I have a confession to make: I haven’t been all that interested in the ongoing developments in Ukraine.
Maybe it’s because, having grown up in the post-Cold War era, massive street protests seem to be the norm rather than the exception. Or maybe it’s because, having grown up in the post-Cold War era, I don’t feel any nostalgia for the days when the fate of the world hinged on events in Eastern and Central Europe. Or maybe it’s because, having grown up in the post-Cold War era, I can’t fathom Russia being the strategic and ideological competitor to the West that would be needed for a second Cold War to occur.
Whatever the reason, my lack of interest has not stopped the story from dominating headlines over the past few weeks. As a voracious reader of world news, I’ve therefore been forced to stay abreast on the ongoing developments in Ukraine through no fault of my own.
What I’ve found most fascinating about the whole ordeal is that no matter what happens in the country, the West has been quick to proclaim it as a victory for Russian President Vladimir Putin. This certainly made sense last year when Viktor Yanukovych axed an association agreement with the European Union despite his previous promise that Ukraine’s future lay with the EU. This event demonstrated that Putin had largely succeeded in making Ukraine a stooge of Moscow.
But then protests broke out in the Ukraine to protest Yanukovych’s betrayal. And while Yanukovych was at first successful in repressing these protesters, they later broke out again around the time that Putin was hosting the Olympics in Sochi. As the Olympics progressed it became increasingly clear that the Russian proxy regime was on the verge of collapsing, and the impetus for this collapse was that Kiev had tried to saddle itself to Russia. One could hardly think of a bigger setback for Putin’s goal of restoring Russian influence in the former Soviet states. Nonetheless, the dominant narrative in the West continued to be that Russia was resurgent under Putin.
Yanukovych and Putin apparently disagreed with this narrative, as evidenced by the fact that the Ukraine president agreed to most of the protesters demands, including reverting back to the 2004 constitution and holding early elections. Since this agreement would keep Yanukovych in power until elections later this year, however, many in the West saw this as more evidence of Putin’s influence.
Despite the agreement being signed, the West Ukrainians refused to stop protesting and were soon successful in forcing Yanukovych to abandon Kiev to the opposition. At this point, Western commentators briefly heralded Ukraine as a huge setback for Putin. Before too long, though, Russian troops began seizing control of Crimea, at which point the West reverted back to its original position that Putin was ascendant in Ukraine, even as Kiev pledged to tie itself to the West.
It’s worth asking, then, what could possible happen in the Ukraine for the West to consider it a loss for Russia? After all, before the protests began, Ukraine in its entirety was a Russian proxy, as evidenced by Yanukovych’s rejection of the association agreement with the EU. Now, Russia only controls Crimea. This seems like a poor trade for Moscow given that of Ukraine’s population of nearly 45.6 million people, just 1.9 million people live in Crimea. Similarly, Crimea accounts for just 3 percent of Ukraine’s total GDP, and much of that is in services.
Thus, over the past few weeks Russia has lost about 97 percent of Ukraine’s population and economic output to the West, while only being able to retain the remaining 3 percent at a huge expense to Russia’s reputation across the globe. It would be like if Canada reoriented its strategic posture toward Russia, but the U.S. managed to annex Niagara Falls through force. Would this be a huge victory for President Obama?