Return of the Great Game or the Cold War?

Is the Crimea crisis a sign of a return to the Great Game or the Cold War?

The crisis in the Crimea Autonomous Republic of Ukraine, wrought by the recent fall of Ukraine’s pro-Russian president and subsequent introduction of Russian troops in Crimea, revives memories of the 19th century’s Great Game, which pitted the Russian and British Empires against one another for control in Central Asia, and of the Cold War, in which the Soviet Union (USSR) faced off against the United States for global influence.

Crimea, ironically where Russian czarist troops fought bitter battles against British, French and Ottoman forces in the mid-19th century for control over the Ottoman Empire’s diminishing territories, is again the flash point for a clash of global powers.

The distinguishing factor between the Great Game and the Cold War is that in the latter, the sides recognized that direct confrontation — as had been the case in the Great Game and the mid-19th century Crimean War — would have meant open and direct military conflict with substantial if not catastrophic losses for both sides.

Instead, the USSR and the US engaged in a great political game, drawing sides from like-minded countries, building large and increasingly sophisticated arsenals that made open conflict all the more unthinkable.

They squared off in venues from the United Nations (UN) to the Olympics to score political points, wildly dispensing foreign aid to potential clients, and employing surrogates to fight ideological battles — for example, the North Vietnamese against the US in Vietnam and Muslim rebel mujahedeen against the Soviets in Afghanistan.

It is not yet clear whether Moscow will be able to count on much international support for its decision to send troops into the sovereign territory of neighboring Ukraine. Few countries in the world, despite differing political systems, countenance overt invasion of another sovereign state absent a genuinely threatening provocation.

Indeed, Russia and its UN Security Council voting partner, China, both objected vehemently to the US threat to send cruise missiles and bomb-laden aircraft to Syria to destroy that nation’s chemical weapons sites, after repeated use of those weapons against Syrian civilians. Their argument was that it represented an unwarranted external interference in the affairs of a sovereign nation.

Now, however, Russia has dispatched troops to Ukraine where neither its sizeable naval base, nor its admittedly majority Russian population faces imminent threat.

Much has been written about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s alleged intent to reassert some neo-Soviet influence around the world and specifically on Russia’s immediate periphery. Examples include Russia’s actions to protect Russian majorities in Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions of Georgia in 2008; its strong support for Bashar al-Assad in the three-year-long Syrian Civil War; the reestablishing of military ties with US stalwarts Egypt and Saudi Arabia; and now an overt attempt to preserve the client-state status of Ukraine.

That argument takes on added weight when factored against the US' apparent withdrawal from many places on the world stage: removal of troops from Iraq; an expected withdrawal from Afghanistan later this year; thwarted action against Syria; negotiation, which some see as capitulation, with Iran to attempt to diffuse that long-running conflict; and failure to confront Chinese provocations in the Western Pacific against Japan, the Philippines, and other US Asia allies.

How Can the West Respond?

Direct military confrontation between Russia and the West is as unthinkable today as it was during the Cold War. Unlike the Great Game and even more than in the Cold War, economics and energy are likely to play the most crucial role in this latest iteration of the contest of Russia vs. the West.

Absent a direct military threat, neither the US, nor any of its NATO allies will consider escalating this conflict to global status by pitting their forces against Russia’s. It would make little strategic sense and provide no long-term solution to the question of Russia and Ukraine’s integration into the West, which ought to be the ultimate goal.

While every diplomatic action should be taken to allow Russia to save face and withdraw of its own accord, the US and European Union (EU) will nevertheless have to prepare for stronger measures. And they can make Russia’s Ukrainian advances extremely costly.

Actions that would be quite costly to Russia include: suspending trade and other economic agreements; imposing high duties on Russian goods; implementing US and EU sanctions on Russian banks, businesses and other entities; freezing bank accounts and other assets in the US and EU; limiting Russia’s participation in international events, especially those with an economic component; and restricting travel of certain Russians.

As seen in the Iranian case, US Treasury Department sanctions, especially when coupled with those of the EU, can be devastatingly effective in constraining weapons proliferation; they have been similarly valuable elsewhere in combating terrorism, drug trafficking and money laundering.

Even politically symbolic moves such as a NATO declaration of condemnation and a motion for a UN Security Council vote of sanction — which of course would fail — would further embarrass Russia internationally. Beyond merely boycotting the upcoming G8 in Sochi, the US and its allies could convene a G8-less-one alternative.

Condemnatory declarations from other world bodies, including ASEAN, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and the Organization of American States, would also put Moscow on notice that its behavior is contrary to world peace, order and security.

Much-Needed Support for Ukraine

As Washington ultimately succeeded in doing so in the Cold War, the US and EU could outspend Russia, namely by ensuring Ukraine receives all the economic support it needs.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has estimated that Ukraine will need more than $35 billion in grants, loans and guarantees to begin to right its economy by the end of 2015. Both the US and EU, working together with the IMF and the World Bank, must step up to ensure Ukraine gets what it needs to exit this historically critical period successfully.

On energy, the West faces a major challenge. Europe relies heavily on imported Russian natural gas and oil. How far, then, is the EU willing to go before jeopardizing its Russian source?

This is where EU member states, the US, and oil and gas exporters of the Middle East must be willing to make tough decisions. The only short-term relief might come from the Middle East. But it would be insufficient if Russia responded with a cut in natural gas exports to Europe.

Longer term, the US could accelerate its development and export of natural gas in order to help relieve Europe. But the EU will have to look closely at its own policies on coal, nuclear power, stepped-up oil and gas exploration, and accelerated development of renewables to wean itself off Russian energy.

We can expect the Russians to wield the energy weapon as forcefully with Europe as they did with Ukraine. There may be little or no avoiding the energy bite to the EU economy, if the latter decides to respond aggressively to the Ukraine crisis.

But a Russian move to cut oil and gas exports to Europe, its largest hard-currency export client, would also carry a huge cost for the energy-export dependent Russian economy.

And Then There Is China

Could this be China’s first big opportunity to step forward on the world political stage? A move to condemn and, even if only mildly, to signal its disapproval of Russia’s Ukraine gambit would not be as costly as it would be for Europe and could still preserve China’s independence from the West, with whose economies it is inextricably linked.

Such a move would give Beijing enormous clout and leverage in future dealings with the US and the West. It would introduce a major power into this version of the Great Game that was never seen in its 19th or 20th century counterparts.

Any one of the aforementioned actions might be seen as exacerbating Russia’s sense of humiliation after the collapse of the Soviet Union, or paranoia over perceived US and Western intentions of surrounding and punishing Russia.

Therefore, such acts by the West might trigger even more severe Russian actions. That is a risk. But Russia and Putin have erred. They have invaded the sovereign territory of another nation without any apparent justifying threat. The international community cannot allow such violations of international law.

But neither should the West seek to create another divisive and self-defeating confrontation that undermines world stability for another half century.

Diplomacy failed in resolving the issues of the Great Game. In the Cold War, diplomacy and other means grudgingly became the weapons of choice for the antagonists, who recognized the futility of military conflict, to meet their interests, avoid direct confrontation, and ultimately bring that war to a peaceful end without either of them firing a shot on the other.

That must be the objective of the current crisis as well.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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