Perhaps you would like me to write about something other than Ukraine. I wouldn’t mind moving on myself, but I’m like a dog with a Ukrainian bone for this reason: Ukraine is an increasingly volatile situation that may be sliding towards a civil war even as I type. And that could have incalculable ripple effects world wide.
To begin with, that instability places the future of Eastern Europe dangling in doubt, more so than since the break up of the old Soviet Union. There is a paradigm shift underway: American led NATO must readjust its relations with Russia to something not quite like the Cold War yet more adversarial than in recent years.
It’s tricky business.
Not quite Cold War because we, and even more so, our European allies/fellow members of NATO have developed many political and economic deals with Russia during the post Soviet Union years. Politically, we still cooperate with Russia on several fronts, including ridding Syria of chemical weapons. Economically, Europe now does about 500 billion worth of trade with Russia; we do about 40 billion. Most efforts to hurt Russia economically will hurt our allies as well, which is why they are less eager than we to apply stronger sanctions.
It is like Russia has been partially swallowed into the globalized community, but it sticks like a bone in our collective throat. A bone we might label Vladimir Putin.
In reading and thinking about Ukraine over the past month I have often asked myself: What does Putin want? And what is he willing to risk to get it? He is smart, ruthless, loves the spotlight, resents Russia’s loss of international prestige and seems willing to risk much to reinstate that position, and himself, in the global equation. His actions in Ukraine (and in Syria) reflect all of that, along with an impressive tactical craftiness….
….but he operates within a paradox with no clear reconciliation in sight.
I view the Ukraine situation through a double lens, one short term and the other long. The view in the short term focuses up0n the chaos in eastern Ukraine, undoubtedly fomented by Putin ( except for a few actions taken to appear helpful, such as in the recent release of several European observers sent to monitor events in eastern Ukraine). Putin’s goal for the moment is do what he can to keep Ukraine in disarray, as opposed to becoming united with closer ties to the West. In this short view Putin is winning in that he prompts Ukraine to remain unstable, keeps the West in a reactive stance, boosts his popularity in Russia and keeps himself in the international spotlight (he’s had quite a string of hits in recent months – the Syria chemical weapons deal, the Sochi Olympics, the Crimea land grab and maybe this…)
However, Putin’s successful “living in the now” risks a big problem down the road, and that is a failed Russian economy. True, its gas and energy output gives them an amount of economic power now in terms of the needs of Western Europe but also of the faster growing economies of China and India (it seems significant both abstained in the UN from condemning Russia’s take over of Crimea) . However, gas and oil are the lion’s share of Russia’s trade income and, while Western Europe needs those resources, Russia also needs the money it sells them for. Also, while the present high cost of energy boosts Russia’s economy now, that cost could well come down for a variety of reasons, one being greatly increased production in the U. S.
Finally, even the present limited sanctions are having an effect while greater combined U. S. and European sanctions could greatly damage an already weak Russian economy as described in this article in The Telegraph. In their recent meeting President Obama and German Chancellor Merkel announced much stricter sanctions on Russia if it invades or otherwise disrupts presidential elections to be held May 25.
I believe Putin is well aware of the paradox described above, but have only the vaguest idea on how he might act to maintain a winning hand that spans short term and long.
Though he has 40,000 troops near the border, I do not think he wants to invade for several reasons, a key one being because eastern Ukraine, while having a sizable Russian ethic population (let’s say around 30%) does not have a majority desire to become annexed to Russia according to a respected poll. While a large majority does not recognize the legitimacy of the Kiev government, unlike Crimea they are not eager to become part of Russia, either.
The great unknown at the moment is how hard the Kiev government will continue to press to gain control over eastern Ukraine over these next 19 days before the presidential election and how capable they are of succeeding given the mixed results so far. Might they be successful enough to make Putin feel obliged to send troops across the border since he has said over and over he has the right to protect Russian ethnics anywhere in danger? His popularity at home is fueled by his actions to reassert Russian power, along with tweaking the collective Western nose in the process.
What if Putin does invade, how then will he handle the tougher economic sanctions which seem locked and loaded? Will he try to negotiate a withdrawal in exchange for both the cessation of those sanctions along with greater sovereignty of eastern Ukraine? That way he might maintain his image of grand protector while also evading the difficulties of actually trying to rule eastern Ukraine.
I will continue to observe and to gnaw on this bone while wondering whether Putin actually believes he has control of what is to come because he is in the position to call some of the shots.