RIA-Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, Presidential Press Service /AP

The Ukraine crisis: Putin’s dress rehearsal for what?

Russia will pivot eastward for markets, allies and conquests

May 2, 2014 4:15AM ET

Vladimir Lenin liked to call the failed Russian revolution of 1905 the dress rehearsal for the successful Bolshevik revolution he led in 1917. So then what might the Ukrainian events of 2014 be a dress rehearsal for?

The main consequence of the Ukrainian crisis is already clear (only its speed and degree are a matter of conjecture): The West is turning away from Russia, and Russia is turning from the West to the East.

How much and how quickly Russia turns east depends at what stage the Ukrainian crisis is resolved. In stage one, the annexation of Crimea has already largely been accepted as a fait accompli, though the U.S. and some other governments say they will refuse to recognize the annexation as legal and that sanctions imposed in that connection will not be lifted. But Europe runs on Russian gas and sells its products to Russia. No one in Europe wants to sacrifice good business on the altar of high principle. In this scenario Russia and the West do not suffer a major schism, but do pivot away from each other.

The Ukrainian crisis enters stage two if Russia invades eastern and/or southern Ukraine. For a time, at least, events will skid out of control, allowing for the possibility of atrocities by either side, the images of which will immediately go viral. Stage two will involve significant economic damage for both the Europeans and the Russians. Russia pivots even farther east.

In stage three, the armed conflict between Ukraine and Russia spills over into all-out war. The West would have to stand impotently by and watch Russia crush Ukraine, just as it did in 1956 when Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest and in 1968 when they entered Prague. The West will not risk a conflagration over Ukraine of which all parties are already well aware. Russia will crush Ukraine quickly, but the war will not be over all at once — after World War II the nationalist Ukrainian guerrillas fought Soviet power until the early ’50s. Russia takes control of Ukraine, which maintains some trappings of independence. International relations enter a period of prolonged hostility.

No matter to what degree the Ukrainian crisis unravels before it is finally resolved, Russia will turn to the East for markets, allies and conquests. China is the obvious substitute for Europe as a buyer of Russia’s gas and oil and a seller of its manufactured goods. That will, of course, have its downside for Putin and his Russia, which are still smarting from its humiliating loss of the Cold War. As Bobo Lo, a British academic, put it: “It’s quite hard being a raw materials appendage to a country you felt superior to for the better part of the past 300 years.”

The Central Asian ‘Heartland’

China has shown itself willing to invest heavily in Russian gas and oil ventures while at the same time taking pains to create economic alliances with the states of Central Asia, which either supply gas and oil directly to China or serve it as energy conduits. But in no way will China allow itself to become dependent on Russia for energy.

China, alarmed by its own restive western provinces of Tibet and Xinjiang, is always reluctant to approve of separatist actions, such as those in Crimea, but it must look with some satisfaction at the widening fracture between Russia and the West. For Beijing, few things could be worse than a strong U.S.-Russia relationship. Add the strong U.S. relationship with Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, and China would be essentially encircled by land and by sea.

Controlling a chunk of Kazakhstan would allow Russia to exert considerable pressure on China and not have to serve solely as its junior partner and raw materials appendage.

In this context, Central Asia becomes all the more important. Halford J. Mackinder, sometimes called the father of modern geopolitics, famously said that whoever controls the Central Asian “Heartland” will ultimately “command the world.” His dictum now seems truer than ever.

A Russian-Chinese affair

The rivalry for Central Asia will be pretty much a Russian-Chinese affair. Under Russian pressure, the Kyrgyz government is forcing the U.S. to vacate the Manas air base, which had been so useful in ferrying men and matériel to and from Afghanistan. This was a Russian geopolitical victory that went unreported in the American media. The U.S. now has no foothold in Central Asia and is currently shopping for someplace to deploy its drones after the scheduled 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The two countries that matter most in Central Asia are Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Both have enjoyed more economic success than Ukraine, with Uzbekistan growing at 8 percent or better for the last seven years and Kazakhstan at 5 to 7 percent. Both states are authoritarian, but Kazakhstan, perhaps due to hiring people such as Tony Blair for its public relations efforts, has the better image (and the better reality). In 2006, the regime of Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov was accused by the former British Ambassador Craig Murray of boiling its political opponents alive. Because it is more repressive, Uzbekistan has fiercer enemies, chief among them the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. The number of radical Islamists in Kazakhstan is reckoned to be much lower, but it is hard to tell, since the state-controlled media often blame bombings on criminal gangs when they seem clearly the work of insurgents.

In several critical respects, Karimov and Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev are alike: Both have been ruling their countries since Soviet times, are in their mid-70s and have reportedly suffered serious health problems. Neither is known to have made any preparations for an orderly succession upon his death.

Neither country has had the experience of a transition of power, orderly or otherwise, nor have they built up any mechanisms or institutions to facilitate that transition. Given that, plus the presence of Islamists and rival factions within the power elite, it is perfectly possible that either Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan could enter a period of turbulence upon the death of its leader.

Russia would prefer that turmoil took place in Kazakhstan rather than in Uzbekistan, which has a larger population, a more ancient culture that might make it more intractable, and few geopolitical advantages. Kazakhstan is richer and vaster (four times larger than Texas) and has a long border with China. Part of that border is with Xinjiang province, whose rebellious Turkic-speaking Muslim Uyghurs would welcome a Central Asian Spring. Being able to control that territory would mean Russia could exert considerable pressure on China and not have to serve solely as its junior partner and raw materials appendage. China also ships and receives goods and energy through that part of Kazakhstan.

Russians make up about a quarter of Kazakhstan’s population, a number that approaches 50 percent in the north of the country. As with Ukraine, many Russians think much of Kazakhstan is part of Russia, although the emotional bond is not as great. In a 1994 interview with Forbes magazine, the writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn put it bluntly: “All of northern and northeastern Kazakhstan is actually part of southern Siberia.”

Political turmoil will allow Russians to reunite with their brothers and sisters stranded in a foreign land by the collapse of the U.S.S.R. The logic of Russia’s turn from west to east demands that it take a considerable piece of Kazakhstan.

If European businessmen were reluctant to sacrifice lucrative trade arrangements because of Russia’s incursion into a sovereign European state, they can be counted on to be indifferent to Moscow’s slicing off the top half of Kazakhstan. Then Russia will control the Asian “Heartland.” While that may not allow Moscow to, as Mackinder put it, “command the world,” it will put Russia on an equal footing with China and the U.S. And that, more than anything, is what Russia wants.

Richard Lourie is the author of the forthcoming book “King of the Wolves: Vladimir Putin and His Russia.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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