Readers are, no doubt, following the deteriorating crisis in the Ukraine with a great deal of interest. Events are changing so rapidly that my comments here could be dated soon after they are posted; however, the situation is so important that some updated comments are needed. After the flight of the former pro-Russian Prime Minister from Kiev to a place of refuge in Russia, events appeared like they might transpire smoothly. The Ukrainian people impressed the world (and me) with their lack of looting and destruction when they walked through the incredibly self-indulgent opulence of the former pro-Russian Prime Minister’s private estate. However, as a makeshift government was put in place in Kiev, the formerly-united nationalist factions began to fight among themselves. I saw one cable-TV news report that a Ukrainian nationalist party was very upset that one of its members was not made the provisional Defense Minister. It was not long before the illusion of a happy ending to this story began to break apart.
I last wrote a post about the Ukrainian situation on February 20. In it, I made this statement: “…if the Ukraine were in danger of slipping into the western orbit, I think it is a certainty the Russian military would seize large swaths of eastern and southern Ukraine to protect Russia’s vital access to the Black Sea [via the vital Russian naval base at Sevastopol in the Crimea which I discussed earlier in that post].” As if on cue, Russian military forces soon afterward began to seize control of Crimean airfields, government administration buildings, etc. Russia has now effectively seized military control of the entire Crimea. The Russian Parliament has voted Vladimir Putin a free hand in the Ukraine, authorizing him to use the Russian military in the Ukraine as he sees fit in order to protect ethnic Russians and Russian interests (see first three links, 1, 2, 3). These links also include mention that pro-Russians in eastern Ukraine have torn down the Ukrainian flag and hoisted the Russian flag over key buildings in major Ukrainian cities. Thankfully, shooting engagements have not yet broken out between Russian and Ukrainian troops, but that remains a possibility if the crisis worsens.
I’ve watched the media news reports that President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry have threatened various “costs” to Russia if they proceed with their current course of action. The only “cost” I’ve heard so far is that Obama may not travel to Sochi for a G-8 meeting. I think Putin would regard that as a plus as I don’t think he has any desire to meet with Obama after learning all that he now knows about Obama from the purloined NSA files brought to Russia by Edward Snowden. This morning, I watched some of the usual talking heads (Fareed Zakharia, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Madeline Ahlbright, etc.) on the cable-TV news programs, and I was struck by the fact that they seemed surprised by the rapidity and decisiveness of Russian actions to seize control of the Ukrainian situation and militarily seize control of the Crimea. I was truly surprised that they were surprised. In my February 20th post, I had made it very clear that Russian seizure of the Crimea and other parts of Ukraine was entirely predictable and was to be expected. Russian seizure of the Crimea was especially easy to predict as Russia had to ensure permanent control of its Black Sea fleet naval home-port at Sevastopol. Given that Russia was “going to the mat” to keep Assad in power in Syria, in part to guarantee the Russian Black Sea fleet a port-of-call in the Mediterranean Sea, it was a “no brainer” that Putin would seize the Crimea to ensure the Black Sea fleet retained its own home port!
The current stand-off over the Ukraine is no stand-off at all. Russia is entirely in charge of this crisis, and Russia will determine its outcome. The USA and the West have virtually no leverage to exert in the crisis. As my previous post on this subject noted, Russia controls the natural gas pipelines that bring energy supplies to many European nations (and the Ukraine) in winter. Russia has not yet played that card, but can yet do so if the West or the makeshift Ukrainian government pushes Russia too hard. There is a very important fact that no media outlet has yet noted, but I will mention it to readers of this blog. The former pro-Russian Ukrainian leader of the Ukraine left the Ukrainian army in its barracks and did not attempt to use it against the protesters in Kiev or other cities. The reason is that the Ukrainian army is composed of pro-Ukrainian nationalists and pro-Russian troops from Eastern and Southern Ukraine. The pro-Russian leader could not be sure of its loyalties. Now the shoe is on the other foot. The Ukrainian nationalist interim government in Kiev which has been cobbled together from the factions that led the Kiev protest now face the same problem with the loyalties of the Ukrainian army. Its soldiers that are drawn from Eastern and Southern Ukraine could easily revolt against the provisional Ukrainian government and side with the Russian forces if ordered into action. This fact has been graphically confirmed by the defection of the Ukrainian naval commander to the Russian side (see fourth link). That fourth link also reports that Russian troops are now surrounding Ukrainian army barracks and isolating them there. If the Ukrainian leader orders his forces to fight the Russians, he may face a civil war among his own military units.
The easiest way to settle this crisis without bloodshed is, I think, obvious. The Ukraine should be divided into two states. Western Ukraine should be able to elect its own leaders and form cultural and economic ties with the EU nations while Eastern and Southern Ukraine should either become a Russian-dominated nation or simply be annexed into Russia itself. In order to ensure that Russia does not feel threatened by Western Ukraine, Western Ukraine should not be allowed to join NATO. This arrangement would retain Russia’s Black Sea naval base at Sevastopol and also the industrial heartland of eastern Ukraine whose economy is linked tightly to Russia. However, ideal solutions often do not occur. I hope this crisis defuses itself without bloodshed, but no one knows how this situation will end.
Most people do not realize just how weak the USA’s and the West’s hand is in playing this game of international poker with Russia. The third link notes that the USA and the West still need Russia’s help to influence Syria to live up to its chemical weapons disposal agreement, to influence Iran to not develop nuclear weapons and to allow overflight rights for the USA to extricate its troops and heavy weaponry out of Afghanistan back to the NATO regions of Europe. Russia is firmly in the driver’s seat in the Ukrainian crisis, and Putin knows it. The world knows Obama’s “red-lines” mean nothing, and Edward Snowden’s revelations that Obama had clandestinely transformed the NSA into a global electronic gestapo that spies on everyone has resulted in a situation where there is little trust of the USA or of Obama internationally.
The West can consider itself lucky if Western Ukraine is allowed to gravitate toward Europe after this crisis is over. The worst case is that all of Ukraine gets subsumed back into the Russian orbit and Russia’s troops rule the Ukraine. This crisis is occurring in Russia’s backyard and the West and Europe are weak and weakly-led. It appears that Ukrainian nationalists can expect no meaningful help from Obama, the USA or Europe. They need to be realistic and settle for what Russia will allow them to obtain.
If Obama gets his way and Congress agrees to reduce the US army to the lowest level since before World War II, expect Russia to be ever-more dominate in global geopolitics. Indeed, expect Russia, Japan, Germany, India and many other nations to become more dominant if Obama continues to disarm and weaken the USA.