The Ukraine Chessboard

The recent upheavals in Ukraine, the aggressive actions of Russia in the Crimea, and the odd, Cold-War recollection-ing standoff that smacks of West vs East of the second half of the last century needs some illumination.

Because I think the one thing that this isn’t, is a Cold War Crisis.

The temptation is too take the realist’s approach, which seeing this as naked aggression, calls for a military response; the idea of concrete ‘action’. But an analysis of the situation, places everyone in an awkward position.

There are economic, ethnic issues as well as old-fashioned power games. Russia since the end of the cold war, has constantly faced a ongoing loss-of-face. Once a great, Soviet Empire, Russian elites watch as former allies, friends, and dependents turn to the West. Russians have abandoned the  ideology, but see themselves as a Great Power, which implies and deserves client, subservient states (like Belarus). Ukraine’s sin is that even though it has been a part of Russia for so long, the western part desperately looks west to join the European Union.

Yanukovych, very much a pet of Putin’s, as we have seen recently, by being deposed by mass, quasi-revolutionary action, has forced Putin to show his hand. The new and weak pro-western government cannot fight Russia, and the only way for them to negotiate the removal of Russian forces will probably be a price so high (like partial partition, or the return of Yanukovych), that they will collapse, or be seen to have ‘sold-out’ or caved in. The Crimea represents, one must keep in mind the part of Ukraine most suited to tourism and wine cultivation.

Partition would, with a Crimean and Eastern Ukraine as a Russian tributary state, and Western Ukraine based on Kiev,  as a sort of Western-looking state would effectively strangle “both” countries.

Russia, as a main supplier to Western Europe of gas has a huge economic whip at its disposal, and politically, it seems willing to throw away any polishing of its image that might have been gained from the Sochi Olympics. Russian elites seem willing to pay the price in international prestige for retaining the Ukraine as a client state.

So what can the US do? So far, the situation reminds us of the Russo-Georgian War of 2004, I think, where the pro-western Georgia was almost stamped out by Russia as well (Georgian forces, fighting in Iraq as part of our coalition, where flown by US airplanes to Tbilisi, going right in to fighting the Russians). I regret that we were incapable of providing more concrete support to these fledgling pro-western governments.

I think that a show of real support to the Ukrainian government is in order. Not military direct military support, but a sense of active, political interest. Something along the lines of like an accelerated EU or NATO membership package. It would be a bluff, and I doubt that the US or EU governments have to ability or cleverness to pull of such a thing, but the Western world cannot continually afford to ignore these popular, democratic, (and if not always pro-western) revolutions. It might also be possible to effect some sort of economic punishment, like expelling Russia form as many international organizations as possible.

The Arab Spring, Syria, now the Ukraine. Regardless of the specifics, there are popular movements of national populations which seek to join the modern economic world. So far, our Western governments have been quite good at ignoring or neutralizing these movements, because the status-quo has been easier to maintain, putting of the problem for later instead of taking the lead and helping these popular movements fulfill their desires.

The Iraq and Afghanistan adventures (in yet another terrible cost of those mindless conflicts) has made the US incapable of active leadership in these dangerous, peripheral parts of the world.

Putin, like many leaders before him, has understood the domestic political advantages of foreign adventurism. We have to give the Ukrainian government the backing it is going to need to outlast Russia in this political stalemate.




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