BY: ROBERT SERVICE
Vladimir Putin and his foreign minister are perhaps beginning to appreciate their geopolitical blunder in Crimea.
Russian school textbooks praise Peter the Great as an industrialiser and cultural visionary who turned his country into a European power. Russia became feared but also respected by its neighbours, and Peter is the official czar-hero of Russian history.
Vladimir V. Putin himself is much more like another czar, Nicholas I, who stumbled into military conflict with the British and French and rejected calls for the basic reforms needed to enable Russia to compete with the world powers of the day. Nicholas had a cramped perspective and arrogant personality. Always attentive to the armed forces and the secret services, he overlooked the broader necessity to modernise Russia’s economy and society. His country paid dearly for this when his army was humbled in the Crimean War of 1853-56.
Russian foreign policy under Putin displays an equally gross lack of foresight. On Ukraine, he made much of the threat to ethnic Russians from West Ukrainian “fascists” who were influencing political developments in Kiev. It is true that Ukraine’s right-wing coalition known as the Right Sector includes some decidedly insalubrious extremists. But not every partisan who waged the war of independence against the Soviet Army in the 1950s was a fascist; and by seizing the Crimean peninsula, Putin has set up a classic temptation for Russian patriots to extend to the whole of Ukraine.
One-eighth of the Crimean population, moreover, consists of Tatars, whom Joseph Stalin deported to Central Asia in 1944 and who were allowed to return to their native peninsula only in the late 1980s. They largely abstained from voting in the recent referendum on incorporation in the Russian Federation. Most are Muslims, and some of their young people could now become recruits for a jihad against Russian imperialism.
By snatching 4.5 per cent of Ukrainian territory, Putin has performed the unlikely feat of wrecking his own dream of forming a “Eurasian Union” under Russia’s leadership. He once planned to keep President Viktor F. Yanukovych as his puppet ruler in Kiev. Now Yanukovych is a refugee somewhere in Russia, and Ukraine’s government is strengthening cooperation with the European Union.
This is a disaster for Putin’s foreign policy. Although he is concealing this from the public through his control of TV channels, he will not be able to fool all the people continued…