Anna Procyk is a Professor of history at KBCC, CUNY, a member of the Executive Board of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences in New York and the Shevchenko Scientific Society in the United States.
Is the Russia-US relationship permanently broken? Is this the commencement of a Cold War II?
Russia-US relations have been progressively deteriorating during the course of the past year reaching a low point with the eruption of the political crisis in Ukraine. The climax in this war of nerves was reached when President Vladimir Putin committed what Secretary of State, John Kerry described as a “brazen act of aggression” by sending Russian troops to seize control of Crimea. The occupation of Crimea is illegal under international law and Putin’s flagrant disregard for Ukraine’s territorial integrity has been denounced not only by the signatories of the Budapest agreement, but by most members of the international community. While the tension continues to escalate—the meeting between Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov and the American Secretary of State on March 14 has shown no willingness on part Russia to make any concessions--I don’t think relations between the world’s two largest nuclear powers will be permanently broken unless western democracies today are facing another power-hungry dictator similar to the one they were confronted with on the eve of World War II. In fact, Hitler’s demand to annex the Sudetenland under the pretext of protecting the rights of the German-speaking population in Czechoslovakia has been aptly compared to the recent preoccupation of Putin with the protection of rights of Russian inhabitants in Crimea. The difference between the political situation in the immediate pre-World War II period and today is the fact that the leaders of present-day democracies are more politically astute and feel militarily better prepared to face an outright aggressor than Neville Chamberlain and Édouard Daladier were at the Munich Conference in 1938. One could only hope that Putin and his advisors are intelligent enough to take this fact into consideration. Furthermore, the economic interdependence in the global age should serve as a powerful deterrent to the possibility of reopening another long-term period of Cold War.
Can diplomacy play a role in this fractured US-Russia relationship or is it too far gone?
Diplomacy has played an important role from the very beginning of the political crisis in Ukraine. A determined stand both on the part of the United States and the members of the European Union, to find a peaceful solution to the tense situation in Eastern Europe provoked by Russia’s aggression in Ukraine has resulted in an unusually high degree of diplomatic activity. One can expect that the firm front forged by western democracies as a result of Russia’s designs on the territories of Ukraine will have some effect on Putin if not today then in the near future.
Russia’s actions in Ukraine come at a high cost. What are the possible implications of the Ukraine crisis on the Russian economy?
The threats of economic sanctions as well as of seizure of assets of individuals close to Putin are bound to have a profound impact on Russia’s economy. In a country where the currency has fallen 10 percent and exports are down, the prospect of severance of economic ties with the West could inevitably lead to a precipitous economic decline. Responsible Russian political and economic leaders must be aware of this danger, but Putin appears to be ready to take the risk of bringing his country to the brink of economic ruin because he has chosen to rely not on the support of the better educated western oriented professionals but on the patriotically inspired Russians many of whom cannot reconcile themselves with the disintegration of the former Soviet colossus or the loss of the splendor and grandeur of imperial Russia. In order to gain the support of this segment of the population, Putin publicly announced that the greatest catastrophe of the twentieth century was the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The former Soviet K.G.B. agent and now the Russian leader thought it fitting a number of years ago to participate in a solemn reburial of a tsarist general who during the anti-Bolshevik struggle of 1918-1920 instead of sending the White Armies to crush the Soviet regime at the center, directed the bulk of his forces to unseat the newly formed government of an independent Ukraine. Because Putin chose to hold on to power by exploiting the emotions of people experiencing the trauma of post-imperial blues, the economic well-being of Russia is not one of his immediate concerns.
What does this conflict mean for other former Soviet countries in the region? Will the events taking place in Ukraine result in a broader geopolitical shift?
Putin’s carefully prepared strategy to bring back Ukraine into the Russian fold by means of political intimidation, economic pressure, and outright military aggression has not been unnoticed by leaders in the former Soviet republics and the satellite states. Because of this, it has not come as a surprise that the first countries to offer moral support and medical assistance to the victims of the police brutality of Putin’s former puppet in Kiev would be Lithuania and Poland. What did come as a surprise was the fact that even the less independent-minded leaders of the former Soviet republics such as Belarus and Kazakhstan openly expressed their displeasure with Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. If the country’s independence is further undermined this would present a clear threat to freedom and security of Ukraine’s western neighbors.
Russia supplies about a quarter of Europe’s gas and Ukraine sits between Russia and Europe so any potential regional conflict has a direct effect on the energy supply line. What role, if any, will energy play in an emerging conflict?
Putin’s awareness of the important role that Russia’s gas exports play in the economies of Europe may have emboldened him to take the risky step to occupy Crimea. The Russian leader, however, has miscalculated. He was obviously not prepared for the unanimous stand adopted by the European countries to impose sanctions and other penalties on Russia if its government did not comply with the rules of the international law. The outcome will depend on the resolve of President Obama and European leaders like Angela Merkel to act in accordance with their threat: if Putin continues to violate international law, the result will be massive damage to Russia both economically and politically
Anna Procyk is a Professor of history at KBCC, CUNY. She is the author of Russian Nationalism and Ukraine: The Nationality Policy of the Volunteer Army during the Civil War (1995) and editor of Two World, One Idea (2013). Her research studies on the nationality question in Eastern Europe have appeared in Harvard Ukrainian Studies; Kosmas: Czechoslovak and East European Journal; Ukrainian Quarterly; Ukrainskyj istoryk;Ukraiinskyj istorychnyj zhurnal and other scholarly publications. She is an active participant in various scholarly societies such as ASEEES and ASN and is on the Executive Board of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences in New York and the Shevchenko Scientific Society in the United States.