The Black Sea and the Ucraina crisis: a geopolitical synthesis. (versione originale)

The Black Sea and the Ucraina crisis: a geopolitical synthesis. (versione originale)

La regione del Caspio

La sintesi dopo gli articoli di approfondimento sulla crisi ucraina e la sua influenza in quel settore strategico del Mar Nero e del Mar Caspio.

Il Direttore scientifico: Maria Gabriella Pasqualini

The Black Sea appears to be at crossroads of international politics on the grounds of its strategic location. What happens there could have repercussions at a worldwide level and undoubtedly on the Eurasian continent, that is to say, the Black Sea area, the Caspian Sea and Central Asia, the Middle East and the Persian Gulf area; in other words, on the planet’s richest oil reserves and on one of the world’s geopolitical hotspots, because of the enduring infighting between sectarian forces, such as Sunnis and Shias. The control of the Black Sea appears therefore one of the key elements for geopolitical supremacy on the Eurasian continent. Russia’s orchestrated media campaign of confrontation with the West may be good tactics, as it will rally the population’s nationalistic consensus around the President for some time to come, but as long as the economic situation deteriorates this might come to an end, together with the “pact” between government and population of restraint in political dissent by the population in exchange for a progressively improved economic situation. This state of affairs may also bring rifts within the inner elite of the Kremlin, especially if financial assets are seized by Western financial institutions or the situation involves an even more bitter confrontation with the West. The consequences of such an event are still not clear as they are being weighed up by analysts and government officials. The progressive worsening of the economic situation in Russia could soon lead to a more aggressive Russian foreign policy that raises the stakes and consequently the level of confrontation to boost Russian nationalism and gather consensus towards the Russian leadership in the context of an identity/value driven defiance of the West, especially the United States, amplified by an intense propaganda campaign by the Russian media, politically well-conceived in order to build a fear-inducing “image of the enemy” and thus strengthen the sense of the unity and “combat readiness,” the “total mobilization”, of the Russian nation, of its geopolitical importance and national pride as a Great Power (velikaia Derzhava), something which is highly valued in Russia, and its just cause against the common and threatening geopolitical and, above all, “civilizational” enemies, above all NATO and the United States, who threaten it not only in its geopolitical and security interests, but also in its core essence of Orthodox civilization and in its national values (samobytie).

This is the old Soviet technique of the “besieged fortress,” used once again to entice the Russian population for an all-out struggle for supremacy with the West, one that may last for years to come. It is still not clear whether these economically very painful “struggles with the West,” be it in Ukraine or elsewhere in the world, will be economically beneficial for Russia in the end, that is whether Russia’s expansion in the post-Soviet area or in the Middle East will ultimately prove economically beneficial to Russia without going through a “modernization path”. Politics, policies and economic reforms are closely linked, and this is the “Gordian knot” that Russian leaders should eventually tackle. Preference is therefore given by Russian leaders to foreign policy because it is less painful from the point of view of the necessity to substantially reform and change deep-rooted habits in society and above all the Russian state in its entirety and the very way it functions. A successful foreign policy is a more efficient and, for the elite, a more prestige-enhancing tool to gather consensus at home than economic or politically painful or unpopular reforms at home. Foreign policy is therefore used by the Russian government to reach political goals that are important for Russia, to enhance or boost the popularity of the leadership and, above all, to divert national public opinion from domestic problems. This can also be seen in the increasing tightening of political liberties in Russia and in the adoption of economic measures that are intended to boost a struggling Russian economy that is facing the harmful effects of the economic sanctions imposed by the West. The political and economic environment in Russia is therefore gradually shifting to the one of a “besieged fortress”. The political pact between rulers and citizens has been gradually shifting from one that promised wealth, an increase in the living standards of the Russian citizens, to one that has created a substantial political apathy: a gradual politicization of many aspects of life that include bans and restrictions in a context of increasing poverty and social unrest.

In turn, the balance of power in Ukraine will also determine its external projection. In other words, whether the top Ukrainian oligarchs,[i] like Pinchuk, Akhmetov and Kolomoyskyi, decide to support the Ukrainian government or Russia, or the Western institutions, based on their economic interests, their personal convictions or other contingent factors. This will also have an effect on the military capabilities of Ukraine and on its ability to contribute to the defense of its coasts, thus contributing to NATO’s ability to compete with the Russian fleet for the control of the northern Black Sea after Crimea has become a naval base capable of projecting its air and marine force on the entire Black Sea area. For this reason, the more nationalistic Ukrainian factions should be kept in check too, so as not to cause a further escalation in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. In other words, they should be made to abide strictly to the Minsk agreements and accept a stronger autonomy from Kiev of the Donbass region, as was proposed in Kiev in a recent Constitution change attempt that recently brought about an uprising by Ukrainian nationalists and consequently an attack against the Verkhovna Rada, the deeply divided Ukrainian Parliament. This might also lead to a severe confrontation between the moderate and the more nationalistic factions in Ukraine, which would further increase the instability of the country with potentially very serious consequences for the stability of the region and of Europe as a whole. Ukrainian nationalists are often good on the battlefield, but they are detrimental to the Minsk peace process, with all its faults and imperfections, and to the development of the democratic process in Ukraine. This could also give Russia a pretext for a further dangerous geographic enlargement of the conflict beyond the already war-torn Donbass area, and beyond the “statelet logic” that Russia uses to lock other countries’ freedom of action.[ii] For a large-scale operation of this kind, it would need far greater resources[iii]. But the most important question to be posed is whether Russia would attain its strategic geopolitical goals or not. Russia’s main objectives in Ukraine are essentially two: 1) in the case of the Black Sea, as already said, to boost its trade in the region, its commercial presence, through military dominance, also to the detriment of Ukraine. 2) To create a “strategic depth” a “buffer zone” to keep NATO and the EU at a distance. If Russia decided to attack the entire Black Sea coastal line, this would lead to the shutting off of Ukraine from the Black Sea and its ousting as a trading country in the Black Sea to the advantage of Russia. This, however, would not solve Russia’s security problem, as the remaining Ukrainian rump state, in order to survive, would be even more dependent on NATO, the EU and the United States. It would still share an extensive border with Russia and would inevitably be an anti-Russian revanchist state with substantial Western support. Crimea in itself can substantially increase Russian air and naval power projection in and around the Black Sea, but is not in a condition to close the security gap for Russia in relation to Ukraine and its Western allies. This means that it would still be vulnerable to a potential military attack, at least in its own perception.

Even without an open military conflict with NATO, the enlargement of a military operation – until recently officially purported by Russia as a pure internal war among Ukrainians – on Ukrainian territory would entail for Russia a complete and probably definitive freeze of economic and political relations with the EU, thus further worsening the Russian economy, already made fragile by lack of foreign direct investments (FDI) and in the technological sector, especially the extractive industry, which needs a flow of Western technology to exploit and develop new oilfields in Eastern Siberia and in the Russian Far East. These regions depend strongly on Moscow’s financial transfers and if these ended, it could in the medium-term cause dangerous centrifugal consequences for the unity and territorial integrity of the immense country. Technology transfer, especially German, will probably be needed in the future to renovate ageing Soviet facilities. In the medium and long-term, this economic and technological embargo may have even more grievous consequences for Russia’s social and political stability, including a potential collapse of the present regime, a possibility that the ruling Russian elite is definitely aware of and does not wish to face, even if it does want to show resolve and defend what it deems its core national interests; that is to keep Ukraine as neutral as possible and not as an antagonist revanchist State. Furthermore, Russia has an obvious interest in slowing down the pace of reforms in Ukraine (except for those aimed at a federalization of the country) and to achieve this it needs to increase pressure on Ukraine. At the same time it needs to increase pressure on Turkey and increase air operations in Syria,[iv] risking in this way an overstretching of its economic and even military capabilities, although Russian military intervention in Syria in the short term is mainly designed to divert the attention of the West from the Ukrainian conundrum and bring it back to the negotiation table with conditions favorable to Moscow and without political concessions to Ukraine. It is plain that Russia will have to make a strategic choice as to which front it wants to concentrate its economic and military efforts on. Its choice will probably fall on the present economic and diplomatic struggle with Turkey. It is therefore in Russia’s best interest to avoid a “strategic dispersion” of its economic and military forces that could have a negative effect on their effectiveness. If Russia were to find a settlement with Turkey, the Russian military and economic pressure on Ukraine would probably increase again. Turkey itself is progressively becoming involved in a multilateral conflict with the Kurds, in a proxy war with Iran and also in a political conflict with Russia. Should Turkey also reach an overstretching of its military and economic forces, it would be forced to concentrate on one objective at a time, maybe even by easing tensions with Russia. In the months to come, the Ukrainian will probably remain a “frozen conflict,” or a low intensity one, also depending on the intensity of the clash with Turkey over Russian military commitment in Syria. Russia’s objective is to drain funds from Ukraine and force it into a financial default, preventing the country from achieving its planned administrative reforms. Only intervention by the main European and US financial institutions (EU, International Monetary Fund), can prevent this inauspicious outcome for Ukraine. Tension with Turkey and lack of funds could lead Russia to loosening its pressure on Ukraine and hence to substantially respecting the Minsk Agreements. Ukraine’s recent attempts to restore its sovereignty by means of an electricity blockade of Crimea are clearly hopeless and doomed to fail, except in the unlikely event of Ukraine obtaining political or even military help from NATO under certain specific agreed political conditions that avoid leading to an uncontrolled and potentially very dangerous escalation of the conflict. This is the main political question that cannot now be cleared up, since NATO has presumably no intention of becoming involved militarily in such an undertaking. It is therefore very important to analyze correctly the potential political and military spillover effects of Ukraine’s blockade of Crimea, because the country may eventually need NATO involvement to some degree, at least from a political-diplomatic point of view, to solve the looming crisis[v].

[i] Ukraine,the dance of the oligarchs”



[iv] “Prisoners of war. Why it is not convenient for Russia to terminate the military operation in Syria.”

[v] – Riproduzione riservata

I due attuali protagonisti della politica mondiale....

I due attuali protagonisti della politica mondiale….

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