The multiplayer chess game, so analogous in the international political arena nowadays, has just shifted up a gear. The Cold War era of the Soviet Union and the US dominating the chess board is over and new major players are emerging such as China and the EU, alongside less powerful and experienced players like Brazil and India, all comprising the multipolar battleground. Despite the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia is still a prominent political and economic force in the world. The world’s largest country, the largest reserves of minerals, biggest producer of oil and gas, largest stockpiles of WMDs, the 2nd largest supplier of arms, a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and a population of almost 150 million people are just some of Russia’s strengths to exercise its power… and at its helm – Vladimir Putin.
Love him or hate him, one cannot deny that he is a shrewd, intelligent man and a remarkable strategist. The recent envelopment of the Crimean peninsula into Russia is just the first major stage of a long term strategy that Putin has formulated. Like any game of chess, each player much think multiple moves ahead and estimate how their opponents will react to any move that they make. By incorporating Crimea into the Russian state Putin has made an offensive move, although arguably a defensive move to protect Crimea, and the subsequent sanctions imposed by the US and EU were grimly predictable. But what happens now? Has Putin got those cold, scheming eyes on other regions? Eastern Ukraine perhaps? Belarus, Moldova, the Caucasus, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan? All either currently have a pro-Russian government or are dependent on Russia to sustain their economies. Crimea could be the first domino to fall into Russian hands.
Potentially the most likely second domino is Ukraine itself. Iron ore, steel production, coal mines and manganese are all mostly found in areas in the Russian-speaking east and south which is heavily populated with ethnic Russians or their offspring, many of whom remember the Soviet-era fondly and frequently vote in favour of pro-Russian governments. If, like Crimea, the east and south of Ukraine vote to join Russia or Putin simply seizes it, the west of Ukraine, which has very little natural resources would naturally turn to the EU to survive, but in these times of post-recession growth, western Ukraine may become a liability to the EU, at least in the short term. This is why splitting Ukraine favours Russia more than the EU. The EU wants all of Ukraine, Russia would be happy with just the eastern half. Kiev, the capital, is key here, being situated in the middle. The EU-Ukrainian trade deal that Yanukovich cancelled blew one of the best opportunities for the EU to get their hands on Ukraine’s eastern resources and take that vital step in integrating Ukraine into the EU further, right on Russia’s doorstep. It is not farfetched that parts of Ukraine could be fully integrated into Putin’s Russia, like Crimea. The Russian army may be on the border for reasons other than military practices and muscle flexing.
What can the EU do though? Its hands are tied. The Germans can’t do much; Russia supplies a third of Germany’s natural gas. The British and French can’t do much either, their economies depend heavily on Russian investment and trade with Russia. Risking economic retribution from Russia in these times of austerity and upcoming elections may be political suicide for its leaders. The EU must unite in one voice. Intervening too directly in Crimea is arguably not worth the potential consequences of a vindictive Russia, but if the EU does nothing, is Putin likely to stop there?
Many of those in the EU hope for a future, perhaps a distant future, decades from now, where eastern European states such as Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and the Balkans join and contribute to the EU becoming a major economic power and a positive force on the planet. These small countries will inevitably have to choose between the EU and Russia, the current state of affairs won’t last long. Belarus particularly is in a pivotal position. Lukashenko, often called “Europe’s last dictator,” has ruled for nearly 20 years and is overall more pro-Russian than EU, albeit with minor conflicts. Considering full integration with Russia today however, is unlikely, but with effective media influence, political and oligarchical support and economic negotiation, Russia may just be able to attract/coerce Belarus into following Crimea, after all, Belarus has a long history with Russia, speaks predominately Russian and has many ethnic Russians, not to mention the economic dependence. If that is to happen, Putin may look to its long-standing allies Moldova, Kazakhstan and other nearby allies in central Asia and east Europe.
Combine this with Russian influence elsewhere in the world, such as 80% of India’s army equipped with Russian hardware, supporting oil rich dictators in the Middle East (such as Assad who is now winning the Syrian Civil War) and other allies around the world. It could expand into a 21st century Russia that has similar size and strength of the old Soviet Union which could become a threat to the EU. With an enlarged Russia to its East, the still-powerful US to its west and China, India and Latin America going from strength to strength, the EU could be reduced a minor global power. This is why the EU should nip this in the bud as soon as possible, like what was done in Georgia. But how?
Ukraine’s presidential election scheduled in May will be a critical one. Crimea has now left Ukraine and alongside it has left a Party of Regions heartland, decreasing the pro-Russian vote overall in Ukraine. Therefore, the pro-EU Fatherland Party vote is arguably now more likely to win the upcoming election, but the east and south may still vote in favour of a pro-Russian party, which Putin could use that as an excuse to take control of the more pro-Russian (and resource-rich) regions of eastern and southern Ukraine. The EU should focus on this election and do everything in its power to utilise the opportunity. So far it is merely implementing increasingly strong sanctions to Russia; late last night adding 12 more Russians and Ukrainians on the list of those with asset freezes and travel bans. The EU also agreed last night to essentially fast-track Ukraine (or what will be left of it) deeper into the union but these won’t change much in Moscow. The EU must do all it can to convince the people of Ukraine that they are better off in the EU than either in Russia or on their own, assuming they are of course, and use the democratic vote to its advantage, a bit like Russia did in Crimea
Either way, the upcoming election in Ukraine is a corner of the chessboard that all the players are now transfixed on, each waiting to see how it develops and how the chess players’ strategies transpire, each wanting to win the game of chess overall. After all, the game has to end sometime right?