Putin's power play straight from the pages of history
Photo: The unstable situation in Ukraine has allowed the Kremlin to intervene with the excuse of being the defender of law, order and minority rights. (Reuters/Yevgeny Volokin)
Putin's foray into Ukraine is following the same path and pretext as Catherine the Great's did in the 1700s. And just as the empress had international allies, Russia is now pressing Germany to legitimise its manoeuvring, writes Matthew Dal Santo.
History, they say, never repeats itself. But events in Ukraine bear an uncanny resemblance to the Partition of Poland more than 200 years ago.
Careful attention to how it unfolded can help us see where the power to bring an end to the crisis lies today - and it isn't in Washington.
Though it has gone little commented upon, German chancellor Angela Merkel has spoken frequently with Russian president Vladimir Putin over the past week. Their most interesting conversation took place last Thursday.
For Mrs Merkel, the immediate issue was the release of a group of Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe observers held by pro-Russian forces in Slovyansk. For Mr Putin, however, it was geopolitics.
According to the Kremlin, the Russian president urged Mrs Merkel to use her influence over Ukraine's interim government to prevail on Kiev to withdraw its forces from southern and eastern Ukraine.
Precisely how the German chancellor reacted isn't known. But Mr Putin was, in effect, asking her to consent to a partitioning of Ukraine between the pro-Western, and Western-backed, government in Kiev that is in favour of closer ties with NATO and the EU, and pro-federalist or separatist militias backed by Russia in the east and south.
Outspoken in her criticism of the Kremlin's tactics in Crimea, Mrs Merkel has since become more circumspect, as if unwilling to push her dealings with Putin into a rhetorical corner. She seems personally disposed to take a harder line with the Kremlin, but the pressure on her from German businesses and a surprisingly pro-Russian political establishment - on both the left and right - has been enormous.
It's been estimated that 300,000 German jobs depend on exports to Russia. At the same time, as the EU's unofficial gatekeeper, Mrs Merkel is among the few Western leaders who could persuade Kiev to agree to the federalisation plan Moscow insists is essential to quelling the violence.
By far the European leader with the most influence in eastern Europe, she finds herself in an awkward position - one a long line of German leaders has been in before. She has geography, the Kremlin and Germany's own strength to thank for this.
Germany is the only European country Putin - himself fluent in German - takes seriously. It's also one of Russia's biggest trading partners.
In 2013, Russia exported some €40 billion in trade with Germany, mostly oil and gas, the bread and butter of the Russian economy.
hough Germany would inflict real harm on itself, a tough sanctions regime would apply real pressure on Russia. The two countries have a long history of dividing up their neighbourhood. In 1939, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Hitler's Germany and Stalin's USSR put an end to an independent Poland. In 1918, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk divided all the lands of modern Poland and Ukraine between the Kaiser and the Bolsheviks - generously in Germany's favour.
But the most instructive division of Europe from today's perspective took place when Russia's Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia from 1762 to 1796, partitioned the sprawling Polish Commonwealth between herself and Europe's two leading Germanic powers: Frederick the Great's Prussia and Maria-Theresa's Austria.
Eighteenth-century Poland - then Europe's largest country save Russia itself - included much of the lands that now lie in today's Ukraine.
Indeed, Putin is today pursuing more or less the same strategic aims as Catherine the Great, when she first brought Russian rule to Europe's southern steppes in the 1760s, and doing so in much the same way and on much the same pretext.
Fabled for its ancient constitution that provided for a king elected by parliament (the Sejm), enshrined the right of even a single nobleman to veto royal legislation and licensed rebellion of noble factions against the crown, Poland was in fact an anarchic place dominated by local magnates with their own private armies, which they used to extract revenues from the peasantry in their domains.
It was a situation external powers found irresistible, not least Catherine's Russia. In other words, 18th-century Poland was not at all unlike modern Ukraine, where in 20 years of independence regional oligarchs have used their power and money to gouge out local monopolies at the expense of the overwhelming majority of the country's citizens, and which until late last year the Kremlin found easy to exploit as it played one elite client off against the next.
It's a strategy Putin might have taken straight out of the 18th century empress's playbook. In 1764, Catherine took advantage of Poland's divisions to install a former lover on the Polish throne.
As king, however, Stanislaw turned out to be made of stronger stuff than expected. Rather than merely toeing Catherine's line, he set out to reform the Polish state, curtailing the nobles' veto rights - rights, as Catherine well knew, that had made Poland ungovernable and so easily amenable to foreign (i.e. Russian) influence.
Styling herself the defender of Poland's "ancient freedoms", in 1768 Catherine used the threat of invasion to force Poland's King Stanislaw to sign a treaty not only to protect Poland's Orthodox minority - whose religious freedoms she claimed Stanislaw's new constitution threatened to undermine, much as Putin has lately been doing on behalf of Ukraine's sizeable Russian-speaking minority - but also to restore the unwieldy constitution Stanislaw had sought to modernise.
Agreeing to this treaty was a trap that allowed a faction of nobles to cast Stanislaw as a Russian puppet. And when they revolted - as fed up Ukrainians did last year when another ruler gave up a potentially transformative trade agreement with the EU - Catherine pounced. In 1771, under the guise of protecting law and order, a Russian army entered Poland.
The country collapsed. The Ottoman Turks declared war, but the Russians defeated them and made them hand over Crimea. Unwilling to fight or go to war, Prussia and Austria instead decided to join Catherine in dividing Poland up.
The result, in 1772, is what has since become known as the First Partition of Poland, which awarded thousands of square miles of Polish territory to Russia, Austria and Prussia.
In 1783 Catherine annexed Crimea and pushed the Ottomans south towards the Danube. Into this so-called New Russia, Russian settlers followed, whose "rights" Putin has lately deployed the Russian army to defend. It took two further partitions to erase Poland from the map.
Photo: What Catherine had but Putin has always lacked are international partners to legitimise the sphere of influence he has asserted and, to all intents and purposes, carved out. (AFP: Alexander Khudoteply)
They have since become a byword for double-dealing, as diplomats in hushed drawing rooms disposed of a fractious, aristocratic commonwealth that 19th century liberals loved to present as a tragic tale of democracy denied.
Behind the recent crisis lies a combination of elite infighting, constitutional wrangling and Russian opportunism at Europe's eastern crossroads that's almost a set-piece replay of the situation Catherine exploited.
Like Catherine, Putin took advantage of squabbling between Ukraine's modern-day elites for a division of the country's spoils. And just as Catherine's treaty trapped Stanislaw, so too the Kremlin's deal-making with then Ukraine president Viktor Yanukovych delivered him into Putin's pocket, including the $15 billion loan for walking away from the EU's trade deal that ended up making him look like a Russian stooge.
Ever since, Putin has been playing the same legitimist card as Catherine, presenting Russia as the defender not only of the lawful Ukrainian president and legitimate Ukrainian constitution, but also of the "rights" of Ukraine's Russian speakers, first in Crimea, now in Donbas and Odessa.
What Catherine had but Putin has always lacked are international partners to legitimise the sphere of influence he has asserted and, to all intents and purposes, carved out.
Led by the United States, the West won't talk, but like Prussia and Austria in the 1770s, however, it has ruled out war to make him give them up.
This is where Germany's Angela Merkel comes in. Like Frederick the Great and Maria-Theresa in the 1770s and 1790s, she was last Thursday being asked to partition Eastern Europe with Russia.
She can be forgiven for being surprised at finding herself in this position. The "end of history" - the fall of the Berlin Wall, the expansion of the EU and NATO - was supposed to put a stop to this sort of thing.
What it hasn't changed, however, is Germany's position as the richest and most powerful country at the centre of Europe. Not only is Germany the only big European country Russia will deal with, it's the only one that really has to.
The other thing that hasn't changed is Russia's view of its interests. As in the days of Catherine the Great, Russian meddling has again plunged a fatefully divided neighbour into a constitutional crisis that has allowed the Kremlin to intervene as the defender of law, order, and minority rights.
Now as then Moscow is looking for a Western partner to acknowledge its interests; Germany is the Western power with the most pressing interest in doing that. Today, of course, partition doesn't mean the actual dividing up of Ukraine between Russia and Germany.
What it does mean is that, in return for a Russian promise to let the Ukraine's western half drift closer to Europe, Mrs Merkel would apply her influence to encourage the authorities in Kiev to listen to Russia's demands for the country's federalisation, an outcome that would leave Russia's border where it is but reassure the Kremlin of its influence in the eastern and southern regions it considers essential to its security - and prevent the country as a whole moving definitively into the West's orbit.
Morally, this is an invidious position for any democratic leader to stand in. But short of a compromise along these lines, the only alternatives are sanctions (which will harm Germany almost as much as Russia, and, from Berlin's point of view, embitter an important regional partner) or war on Ukraine's behalf (which everyone has ruled out).
While Catherine, of course, seems hardly to have let such scruples bother her, it's said that Austria's Maria-Theresa sobbed guilt-ridden as she divided Poland up with Russia's wily empress. But having ruled out the unpalatable alternative, she pulled herself together. "The more she wept, the more she took," Prussia's more pragmatic Frederick the Great mocked.
Normally noted for her pragmatism rather than sentimental or ideological attachments (she shed not a tear when the bailout conditions she imposed on southern Europe cost thousands their jobs), this crisis seems thus set to test Mrs Merkel's non-committal political strategy to the limits.
By taking the moral high ground, and with so little at stake economically in Russia, Washington has made itself secondary to the only real diplomatic solution to this crisis - one that gives Russia at least some of what it wants.
But Mrs Merkel hasn't yet fully shown her hand and, with much more on the line, we should definitely pay more attention to her phone calls with the Kremlin.
Matthew Dal Santo is a freelance writer and foreign affairs correspondent. He previously worked for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. View his full profile here.
This first appeared on the ABC web site - the Drum.
Certainly offers a good overview of the situation and some historical context. Too often we as Australians are unaware of the nuances involved. Too far away, too little interest really.
A good overview and food for thought.
The comments on the article are also worth a read.
More here -