplying discounted gas to Ukraine, Russia has a good number of reasons to maintain the influence she had while President Yanukovich was in charge.

Topping the list, however, are arguably the two biggest reasons for Russia’s interference in Ukrainian affairs. Firstly, she will not risk losing her Black Sea warm-water port to Western influences, especially to an extended EU. Russian influence in the Middle East, currently expanding fast, depends on her ability to project naval power to the Mediterranean coasts, which in turn needs the Black Sea fleet’s Crimean base.

Secondly, Ukraine and Belarus to the north are the last vestiges of a buffer against perceived Western hostile intentions. Keeping friendly dictators in both countries was important to Russia’s security and now she has lost one. A glance at a map of the region shows how Belarus and Ukraine between them at least help to plug gaps in her shield left by NATO members Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

So what will Russia do? With the weakening of US diplomatic influence (no more nuclear threats now), Putin is unintimidated by the threat of sanctions. He has the strength to annex eastern Ukraine with its heavy industry, Crimea with its naval facilities, and the rest of Ukraine’s coast to Moldova for good measure.

Complicating the situation, Bloomberg News reports that Ukraine is planning to increase her gas imports from European sources, lessening her reliance on Russia’s Gazprom supply. I’m sure Mr Putin won’t like that either.

The trigger for any escalation to military action is likely to be a secessionist vote by Crimea, followed by similar referenda in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine. The 1994 “Budapest Memorandum”, guaranteeing Ukrainian territorial integrity, will not be worth its paper and ink if Putin does decide to invade, since Ukraine could not defend herself and the very idea of the EU going to war in Europe is probably already sending a frisson of terror around Brussels.

There is nothing simple or straightforward about the developing tragedy that is splitting an already poor country and tearing it east and west. Vladimir Putin has a track record of using military force to enforce his interests in territories that had once been Russia’s. Will his pride bring him to go further than the Crimea in Ukraine?

Nick Gray is Director, Christian Middle East Watch, a British organisation dedicated to objective and factual discussion of Middle Eastern issues, especially of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Nick, who is a regular contributor to The Commentator, blogs at

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