In the 19th century, the British and Russian empires' strategic rivalry for supremacy in Central Asia was referred to as the Great Game. The game has never really ended as Russia has continued to vie with Western powers for influence and control in Central Asia and Eastern Europe. And in recent days, the Russians may have just outplayed the West in Ukraine.
Influence in Ukraine has see-sawed since the Cold War ended with its leaders varying between those leaning toward the West and those leaning toward Russia. Both sides have invested heavily in swinging the country one way or the other. In 2010 the Russian favourite, Viktor Yanukovych, won the presidential election. Score one for Russia. But when he chose to establish closer ties with Russia rather than proceed with an agreement with the European Union, protesters flooded into the streets and ultimately drove him from office. Score one for the West. Then apparently Mr. Putin decided the game was over, flexed his muscles, and grabbed the prize.
Assuming, that is, that Crimea is the prize. The peninsula, like the rest of the country, is poor but it has the saving grace of promising gas reserves, onshore and under the Black Sea. Before now-former president Yanukovych skedaddled for Russia, Ukraine was about to sign a deal with a group of oil companies including Exxon Mobil and Royal Dutch Shell to drill off Crimea’s southwest coast.
Thus was an opportunity lost for Ukraine to achieve greater independence from Russian gas, something it dearly wants, and for the EU which shares that sentiment. For the United States, it meant a loss of various kinds, quite aside from being outplayed by Putin. The Americans would naturally like to see Europe less dependent on Russia, and no doubt it would not appreciate its oil companies being cut out of the Crimean spoils. And, not to be overlooked, Crimea is a door to the vast gas resources of Central Asia (shades of the Great Game), and the Americans must be furious to see that door close. So while Russia locks up Crimean gas, the West gets to bail out the rest of Ukraine, a corruption-riddled, bankrupt nation that will cost them billions.
Russia is highly unlikely to give up their prize and the Western powers might just as well get used to it. The only sensible approach now is to do their best to create a stable, respectful relationship between the two sides in Ukraine and between Ukraine and Russia.
And what can Canada do to help? Not much. The players that count—Russia, Ukraine, the United States and the EU, particularly Germany—will ignore us. At one time we had a reputation as a skilled negotiator and an honest broker, traits that would have made us useful, but that's all in the past. Now our Prime Minister chooses instead to rattle his little sabre.
We could, of course, offer Ukraine advice from our own experience and point out that when you nestle beside a major power, sometimes to get by you just have to kiss up. Ukraine's acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, should prepare to pucker.