Archive for category Russia

Germany Takes the Lead in Ukraine Crisis

If a peaceful resolution to the Ukraine crisis is to be found, German and French Foreign Ministers Walter Frank Steinmeier and Laurent Fabius will receive much of the credit

If a peaceful resolution to the Ukraine crisis is to be found, German and French Foreign Ministers Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Laurent Fabius will receive much of the credit

German Chancellor Angela Merkel will visit Kiev this coming weekend, her first visit to Ukraine since the crisis began.  The Germans have been in an active dialogue with Russian President Vladimir Putin Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko for weeks,  Last weekend German foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier hosted a meeting with his French, Russian and Ukrainian counterparts to discuss how to end the crisis.

At this point, the Germans have successfully dissuaded Russia from expanding the conflict, even as the Ukrainian army clears pro-Russian separatists from the towns of Donetsk and Luhansk.  Kiev’s forces are rapidly defeating the separatists though fear of a Russian invasion is real.   This is the first real test of German’s ability to take a leadership role in using soft power to try to diffuse a potentially devastating crisis.

Ukrainian troops are making steady progress against Russian separatists

Ukrainian troops are making steady progress against Russian separatists

Some might wonder why the US is acquiescing to European leadership here.  Shouldn’t we be pressuring the Russians and asserting America’s role as leader of the western world?   In a word, no.  In fact, the title ‘leader of the western world’ is passe.  While there is a European based civilization generally known as the “West,” it is a cultural construct.  The West as a unified international force ceased to exist with the end of the Cold War.   The world is no longer divided into neat blocs.  Perhaps the point where this became crystal clear was in 2002-03 when France and Germany worked with Russia to stymie US efforts to get UN approval for the Iraq war.  

More to the point, the US has little at stake in Ukraine.  While politicians may wax poetically about stopping Putin, this isn’t the Cold War.  Ukraine was part of the old USSR after all, we’re not about to risk all out nuclear war because of separatists in east Ukraine, or even a Russian invasion.  In 2008 when Russia took South Ossetia, President Bush resisted calls to come to the aid of Georgia (South Ossetia was a Russian part of Georgia wanted to join Russian North Ossetia), even though Georgia actively supported the US in Iraq.   We have no vested interest in the Russian near abroad; for Russia, it’s their primary focus.

Much of the natural gas Europe relies on for heat in winter comes from Russia via Ukraine

Much of the natural gas Europe relies on for heat in winter comes from Russia via Ukraine

Germany, on the other hand, has real interests.  It gets natural gas from Russia, it’s promoting democracy and European stability, and it wants to make sure there isn’t another move to a Europe divided into blocs, even if this time it’s the Russian bloc and the EU bloc.  While the US has little with which to pressure Russia, Germany is a main trade and investment partner of Russia, and the ambiguous relationship between the two countries goes way back.  If Russia’s economy is to grow and modernize, it needs a close relationship with Germany.

The Germans understand that pressuring Putin with tough talk and threats is counter productive.  The American penchant to pull no rhetorical punches in condemning Russian support for the separatists serves no useful purpose other than to create an emotional backlash in Russia – a backlash Putin wants to take advantage of.   The Europeans prefer quiet pressure: the promise of closer economic ties as a carrot alongside the potential stick of increased sanctions.

Will it work?  The odds are better than one might think.   While Russia has the power to invade Ukraine and annex eastern portions, it’s not really in their interest.  Those are poor parts of Ukraine which would be costly to administer, and the already vulnerable Russian economy would be hit by sharper western sanctions.   If they hold back, Putin will have his nationalist bone fides questioned – something which could harm his popularity.  But he’d likely expand economic ties with Europe, which Russia needs.

Russia is tempted to annex eastern portions with a majority of ethnic Russians - yet it's still very possible to prevent a Russian-Ukrainian war

Russia is tempted to annex eastern portions with a majority of ethnic Russians – yet it’s still very possible to prevent a Russian-Ukrainian war


In all of this, it appears likely the EU is ready to accept that the Crimea is again part of Russia.   That allows Putin to claim a victory even as he backs down, and historically the Crimea is more Russian than Ukrainian anyway.  The longer this drags out without a Russian invasion, the better the odds that the crisis will end quietly rather than escalate to an all out Russian-Ukrainian war.

It’s really up to Putin – and no one is sure on what he’s basing his calculus.  In any event, the leading role of Europe in negotiating and dealing with the crisis, with the US in the background, is an example of how the new multi-polar global polity operates.  Europe thought they could deal with Yugoslavia’s breakup in the 1990s and failed.  Now the challenge is clear – find a way out of the Ukrainian crisis without it devolving to war.

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John Kerry’s Diplomacy



Secretary Kerry’s patient diplomacy continues to win little victories for the Obama Administration.   Though he lacks the tough veneer of his predecessor, Kerry is proving to be an adept and successful diplomat.

The IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) claims Iran is ahead of schedule in following the agreement reached last year and took affect on January 20th.    The dilution of enriched uranium means that Iran probably does not have enough to make even one nuclear weapon, defusing what had been a tense situation.   Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani says its in the interest of Iran to assure the world that Iran does not want to have nuclear weapons.   If the process stays on track  sanctions will be lifted and Iran will move towards fully rejoining the international community.

This is a success for the Obama Administration.   The problem of Iran’s nuclear program has been an issue for over a decade, with the potential of doing immense harm to the region and the world economy.   An attack on Iran by the US or Israel could lead to disastrous consequences.  The Pentagon was not happy about how it war gamed out, and there was fear Israel might go it alone.

The deal with Iran remains on track, which is in the mutual interest of Iran and the US

The deal with Iran remains on track, which is in the mutual interest of Iran and the US

Yet that was then – when Iran was part of President Bush’s “axis of evil,” and the US war in Iraq created intense emotions and anti-Americanism.   Now anti-Americanism has waned and the emotion of the last decade has turned into realization that the Iranian economy is the real problem.   There is no benefit for Iran in maintaining a hard line, and the last election and recent demonstrations show the Guardian Council (the body of clerics that have the most power in Iran) that the public is unhappy.   They need to put the nuclear issue behind them and focus on the economy.

There could still be problems and missteps along the way, but for the first time in a long time concern over Iran’s nuclear program is fading.  Patient diplomacy by Obama and Secretary Kerry is paying off.

Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov make progress

Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov make progress

The other place diplomacy seems to be working is in Ukraine – though this is still a very tense and uncertain situation.   Both have agreed in principle to eschew violence.   Ukraine will give full amnesty to all protesters except those who have committed capital offenses, while Russia agrees not to invade or use violence.   More details aren’t yet known, but while it is meant to de-escalate rather than solve the problem, it’s an important step in the right direction.

Those who say Putin wants to recreate a resurgent Russia are overstating the case.   Putin was humiliated by the defeat of Yanukovych earlier this year and it completely unsettled his effort to bring Ukraine closer to Russia.   Putin genuinely believes the new government is illegal, radical and illegitimate.   If an anti-American protest overthrew a pro-American government in Mexico, we might feel the same way.

No doubt Putin wants to find a way to allow eastern Ukraine to, if not become part of Russia, at least have more autonomy from Kiev to pursue closer relations with Russia.   That isn’t necessarily a bad idea; in a divided country, sometimes de-centralized power works best.  But Putin is not stupid.  He knows that in an era of globalization Russia cannot be isolated from the West – that kind of isolation is what caused the collapse of the Soviet Union.   His challenge is to find a way out of this that both maintains Russia’s connections to the West (particularly the EU) and prevents an unacceptable outcome in Ukraine.

Today’s de-escalation agreement could allow a transition to talks on constitutional reform in Ukraine to keep the country unified, but allow autonomy on some economic fronts.   That may seem like a victory for Russia – and in the short term it would be.   But ultimately if the western part of Ukraine develops faster thanks to their EU ties, provinces in the east would have the power to look west.   They won’t be tied to Russia.

The situation in eastern Ukraine is tense

The situation in eastern Ukraine is tense

The US and EU has to use their clout to get Kiev to recognize that they won’t achieve a perfect outcome – Russian power and influence is real; compromise is necessary.   They then have to work out an arrangement with Russia that avoids any military action, and will allow for a peaceful resolution of the tumult in the east.    Even if the short term result allows the east to drift closer to Russia, as long as Ukraine is one country and the regions in the east remain autonomous from Russia, it’s an acceptable result.

Those who say Putin and Russia are “winning” and the US has lost its foreign policy edge are in the land of the absurd.   Not that long ago Russia controlled not only all of Ukraine, but the 15 Soviet Republics and a bunch of east European states.   That day is long gone.  Russia’s position vis-a-vis the US is severely weakened, and the best Russia can hope for is a little more regional influence.

For those who like to think about power and conflict, messy diplomacy may seem dissatisfying.   Better to bomb the Iranians to be sure, or risk war to stop Putin from Russian expansion!   But in reality both Russia and Iran have very strong motives to make sure they are connected to the global economy.  In the 21st Century, international isolation is defeat.   That’s why patient diplomacy can work.

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The Saudi Problem

US President Barack Obama speaks alongsi

President Obama will soon be in Riyadh, visiting King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, and no doubt hearing a litany of complaints about American policy towards the Mideast.   While the stated purpose of the trip is to soothe the feelings of Saudi leaders who feel neglected and are discontent with American policy, one reality cannot be denied:  The US and Saudi Arabia are seeing their interest diverge, and nothing the President can say will alter that.   The Saudis have become more of a problem than a trusted ally.

One issue Saudi leaders will push involves Iran.   The United States is trying to solve the Iranian crisis, on going since 2003, by improving relations with Iran’s moderate President Rouhani and working towards an agreement on Iranian nuclear weapons.  The Saudis see Iran as their major rival in the region – a view they’ve held since Iran’s 1979 revolution – and would prefer that Iran remain a pariah state.

Iran has four times the population, a stronger military and a more modern economy than Saudi Arabia

Iran has four times the population, a stronger military and a more modern economy than Saudi Arabia

Both states straddle the Persian Gulf.   Iran could threaten the strategic and economically vital straits of Hormuz, a narrow passage way through which most Persian Gulf oil flows.  With Iraq now developing closer ties to Iran – Saudi leaders openly distrust and will not talk to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki – they feel the balance of regional power is shifting away from them.  In fact, the Iraqis complain that the Saudis are arming and funding Sunni groups fighting against Iraq’s central government.   Some would argue that Saudi Arabia is at war with Iraq!

In that light, closer US – Iranian ties would cause the Saudis to worry about not only their regional power, but also the royal family’s hold on government.   As the region changes, their traditional and very conservative rule becomes harder to maintain.   And, as much as the West relies on Saudi oil, it may be in our interest to slowly sever the close alliance between the US and Saudi Arabia.

First, compare life in Iran with life in Saudi Arabia.   Most Americans assume Iran is a bit of a hell hole.  Run by an Islamic fundamentalist government, people conjure up images of the Taliban or al qaeda.  The reality is quite different.  Iran is not only far more democratic than any Arab state (though Iraq is working towards democracy), but Saudi Arabia is where living conditions are defined by a fundamentalist view of Islam.   Women cannot drive, they cannot go out publicly without their husband, they cannot work in office where men are present.   They can’t even shop in stores which have men!   Indeed, if we went by human rights concerns, we’d clearly be on the side of Iran over Saudi Arabia!   The Saudis are second only to North Korea in terms of oppression.

After the 2009 elections Iranians took to the street to protest the result; in 2013 a moderate was elected President

After the 2009 elections Iranians took to the street to protest the result; in 2013 a moderate was elected President

In Saudi Arabia not only would such a protest not be allowed, but the woman pictured above would be arrested for simply being out of the house, head not fully covered, and in the company of men.   In short, the Saudis have an archaic system that should dissuade us from doing business with them.  We do business with them because they have oil.  Lots of oil.

Yet Saudi oil isn’t as important as it used to be.    The Saudis were the world’s number one producer of oil for decades.  Last year, the US took their place.   Thanks to natural gas development in the US, as well new oil finds, the United States is producing more domestic oil and gas than people thought possible just a decade ago.  That doesn’t mean our troubles are over, but as we shift towards alternative energy sources and develop our own fossil fuels, the utter dependency on Saudi Arabia is weakened.  We can afford to have them a bit upset.

The US has surpassed Saudi Arabia in oil production last year - which combined with natural gas makes the US the world leader in fossil fuel production.

The US has surpassed Saudi Arabia in oil production last year – which combined with natural gas makes the US the world leader in fossil fuel production.

Beyond that, they have no real alternative.  Oil is a global commodity so they can’t punish only the US by cutting oil supplies.  That affects everyone, especially the Saudis!   They need to sell their oil to keep their economy afloat.   They have not used their oil wealth to build a modern economy, they’ve simply spent it or bought off their population.   When the oil runs out, they’ll have squandered an unbelievable opportunity – with our help.

The Arab Spring of 2011 was the start of a regional transition that will take decades.  The Saudis, despite the brutality and repression of their secret police, are not immune.   Their anachronistic Kingdom has persisted decades longer than it should have.   It will not last deep into the 21st Century.

Therein lies the dilemma for the US.   Actively supporting a dying Kingdom only makes it likely that the successors will be more fervently anti-American.   That’s why Iranian-American relations have been so sour, the US had supported the brutal regime of the Shah of Iran from 1954-79.  Yet as tensions continue with that other major energy producer, Russia, the US doesn’t want to needlessly anger the Saudis or risk some kind of crisis.   So while our actions will reflect interests that are our own, and not those of the Saudis, expect friendly talk from the President.

Our interest is to mend relations with Iran, the true regional power, settle the dispute over Iranian nuclear energy, and work to support change in the Arab world.   The Saudis would love to have us help overthrow Syria’s pro-Iranian government, but that is not in our interest.   Change in the Arab world will come about over decades as the culture shifts, it won’t be achieved with just a change in government – look at the troubles Egypt has had since 2011.

So President Obama’s response to Saudi complaints should be to smile, say he understands, and that he’ll take Saudi suggestions seriously.  He should have his advisers take vigorous notes about Saudi suggestions, promise his full attention, and then simply say goodbye.  If there are symbolic gestures that can soothe their discontent, by all means, soothe.  But overall the US should extricate itself from its close relationship with Saudi Arabia, and work to address the new realities of the Mideast.


Moscow’s Game

Pro-Russian protest in the Ukrainian city of Donetsk

Pro-Russian protest in the Ukrainian city of Donetsk

The Russians intend to stay in Crimea for good – Putin has no desire to negotiate or allow Crimea to rejoin Ukraine.  Moreover, the Crimeans probably prefer it that way.   The West can threaten sanctions and issue travel bans, but Crimea is so integral to Russian history and Black Sea interests that they will not back down.   It is a fiat accompli, the West ultimately will have to accept it.  It’s not worth another Cold War.

Ultimately Putin wants the West and Ukraine to accept that Crimea is Russian.   The key to getting that acceptance may be to spread unrest in eastern Ukraine.

Rival protesters clash in eastern Ukraine - sentiment is mixed

Rival protesters clash in eastern Ukraine – sentiment is mixed

Although, as pointed out in previous posts, eastern Ukraine is ethnically Russian, with Russian the primary language spoken, many see themselves as Ukrainian.  Most do not approve of the revolt in Kiev or the new government, but are not necessarily keen to join Russia or declare autonomy.    Many others would support separating from Kiev.  The people there are divided.

This gives Russia a weapon in the fight to gain international acceptance of Crimea as a part of Russia.   It is not hard for Russia to incite protest and violence in eastern Ukraine, to amass troops along the Ukrainian border, and create real fear that Russia is ready to divide Ukraine.   The price for keeping Russia at bay may be for the West to accept that Crimea is lost to Ukraine.

Many share this east Ukrainian woman's sentiment.

Many share this east Ukrainian woman’s sentiment.

There are reasons Moscow wouldn’t want to devour eastern Ukraine.   The region is an economic backwater, even taking control of Crimea will be expensive for Russia.  The diplomatic, economic and political consequences of an incursion deeper into Ukraine would be tough for Moscow to endure.  Crimea is strategically important, eastern Ukraine is not.

Yet Moscow can support pro-Russian protests and make menacing noises about east Ukraine in a frighteningly believable manner, upping the ante and putting fear in the hearts of Ukrainian nationalists in Kiev.   By now they realize that for all the rhetoric, neither the US nor the EU are willing to risk too much against Russia.

So as the new government in Kiev ponders its options, Putin might make a pitch – a guarantee not to invade eastern Ukraine and to cease any effort at destabilizing the region in exchange for Ukraine’s voluntary agreement to surrender all sovereign rights to Crimea.   At this point Kiev is adamant they’ll never do that, but as the crisis continues, the deal may look good.   Putin may even offer to assure the eastern Ukrainians that they should accept the Kiev government.

Pro-Russian protesters are gaining strength in eastern Ukraine

Pro-Russian protesters are gaining strength in eastern Ukraine

The US and EU could also exert pressure on Kiev to accept losing Crimea in exchange for more aid and support in their effort to westernize.   If Kiev and Moscow reached an agreement, the argument that President Obama made – that the West would “never” accept the Crimean vote to join Russia – could be overcome.   The US and EU can accept it if the Ukrainian government voluntarily makes a deal with Moscow to cede Crimea.

Moscow’s game is to make it in the interest of the West and Ukraine to accept the reality that Russia controls Crimea.   The danger is that the pro-Russian protests could get out of control, creating a real crisis in eastern Ukraine.   If that happens, Russia might be tempted to consider intervention, which would ratchet up the danger.

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Putin the Weak

The Boss

The Boss

As I’ve talked to people, read more, and really looked at Russia today, I realize that I was completely wrong in the last post in thinking we should consider allowing Ukraine to be divided.   Eastern Ukrainians, especially the youth, do not want to join Russia and see themselves as Ukrainian, even if they are ethnic Russians.   They want to look westward, not towards being part of a Russian dominated region likely doomed for authoritarianism and poor economic growth.

Putin became President at midnight on January 1, 2000.  He has been in office long enough to get used to power and the perks that come with it.  He has no intention of giving that up.  That was evident in 2008 when he hand picked diminutive Dmitry Medvedev to become President when the Constitution did not allow him to serve three consecutive terms.  Medvedev dutifully named Putin Prime Minister, and Putin continued to dominate.

However, comparisons of Putin to Hitler, or even old Soviet bureaucratic leaders like Brezhnev don’t hit the mark.   Putin is more ambiguous.  He quit the KGB on the second day of the KGB sponsored 1991 coup against Gorbachev because he sided with Yeltsin, not the old guard.   He has sought to integrate Russia into the global economy and end the chaos of the Yeltsin era.   He may even still see a democratic modern Russia as his ultimate goal – though a Russian democracy, not one imposed by or reflecting the culture of the West.

Yeltsin and Putin represent a sad cycle of post-Cold War Russian policy.   Yeltsin went all out for reform and democracy, but didn’t realize that Russia was not prepared for that.  Instead a class of oligarchs arose that acted the way the Communists said capitalists act: conspicuous consumption, massive wealth, and a disregard for the poor.   As a small class got exceedingly wealthy, many more become impoverished or suffered under hyperinflation followed by stagnation.  Add to that low oil prices in the 90s, and Yeltsin’s Russia fell into crisis and turmoil.

Yeltsin wanted a democratic market economy - what he got was out of control corruption and a parasitic oligarchy

Yeltsin wanted a democratic market economy – what he got was out of control corruption and a parasitic oligarchy

Putin, a surprise pick for Prime Minister in 1999, had been in politics only a decade.   He worked his way up in rather minor roles until joining the Presidential staff in 1997.  His responsibilities increased, and in 1999 he became Prime Minister.  He was part of a group of advisers that pressured an increasingly out of touch, drunk and unhealthy Yeltsin to sacrifice power to those who wanted to end the experiment in out of control wild west capitalism.

In his first two terms he was immensely popular.  He took on the oligarchs and re-established the dominance of the state.  Higher oil prices helped, and Russian incomes rose for the first time since the collapse of the USSR.   Cities like Moscow started to glisten, and it appeared that Russia was finally on the right path.   Growth was 10% in Putin’s first year, and hovered at near 7% until 2008.  Putin seemed to want to finally connect Russia with the global economy.

By 2014, however, Russia’s economy is stagnating despite high oil prices.   The 2008 global economic crisis made clear that Russian growth had not been due to the construction of a sustainable economy, but primarily to high oil prices and speculation.  Putin’s intentions may have been good, but since he didn’t see things through to real, stable reform, Russia is drifting towards weakness and internal dissent.

Opponents like the band Pussy Riot reflect growing dissatisfaction of Russias youth about the direction Putin is taking the country.

Opponents like the band Pussy Riot reflect growing dissatisfaction of Russias youth about the direction Putin is taking the country.

In that light, the loss of Ukraine put Putin and his inner circle in a position they found intolerable.  Rather than keeping Russia’s sphere of influence and slowly broadening it, the Ukraine uprising meant Russian influence was suddenly drastically limited.   The Customs Union connecting Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan was meant to be a beginning of rebuilding a Russian led zone outside the EU.

The Soviet Union had consisted of 15 Republics, with Russia the largest.  On January 1, 1992 all fifteen became independent countries (light green and blue represents former Soviet Republics, the yellow and light yellow were independent states in the Soviet bloc):

soviet republics

A look at this map shows why Russia intervened in Ukraine.  If the Ukraine moved toward the EU, the Russian “zone” in the West would be simply Belarus.   Moreover, with new fracking technology, the Ukraine threatens to develop its own natural gas industry, competing with Russia.  If Putin had succeeded in connecting Ukraine with the Customs Union, the Russian zone becomes much more formidable.

Taking Crimea may have been a step towards at least trying to divide Ukraine, but all the evidence I’m finding, including talks with Ukrainians, suggest that the ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine aren’t keen to join Russia or be independent from Kiev.  Indeed, the biggest pro-Russia demographic are the older folks – the ones whose thinking reflects Cold War experiences.   The youth are looking West – that might be the only way for Ukraine to get out of deep economic difficulties.

I strongly doubt Putin will give up Crimea.   It is of strategic importance on the Black Sea, and has only been part of Ukraine since 1954.  After the USSR collapsed there were conflicts about the future of Crimea, and it joined Ukraine as an autonomous Republic with considerable rights of self-governance.

The choice?  The Crimea drapped with a Russian flag, or one with a black swastika!

The choice? The Crimea drapped with a Russian flag, or one with a black swastika!

The Crimean referendum scheduled for March 16th is bizarre – there is no option to stay in Ukraine, just to join Russia immediately, or be autonomous from Ukraine (though worded trickily).   Clearly the powers in Crimea and Russia want to be sure that the days of Crimea being Ukrainian are over.

So what should the US and EU do?   Keep the pressure on Russia over Crimea, but recognize that it’s probably a lost cause.   An autonomous Crimea is a better outcome than Russian annexation because the possibility would remain that it could someday rejoin Ukraine.  The key is to prevent any other parts of Ukraine from leaving, and nip Russia incited nationalist protests in the bud.   Then the US and EU need to do whatever they can to help the Ukrainians rebuild their economy and show eastern hold outs that life in Ukraine holds more promise than in Putin’s Russia.

Putin is no Stalin, perhaps a moment of weakness will convince him that true strength comes when one embraces the flow of history.  He can try to cling to power in an ever weakening position, or he can become a true leader that guides his country to real reform.

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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.


John Kerry, an American Hero on a Mission


John Kerry first became a household name when he had the courage to come home from Vietnam, a decorated hero, and tell the truth about what was happening there.    Protesting a meaningless war, he helped form “Vietnam Veterans Against the War,” which included testimony to Congress and a protest wherein veterans including himself threw their medals over a fence at the Capital building.  Kerry said:  “I’m not doing this for any violent reasons, but for peace and justice, and to try and make this country wake up once and for all. ”

Young John Kerry was even the subject of mocking by Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau

Young John Kerry was even the subject of mocking by Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau

Later, of course, he went into politics and became a highly regarded Massachusetts Senator, and the 2004 Democratic candidate for President.   Though he was slandered in that campaign with false allegations about his military service, he fought a close election, losing to President George W. Bush 50.7% to 48.3%.  In losing, he still garnered more votes than anyone else in history at the time, except for President Bush.

Kerry was active in the Senate, maintaining his principles.  He and Iowa Senator Tom Harkin flew to Nicaragua shortly after his 1984 election to the Senate, visiting Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega.   The US was actively engaged in policies against Nicaragua, and Kerry along with Christopher Dodd investigated and helped bring to light the illegal activities of the Iran-Contra affair.   He did vote to authorize military force against Iraq, but was critical of the way President Bush handled the war.   Still, that vote represents a blemish on his career.

On February 1, 2013 Senator Kerry became Secretary of State Kerry.   The man who was once seen as a dangerous critic of US foreign policy is now the primary architect of that policy.   He has shown that he intends to be active and true to his principles.

Kerry being sworn in as Secretary of State

Kerry being sworn in as Secretary of State

This has generated criticism.  His efforts to broker a deal with Iran have been criticized in France and Israel.   His work with Russia has been dismissed as being naive.   But the critics all share one trait: they assume diplomacy can’t work.    Many people have a very black and white view of reality.   Certain countries are the “bad guys” and “our enemies,” so only naive fools will engage them.

Such a view is absurd.  Mao Zedong was vehement in his hatred for the US and threats against American hegemony.   His rhetoric made the anti-Israel barbs of former Iranian President Ahmadinejad look mild.  Yet President Nixon and Henry Kissinger opened relations with China, allowing China to replace Taiwan on the UN Security Council, which helped lead to positive change in China.   That was heavily criticized, but Nixon’s credentials as an anti-Communist helped him mollify the critics (hence the colloquialism ‘only Nixon could go to China’).

Nixon and Mao

Nixon and Mao

Former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was once the most hated man on the planet by the American government.  He masterminded terrorist attacks which killed Americans, and the Reagan Administration tried to eliminate him in an attack on his house.  Later, though, diplomacy led him to abandon his nuclear program and try to get on the good side of the West.   Many on the right were critical of UN efforts to help the Libyan rebels, preferring Gaddafi stay in power.

The point: diplomacy is about trying to turn enemies into, if not friends, at least people we can deal with.

John Kerry has logged 250,000 miles as Secretary of State, visiting 35 countries.  His desire to try to find solutions to long standing problems in the Mideast and elsewhere have caused many in Washington to criticize him.    Unlike his predecessor, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Kerry goes less for the showy displays and more for substance.   One gets the sense that she never wanted to do anything that would later harm a Presidential bid, such as being seen as too open to an agreement with Iran.   Kerry is not limited by political ambition, he can go where his principles lead.

President Obama has given Kerry considerable latitude in pursuing his foreign policy goals, largely because the two share similar principles.   Since Kerry doesn’t have to worry about what Washington insiders say, he can take their shots, working on extremely complex issues.   If he can’t succeed, he gets blamed.  If he does manage to reach agreements, the President can step in and get the glory.   That’s the job of a Secretary of State, and Kerry understands it.

John Kerry could deliver foreign policy successes to enhance President Obama's legacy

John Kerry could deliver foreign policy successes to enhance President Obama’s legacy

Yet while his efforts have been rather quiet, mostly underneath the media radar screen, he appears to be on a mission to do good – to be true to the principles that led him to speak out against atrocities taking place in Vietnam.  Who knows?  In the next three years he might be able to accomplish more as a hard working Secretary of State getting into the diplomatic trenches than he would have as President had he won in 2004.

And if so that would be fitting closure to his career.   His began by protesting against a pointless war that killed over a million people, with the major consequence being a decline in US power and moral authority.   Perhaps it might end with him guiding US foreign policy in a way that promotes peace and works to limit human suffering.   At this point in time John Kerry is the right man for the job.