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Between Two Poles: How Russia May Soon Find Itself In Ukraine's Position
There is little doubt that as the May 25 presidential elections draw closer, the situation in Ukraine, both internally and externally, will continue to escalate. And it’s no wonder. On the one hand, no serious external power, naturally, will risk opposing elections in any country which has found itself in the midst of an extended political crisis. There is simply no other method for creating a legitimate government. Moreover, preventing an election would mean continued uncertainty, tension, and the prolongation of the current interim government, whose legitimacy is under serious doubt. But on the other hand, if successfully conducted elections and a national referendum take place, the ability of both internal and external actors to influence Kyiv will be largely lost.

The West will accept any outcome of the election, especially considering that, surprisingly, the pro-Russian and Russian-speaking forces—of which there are many in Ukraine—have not put forward their own candidate. From what we know, they did not even attempt to reach an agreement with any of the existing candidates to support their campaign in exchange for certain guarantees after the elections.

Russia, which has positioned itself as a supporter of traditional law and which, in principle, cooperates exclusively with legitimate authorities, also can’t afford to refuse to accept the results of these elections. Moscow will have to work with whatever Ukrainian leadership comes to power after May 25.

After the presidential elections and a possible nationwide referendum, the Ukrainians currently protesting in the Eastern regions will find it difficult to maintain a pretext for their acts of civil disobedience. Even now their situation is hard to understand: what exactly are they trying to move away from so quickly? The old authorities are gone, the new Ukrainian government has not succeeded in any “anti-Eastern” actions, and it too will be gone in a month.

To demand a referendum, while simultaneously ignoring the presidential elections and the constitutional debates, would be absurd. It seems the protesters in the East have come together mainly to figure out, once and for all, who needs the region more—Moscow or Kyiv (right now, it seems, neither one)—and to try to postpone the elections, thereby forcing the Ukrainian authorities to impose emergency rule and putting Moscow in the position of having to choose between the best of two evils.

At times, it appears as if the Kyiv authorities are intentionally surrendering the eastern regions in order to force Moscow to make a choice that will completely turn Russia into an international pariah. Moscow, in turn, seems to be gauging its support in these regions, and is so far finding the answer unsatisfactory.

In the short-term, it is impossible to predict how the current state of tensions will end, how (or if) the presidential elections and referendum will be conducted, and what the future territorial and constitutional structure of Ukraine will be. What other errors will the interim government make? The most important thing right now is to avoid civil war and loss of life.

More obvious are the medium- and long-term prospects of this growing confrontation.

The West has finally realized, to its great surprise, that its economy and especially its banking system have become too tightly intertwined with the Russian market over the past several years. If the West were to further increase financial sanctions against Russia, it would face losses that would border on the unacceptable—including, for example, saying goodbye to the possibility of Russia repaying its $720 billion in outstanding debt.

The Western approach will eventually turn away from economic sanctions and instead take on a character of gradual and sequenced review of its economic and technological policies towards Russia, while maintaining normal banking relations—at least up until the point when (or if) mistrust toward the ruble, both in Russia and internationally, reaches a breaking point.

Many are warning that the Russian economy is currently entering a state of “stagflation,” and that the ruble will weaken. One result is that the possible transition to ruble payments of long-term energy contracts with China would allow Beijing, in the space of seven to ten years, to be able to obtain Russian energy for an almost symbolic ruble price. This would quickly overwhelm the economy, and later the government, of Russia, in addition to the majority of the post-Soviet space. At the same time, Russia will risk losing the European market. Moscow, Washington believes, is smart enough to understand this risk.

Obviously, the West is not interested in the collapse of the Russian economy, as this will trigger a tsunami that can cause tremendous harm to the entire global economy. So sanctions will take on a personal, and more importantly, a military and socio-political nature. This will inevitably bring up questions of international security. In the West today, there is a growing desire to stop considering Russia as part of the European security system, as it had been doing for the past 25 years. In other words, there is a push to divide the zones of responsibility, so that security threats to Russia—both internal and external—are no longer seen as threats to the West to which it must also respond.

This may turn out to be the greatest rethinking of the global security structure since the disintegration of the Soviet Union. In a time when no country can solve its security problems alone, Russia may find itself facing this impossible and extremely costly task. We can recall how several years ago the West simply ignored a proposal from Moscow, made by then-president Dmitry Medvedev, to create a European-wide system of security. The reality today is that Russia may soon find itself one-on-one against its threats, ranging from terrorists and changing demographics to ecological and technological pressures. At the same time, the south-eastern regions of the European security zone will find themselves significantly weakened. This will inevitably turn them into areas of constant tension, but will please Western hawks by significantly reinvigorating NATO.

So far, there is no reason to expect a military alliance between Russia and China. Beijing has repeatedly made that clear, even within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. China can much more effectively promote its interests through economic means and by refusing to take sides in the political or military confrontations of others. The West, of course, will remain for Russia the center of enormous political, ideological, and technological attraction, while China has already become for Russia the more powerful center of economic gravitational pull.

In the next 25 years, Russia may unwillingly find itself in the position currently held by Ukraine: that of being torn between two global powers. This will be especially true if Russia remains an energy-based economy, which will inevitably incur enormous military expenses for the country and cause the imbalance between its regions to grow. Russia should do everything it can to avoid such a fate.

Meanwhile, the West, and especially the U.S., which currently sees no other way to protect its security interests, may already be reverting to the unproductive model of a unipolar world centered on a powerful military and political Euro-Atlantic alliance.

The current polar-less world order, which resulted in the quick and unexpected change in European borders, no longer suits anyone. Paradoxically, the events in Ukraine have now made the Western political class seriously reevaluate the experience of the Cold War.

Of course, a rebuilding of the international system would take the West at least several decades to complete and would become a massive burden on its weakened economy. However, political resolve on this issue has begun to grow; the U.S. has learned its lesson from the failures of the George W. Bush era, and will now be much more selective in choosing its battles.

So far China is the only force capable of posing a real challenge to a Western unipolar world. Given the vast extent of Sino-American economic ties, it is unclear whether Beijing would want to undertake such a military and politically important, yet economically unprofitable confrontation. But even if this were to happen, there already seems to be emerging a new bipolar system in which Russia will mostly likely have to be satisfied with the role of a regional power and seek a partnership with one of the two sides while relying on its own nuclear weapons for security, even though it will probably never muster up the will to use them. This fate Russia must also avoid.

Today, the Russian leadership faces a serious challenge of historical proportions. World history is full of examples of when one or another side triumphantly wins one battle after another, one fight after the next, only to lose the war. The current situation suits neither Russia nor the West, nor the world community as a whole. But for now, there is also no good way out. Western sanctions and attempts to isolate Russia cannot be called strategic policies. They are just a sign of the West’s impotence.

Russia’s dizziness from the success of its Crimean operation—along with a certain condescending attitude toward the West, which proved incapable of coming up with a rapid response—is likewise a poor foundation for making balanced decisions.

Today more than ever, Moscow needs a cold and rational head. Russia has shown everyone what it is capable of on the military, political, and moral front. It has shown everyone that it is ready to act on its will. Now, it needs to demonstrate its political intellect. The global elite have found themselves at an intellectual—not a military or political—dead end. The isolation and hysteria of some, coupled with the self-imposed isolation and over-confidence of others, will only exacerbate this impasse.

Originally published April 16, 2014 on


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