The British Royal Navy destroyer HMS Defender arrives in Georgia's Black Sea port of Batumi on June 26 for joint exercises with the NATO-aspirant country's coast guard, days after Russia claimed it had fired warning shots at the warship in the coastal waters of Crimea. Photo: AFP / Seyran Baoryan

The 20th century saw the collapse of three major empires, the Habsburg, the Ottoman, and the Soviet empire.

The collapse of the Ottoman Empire ushered into the Middle East an era of instability and conflict that endures to this day. The collapse of the Habsburg Empire created the conditions that led to the Second World War. And as for the collapse of the Soviet empire, it ushered in a degree of global instability of massive proportions that we are barely at the inception of.

The new Russian empire

The creation of the Soviet Union in 1922 saw the return to the Russian fold of the various republics that had broken away when the czarist regime fell in 1917. Thus the Soviet Union was a Union only in name. In reality it was the Russian empire, with Russia at its core, Moscow as its capital and the Communist Party as its supreme leader.

The collapse of Nazi Germany enabled this Russian empire to extend its dominance to the countries of Eastern Europe, which became part of its colonial realm. However, what distinguished this Russian empire from its imperial predecessors was its dual makeup. While it was an extension of the Russian state it was also the harbinger of an ideology that laid claim to a universal appeal.

Within this perspective, the Russian empire under its “Soviet” label achieved a global reach through its foreign subsidiaries, namely the numerous national communist parties throughout the world that professed loyalty to their mother party, the Communist Party of the USSR.

The end result was that the collapse of the Soviet Union was two implosions in one: the collapse of the Russian empire on the one hand and the disintegration of the ideology that stood at its core, namely the Marxist model, on the other.

The Russian state that emerged from the ashes of the Soviet Union was a shattered entity. Never particularly efficient except for its security apparatus, the former Soviet state machinery practically collapsed, leaving the country in a condition of semi-anarchy.

The only redeeming feature to emerge from this state of turmoil was the successful repatriation to Russia of the numerous nuclear warheads that the Soviet Union had positioned in its former republics, providing employment to the thousands of scientists who had been part of the Soviet nuclear establishment. 

Significantly, the denuclearization process was strongly supported by the United States.

Europe redefined

The collapse of the Soviet Union left the US both economically and militarily as the only superpower on the planet. In parallel to the urgency represented by the denuclearization program, which successfully ensured that no nuclear warheads fell into the wrong hands, Washington was now confronted with two options regarding its future relations with Russia.

The first would be based on the assumption that within the coming half-century or more Russia would emerge from its despondency as a regional power with a strong national identity and a global nuclear reach. Such a power would have traditional security concerns resulting in an aversion to having hostile entities on its borders.

In practical terms this would have entailed creating a buffer belt of neutral states on the Swiss or Finnish model between the European Union and Russia that would have included the Baltic States, Belarus and Ukraine. In parallel, Crimea, with its Russian population, would have been returned to Russia and some agreement would have been found regarding the predominantly Russian Donets Basin.

Assuming a best-case scenario, the end of the Cold War would have morphed into a 2+2 global balance of power: two superpowers, China and the United States, and two European regional powers, namely Russia and Western Europe, with a buffer zone of neutral states in-between.

There is no evidence that such a scenario was ever contemplated in Washington. Indeed, the inability to think long-term compounded by what was seen as a unique opportunity to degrade what was left of its former antagonist proved difficult to resist. This was not necessarily the result of a long-term, well-thought-out policy but rather of a drift on the path of least resistance compounded by the irresistible urge to act.

The end result was that Washington embarked, as regards Russia, on what can be termed a “forward” policy, a policy that was enabled by a lack of vision and unity of the core European countries that did not come to terms with the fact that their security, unlike what happened during the Cold War, no longer depended on the United States.

Thus what could have been a bilateral relation between the core EU states and Russia was upended into becoming a subsidiary European component of the relationship between Moscow and Washington.

Thus the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which had been conceived as a Western counterweight to the Soviet Union’s military presence, was not only preserved but expanded to include the Baltic States and the nations of Eastern Europe formerly under Soviet domination. 

The expansion of NATO, as well as the increased American forays in Georgia and, more importantly, in Ukraine, set off alarm bells in Moscow. In a historical environment where paranoia was the rule, the expansion of NATO could not be interpreted other than an attempt by Washington to take advantage of Russia’s prostration to surround it with an alliance of hostile states.

The cornerstone of this endeavor was Ukraine and, more specifically, Crimea.

The Crimea saga

Crimea, which was originally part of Russia, was transferred to Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev in 1954 in essence for administrative reasons. The transfer passed generally unnoticed, and the Soviet Black Sea fleet based in Crimea continued to operate as usual.

The accession of Ukraine to independence in December 1991 saw the former Soviet Black Sea fleet divided between Russia and Ukraine. However, the fleet’s base in Sebastopol, Crimea’s capital, was now in Ukraine. This left the Russian Black Sea fleet without a base.

In 1997 Ukraine agreed to lease the Sevastopol naval base to Russia for a period of 20 years, which in 2010 was extended until 2047.

In the eyes of the Russian leadership the inroads made by the United States in Central Europe, the steady deterioration of the relations between Moscow and Washington and the growth of anti-Russian sentiment in Ukraine ensured that it was only a matter of time before Ukraine would become part of NATO. With the lease of Sebastopol due to expire in 2047, the end result would be to turn the Black Sea into an American lake.

For the leadership in Moscow who, unlike their American counterparts, focused on the long term, this represented both a security threat to the core of the Russian state and the loss of its access to the Mediterranean – a concern that was further amplified by Washington’s attempt to overthrow Russia’s Syrian ally.

Thus, ultimately, viewed in a global balance-of-power perspective, Russian President Vladimir Putin had no alternative but to annex Crimea in 2014 even if the process did not fully conform with international law.

In local terms, the annexation hardly raised any dust. The population of Crimea was in essence Russian, had little empathy for Ukraine, and all the public opinion polls indicated that it approved of the move. Internationally, however, the reaction was cataclysmic. 

The annexation, which was dubbed “illegal,” became the cornerstone of both the EU’s and America’s policy toward Russia, with one caveat: While there are concerns on both sides, these are in essence asymmetric. For NATO and the United States the status of Crimea is a subsidiary issue. For Moscow it is a major and ultimately non-negotiable security concern. 

Holding the US/NATO/EU relationship with Russia hostage to Crimea is, for the western Europeans, a poor proposition. Holding the same relationship hostage to the likes of the Baltic states, Poland and Ukraine, which for historical reasons harbor a lingering resentment against all things Russian, is hardly a better one.

Within this context the dispatching by NATO on July 23 of a British guided-missile destroyer off the coast of Crimea with an American aircraft observing Russia’s electronic countermeasures leaves unanswered the question as to whether its purpose was only to gather intelligence or to force the EU further into an American-led confrontation with Russia.

With tensions in the Black Sea now running high, German Chancellor Angela Merkel struck a chord when she stated that in this new era the world needed to be shaped more by a set of multilateral measures than by an exclusive dialogue between the Russian and American presidents.

As the crisis concerning Crimea endures, albeit undefined, one can assume there is, somewhere, somehow, a red line that is not to be crossed. The problem is that none of the contenders seem to know exactly where the red line is. Not unlike the situation with Taiwan.

Alexander Casella

Alexander Casella PhD has taught and worked as a journalist for the likes of Le Monde, The Times, The New York Times, Die Zeit, The Guardian, and Swiss radio and TV, writing primarily on China and Vietnam. In 1973 he joined the UNHCR, serving, among others, as head of the East Asia Section and director for Asia and Oceania. He then served 18 years as representative in Geneva of the International Center for Migration Policy Development.