The U.S., E.U., Russia and the Ukraine

Today is Friday, March 7, 2014

The crisis continues in the Ukraine and it seems, based on media reports, op-eds and the many, many social media comments I’ve read, Americans are rather confused about the situation there. People are worried this could lead to an international war, with the U.S. and Russia as the two prime antagonists. Others, a little less paranoid, believe we are rapidly moving into another Cold War. Conservatives are blasting the Obama Administration’s ‘weak’ response–as if a ‘strong’ (i.e., military?) response would make Putin less aggressive. I don’t know if that’s cynicism or just stupidity. There are questions from Conservatives about the competence of our intelligence agencies, suggesting this was a surprise to Obama. That’s patently absurd. There have been reports from the beginning of the crisis, that the U.S. knew at least by February 21st, that Putin was amassing his army along the Ukrainian border. This was not a surprise.

Putin has made it clear for a decade now that he would not accept any country bordering Russia joining NATO. Yet, many of those countries, Ukraine and Georgia included, want to join NATO, and in the case of Ukraine, even become a full-fledged member of the E.U. Putin’s Cold War mentality rejects that possibility and, when Kiev began negotiations with the E.U. for a more involved economic and trade relationship, Putin became alarmed, basically bribed then President Yanukovich with a $15 Billion deal, and Yanukovich stopped the negotiations with the E.U. This led to violent demonstrations against the Yanukovich Administration by the pro-European population, and Putin clearly decided to put an end to the problem himself. He simply cannot accept a westward leaning Ukraine, not with his military bases and warm-water ports in Crimea. Russia appears determined to separate Crimea from the Ukraine and return it to Russian territory, no matter how illegitimate that is. What happens now is really up to Kiev. They will have to determine which steps to take next. What the E.U. and the U.S. will advise Kiev is being worked out in the diplomatic back-channels.

There’s a lot being made of the Russian/Ukrainian split within the Ukraine itself and how that’s part of this dynamic situation. There’s a misconception about this, though. Southeastern Ukraine does have a majority Russian ethnic population, however, everyone in Ukraine speaks both Russian and Ukrainian. The problem is more a generational one. The younger generation, who has never known a Soviet Ukraine, identify themselves as Ukrainian whether they are ethnic Russians or not. Most of the older generation who lived under the Soviet system, whether Ukrainian or Russian, see themselves as Russians. The biggest contention is with Crimea, itself. Since Crimea was Russian until 1954, and is completely tied to Russia in so many ways, there will now be a referendum in nine days to see whether the Crimeans want to remain in the Ukraine or be returned to Russia. However, there is no constitutional framework within either Russian or Ukrainian law for this kind of secession from Kiev or anschluss with Moscow. The government in Kiev is calling the referendum an act of treason. This is serious business and in the timing of things, we should see the first repercussions by March 17-18 and, by April 20, we will know if there is going to be a serious confrontation over Crimea.

The U.S. and the E.U. are trying hard through diplomatic negotiations to diffuse the tension, but as long as Putin feels that the West is unduly influential in Kiev, this tug-of-war will continue. If the West offers guarantees that the Ukraine will not become a member of NATO, Putin might well calm down. The Ukrainians may not like such a move, but they may not be in a position to protest too loudly. I seriously doubt the West will want to see a full-scale invasion of the Ukraine, because it could so easily lead to an escalation of military violence and the possibility of war. However, if Putin really wanted to take over the Ukraine, he would have done it last week with a surprise invasion with his entire military force sitting on the border. But even with Crimea, should it be returned to Russia, Putin will not accept the Ukraine turning to the West. I don’t think the world has much choice in this matter. I don’t see Putin backing down from his position. He has maintained his entire political life that the greatest catastrophe in the 20th century was the collapse of the Soviet Union and he is quite transparent about his nationalistic desire for a new Russian empire in Eastern Europe–not that these countries would be absorbed again into the Russian Federation, but certainly as independent nations, he wants them to be under Moscow’s influence and direction.

I think the West’s only real option here is to tell Kiev, sorry, you can’t be in the E.U. and you can’t be in NATO, not if it it threatens world peace and the sovereignty of Eastern Europe. Ukraine in  both the E.U. and NATO would force Putin (in his mind) to reinforce his borders with other Eastern European countries which would put Belarus and the Baltic states in jeopardy. As long as Putin is in power and has no interest himself in moving Russia more towards Europe, but rather, again, developing Russia as a separate counter-culture and political power to the West, there is little the West can do to dissuade him. Putin will accept globalization only in economic terms and he absolutely rejects a global geopolitical culture. The world will have to live with that and figure out policies that make it work.

NATO clearly has an interest in the stability of the region and Kiev may want to benefit from what NATO has to offer, but it may have to be as something less than a full-fledged NATO member. I don’t see this as ‘acquiescing’ to Russia or being ‘weak’ in the face of Russian aggression. It is, to be sure, a form of Real Politik. But as long as Putin holds to his nationalism and lack of interest in participating in a globally shared geopolitical culture, the West has no other option but to accept it, transform our relationship and policies, and move on. Yet, now, in the short term, levels of sanctions will be set against Russia, some unilateral from the U.S., probably some minor sanctions will come from the E.U. as well. Russia has its own non-military arsenal, e.g., shutting off the gas pipelines to and through the Ukraine. Putin is already threatening to do that, if the Ukraine can’t pay its $5 Billion debt. This would, of course, severely impact Europe, particularly Germany who is very dependent on Russian natural gas. But, in the end, although there are plenty of non-military options to throw at Russia, it doesn’t look like, especially in the E.U., there’s much interest in putting that much pressure on Russia, realizing that Putin is not interested in invading the Ukraine. Obama will have to include that reality in his calculus.

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