Power Play

Putin's Posture on Ukraine Poses Real Threat

The events that trigger major international conflicts often appear strangely small in retrospect. A hundred years ago an Austrian archduke on a visit to Sarajevo was assassinated by a Serbian nationalist; within five years 37 million people had died in a war that involved all the world’s great powers. From a single tragedy in a remote corner of Europe, a continental disaster.

Recent events in Ukraine have now provided another example of this paradox. When, last November, the country’s now-deposed president, Viktor Yanukovych, failed to sign a trade agreement with the European Union because of pressure from Moscow, few predicted it would lead to bloodshed in the streets of Kiev; fewer still expected it to result in a dangerous standoff between Russia and the West. Now that it has, many are wondering how the situation could have spun out of control so quickly. The full answer to this question will one day fill volumes. The short answer is named Vladimir Putin.

For the Russian president, the dissolution of the Soviet Union remains a dishonor to be avenged. Mother Russia has her own manifest destiny, which she can realize only by standing up to the West and reclaiming her dignity. After the corrupt Yanukovych fled Kiev in disgrace, Putin saw an opportunity for Russia to assert itself in the ensuing power vacuum. On the thin pretext of protecting ethnic Russians, he got Russia’s upper house of parliament to authorize an invasion and immediately seized control of the Crimean peninsula, in violation of international law and Russia’s 1994 guarantee to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity in exchange for the country’s surrender of its nuclear weapons. Contrary to Russian propaganda, there is no evidence that Ukraine’s Russian population faces any danger from the new provisional government in Kiev. This isn’t about Russia’s responsibility to protect its own; this is a power play.

And not the first. When the government of Georgia turned away from Moscow and toward the West in 2008, Russia responded by sending troops into the Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which it still occupies. But the stakes are much higher in Ukraine, a country of 46 million people that borders members of NATO and the E.U. Western Europe gets much of its energy from Russia through natural-gas pipelines that pass through Ukraine. If that country implodes in civil war or is crushed by its neighbor to the east, the consequences will be felt throughout the continent.

That means the United States and its allies cannot afford to look away. But it doesn’t mean they should rush into a military confrontation with Russia, which, though no longer a superpower, remains a nuclear power—and an increasingly dangerous one. Western leaders must make good on their pledge to punish Russia for its violation of Ukrainian sovereignty in Crimea, but they should also be careful not to do too much too soon. As we go to press, Russian forces have tightened their grip on Crimea and massed along Ukraine’s eastern border. If they stop there, the worst can still be averted. However the United States and its allies respond to what’s already happened in Crimea, where most of the population is Russian, they must have something left, short of war, with which to punish Russia if it decides to invade the rest of the country. If they use up all the available sanctions to punish Russia for its takeover of Crimea, Putin could decide that he may as well finish what he’s started: better to be hanged for a sheep than for a lamb. The seizure of Crimea is reason enough for the United States to skip the G-8 meeting Putin was supposed to host in Sochi this June. But before we throw Russia out of the G-8 altogether—or start freezing Russian assets or issuing broad travel bans—we should wait to see what Putin does next. If his main purpose was to humiliate Ukraine’s new government, he’s already succeeded and may choose to stop while he’s ahead. In any case, our own purpose should not be to humiliate Russia, but to protect Ukraine and the rest of Europe from Putin’s recklessness. That will require patience and prudence, as well as nerve.

In Washington, the blame-Obama-first crowd are now saying that Russia wouldn’t have dared to seize Crimea if it hadn’t first been emboldened by President Obama’s failure to carry out his threat to bomb Syria, a Russian ally. This sort of partisan opportunism on the brink of an international crisis is unseemly, to say the least. Now is no time for point-scoring, or for the purely rhetorical demand that the White House somehow get tough with Russia. If the president’s critics want to propose a policy the president isn’t already considering, let them do so, with as little rancor and sanctimony as possible. So far, at least, Republican hawks have wasted their time, and ours, striking brave poses and loudly pining for the good old days of Cold War brinkmanship.

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This is a well reasoned, balanced analysis of this dangerous international crisis. Yes, as the editors said, it is no time for "posturing by Republicans" or anyone else. Sober analysis, realistic understanding of our options, and tough action, short of war. will be needed. If this situation is not confronted by the West led by the United States, the relative stability in Europe will be a thing of the past and may lead to even more instability in other areas of the world.

I know a woman, a native of Odessa (part of Ukraine), an American citizen by marriage who came to this country some 15 years ago. She considers herself Russian and has been a vocal supporter of Putin and his policies. The fact that eastern Ukraine is populated at around 50% by people likely with similar views as my friend makes the situation there even more complicated than it may seem. Putin does have both Russian strategic and cultural interests in what happens in Ukraine. Here is a link to an excellent article on the BBC website on this point:

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-26447674

Some points of respectful disagreement with this article

"For the Russian president, the dissolution of the Soviet Union remains a dishonor to be avenged."

Putin is too shrewd a leader to get caught up in meaningless matters of honor and pride. Russia isn't involved in the Ukraine over some revenge fantasy; Russian interest in the fate of the region is very strong. If Ukraine had made a deal with the EU that would have been detrimental to Russia. Now that Putin can't really prevent that he's going to try to save what he can. And it would be hard to overestimate Crimea's strategic omportance for Russia.

"On the thin pretext of protecting ethnic Russians..."

Maybe the threat that Euro-Maidan will retaliate against ethnic Russians is overblown, but it shouldn't be overlooked that a good half of Ukraine's population, most of it located in the East, have fromthe very beginning supported Russia and hated and feared Euro-Maidan. It's hard to get upset that these people are under Putin's control now- it might really be the best thing.

When Yanukovich was in control Westerners cried that it was wrong for one half of the Ukraine to carry the other half on a course they opposed, making a deal with a power they hated and feared. But now that Euro-Maidan is in control they seem to have changed their tune.

"...they must have something left, short of war, with which to punish Russia if it decides to invade the rest of the country."

There are two possibilities for what Russia is trying to do here. Either Putin is trying to save what he can of the Ukraine before it shifts to the West or he wants to cow the Ukrainian government through fear. That he might try to invade the whole country and control it through military force seems unlikely. That would put Putin in the position of having to deal with a corrupt government, control a hostile population (the population in Crimea is not hostile, btw) and deal with the inevitable Western response. Putin would have much to lose and little to gain from such a move. At the most he might try to take the Eastern, ethnically Russian, half- which might not be a bad thing- but I doubt it.

And an interesting article from CNN, which although written with an anti-Russian slant calls attention to three facts:

1. There has been no violence in Crimea

2. There have been pro-Russian demonstrations in Crimea

3. There have not been any pro-Kiev demonstrations

Sorry, Mr. Patton:

- your first point about Putin....doubt many experts agree with this opiinion  (in fact, Russia, Putin, and his cronies by international standards ranks Russia 127th out of 167 countries - same level as Pakistan in terms of cronism, corruption, and a bankrupt financial system)

- you paint with too broad a brush in terms of eastern Ukraine or even Crimea.....more balanced approach is that eastern Ukraine does have more than 50% Russian speakers but don't assume that this means they want to be aligned or secede to Russia (they dislike Russia almost as much as the western Ukranians).....Crimea is currently controlled by Russian troops; so, do you really expect pro- Ukranian demonstrations (guess you ignored what the Ukranian troops in Crimea did two days ago?)

- there is evidence that Russian instigators have taken advantage of the situation and have created situations including violence in major eastern Ukranian cities/towns.

 

To the editors - yep, one point that is very amusing is the Republican blowhards e.g. McCain; Graham, Fox News (Rudy Guiliana of all people; Sarah Palin; Krauthammer, etc.)

Facts - when Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, who was president - why, George Bush...and what did he do?  Nothing.  Oh yeah, that was also McCain's glory moment when he stated - *we are all Georgians*...and what happened next - NOTHING

Facts - almost every Russian excursion since Eisenhower's adminstration happened during Republican terms of office....and, in every excursion, the US did nothing.

Interesting that Democrats did not excoriate Bush in 2008 - but, the same pattern is not followed today.

And let's face it - Obama has one huge obstacle aligned against him.....Bush and company's Iraq debacle leaves the US open to recrminations, hypocrisy allegations, etc. when Obama takes on Putin.

"- your first point about Putin....doubt many experts agree with this opiinion  (in fact, Russia, Putin, and his cronies by international standards ranks Russia 127th out of 167 countries - same level as Pakistan in terms of cronism, corruption, and a bankrupt financial system)"

That's not relevant to the question of whether Putin takes an interlligent and shrewd approach to international matters.

"...balanced approach is that eastern Ukraine does have more than 50% Russian speakers but don't assume that this means they want to be aligned or secede to Russia..."

Yeah, your right; it was way overreaching to claim that half of Ukraine would like to align with Russia. Perhaps they would, but its a strong claim and I don't have the expertise to back it up. I think Crimea would, though. In this very magazine Raymond Oxford admited that Crimea contains "large pockets of strong pro-Russian feeling." And I don't think its overreaching to say large numbers of Ukrainians hate and fear Maidan.

And do you have any evidence that Russian-speaking Ukrainians hate Russia? Remember that about half the country initially supported Yanukovic, and while they may have turned away from him as a result of his corruption, they must have known from the beginning that he would try to make a deal with Russia. Everything I've read says that Yanukovych's supporters liked him because he wanted close ties to Russia, not in spite of it.

"And let's face it - Obama has one huge obstacle aligned against him.....Bush and company's Iraq debacle leaves the US open to recrminations, hypocrisy allegations, etc. when Obama takes on Putin."

Are you sure you don't mean Obama's Libya debacle?

More Articles!:

An article in Slate that mentions a possible way forward for Obama. (Basically cut a deal with Putin. Russian troops leave Crimea. Ukraine holds elections in May. Yanukovych doen't get to come back. And Ukraine can't join the EU or NATO. If it were up to me I would add that Crimea could vote on its own soveriegnty- probably either joining Russiaor becoming an independent state with close ties to Russia- and Ukraine would have to accept their decision.)

An interview with Dmitri K. Simes in New Republic. He's very critical of Obama for supporting Maidan:

"But we have to realize, that as we were applying this pressure on the Ukrainian political process to promote those we favor, we clearly were rocking the political boat in Ukraine, a country deeply divided, a country with different religions, different histories, different ethnicities. And it was that process of rocking the boat that led to the outcome [we] have seen. That is not to justify what Putin has done, that is not to say that the Russians are entitled to use their troops on the territory of another state. But let me say this: any Russian wrongdoings should not be used as an alibi for the incompetence of the Obama administration. European and American steps that contributed to this unfortunate outcome, and quite remarkably, nobody in this administration even seems to have been thinking about what the consequences of their previous actions could be."

An article in Christian Science Monitor about Maidan and ethnic Russians.

"As a result, any potential for trust in the new government has been lost in places like Sevastopol, where this week the population declared overwhelmingly that they were pro-Russia. They would not, they said, be ruled by Kiev, where nationalists are trying to eradicate their Russian culture, language and values."

Obama's Libya debacle - what debacle.  Comparing Iraq to Libya is ridiculous.  Start with the fact that the US suffered tens of thousands of wounded/killed vs. a few deaths in Libya.

Sure, one can say that Putin is shrewd (not intelligent) and is cunning - but also, he uses force, coercion, threats, and fears.  Short term - well, any corrupt oficial will probably make an initial impact but long term?  Putin's iinvasion cost his business partners at least $20 billion in just one day...any future EU/US action to freeze bank accounts; etc. could lead to billions more in losses.  Putin's action has already sent a very dramatic message to other former Soviet republics - doubt that his initiatives will be greeted warmly in the future.

Your Yanukovych statement fails in terms of actual historical documentation.

Historical record: 

Yanukovych's first attempt to become president in 2004 failed when the Ukrainian Supreme Court nullified and ordered a re-run of the initial second-round ballot electing him, which was fraught with allegations of fraud and voter intimidation amid widespread citizen protests and occupation of Kiev's Independence Square in what became known as the Orange Revolution. Yanukovych lost the court-ordered second 2004 presidential run-off election to Viktor Yushchenko. However, Yanukovych continued to lead his party, the Party of Regions.

He actually quit as Prime Minister and fled the Ukraine but retured to run in 2009:

Historical record: 

Early vote returns from the first round of the election held on 17 January showed Yanukovych in first place with 35.8% of the vote.[   He faced a 7 February 2010 runoff against Tymoshenko, who finished second (with 24.7% of the vote). After all ballots were counted, the Ukrainian Central Election Commission declared that Yanukovych won the runoff election with 48.95% of the vote compared with 45.47% for Tymoshenko.   Tymoshenko withdrew her subsequent legal challenge of the result

So, guess you could say that he received about half the votes in 2009 but to then claim that folks voting for him were motivated for closer ties to Russia or were pro-Russian isn't supported by the facts.  Subsequently, most Ukranians (whether east or west) became disillusioned with Yanukovych's corruption and stealing.  He had agreed to partnership with the EU until November, 2013 when he suddenly changed his mind.  (doubt it has anything to do with allegiance to Russia - it has to do with greed, power, control)

Today, we did see pro-Russian demonstrators assualt and take over some Crimean government buildings - but, does this represent what all the people want? OR are we seeing a small, aggressive band acting out?      

"Obama's Libya debacle - what debacle.  Comparing Iraq to Libya is ridiculous.  Start with the fact that the US suffered tens of thousands of wounded/killed vs. a few deaths in Libya."

Perhaps from an American perspective there was less blood lost, less time and money wasted. But that's because our goals were far more modest; we didn't put any troops on the ground, didn't make any attempt at nation building, etc. And this is why in my mind the actions in Libya are far less justifiable than the invasion of Iraq. At least Bush made an attempt, however inept, to improve Iraqi's lot. Even if it was just a pretence and he had alterior motives at least the effort was there. With Libya, we just didn't care. We were happy to go into a developing nation, destroy their government, and leave them to sink into chaos. Libya was before the invasion- and this is an important point- the leading third world nation in Africa according to all the UN human development indicators. They're not doing terribly now- they were the second highest in 2013- but all the news that comes out of Libya these days is bad, and I think their HDI figures are likely to keep lagging and things are likely to keep getting worse. I don't think any serious observer would try to say that Libyans are better off today then they were under Gaddafi. And the Libya invasion probably did as much as Iraq did, if not more, to damage the U.S.'s reputation as a nation that can be trusted and negotiated with.

 

Some stats from Wikipedia:

"According to a January poll, 45% of Ukrainians supported the protests, and 48% of Ukrainians disapproved of Euromaidan."

But on the other hand:

"Authors of the GfK Ukraine poll conducted 2–15 October 2013 claim that 45% of respondents believed Ukraine should sign an Association Agreement with the EU, whereas only 14% favoured joining the Customs Union of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia, and 15% preferred non-alignment."

A different poll mentioned in a deifferent article places support for the Customs Union a lot higher:

"In a December 2012 poll by Democratic Initiatives Foundation and Razumkov Center, 32% supported Ukraine's accession to the Customs Union."

Odessa is much more important to Ukraine than Crimea. Russia would never abandon the bases in Crimea, even if the only way to keep them permanently were to annex the peninsula directly or indirectly. The announced decision of the "Crimean parilament" to hold a referendum in the peninsula in ten days on whether to join the Russian Federation or remain part of Ukraine. This would be indirect annexation and probably irreversible short of war. On the other hand Odessa is a port city on the Black Sea that can be the major port for Ukraine. All efforts should be made to secure Odessa for Ukraine permanently. The area has a large ethnic Russian population, close to 50%, but it is my understanding that there is less of a desire there to be a permanent part of Russia. It is also closer to the central and western "heartland" of Ukraine.

 

I think "naivete" is the word best to describe both the Bush and Obama foreign policies. The naivete is basically that abstract ideas, such as "democracy," "freedom,"  "self-determination," and the like are applicable anywhere in the world, in any society, any culture, at anytime, and, with little cost. Punishing the then government of Afghanistan for harboring the terrorists who were responsible fot 9/11 was, in my opinion, a justifiable action. Trying to transform that nation into something like a Western style democracy against all history has taught about that country was a costly, in lives and treasure, folly. The second Iraq incrusion was a costly folly from the beginning. So was the Obama administration's support for the so-called "Arab Spring," a spring that has only brought forth rotten fruit in numerous countries; the direct costs here in lives and treasure to the US has been minimal. But, the cost to the people in the Mideast and Northern Africa has been frightening and continues.  I hope we are being a bit less naive in handling the Ukraine situation. So far, so good; but it is an open question.

 

I would recommend this piece by the grand old realist Kissinger for how the crisis in Ukraine can be resolved peacefully. In short, he recommends the Ukraine become the next Finland. It seems reasonable.

 

.washingtonpost.com/opinions/henry-kissinger-to-settle-the-ukraine-crisis-start-at-the-end/2014/03/05/46dad868-a496-11e3-8466-d34c451760b9_story.html

 

 

Here is the note I sent to my Congressional delegation:

The far right Svoboda party, whose leader has denounced the “criminal activities” of “organised Jewry” and which was condemned by the European parliament for its “racist and antisemitic views”, has five ministerial posts in the new government, including deputy prime minister and prosecutor general. The leader of the even more extreme Right Sector, at the heart of the street violence, is now Ukraine’s deputy national security chief.

And this is the government you and the President and John Kerry and Hilary Clinton are all supporting? All of you should be ashamed of yourselves.

Any money given to this gangster government will be looted.

Have you discussed with the President why we are supporting these thugs?

 

The far right Svoboda party, whose leader has denounced the “criminal activities” of “organised Jewry” and which was condemned by the European parliament for its “racist and antisemitic views”, has five ministerial posts in the new government, including deputy prime minister and prosecutor general. The leader of the even more extreme Right Sector, at the heart of the street violence, is now Ukraine’s deputy national security chief.

And this is the government you and the President and John Kerry and Hilary Clinton are all supporting. All of you should be ashamed of yourselves.

Any money given to this gangster government will be looted.

Have you discussed with the President why we are supporting these thugs?

John, I think you are right about the current make-up of the interim government in Kiev. There are many far-Right extremists involved. I do not know if the Obama administration is talking to that government and telling them they must clean up their act -- out with the extremists and the corrupt politicians -- if they want our full backing. I hope they are. These guys could threaten the Russian speaking populations of Eastern Ukraine, for sure. Putin does have some justification for opposing them on these grounds. Not sure he has any justification for going out of the Crimean peninsula with any force at this time, however.. Wayne

Now Obama has not only pressed sanctions against Russia, but he has declared the referendum in Crimea to be illegal. This is ridiculous and hyporitical for two reasons. First, the Western powers supported Kosovo's seccession inder similar circumstances. Second, Obama is effectively claiming to be defending democracy while refusing to give Crimeans a say in their own fate.

Moreover, Obama would have no reason to make a statement like that f he didn't believe that Crimea was going to vote to join Russia. This seems to be inevitable at this point; Crimean lawmakers have already voted in favor of joining Russia, a fact which has gotten far too little attention in the Western press.