Fig Leaf of Legitimacy
Fig Leaf of Legitimacy
As residents of Crimea queue to cast their votes on a referendum Sunday on whether to join Russia or remain with Ukraine, the world has already cast its ballot. The verdict from prevailing world opinion is an overwhelming 'nyet' for Russia's President Vladimir Putin. Among the undecided but leaning towards Moscow are countries like China and India, showing how Russia's crude attempt to annex the peninsula throws in sharp relief a new power balance in the post-Cold War era.
It would be more accurate to call the past 25 years an era of 'Cold War Lite'. We have come a long way from the time when nuclear-tipped missiles of the Soviet Union and the US were poised to effect mutual destruction and an ideological battle raged across every continent. Today's struggle is instead between an assertive Russia seeking to push back western influence from its western border and regain its great power status.
Bolstered by Russia's abundant oil and gas resources and enjoying popularity as a strong leader, Putin has been trying to wipe out the humiliating memory of the USSR's collapse, which he called "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century". Seeing eastward advance of Nato and western criticism of his authoritarian rule as threats, Putin focussed on developing close relations with old adversary China and opposing the West on various trouble spots — Libya, Iran and Syria.
Trouble moved closer home when months-long popular protests in Ukraine toppled Moscow's corrupt ally President Viktor Yanukovych and opened the door to Kiev's closer integration with the West. That a large part of the country's population is ethnically Russian and the Crimean peninsula harbours a major Russian naval base made Yanukovych's ouster a serious challenge to Putin. By dispatching thousands of troops to take control of Crimea, Putin has effectively seized back the territory that Nikita Khrushchev gifted to Ukraine in 1954. Sunday's referendum is designed to conceal naked aggression with a fig leaf of seeming legitimacy.
The European Union and the US have condemned the Russian takeover and announced sanctions against individuals involved in the occupation of Crimea. President Barack Obama has demonstrated American support by inviting Ukraine's interim prime minister to the White House and by warning of wider sanctions if Russia proceeded to annex Crimea.
As a carrot, the US has held out the possibility of working to secure special status for Crimea as an autonomous zone — but not when Russian guns are pointed at Ukraine. To build a world coalition, Obama has been on the phone with European and world leaders, including those of Japan and China. No call to New Delhi is perhaps a recognition of the futility of attempt to change India's views.
Obama's calls for unity against Russian aggression underline the delicate global power balance, showing how events in Ukraine have different resonance in other capitals. Pleased by Obama's call underlining China's importance to Washington, Beijing splashed the news. But mindful of not antagonising its most important strategic ally, China engaged in verbal acrobatics calling for a peaceful resolution of the conflict and respect for sovereignty — this at a time when Russian forces have taken control of Crimea.
Of course, China is concerned about the precedence that secession of Crimea backed by foreign forces would establish. The unresolved issue of Taiwan and struggle with neighbours about sovereignty over islands also should have made China wary of the Russian example. But Beijing's need for Russian energy and its support against the US seems to have trumped its traditional sovereignty concerns. The contradiction of China's position could be tested if the Ukraine issue comes to the Security Council.
India's national security adviser Shivshankar Menon has angered Ukraine in calling for respect of "legitimate Russian and other interests". Perhaps mindful of India's past role in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Maldives, he has avoided any comment on sovereignty. Russia has been a steadfast friend of India whether during the Bangladesh war or India's joining the nuclear club. While the US is a valuable strategic and trade partner, Moscow remains India's principal supplier of weapons.
For the moment India's low key posture serves it well. Still, support for Russia's blatant mockery of democratic referendum backed by tanks sits oddly with the world's largest democracy.