According to two academics at the University of Kansas, Russia’s bellicosity to the West and rapprochement to the the East are not coincidental, but rather reflect a conscious decision by Russian leaders that future success can only be found in turning away from Europe and toward the East.
Shannon O’Lear, professor of geography at the University of Kansas and doctoral candidate John Biersack analyzed Russia’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea and the 30-year, $400 billion natural gas deal it signed with China less than 60 days later. The men argue say that taken together, these two major actions make clear Russia’s intentions to shift to the East.
Their paper “The Geopolitics of Russia’s Annexation of Crimea: Narratives, Identity, Silences, and Energy” was recently published in the journal Eurasian Geography and Economics.
Russia’s rationale for annexing Crimea
Crimea has loomed large in Russia’s geopolitical and historical imagination for decades. Putin’s propaganda machine has been pushing the narrative that the Crimean people didn’t support the Kiev government and was threatened by fascists, harking back to strong negative imagery of Nazi control of Crimea during the Second World War. Russia also falsely claims that more than 95% of local population was in favor of seceding from Ukraine.
“The justification that Russia is giving for annexing Crimea is that it has always been a part of Russia, the land was settled by Russians, and it is a sacred space for Russia,” noted Biersack, who spent a year in Ukraine on a Fulbright award. “Essentially, it is seen by the Russian government as an historical accident that Crimea is not part of Russia.”
Biersack also noted that Russia has at least two other reasons for keeping control of Crimea: strengthening the position of the Black Sea Fleet and the annexation of Ukraine’s maritime territory with its major gas and oil reserves.
“Russia now controls a large amount of Ukraine’s energy potential, which means Ukraine will continue to be dependent on Russia for its energy needs,” Biersack pointed out. “And asserting control over the Black Sea Fleet’s bases means Russia may now develop their forces without Ukrainian approval.”
Chinese gas deal capstone of Russian move to the East
The KU academics argue that the major Chinese gas deal Putin signed shortly after annexing Crimea reinforces Russia’s global energy clout. Despite, the tough terms demanded by the Chinese, the deal was framed in very positive terms as a critical development for Russia and its Asian neighbors.
“Russia needs energy customers. So it makes a lot of sense for it to shift eastward and have a huge gas deal take attention away from the worsening relationship to the west both for foreign audiences and domestic Russian audiences,” Biersack explained.
Russia’s relations with the West continue to worsen after the invasion of Crimean and continued aggression in Eastern Ukraine. Given, increased Russian military activity in Europe, the U.S. and NATO have increased military exercises and increased reserves to counter Russia’s actions and reassure allies.
O’Lear, who studies energy issues in the South Caucasus and Caspian area pipelines, points out that the gas deal is another bond in Russia and Chinese relations. “Pipelines are permanent fixtures. They symbolize a long-lasting relationship because you are spending so much money building it,” O’Lear noted. “It requires that you fill a pipeline to a certain capacity, or you can’t make money. You have to have the resources and commodities at one end and the market on the other end.”