Russian history, worldview, drives Crimea invasion - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Tuesday 11 March 2014

Russian history, worldview, drives Crimea invasion

NATO's steady expansion has inflamed Russia's historical sense of siege

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 12th Mar 14

Russia’s march into the Crimean Peninsula in Ukraine at the end of February, and a planned Crimean referendum on Sunday on whether it should accede to Russia, has outraged western capitals. Russia faces mild economic sanctions, threats of visa restrictions, asset freezes and possible expulsion from the G-8. On March 5, the US increased military cooperation with Poland and the Baltic republics. By way of a military response, this is as far as Washington can go.

Yet Russia’s Crimean intervention was entirely predictable. The psyche and mindset of Russian strategists, shaped by four centuries of European history, made it inevitable that Moscow would draw the line at Ukraine after a quarter century of unrelenting NATO and EU expansion towards Russia’s frontiers.

The Russian psyche, forged in the fires of history, sees European expansionism as a primary threat. Every century, beginning from the 1700s, an expansionist Western European power has bloodily invaded Russia, twice advancing up to Moscow. In 1709, an invasion by Sweden, then Europe’s pre-eminent power, was defeated at Poltava by Tsar Peter the Great, who established the Russian empire. In 1812, Napoleon’s “Grand Army” of 600,000 soldiers actually occupied Moscow before capitulating to fatigue, hunger and the Russian winter.

Then, between 1941-1944, Hitler’s armies invaded the Soviet Union in the defining campaign of World War II, and the bloodiest in human history. Millions of Russians died in a cruel, scorched-earth withdrawal to Moscow and in the Red Army’s push back all the way to Berlin.

As a Stanford University professor, Condoleezza Rice, wrote in 1986: “(T)he battle against the Germans became a struggle for Mother Russia, a struggle that had been waged many times in Russian history.”

Determined that future invasions would not touch Mother Russia’s soil again, Joseph Stalin established his iron-fisted control over a swathe of Eastern Europe, including Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and half of Germany. The Warsaw Pact between Russia and these allies created a security buffer for Russia and, for 45 years, maintained a balance with NATO.

This equilibrium was shattered with the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1989-90. Mikhail Gorbachev recounts that President George Bush (Senior) assured him then that NATO would not expand eastwards. Yet NATO did exactly that, giving membership to East Germany in 1990; to Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic in 1999; to Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in 2004; and to Croatia and Albania in 2009. Today, NATO has 28 members, up from 16 in 1990.

With NATO now at Russia’s doorstep; with US bases created in Central Asia; and with US missile defences possible in the Czech Republic and Poland, Moscow drew its first red line at Georgia. After the pro-democracy “Rose Revolution” in 2003, and blandishments to Georgia to join NATO, Russia invaded in 2008.

Now Moscow has drawn an equally firm line at Ukraine, which was moving towards NATO and EU membership. After earlier creating de facto independence for two pro-Russian regions of Georgia --- Abkhazia and South Ossetia --- Moscow is now set to sever Crimea from Ukraine.

Henry Kissinger wrote in the Washington Post last week: “The West must understand that, to Russia, Ukraine can never be just a foreign country. Russian history began in (Ukraine in) what was called Kievan-Rus. The Russian religion spread from there. Ukraine has been part of Russia for centuries, and their histories were intertwined before then… The Black Sea Fleet — Russia’s means of projecting power in the Mediterranean — is based by long-term lease in Sevastopol, in Crimea. Even such famed dissidents as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Joseph Brodsky insisted that Ukraine was an integral part of Russian history and, indeed, of Russia.”

Since 1990, Russia has tolerated NATO and EU expansion, largely because it did not have the resources to counter it. Now a hydrocarbon fuelled economy and President Vladimir Putin’s nationalistic politics are driving a tougher response.

The Crimean peninsula’s complex relationship with Russia gives Moscow the excuse to intervene. During World War II, Stalin deported the entire population of 200,000 Crimean Tatar Muslims as punishment for allegedly collaborating with the Nazis during Hitler’s invasion of the Crimea. Their place was taken by large numbers of Russian army veterans, transforming Crimea’s demography in favour of ethnic Russians. In 1954, Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khruschev, himself a Ukrainian, gifted the Crimean peninsula to Ukraine.

After Russia’s easy takeover of Crimea, Moscow faces vulnerabilities too. The Tatars, who have returned to Crimea, constitute a danger point with Tatar leaders warning of radical Islamist mobilisation amongst them. Moscow’s worst scenario would be of Crimea becoming another Chechnya.

Furthermore, with Russia a part of the globalized economy, and doing $460 billion worth of business with Europe alone, Moscow is no longer economically insulated as it was during the Cold War. The Ukraine crisis has hit the Russian stock market and the value of the ruble, both of which have fallen by 10 per cent. Even with its leverage as the world’s largest exporter of hydrocarbons and industrial metals, Moscow knows it can be hurt by economic and social reprisals.

In 1923, Stalin had written that the capitalists would surely attack, and that a “ring of brother states” was needed to safeguard the revolution. Those states are now in NATO and Soviet-style socialism is dead. Even so, Moscow has signalled that NATO and EU will be stopped from entering what it still regards as Russia.


  1. Nato expansionist policies have led to greater insecurity of Russia. If US does its okay but it becomes evil Russia does. Why US can't do the same with China afterall it has illegally occupied Tibet. Let's see if US has the b@££$ to do it.

  2. 1. India must learn from Russian History of 400 yrs and exert pressure to re est primacy in Afgan region post 2014.
    2. The descendents of Nadirshahs & Abdalis must be kept away and peninsular boarders pushed back beyond bolan pass and Hindukush.
    3. Like stalin deporting Tatars and settling veterans in cremia , the baltistan, hunza, Kashmir and other frontiers need to be SETTLED.

  3. Col Shukla,
    I am not surprised as west's (Ango/saxon) silent but steady march to gobble up Russia this way or that. I guess the reason is rooted in the determined Slavic identity uniqueness vis-a vis what we call Europeans.

    Anglo/saxon (western Europeans) and their inheritor state - USA still Russians as brutes, unsophisticated and of a lesser breed. See the portrayal of Russians in western movies.

    The fact that Slavs chose eastern Orthodox X'nity as there state religion was driven by a desire to maintain their unique identity , separate from Saxons.

    West sees rise of radical islam as just an irritant and occasionally uses Sunni Fundamentalists as tool in their objective of global hegemony. Russia with its abundant resources and lands, small population base remains a target thwarted only by stubborn slavic resistance to their designs. It has happened in past many times when Ottoman turks and British aligned to fight a bloody war at crimea with Russia, then tied down Russians in Afghanistan and let later US let their wahabi attack dogs create hell in Chechanya.

    Watch out China & India too.


    Since the current situation has dropped down to a level of each country be it USA, EU or UK...are willing to use powers within their capacity to hurt Russian economy...financially, morally etc. Considering Russia as still the second most powerful country militarily and Putin at the helm of will be motivated to utilise what is in its capacity to hurt back those pseudo enemy countries. My theory says it will start with Gasonomics...goes to middle east in the form of Iran etc. And if Russia feels more threatened than it will go all the way down to offensive measures...extreme can be a war between Europe & Russia...whr both might perish...and US will have to dig deeper to find new allies some where else...although a little too aggressive...which some might say far fetched...but bullying Russia is neither a solution nor advisable!

  5. Dear Ajai,

    History (His Story which usually means the Victor's story IMO) can be viewed through many lenses. The current crisis can be viewed through a better lens if you look at the characters involved.

    What connects all these folks? Truth sometimes is way stranger than fiction.

    Arseniy Yatsenyuk – Interim PM of Ukraine
    Victoria Jane Nuland - Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs at the United States Department of State
    Delta / “The Blue Helmets of Maidan”
    Victor Pinchuk & Dmytro Firtash. What is their connection with Arseniy Yatsenyuk?

    Dr. Olga Bohomolets on Maidan snipers and what did she say to Urmas Paet?


    Why is Putin scared of oil under $60 and natgas under $6?
    Note the Putin choke point happens to be in Ukraine.

    The following are connected to choking Putin's hold on Russia.

    Follow the money ... it is always the prime motivator and far easier to track.

  6. The EU is completely broke. They will mouth platitudes and will do nothing for they really can't do jack. Meanwhile the French Marxists at the IMF will impose austerity on whatever is left of west Ukraine and cause an economic implosion. The best thing that can happen to Ukraine is a peaceful split of the country, with the east going back to Russia and the west going it's own way. Unfortunately for the average Ukrainians, this is unlikely to happen without Russia forcibly taking the east. Ukraine is the trigger that sets into motion a lot of things going into 2017/2020.

  7. Ajai,

    Excellent overview, especially for those of us still just learning about Russian history.
    I have a Ukrainian friend - a complete nobody, BTW - who remarked, around Feb 23, 'if this ['revolution'] continues we must assume Russia will respond.' Astonishingly, a day or two after that, an article appeared in TIME, and US officials were quoted elsewhere, insisting that Russia would NOT intervene.
    The Kissinger comment was spot on: Kiev Rus was indeed the proto-Russian state, Moscow came later. The eastern and southern parts of Ukraine remain heavily Russian in language & sympathy.
    Other issues:
    [1] It was the deposed president's refusal, under Russian pressure, to join the EU that sparked the Maidan riots in Kiev. What exactly is the EU offering Ukraine that made it worthwhile for Kiev to suffer Moscow's inevitable cut-off of economic aid [oil & gas subsidies, loans etc] ?
    [2] As a right-wing American nut, I pay close attn to National Review, a political journal that for decades has been in the forefront of Euro-skepticism. It troubles me when writers who have profoundly influenced my dim view of Europe suddenly jump aboard the pro-EU bandwagon vis a vis Ukraine. How good a long-term bet is Europe, for Ukraine? My Russophone pen pal echoes widespread worries that prices will go up at home, and Ukrainian doctors & engineers will wind up scrubbing toilets in Cologne.
    [3] There is a huge ethnolinguistic and sectarian schism between east & west Ukraine. Westerners are more likely to speak Ukrainian and spurn Russian, more likely to worship in 'eastern rite Greek' churches that look to Rome, and more likely to harbor a deep-seated [and understandable] antipathy to Moscow and a corresponding affinity to the west.
    So why - when even my blue collar pen-pal can see what the Russian reaction must be - why did Polish, German and other European officials deliberately and systematically pour gasoline on these ancient ethnolinguistic rivalries by supporting the Maidan rioters? They LIVE there. Did they not understand what was going to happen?
    This whole uproar was entirely predictable, needless and easily avoided. 'Europe' [whatever that means] bears most of the blame for provoking it.
    The likely result is that Russia will wind up in de facto control of most of Ukraine's agriculture, industry and seaports. 'Europe's' role will be reduced to developing a few ski areas in the Carpathians.

  8. If India wants to be respected, she must stand up with other democratic free nations and condemn Russian aggression and the brutal dictator Putin.


    Thank god...for heavens sake somebody is standing upto the hypocrite Americans. The amount of terror devastation is far more smaller when compared to what America has gifted the world. Let me start with Iraq...there were no weapons of mass destruction, country completely destroyed. Afghanistan...nothing except a lost battle was achieved...and that too by putting unarmed population of afghan locals as well as American troops beared the brunt of sacrifice. While everybody appreciated including me about Osama being killed...but the above three countries are no longer in the breach of sovereignty. France feels Libya was no breach...but both US and EU feel Ukraine are a breach...why...because it is not US or EU breaching the rights of countries...hence it testamounts to a breach of all international law.

    Pragmatically...Russia keeps crimea...come what may...but in the events of war declared by US and EU over the first step form of sanctions...the next step should be taking over of another part of Ukraine...namely east ukraine. Any further provocations by US or EU...a complete take over of Ukraine...with complete buildup rrady for enhancing the same to some smaller countries...the ones who have deployed anti russia arms from Nato or US. Next step should be any provoked attack on any of the russian allies...namely syria, iran etc....sud mean a full scale missile launch threat on all the countries trying to do so.

    With this the EU...will be on its knees and traveling bagpack to Washington...pleading pls save us or do something...US only sides inwinnable battle...this will become too costly for them to get dirty into.

    Third step...Russia to negotiate...limiting Nato to its original size...demand compensation for its losses...or threaten a full scale offensive...which neither the EU or US has any appetite for. Brics to be made exremely strong...that any future such thwarts of threats or economic sanctions from EU or US...sud mean...Brics to trade except any currency but not USD or EUR...this will clarify the strength enjoyed by EU...and the limited options US has in the world which has become far bigger than their estimates!

  10. Here we come full-circle to the purpose of creation of an organization called "United Nations" post WW2. I personally feel, and I have heard similar views from others, that UN is a tool in the hands of permanent members and is totally useless for non-permanent members. A conflict between WEST and EAST will certainly put this defunct organization to an end, in its current form atleast. A few possibilities are BRICS will either be a rival org to US-EU dominated UN, or there will be a period of "Dark-ages" with no global authority and weaker states are bullied by stronger ones, as shown directly by PRC. The question for India is, what is its "domain" of influence? If this does not include Pakistan then what do we aspire?

  11. When will India kick the Chinese out of Tibet?

  12. I believe the article could highlight more dimensions of the present issue by recounting US promises to the USSR when guarantees were made to the USSR that NATO wouldn't expand one inch eastwards, however with the steady expansion of NATO they have now come right up to Russia's doorstep. Throw in the missile defence shield plans and violation of NATO commitments to the USSR to not station troops or further armaments in any of the newer member states and one begins to see why Russia has reacted so sharply.

  13. What you call European expansionism started much earlier - as far as in 1610 the Polish Army coquered Moscow. Poland and Lithuania (forming a Commonwealth)at that time was a great & powerful country. You may read more at Wikipedia and Russia just started to become a big power.

  14. Russia did not invade Georgia . Only after being boosted by the neocons and a probable nato did Georgia invade south Ossetia . Russia responded appropriately. Also.. India should side with her old ally and spurn these hypocrites that bring "freedom" via airstrike.


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