Archive for category Ukraine

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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What Next in Ukraine


The downing of Malaysia Flight 17 by Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine put the Ukraine crisis back into the world’s attention, and marked a dramatic escalation in the seriousness of the crisis.  295 people were killed, a civilian airliner shot down, and Russia appears to be at least indirectly responsible through its arming of the separatists.   So where do we go from here?

Here’s the situation: Vlad the improviser stumbled into his Ukraine policy with a series of reactions to the downfall of former Ukrainian President Yanukovych.  Suddenly Ukraine shifted from a tilt toward Russia to a strong lean towards Europe, and Putin’s reaction was to grab Crimea, and then foment unrest in the ethnic Russian regions of eastern Ukraine.   Personally, I get the Crimea gambit.  Crimea was traditionally Russian and give to Ukraine by a misguided Khrushchev in 1954.   But the rest?

Plane parts are spread out over a wide area, consistent with it having been shot down.    Here people in Grabovka, Ukraine wander among crash remnants.

Plane parts are spread out over a wide area, consistent with it having been shot down. Here people in Grabovka, Ukraine wander among crash remnants.

For Putin, who was losing his luster at home, it was an unexpected political opportunity.   He could play the Russian nationalist anti-American card and watch his popularity grow.   Though the West feared an effort to grab all of eastern Ukraine, Putin instead tried to maintain a balancing act.

Knowing that the Russian economy in the era of globalization needs to keep reasonably healthy ties with the EU, he avoided the massive land grab that could have forced the EU into more draconian anti-Russia sanctions.   However, he also sent units from Russian intelligence there to start/support an indigenous uprising, knowing it might flounder, but counting on it destabilizing the hated Ukrainian government and helping keep his nationalist bona fides in place.

For awhile, it seemed to work.   The West seemed to be losing interest in the conflict, especially as it was clear the Russian separatists were not faring well against the Ukrainian military.  At home his stoking of Russian nationalism kept his popularity high. The balancing act seemed to be a bit of political genius.

However, supporting a rebellion is tricky.   While Putin might have been OK with the crisis dragging out indefinitely, the rebels were fighting for a cause.  Angry that Russia seemed to be “deserting them” (read: just giving them weapons and support, but not actively participating in the effort to build New Russia), they exercised more autonomy and, as we know, brought down Malaysian Flight 17.

Obama on the phone with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko after the crash

Obama on the phone with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko after the crash

So what now?  First, the US has to recognize that there are limited options and all require serious cooperation and even leadership from the EU.  While some in the US huff that Obama hasn’t done enough, blaming the American President for what goes on in the rest of the world, the reality is that US power is limited.

The key is that Russian President Putin knows that the Soviet Union fell primarily because its economy was isolated.   Globalization began in earnest in the 80s, and the rapid connections in the West combined with the economic failures of Communism in the Soviet bloc made economic disintegration inevitable.    If Putin severed ties and focused on building his own internal empire, the result would be disaster.

Moreover, Russia’s future is very much connected to the EU, and Germany in particular.   Earlier this month Germans, already incensed by the monitoring of Chancellor Merkel’s phone calls for years, kicked out a CIA agent who was spying on Germany from the US embassy.   German Chancellor Merkel is clearly not an American proxy; the Germans have become more independent in crafting a foreign policy to serve European interests.  The Cold War is long dead.

Putin and Merkel consult in Brazil during the World Cup finals.

Putin and Merkel consult in Brazil during the World Cup finals.

It is Germany and the EU that can put the most pressure on Putin, and Merkel’s leverage with the Russian President has been increased by this tragedy.   Not only are the Europeans feeling more pressure than ever to turn up the heat on Russia, but Putin has to recognize that his balancing act is a very dangerous one.

President Obama needs to keep rhetorical pressure on Russia and be in close consultation with Merkel, crafting a plan to both pressure the Russian leader but also give him a face saving way to withdraw support from the rebels.   What we do not need is rah rah Cold War style chest thumping, nor do we need to up the ante by dramatically increasing military aid for Ukraine.   That would force Putin into holding firm – he will not allow himself to be seen as giving in to the US.  At best, it would only deepen and lengthen the duration of the crisis.  At first, things could spin out of control.

That’s in no one’s interest, saving the hyper-nationalists on either side.   A gradual reduction in tension, with action more behind the scenes than in the public eye, is the best way out.   So far, the Obama Administration has behaved admirably, keeping up pressure but not being belligerent.   More importantly, the US has learned that we do not need to lead, especially not when our direct interests are not at stake.

Ultimately it is up to Putin – he is a very vain politician, and the West needs to construct a path to de-escalate the crisis so that he saves face.   Recognizing that the Crimea is part of Russia is perhaps part of the calculus.   Putin giving up on any further annexation of eastern Ukraine must be another.


Obama’s Foreign Policy


A recent meme from the right has been that President Obama has failed at foreign policy.    FOX News, Townhall, the Weekly Standard — the usual partisan suspects — say President Obama has a “non-existent” foreign policy and should take the blame when things go bad in Ukraine, Syria or Iraq.   In what President Reagan once derided as a “blame America first” tendency, the critics want to blame Obama for everything that goes wrong in the world.

In reality, his Presidency has been a foreign policy success on a number of fronts, most importantly extricating the US from two costly wars and responding to a new multi-polar international environment wherein the role of the US is different than at any time in our history.   That is what irks the critics; America’s role in the world is changing and they want to blame the President.   That is misguided and hypocritical.

The criticisms from the right (I’ll deal with the left’s critique in a later post) fall in three categories:

1.  Obama is not actively using American power.   Obama is blamed for “enticing” Putin to act in Ukraine because he perceived Obama as weak or unwilling to act.   Syria’s horrible civil war is Obama’s fault because the US has not been able to stop it.   This criticism essentially says that the global villains sense Obama’s weakness and “detachment” from foreign affairs and thus are willing to stir up trouble.


2.  Obama is siding with the wrong people.  In Libya, when Obama did use force to end a civil war, he was accused of helping Islamic extremists who were part of the anti-Qaddafi opposition.   Similarly, when the US didn’t come to the aid of Mubarak to keep him in power in Egypt, the critics said that embracing the Arab Spring would be to embrace Islamic extremism.  Better to keep corrupt dictators in power than risk these rebellions.  They point to the difficult transitions in the region as proof that it would have been better to keep the dictatorships in power.

3.  Obama isn’t as supportive of Israel as he should be; his inability to get the peace process going again is a result of weakness.  Never mind that the peace process fell apart during the Clinton Administration.   While Bush was in office violence suicide bombing and war riveted the region.  Nope, to the critics any lack of progress is all Obama’s fault.   The same group has been vocal about Iran, saying Iran is akin to Nazi Germany, and not allowing Israel to take out its nuclear sites risks a future holocaust.



The first criticism comes primarily from neo-conservatives, people who supported the failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.   They do not accept that the world now is one that the US can’t simply shape at will.  That is what they thought we could do in Iraq – use US power to spread democracy and shape a region to better fit our values.    The war against Iraq was won; the effort to reshape the region failed spectacularly.   Many of these critics, such as Charles Krauthammer and the critics at the Weekly Standard, are in denial that their world view have been discredited by history.

Beyond that, the idea that somehow a “tough” President would have scared Putin away from Ukraine borders on the delusionally absurd.   Putin acted out of weakness as his Ukraine policy fell apart with the ouster of Yanukovych.   Rambo could be President and Putin would have felt compelled to take Crimea and pressure Ukraine.   He knows the US and EU have no interest in war.  Yet President Obama has worked with the EU to craft a response more likely to succeed.   Russia’s future depends on connecting with the global economy; the USSR failed because it could not.

It's important to be on the right side of history as the Arab world begins a difficult transition

It’s important to be on the right side of history as the Arab world begins a difficult transition

It’s also absurd to think the US should have tried to stop the Arab Spring or continue support for thugs like Mubarak.   When a region with 50% of the population under 23, linked through the information revolution, show disgust for corrupt obsolete dictatorships, it would be disastrous for us to side with the dictators.  That part of the world is undertaking a real transition – our best bet is to be on the right side of history.

So the critics have a very weak case against the President.   They fail to offer viable alternatives, which is telling.  Their real problem is an inability to accept that world where the US is no longer the dominant power.   Over the last twenty years globalization has altered the nature of sovereignty and global politics.   The economic crisis in the US revealed structural weaknesses thirty years in the making.   The Iraq war showed the limits of US power and soured the public on interventionism.   The world is fundamentally different than it was in 1994.

If President Bush had accomplished this, he'd have been lauded as a hero.

If President Bush had accomplished this, he’d have been lauded as a hero.

Obama’s successes – getting Iran to agree to give up its capacity to build nuclear weapons with UN oversight, extricating the US from Iraq and Afghanistan, getting a deal with Russia to destroy large numbers of nuclear missiles, killing Osama Bin Laden while weakening al qaeda, improving economic cooperation after the 2008 catastrophe, and re-orienting US foreign policy for the new multi-polar world – are profound.   Obama’s multi-lateralism, hated especially by the neo-conservatives, is working.  The US is more respected and in a better strategic position now than we have been at any time since the end of the Cold War.  Despite inheriting two wars, the President has avoided any foreign policy debacle.

So all the critics can say is that “bad things happen in the world and we blame Obama.”  *shrug*


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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Time To Seriously Consider a Divided Ukraine

Crimea's location on the Black Sea has been of historical strategic importance to Russia.

Crimea’s location on the Black Sea has been of historical strategic importance to Russia.

The reaction to Russia’s invasion of Crimea has been swift and harsh.   The EU and the US have unambiguously condemned the military action, and have talked of serious sanctions and consequences should Moscow not back down.   However, as time passes and it becomes clear that there is no easy way to get Russia to back down, it may be necessary to seriously consider dividing Ukraine.

Its almost surreal how there is a kind of collective amnesia about the 2008 war in which Russia attacked the independent state of Georgia, a close US ally and participant in the Iraq war, taking the Russian-speaking territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.   Those are still occupied by Russia almost six years late.   The events on the ground, outside the control of the US, created a situation where Russian action was virtually inevitable no matter who was in office.   Blaming Obama (or Bush in 2008) is ridiculous.

Second, this war represents the weakness of the Russian position.   While critics want to paint Putin as Hitler incarnate, planning to swoop next into Poland, the reality is that he is struggling to keep Russian influence in places where Russia has been dominant for quite some time.    When the USSR gave Crimea to Ukraine in 1954, there was no doubt where the power really lie – in Moscow.   Kiev, like Tbilisi, was subservient to the Kremlin.   That they can’t keep a fraction of their influence without using the military shows a country still in decline, not one resurgent.

Gates, a Republican told his party to tone down it's criticism of the President and “try to be supportive of the president rather than natter at the president."

Gates, a Republican told his party to tone down it’s criticism of the President and “try to be supportive of the president rather than natter at the president.”

Third, Republican attacks on the President are counter productive,  shallow and objectively wrong.   The response to Russia’s invasion of the Crimean peninsula has been vitriolic among a few on the right.   Senator McCain said the US had a “feckless foreign policy” and Senator Graham claimed that Obama is “weak and indecisive” and “invited aggression.”

Driven by talk radio, Fox News, and the right wing blogosphere, the right has convinced themselves that Obama is a bumbling idiot with no experience, who does everything wrong, and maybe should be impeached.  That hyperbolic inbred Obama-phobia plays well among that group, but is both absurd and harmful to the country.   We need to have a serious domestic discussion about our options, interests and goals in dealing with far away crises like this one.  Consider:

1.  What options does the US have?  In reality, we’re not going to go to war over Crimea.   Neither are the Europeans.  Russia has troops on the ground and it’s in their backyard – their “near abroad.”  This means that the only feasible response involves economic, symbolic and diplomatic action.   This cannot be unilateral.  Such actions are only effective if they are multilateral and enforced.  That means the US has to work with the EU for a common position.

The 1854-55 Crimean War is remembered as a military disaster, even if it did yield the Red Cross and "the charge of the light brigade"

The 1854-55 Crimean War is remembered as a military disaster, even if it did yield the Red Cross and “the charge of the light brigade”

2.  Is it wrong to consider having the Ukraine give up territory?   Besides Georgia, Yugoslavia is another state where ethnic differences caused parts of that country to want independence from the core.   The international community opposed separatists in Yugoslavia for a long time, but ultimately realized that the country was untenable as one state.   Might it be untenable to have a Ukraine so divided between East and West – or Europe and Russia – that internal conflicts are unable to be settled?  Might it not be better to have a clearly western Ukraine whose people support NATO and EU, and a new state representing parts of the east that want to be closer to Russia?   Do we support existing lines on maps, or self-determination?

3.  If Russia is in decline with Putin acting desperately, shouldn’t we also consider not just “piling on” like the international community is now doing, but giving Putin a way out?  The Russians have a tradition of isolation from the West, and if Putin sees no choice he’ll play into that cultural history to keep a firm grip on power and assert regional Russian power.   Russians often have seen “being Russian” as a spiritual identity that is exceptional and must not be sacrificed for western norms.

The problem with not giving Russia a way to save face or gain something is that more regional conflicts could emerge, spreading instability.   Moreover, if Russia is isolated, any effort by the Russian people to try to open up their society would be endangered.  If isolated, domestic oppression would grow.   The hope of having economic interdependence ultimately open Russia’s politics would be dashed.   Finally, sanctions and enmity between Moscow and the West would have economic costs; it’s ultimately in nobody’s interest.

US Secretary of State Kerry and the EU's equivalent to a foreign minister, Catherine Ashton.

US Secretary of State Kerry and the EU’s equivalent to a foreign minister, Catherine Ashton.

Americans have to accept that the world doesn’t run by idealistic legalism, and geopolitical events overseas often reflect the local realities that can’t be countered with simple slogans.

I believe negotiations should start aimed at allowing Russian speaking regions of the Ukraine vote on autonomy or remaining with Ukraine.  Right now this is not a popular position – the international community is piling on Russia, and domestic political name calling makes it hard to deal with the ambiguities and nuances of this case.   But I doubt that a divided Ukraine is sustainable.  Given globalization, there is no real benefit to controlling a bigger chunk of territory – whatever the nationalists in Kiev might say.  That kind of thinking is obsolete.

This map, shown in the post yesterday, shows the stark division.  The places with blue or dark blue could well choose to leave Ukraine.

This map, shown in the post yesterday, shows the stark division. The places with blue or dark blue could well choose to leave Ukraine.



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.