I have read quite a bit about the Ukraine situation over the past week and find it difficult to sort out. It is not quite an international crisis (that word overused to the point of a yawn), but it has great potential to become one. Of course, so does Syria, which remains a “problem from hell,” but Syria does not pit the U. S. vs. Russian interests as directly.
Yes they are on opposite sides of the Syrian struggle, but as reported in the Los Angeles Times yesterday, they have worked together to remove an estimated 90% of the worst chemical weapons in Syria, a fairly amazing achievement in the midst of a civil war.
That is the kind of news that doesn’t get much coverage. As you know, the news most covered is almost always bad. The good news has to be very good to draw the spotlight (*1). Also, there is another aspect to this good news that undercuts its goodness. In making this deal with Putin and Assad, Obama was acceding to Assad remaining in power for months to accomplish the task, deflating those rebels (some of the many) we have supported somewhat.
That is the ugly underside of “realpolitik” boys and girls.
Leaving news coverage aside, the simple lesson to be learned from the removal of Syrian chemical weapons is this: Russia and the United States can work together, even now, when our governments see a mutual interest. What gives Ukraine such potential for a crisis is that Washington and Moscow have not established a clear path that will satisfy their mutual interests.
We and our allies would like to see a stable Ukraine developed (which would likely favor the West), while an unstable Ukraine afraid to get too close to the West works in favor of Putin’s Russia. If he can not have Ukraine as an ally, the weaker it is the better he likes it.
Not to mention that the present day focus on eastern Ukraine has made the Russian gobble up of Crimea yesterday’s news (*2). It is a fait accompli and we have all moved on to other issues.
I mention “Putin’s Russia,” while generalizing who is in charge of “our Western” efforts, because in Russia so much of the power seems centralized in that one man, with his revival of nationalist pride backed by an often reported 80% in public opinion polls. Power in the West is much more decentralized, at least when it comes to economic power and in a globalized world, that power is more effective than arms in the long run. “We”, meaning the U. S. and the European Union could cripple the Russian economy, but at a cost to ourselves, with Europe bearing much more of that cost. America can only lead as far as the Europeans are willing to follow.
I am of the opinion that despite his 40,000 troops on the Ukraine border, Putin does not want to invade eastern Ukraine because if he does who knows what the unintended consequences might be? As is, ingesting a poor Crimean economy into Russia is predicted to be very expensive in itself, and the eastern Ukraine’s economic struggles would figure to be another burden.
But Putin acts like he doesn’t care, so Western analysts can only guesstimate just how much of a gambler Putin is and how he defines winning. And what with violent clashes popping up here and there who knows what events on the ground might prompt?
In any event, finding an equilibrium between Russia and the West in Ukraine appears to be quite a balancing act and the government in Kiev is walking a shaky line with globalized interests swirling about it.
(*1) Receiving more attention are recent reports of the likely use of chlorine gas by the Assad forces, but that is not as deadly nor mentioned in the U. N. chemical disarmament agreement. One more wrinkle in a complex calculation that you can read more about here.
(*2) Having said that, I Googled “Russia and Crimea” and found a couple of interesting, though disparate articles. One describes the present chaos in Crimea and the other Putin’s plans to build Crimea’s economy, including a boom in casinos.