Untangling Ukraine

Russian soldiers reportedly control the Crimea, a part of Ukraine

Russian soldiers reportedly control the Crimea, a part of Ukraine

Last week Ukrainians celebrated as their corrupt pro-Russian President, Viktor Yanukovych, fled Kiev in the face of a popular revolt.  The Parliament met to ratify the popular uprising as Ukrainians celebrated – at least in the western part of the country.The eastern portion is mostly ethnic Russian, however, and while they don’t like Yanukovych, they reject the revolution in the West.  The current hot spot is the Crimea, which is over 85% ethnic Russian with very few ethnic Ukrainians.   Russia’s parliament gave President Putin approval to send Russian military forces to protect the interests of ethnic Russians in the Crimea.

So, what’s going on?

The Ukraine is a split country.  The eastern party is heavily ethnic Russian, while the west is primarily Ukrainian.  Moreover, the Crimea itself was given to the Ukraine by the Soviet Union in 1954, when it didn’t seem to matter what was actually in Russia.  13% of the Crimea’s population are ethnic Tartar, who were brutalized under Stalin and oppose being annexed by Russia.

Former President Yanukovych spoke from Rustov on Don (in Russia) calling the new interim government illegitimate, saying he should remain President until December per an agreement with the EU

Former President Yanukovych spoke from Rustov on Don (in Russia) calling the new interim government illegitimate, saying he should remain President until December per an agreement with the EU

In recent years the EU and Ukraine were working on an free trade and association agreement that would have brought Ukraine closer to the West, and yielded nearly $30 billion of aid and grants.  This was seen by many Ukrainians as a way to start needed economic and political reform.  Putin pressured Yanukovych to reject the EU agreement in favor of a closer trade relation with Russia, as Putin builds his own customs union, currently including Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.  If Ukraine joined that group, it would increase Russia’s economic clout in the region and stymie EU efforts to democratize and modernize Ukraine.

The Customs Union allows travel between the three states with just an internal passport, as well free trade.  It appears less a move towards free trade than an effort by Russia to piece by piece re-create as much of the old USSR as it can.   Putin has said the collapse of the Soviet Union was a catastrophe and a mistake.   In August of last year Ukraine became an “observer” to the customs union, a first step towards joining.

The biggest obstacle to Russia’s plan was the imminent agreement between Ukraine and the EU.  To prevent Ukraine from signing the EU deal, Putin used a carrot and stick approach on Yanukovych.  Russia cut natural gas costs, promised $15 billion aid to Ukraine, but also closed the borders of the custom union to Ukrainian goods for a time.   Yanukovych ultimately scuttled the EU deal.

In early December protests started after Yanukovych announced there would be no deal with the EU

In early December protests started after Yanukovych announced there would be no deal with the EU

That act triggered a wave of protests that ultimately grew to a revolt forcing Yanukovych to leave the country.   Ukrainians in the West were horrified that the country would turn its back on the west in order to cozy up to an authoritarian regime in Russia.   What seemed a victory for Putin has suddenly turned into a crisis.   His response has been to invade Ukraine, but so far limited to the Crimea.

To Russian nationalists, the Crimea is an integral part of “Mother Russia.”  Yes, Ukraine has internationally recognized borders, and allowing Russia to change them with force violates fundamental tenets of international law.  However, the alternative might be civil war and bloodshed, for a conclusion that probably is no better.   The Crimea has been part of Ukraine for only 50 years, has hardly any ethnic Ukrainians, and would be a small price to pay to get true independence and the capacity to move towards the West.

Still, hardliners in Kiev do not want to give up any sovereignty, and there is fear that this could spiral into other conflicts.  If other former Soviet Republicans disintegrate into ethnic fragmentation the result could be cascading instability.

Yet when Abkhazia and South Ossetia broke from Georgia in 2008, it ironically made it easier for Georgia to pursue its own path without constant crises with Russia.  A Ukraine without the Crimea may be “freed” to turn to the west.   If Ukraine resists to try to keep the Crimea, that could be an incentive for Putin to up the ante, and take more of Ukraine – the places where ethnic Russians still make up a large part of the country.   So would Russia be satisfied with just the Crimea, or might it demand Ukraine be split on broader ethnic grounds?

The 2010 Presidential vote shows a bifurcated country; Yanukovych won the areas in blue

The 2010 Presidential vote shows a bifurcated country; Yanukovych won the areas in blue

Compare that map to this map of Ukrainian ethnicity – it is clear that the vote followed ethnic lines, meaning that Ukraine is an ethnically divided state.  It is not at all clear that it will be possible to avoid some kind of division, given that there appears to be no compromise between tilting west to the EU, or east to Russia.

Russians are a majority in the Crimea (brown area in the south)

Russians are a majority in the Crimea (brown area in the south)

The US and the EU have limited options.  While some hawks want to chug the 7th fleet into the Black Sea and announce complete support for the interim government in Kiev, it’s hard to see how escalating the affair would be American or EU interests, and easy to see how that could set up a path to an even more dangerous and volatile crisis.   It’s also almost impossible to envision Russia simply giving up on control of the Crimea.

I think a division of Ukraine in some way is the best solution.   Both parts of Ukraine have important pipelines, each have oil shale deposits which could be potentially lucrative.  The UN should call for a cease fire recognizing de facto Russian occupation of the Crimea.  If it becomes obvious that Russians in other parts of eastern Ukraine do not want to be with the western portion of the state, talks on a peaceful divorce from the Ukraine should begin, overseen by the UN.   While some will see that as a victory of Putin – Russia forcing the division of a sovereign state to expand its sphere of influence – it is it.  It shows that there are real limits to Putin’s goal of asserting regional hegemony; the western portion of Ukraine would over time be stronger and more prosperous.  That would bring western influence deeper into the region.

One thing is for sure, an escalation of the crisis and violence is not in anybody’s best interest.

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  1. #1 by pino on March 1, 2014 - 14:49

    His response has been to invade Ukraine

    An event that Palin predicted would occur if Obama were elected.

    Just a few days ago, Chess Champion Kasparove Tweeted that he’d still be a citizen of the USSR if Obama had been President instead of Reagan.

    It shows that there are real limits to Putin’s goal of asserting regional hegemony

    If there are any limits being exposed, it’s Obama’s limits – clearly Putin has no regard for the current President’s opinions.

    Just another example of a “Red Line” that Obama has no ability to defend.

    • #2 by Scott Erb on March 1, 2014 - 17:00

      You’re not serious – you think Putin invaded because Obama was elected (he waited a long time if that was the reason). If McCain were President and conditions were like this, Putin would have invaded the Crimera. Your antipathy to Obama borders on irrational. To try to blame Obama for events in the Ukraine is Obama-phobia to the extreme, you are unable to look at this President with objective eyes. Perhaps you read too much right wing propaganda.

      Fact: no matter who was President the conditions and options/interests of the US would be about the same. Anyone who wants the US to somehow go after Putin and make this into a big deal does not understand the way the world works!

      • #3 by Scott Erb on March 1, 2014 - 17:03

        Oh, and if Obama had been President in the 80s our economy would not have taken the tragic path of massive debt and deregulation. Debt doubled as a percentage of GDP when Reagan was President, creating a false sense of prosperity (it was built on debt – like someone living high on the hog with credit cards). On the USSR it was Reagan’s reversal – to stop the defense build up, and work closely with Gorbachev that deserves praise. It is also a false myth that Reagan somehow “won” the cold war by being tough on the Soviets. Instead, he was able to soften US policy, allowing Gorbachev to convince the hardliners he tamed Reagan, and thereby make changes that ultimately were irreversible.

      • #4 by pino on March 1, 2014 - 17:33

        you think Putin invaded because Obama was elected

        No.

        I think that Putin invaded Crimea for his own reasons, be he didn’t NOT invade because Obama sits in the Oval.

        There is no reason to believe that Obama is serious and would dare to fulfill his “threats”.

        See Syria.

        Anyone who wants the US to somehow go after Putin and make this into a big deal does not understand the way the world works!

        That’s a whole ‘nother conversation.

        Obama SAID he’d go after Putin not me. I’m not the rank amateur threatening word leaders with no clear intention/will/ability to follow through.

        Look, if you’re right, that it’s wrong to go after Putin – then put your money where your mouth is a chastise Obama for making a reckless threat. But that would require a rational Obama perspective 😉

      • #5 by Scott Erb on March 1, 2014 - 21:47

        I guarantee you Pino, it does not matter to the Russians who the President of the US is. They make determinations based on factors that would be the same if Reagan, McCain, Romney, Gore or Clinton were President. The idea that somehow the personality of the President would alter Putin’s plan is patently absurd. Obama is also handling this as any President would, he’s certainly not making threats he can’t deliver on. Expect Russia to keep Crimea as a protectorate (which makes sense, it is ethnic Russian and only part of Ukraine since 1954). The issue now is how the crisis gets resolved. But this is Russia’s back yard, you know. That’s why even if Abe Lincoln himself were US President it wouldn’t alter Putin’s equation a bit.

      • #6 by List of X on March 2, 2014 - 00:01

        You might also note that Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, when G.W.Bush was president, and Georgia considered the US to be it’s ally.

      • #7 by lbwoodgate on March 2, 2014 - 03:41

        “There is no reason to believe that Obama is serious and would dare to fulfill his “threats”. See Syria.”

        You’re in a minority pino if you think this was a mistake. It would have been foreign policy failure had Obama decided to follow through on sending missal strikes into Syria. Military hawks like to cite Syria as an Obama failure likely because they do have allegiances to the war-profiteering industries.

        And why prey tell is it considered bad leadership to rethink your position in a few cases? Had GWB rethought his decision to invade Iraq this country would be less in debt and 4400 plus American military and tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians would not have died needlessly.

      • #8 by pino on March 2, 2014 - 13:10

        You’re in a minority pino if you think this was a mistake. It would have been foreign policy failure had Obama decided to follow through on sending missal strikes into Syria.

        I’m not a hawk here – I happen to think that the US should stay out of all these conflicts that have nothing to do with us. If the Russians want to invade the Ukraine, what skin off my ass is it? Same in Syria – let the people fight their own wars.

        But -BUT- if a sitting President says, “Do this and I’ll do THAT” he better damn well do “THAT”.

        So, I don’t care if Obama gets out and says, “This is between Ukraine and Russia – we’re staying out” or if he says, “If Russia invade sovereign borders, we’ll send the 7th Fleet”. Really, either way is fine.

        But Obama told Russia not to invade – and they did. No one respects Obama and to a lesser degree, America.

        And THAT’S problematic.

      • #9 by Scott Erb on March 2, 2014 - 14:25

        Your error is to think that the level of “respect” Putin has for Obama makes a tad of difference in what Putin does. That is absurd, it makes it seem like somehow the President of the US would have the power to force Russia in this kind of circumstance not to go into the Crimea. It could be Reagan, Rambo, Truman, Ike….any President, and the result would be the same. It’s strange to think that somehow the American President would be a factor here. Of course, Americans do tend to over estimate their importance (that’s also a truism in looking at foreign policy issues).

      • #10 by Scott Erb on March 2, 2014 - 14:27

        Oh, and I bet you that Obama knew that Putin was going into the Crimea, as did the EU. Now Obama and the EU have to work together on a response to show the Russians that when they do something like this, there is a negative consequence. The Russians know that, but the importance of the near abroad for them make them willing to suffer the consequence. The EU and US will not make the consequence too severe since that would also not be in their interest. And this would be the same no matter who was President.

      • #11 by Scott Erb on March 2, 2014 - 23:13

        Yes, the EU and the US will have a response, just as Obama said they would. That’s part of the dance. It’s meant to dissuade Putin from wanting more in Ukraine. Obama has to do that, he can’t just say “it’s meaningless.”

        But he didn’t threaten anything he can’t deliver, his wording was very careful. The US and EU will have counter actions, the Russians have shown they’re willing to risk such, when their “near abroad” is in play. But I think the key is that Putin is squeezed – it’s unlikely he’ll get all of Ukraine in his sphere of influence, which is a loss for him!

  2. #12 by thenewamericanlondoner on March 1, 2014 - 16:00

    Thorough and informative piece, Scott. Thanks for posting.

  3. #13 by List of X on March 1, 2014 - 17:36

    I don’t think it should be up to Russia whether to take Crimea or not. Russia had signed the agreements on Ukrainian borders, so whether or not it likes them now, it still has to respect them.
    Russia also sold Alaska to the United States, which doesn’t give it any right to invade Alaska when it feels that the rights of Russians in Alaska are not sufficiently protected.

    • #14 by Scott Erb on March 1, 2014 - 21:50

      Alaska isn’t ethnic Russian. Alaska isn’t an historic core of Russia. But that’s not why I think it’s acceptable for them to take Crimea. Rather, I don’t think there is any other option, and escalating the conflict over that issue is a loser. Your view reflects the ideals of international law, I think here the realities of pragmatic power politics need to prevail. Otherwise, we risk a civil war, and that would kill a lot of people. Also, it’s not in the US (or EU) self-interest to try to force the Crimeans to be part of a country they don’t want to be part of. They consider themselves Russian. That seems petty, but look at how ethnic disputes tore Yugoslavia apart. It would be a disaster if the Ukraine took that path.

      • #15 by List of X on March 2, 2014 - 00:11

        Crimea is actually less than 60% ethnic Russian according to Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russians_in_Ukraine). And if Russia really wanted to protect the ethnic Russians living in Crimea, it could simply offer them asylum in the Russia proper: in fact, it took in hundreds of thousands, if not millions of ethnic Russians from former Central Asian republics.
        But if Putin actually invades Crimea, it has the potential to escalate into a full-scale war between Ukraine and Russia.

  4. #16 by Scott Erb on March 2, 2014 - 14:53

    One point I made elsewhere that I want to make here: this crisis is really a sign of Putin’s weakness. He’s in his backyard, where the Russians used to dominant, and he’s forced to use military power (with likely negative consequences) to try to just keep a piece of it – and he probably at best will only keep influence in eastern Ukraine. Putin is in a position of weakness here, the US and EU are trying to manipulate it so that Putin is neither put in a corner and has to be more aggressive, but that the advantage of the West is maintained. It amazes me that critics of the President are so quick to attack him (without much analysis or thought) that they don’t see that Putin is admitting weakness here, and he is in a very precarious state. The right wants to label Putin victorious when he’s actually losing!

  5. #17 by pino on March 2, 2014 - 23:00

    Your error is to think that the level of “respect” Putin has for Obama makes a tad of difference in what Putin does.

    No, Scott, that is not my error; you misunderstand the debate.

    You say that Eastern Ukraine is ethnic Russian and even identify as Russians.
    You also say that there is little we can do about Putin invading.
    And you intimate that Putin may have the right to invade.

    All of which I’m willing to accept as reasonable.

    My point, the point that you are missing, due to your inability to see fault in our President, is that given what Putin is doing is either right or inevitable or both, why would Obama issue an ultimatum? Given that the people of Eastern Ukraine want to reunited with Russia, given that it’s reasonable to let them and given that there is little that we as America can do about it – why does Obama bang his chest and issue warnings?

    If YOU can see the inevitability of the chess board, why can’t the President? What is the point of threatening Putin when he knows the threat is wrong and can’t be acted on?

    That is my point.

    It’s strange to think that somehow the American President would be a factor here.

    Given that, why is Obama even weighing in? And given that he is, is he foolish?

    Americans do tend to over estimate their importance

    Strange use of tense. It would seem that you would use “we” and “our” rather than omitting the first and subing “their” in the second.

    • #18 by Tyler Backus on March 3, 2014 - 19:05

      If Obama does nothing or says nothing than it makes it appear as though the action is acceptable. Although our ability to do much, or at least with the military, is limited he cannot sit back and say nothing. Like every president he has to play a very fine line, quite like Reagan did in the 1980s.

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