Russia’s annexation of Crimea illustrates the rebalancing of European and Asian powers around the rising ambition of President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin.
The 20th century, dominated by mass murder in Central Europe and East Asia, was known as the American Century. The 21st century, by contrast, now looks to be the Eurasian Century. American power is in eclipse. Leaders in Washington don’t like this, and the political actors of both parties are in a frenzy of finger-pointing, but they can do little more than complain bitterly and watch silently, like a bystander to history.
Moscow is in command of the time and place for rebalancing the Great Powers, a construction that was ruined by what is regarded in Moscow as a European Hundred Years' War, 1848 to 1948. In the course of that century of battles, the traditional power blocs were Western Europe, Middle Europe and Eastern Europe. From Moscow’s perspective, the Cold War, 1946–91, was an aberration. It temporarily and awkwardly divided Europe into the American sphere of NATO and the Russian sphere of the Warsaw Pact.
The current rebalancing started with the jettisoning of the defunct Soviet ideology and the establishment of Russia as the energy superpower on which both Europeans and Asians must depend. Russian-controlled pipelines are the most straightforward explanation of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s acceptance of the Common Eurasian Home theme that Putin advances in each conversation. France’s President François Hollande and Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron look reluctant to reverse the geopolitical trend that working relations with Moscow, not Washington, are vital for continued EU prosperity. As evidence that Hollande’s and Cameron’s barks at the recent G-7 meeting in Europe are bigger than their bites, consider that France hesitates to cancel warship sales to Russia just as Britain hesitates to move against the real estate and banking advantages in London for Russian oligarchs.
President Barack Obama appeared to acknowledge the European reluctance in his remarks to NATO in Brussels: “The situation in Ukraine, like crises in many parts of the world, does not have easy answers nor a military solution.”
The Ukrainian crisis was provoked, in the Kremlin’s opinion, thanks to ham-fisted intervention by NGO cutouts (George Soros is prominently mentioned) in league with the Obama administration’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, and Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland. Moscow does not believe there was anything inevitable about Ukraine’s failures. Viktor Yanukovich’s panicky flight from Kiev then forced Moscow’s hand to secure its interests. Crimea is the first of what will be several logical moves to reintegrate ethnic Russians into the Russian Federation.
In due time, according to my sources, the Kremlin will move to annex Eastern Ukraine, a region called Novorossiya on Russian media. This step will lead to the absorption of the Moldovan breakaway region of Transnistria. In Georgia, furthermore, Russia will likely move to annex the two regions that broke with Tbilisi in 2008, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, also taking back the small region of Adjara that Moscow handed to Georgia in 2007.
Moscow does not recognize the interim Kiev government as legitimate and therefore ignores tendentious remarks by the Ukrainian foreign minister, Andriy Deshchytsia, on Putin’s plans: “We could expect only that he might invade.”
Moscow is less likely to ignore threatening remarks by U.S. politicians such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who are urging the White House to supply Ukraine with weapons.
Republican House Armed Services Committee members have issued a statement that amounts to a continental war warning: "There is deep apprehension that Moscow may invade eastern and southern Ukraine, pressing west to Transdniestria, and also seek land grabs in the Baltics."
Political fire-breathers in Washington and NATO worrywarts in Brussels may slow the process of Russian revanchism, but they will not reverse the Kremlin’s march.
Moscow ponders a much larger map than the hodgepodge of regions that is the present Balkanized Ukraine. I am told that Moscow is placing emphasis on stabilizing a vast landscape, called the Greater Black Sea Basin, from the Adriatic in the West to the Caspian Sea in the East; from Ukraine in the North to Turkey’s border with Iran in the South.
Moscow’s plan for the region folds into a long-term plan for the fledgling trade and security alliance called the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). At present in the SCO, Russia and China lord over four Central Asian resource-rich states: Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Iran is an observer along with Afghanistan, Mongolia, India and Pakistan. With the crisis in Ukraine triggering hostility from Washington, and even as Washington seeks to resolve its conflict with Iran, Moscow is said to contemplate inviting Iran to become a full member of the SCO.
It may well be that out of the present hot rhetoric comes the logic for a surprising new bipolar world. On one hand, Washington holds on to sentimental if wobbly allies in NATO. On the other hand, Moscow and Beijing command vast energy and trade resources through their economic and military ties to the predatory but vulnerable Iran. It would be easy then to add Afghanistan, Pakistan, Mongolia and India as SCO members, creating a contiguous bloc across Asia. At the same time, Moscow has a strong-horse position in the Levant to build on, with an imminent arms deal with Cairo, ongoing support to the Assad regime in Damascus and, remarkably, commonsensical conversations with both Jerusalem and Riyadh.
Putin and his counselors are careful students of history. The Kremlin has seen for some time that NATO’s once-upon-a-time promises would not prevent European and Asian students of history from recognizing Russia’s well-placed modern supremacy.
The ironies here are mostly bookish. Washington, the capital of capitalism, is fretting about a new Cold War breaking out between the East and the West.
Moscow, the capital of Eurasia’s history, recognizes that it has already won on the map, from East to West, without firing a shot.