Crimean annexation cripples Russia’s re-Sovietization ambitions

By Ali Delen
The Johns Hopkins Newsletter 

Russian marines parade in Crimea (File Photo)

Russian marines parade in Crimea (File Photo)

The close of the twentieth century saw the rise of what Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk called “neo-Soviet imperialism” in his op-ed last week. With the reanimation of the still-warm corpse of the Soviet Union as its ultimate goal, this ideology has been at the center of the Kremlin’sgeopoliticalagenda, and is the driving force behind nearly every action the Russian Federation has undertaken. Fueled by rapidly increasing global energy prices, the Russian Federation under Putin has become more aggressive in its pursuit of an empire of the former Soviet republics. Russia’s involvement in the domestic affairs of Ukraine, then, is only the most recent and most poignant result of a Kremlin that may have overplayed it’s hand. But a closer analysis of the developments in Ukraine in the context of the Kremlin’s long-term imperial aspirations indicates that Russian intervention in Crimea might be more than just miscalculated power projection. What started as civil unrest in a neighboring nation could prove fatal to the geopolitical goals of Russia’s elite in the long run.

It is in the Kremlin’s best interest to keep all the former Soviet republics (Ukraine first and foremost, because it has historically been at the heart of Russian empires) weak and under its thumb. Doing so keeps them from developing normally and possibly integrating into western international structures, such as trade blocs and military agreements. Russia fills these developmental gaps and exerts greater control with its own international structures. These include the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Customs Union of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia, and the Eurasian Economic Union among many other regional organizations the Kremlin has established that cover areas such as security, trade, and lawmaking. In recent years Russia has worked to grow membership in these organizations as well as enhance their supranational powers. The United States has acknowledged that these efforts are the first steps towards the “re-sovietization” of the former Soviet space and stated that it will oppose such efforts.

A weak and docile Ukraine, upon which a great deal of the Kremlin’s “neo-Soviet imperialism” is predicated, has largely disappeared in recent weeks to the alarm of the Russian elite. Throughout the Euromaidan protests, Putin, his hands tied by the impending Sochi Olympics, could only watch from the sidelines as Ukraine slipped out from under his thumb. But once the Sochi Olympics – Putin’s personal pet project which held deep political significance for the Kremlin – came to a close, Russia responded quickly to the rapidly decaying situation in Ukraine by invading and occupying Crimea. This was Russia’s fatal error and it will prove ruinous for Russia geopolitically.

Russia has bought Crimea at the cost of the Ukraine. Putin has managed to devastate Russia’s relations with Ukraine for the next half century and realistically, it’s only Russia that will lose in the long run. As the Kremlin finalizes Crimea’s annexation and with it sounds the death knell for Russia – Ukraine relations, Ukrainian and European lawmakers are working furiously to sign international deals that range from comprehensive trade pacts to security and defense. Ukraine, which was already drifting away from Russia, has now been pushed firmly into the arms of the West. Moreover, the Kremlin’s aggression has not only alienated the majority of Ukrainians but it has also triggered strong anti-Russian nationalism in bordering nations as well. The prospects for Russia’s “re-sovietization” organizations have been crippled as former Soviet republics, all of which have significant Russian speaking minorities, begin to fear for their own sovereignty and reevaluate their ties with Russia.

Once relations between the two nations do normalize, Russia will have lost a great deal of its previous influence over Ukraine’s domestic politics. Crimea, which had always been a bastion for pro-Russian support, will no longer be able to sway elections in Ukraine. It was, after all, in large part due to Crimean voters that the ousted former Ukrainian Prime Minister, Viktor Yanukovych, won his 2010 election.

In addition to paralyzing the Kremlin’s imperial ambitions, the Crimean Crisis has also galvanized NATO at a time when the alliance seemed all but irrelevant. Nations near Russia have been calling for an increased NATO presence in the region. A refreshed and purposeful NATO presence at a time when Russia seems at its most isolated would exacerbate an already strained international situation for the Kremlin.

Realistically speaking, there is no other nation as integral to Russian national security as Ukraine. Russia has dominated Ukraine for centuries and has come to depend on it. What was before a natural geographic buffer between the West and Russia has now brought the West to Russia’s door, jeopardized Russia’s energy sector, damaged Russia’s relations with the West and with its neighbors, and – most upsettingly for the Kremlin – upended its Greater Russia aspirations. The remnants of the Soviet era which made a Russian imperial renaissance possible are quickly crumbling. With the loss of Ukraine, the final Soviet era pillar holding up the Kremlin’s dream may have already collapsed.

Ali Delen is a freshman International Studies major from Woodstock, Maryland.

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