If there is one thing you can say about Russian President Vladimir Putin, it’s that while he’s not always straightforward about his whereabouts (for 10 days), he’s straightforward about geopolitics.
Indeed, about a year after carving Crimea from Kiev, Moscow is making waves in the ice floes at the top of the world in the Arctic with massive military maneuvers.
Be sure to take the lesson from what happened in Ukraine: If you mess with Russia’s perceived national interests along its periphery, be prepared to pay a steep price.
According to press reports, Putin admitted in a recently aired Russian television documentary that he decided to take Crimea shortly after Ukraine’s pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovych was forced from office by protests.
If you recall, Yanukovych caused an uproar when he decided to move ahead with an economic integration deal with the European Union, or EU, instead of one with Russia.
Moscow likely saw the Ukraine-EU pact as the first domino to fall in a strategic chain reaction that would have led from economic ties with the EU to political and then security openings to the West.
Since Russia believes the West, especially America, was behind the Yanukovych “coup,” an unchained Ukraine would eventually join — horror of horrors — NATO, leading to a bevy of U.S. military bases in the former Soviet republic.
Clearly too chancy for Kremlin & Co.
Shockingly, Putin said during the same interview that he was willing to put Russian nuclear forces on alert to prevent an attempted Western military reversal of his ill-gotten gain in Crimea.
The Russian-supported insurgency in eastern Ukraine is little more — the immense human tragedy aside — than a negotiating tactic to “help” Kiev conclude that it must stay in Moscow’s orbit. At a minimum it must remain neutral.
In fact, what’s happening in the Arctic might be seen as a strategic bookend to the Crimea/Ukraine episode.
Moscow is flexing its military muscles in the “High North” to make it clear that it won’t brook any interference in its national interests up there.
To demonstrate its determination, this week Moscow filled the Arctic areas with tens of thousands of troops; some 50 ships, including submarines; and more than 100 aircraft, according to press reports.
Some estimates state that the Arctic may hold a sizeable portion of the world’s yet-to-be-discovered, technically-recoverable natural resources (e.g., oil and gas).
This possibility isn’t lost on Russia, whose plodding economy relies largely on energy production and whose government coffers have been hit hard by the plummeting prices of global oil and gas.
With a long Arctic border, Moscow worries about its security, of course, from NATO, but also wants to make sure these vast potential finds of oil and natural gas are Russia’s for the taking.
The Arctic countries (United States, Canada, Russia, Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland) have promised to “play nice” diplomatically in determining who owns what around the North Pole, but it’s not clear it will end up that way.
Russia’s actions in Ukraine just a year ago — and in the Arctic this week — clearly signal that.
- Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense.
Originally appeared in the Boston Herald