On March 2nd, US president Donald Trump signed 1-year extensions to Executive Orders 13660-13662, which had been signed by his predecessor Barack Obama during March 2014 in reaction to the process of Crimean re-unification with Russia. For the past 5 years, these sanctions have effectively embargoed the Crimean peninsula.
3 days previously, US Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations Kurt Volker had reiterated the US government’s stance in support of the Kiev junta’s position in what it chooses to see as an ongoing territorial dispute, and had vowed to toughen the sanctions-regime, with a view to furthering “negotiations” with Russia concerning the status of Crimea. Speaking to an audience which included Ukrainian prime minister Volodymyr Groysman in Kiev on February 27th, Volker had given assurances that the United States was “here for the long haul.”
Of course, everyone is perfectly well aware that there is no chance whatsoever that Crimea can be re-integrated into Ukraine. On that point, neither the White House nor the State Department are under any illusions. From the Russian point of view, the geo-strategic fundamentals which make Russian administration of Crimea an imperative are clearly understood in Washington. Volker knows that Russia’s territorial claim to Crimea is not “negotiable.”
Most fundamentally, the maintenance of Russia’s Black Sea fleet is a geo-strategic imperative for Russia. It is an existential geo-strategic question.
Washington’s counter-move is strategically logical in this regard – knowing full well that the Russian government has absolutely no choice except to maintain its territorial claim on the Crimean peninsula, not least because it is also a matter of principle for both the Russian government and the Russian population alike, the American strategy is to attempt to maximize the economic cost of Russian governance of Crimea. The purpose is not to disincentivize Russian governance of Crimea, as all parties concerned understand that the re-integration of Crimea with Russia had become an imperative for Russia as the Ukrainian crisis unfolded. The central point is simply to use any possible pretext to place as much systemic strain as possible on the Russian economy. Framing Crimea as a zone of territorial dispute is simply a pretext for economic warfare.
3 years ago, I believed that, gradually, there would be international recognition of Crimea’s territorial status as part of the Russian Federation – I envisaged this recognition as forthcoming over a period of 5 to 10 years. Now, I take a more pessimistic view, because the indicators are that the Crimean issue is part of a much broader economic war of attrition.
The continuation of political instability in Ukraine, and the maintenance of a Kiev government which continues to be pathologically hostile to Russia, is also a key element in this economic war of attrition. During winter-spring 2014, the Americans actually held out some hope of being able to transform Ukraine into an economically profitable colony. Such hopes evaporated quickly as the scale and depth of Ukraine’s social and economic dysfunction became clear – even the New York Times referred to the Ukrainian economy as “a black hole of corruption and waste.”
So as soon as it became clear that Ukraine could not be a profitable target for American economic colonization, the Obama administration switched to Plan B – namely, continued destabilization for the sake of destabilization.
This strategy makes amoral sense once we bear in mind Zbigniew Brzezinski’s statement in 1997 that “without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire.”
16 years before the Ukrainian political crisis erupted, Brzezinski had identified 3 states as geo-strategic “pivots” on the Eurasian chessboard – Iran, Turkey and Ukraine.
2014 had Brzezinski’s fingerprints all over it.
The United States’ second-highest priority in Ukraine was to curtail the Eurasian Customs Union’s prospects for development. However, the first priority of the United States with regard to the Ukrainian crisis is to use the crisis in order to inhibit Russian-German economic integration. In 2015, the Stratfor geo-strategic analyst George Friedman argued that, since the late 19th century, the United States has feared the prospect of the economic synthesis of Germany’s technological resources with Russia’s human and natural resources. From the American perspective, Ukraine’s geography made it the perfect lever with which to disrupt this synthesis. The Crimean embargo is only a small component of that broader strategy, but a significant one insofar as the Crimean issue provides the United States with a quasi-legal pretext for continued economic hostilities, devised to inhibit Eurasian economic integration.
The Americans certainly did not get everything they wanted in Ukraine, given its economic meltdown and social and political chaos making it Europe’s first de facto failed state and an almost uniquely unattractive target for American investment. However, we should not be so quick to laugh at American diplomatic incompetence. Jokes about chocolate-chip cookies overlook the point that, even after the secession of Crimea, Donetsk and Lugansk, the Americans still got a lot of what they wanted in Ukraine. The Eurasian Customs Union’s prospects for growth have been curtailed, a political, economic and geographical wedge has been driven between Russia and Germany, and a failed state has been created in Russia’s “limitrophe,” thereby presenting future developmental challenges to Russia. The game which the Americans are playing is not called “Ukraine.” The game is called “Eurasia.”