Monday, 15 September 2008

Guest Post 2 by Mike Bowker

I want, from time to time, to invite specialists in their fields to write a post. I don't mean polemics, simply such things as may pass in intelligent conversation. Last time I had Anne Osbourn on GM crops, this time it is Mike Bowker.


I do not think that Russia will attack Ukraine in the near future, but there are some similarities between the cases of Georgia and Ukraine.

First, in both countries there were popular revolutions (2003 and 2004) which resulted, much to the distaste of Moscow, in the election of pro-western leaders - Saakashvili in Georgia and Yushchenko in Ukraine. Second, both countries are seen as being of vital strategic importance to Moscow, and the Kremlin has become increasingly concerned over their drift into the Western camp in recent times. Moscow is particularly annoyed that the Bush administration has been lobbying so hard for them both to become members of NATO (although the Ukraine public is less sure about joining). Finally, both have pro-Russian autonomous republics on their territory which have campaigned for independence in the past - in Georgia Abkhazia and South Ossetia, in Ukraine the Crimea.

The Crimean population has a Russian majority, most of whom wish to secede from Ukraine and rejoin the Russian Federation. In the past, Moscow has always rejected such demands, believing any such change of borders can lead to instability and set dangerous precedents. The recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states on 26 August, therefore, represented a major change in policy which has worried other Soviet successor states, including Ukraine. In the light of this policy shift, it is possible that Moscow might reconsider the status of the Crimea, but it unlikely to use force as it did in Georgia. This is because there are many differences as well as similarities between the two countries. Ukraine is far larger for a start, it has a bigger military and would, for that reason alone, be far more difficult to defeat. Ukraine is also a divided nation, with ethnic Russians dominant in the East, and ethnic Ukrainians in the West. If war starts in the Crimea, it could possibly escalate into civil war with many Ukrainian Russians backing their compatriots in the Crimea against the central authorities.

If there is a desire in the Kremlin to extend Russian influence, pro-Russian Transdniester in Moldova might be a more attractive option. Moldova has not been courted by NATO as yet, but would be far too weak to resist Russian power.

In fact, Russia’s propensity for expansion should not be exaggerated. In many senses, Georgia was a special case. Saakashvili certainly deserves a share of the blame for the war in Georgia. Whether tricked, provoked or whatever, his decision to launch an attack on South Ossetia on the night of 7 August was foolish in the extreme. Russia was always likely to respond with overwhelming force and at enormous cost to his country. The leaders in Ukraine and Moldova have, so far, been rather better able to manage the difficult relationship with Russia than Saakashvili. No one might wish the presence of Russia as a neighbour, but you cannot wish away geopolitical reality.


Mike Bowker’s research has concentrated on the Soviet Union and Russia. He has written books on superpower detente (with Phil Williams), Russia’s role in ending the cold war and Russia’s relationship with the US in the context of the war on terror. He has also co-edited volumes on International Relations Theory (with Robin Brown) and Russia in the Yeltsin period (with Cameron Ross). He is currently working on a project which extends his earlier interests and relates to the deteriorating relationship between Russia and the West under the Putin administration.

No comments: