Ukraine gets scarier by the day and I don’t know what to do.

It is not bad enough that the Middle East remains an ongoing SNAFU (an old Marine acronym for:  Situation normal all fowled up – in its polite version), the situation in Ukraine is now reaching crisis proportions.   “Crisis” is such an overused term these days, it has lost its punch, but I believe it fits here, as it is easy to imagine how much can go wrong and little right.

 

As I type there are urgent meetings taking place in Europe discussing what is to be done about the fact that the eastern separatists  are winning the war against government forces.

For months it has been clear that Vladimir Putin has provided all sorts of military assistance to the separatists in eastern Ukraine, while denying it.  Now the separatists are stronger than the government forces and pushing them back.  And the European allies can’t agree on what to do about that.   There is talk of sending defensive arms (e. g. anti-tank guns)  to aid government troops, but German Chancellor Angela Merkel is dead set against the idea and I don’t see much other support for it in Europe.

Merkel is trying to broker another cease fire, but this one gives more to the separatists than the last cease fire and who is to say Putin will honor it any more than he did the last one (even Merkel has her doubts), but of course Putin will say he is.  And Ukraine’s problems go way beyond the civil war.  The government is broke and the economic system corrupt, all of which has made me reluctant to even broach the subject in a simple post.

But MSNBC commentator Lawrence O’ Donnell freed me yesterday morning by saying when it comes to the Ukraine:  “I’ve thought about these things all my life and I don’t know what to do.”  He went on to say it would be great if some columnist would begin his or her opinion piece saying that.

Though only a humble occasional blogger, I decided to take on that roll and I feel such a relief.  The problem is I also feel some thing, or things, should be done to counter Putin’s continued aggression and lies about it, a feeling many in the West have but we can’t agree upon what to do.

For those who want to do more than throw up their hands, I suggest a blog by Judy Dempsey on the Carnegie Europe web site called Strategic Europe.   She has been giving daily posts covering the Ukraine crisis which include the opinions of numerous people who think they have a clue.

Check out this post:  The Tragedy of  Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s president and commander in chief of its armed forces.   It’s short and provides a sense of the fundamental nature of this dilemma.  Reading about Poroshenko I recall the tragic position of Czechoslovakia’s president Edward Benes during the Munich agreement of the 30’s which led to German annexation.  

I know, Munich analogies tend to distort more than illuminate, but there unfortunately seems potential for some application here.  I can only hope the potential goes unfulfilled.

If you like the Poroshenko piece, click the HOME button on the  upper left of the post and find other illuminating posts by Dempsey.

 

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Ukraine: Angela Merkel Talks Tough and in Her Case It Matters

In my post last week I mentioned the complexity of the Ukraine situation and how our ability to apply pressure on Russia is compromised by the degree to which our allies in western Europe depend upon Russian oil and gas exports.

Our key ally in all of this is Germany, as it is most vulnerable to economic retaliation from Russia, and the fact Chancellor Angela Merkel was saying little publicly about the situation was indicative of the touchy nature of Germany’s position.

English: THE KREMLIN, MOSCOW. Meeting with the...

English: THE KREMLIN, MOSCOW. Meeting with the leader of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union, Angela Merkel. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Over the last few days, however, Merkel’s resolve has seemed to stiffen.  Having failed to persuade Putin to reconsider his occupation of Ukraine, she  has accused him of “stealing” land and operating according to “the law of the jungle.”

I do not think that is just rhetoric.   She feels offended by the lengths he is going and wary of where it might lead if allowed to stand.   She gave an unusually emotional speech to her own party advocating a tough stand on sanctions a few days ago, despite the economic harm it could do to Germany.

Germany is dependent upon imports from Russia for about 25% of its oil and gas and about 6000 German companies do billions of dollars in trade with Russia.  Merkel, ever the pragmatist, knows this will be tough sledding for her.

Her pragmatic nature is something she had seemed to share with Putin, one reason they have spoken much more often over the years than Putin and other western leaders.   And, as one commentator put it, they speak the same language, literally.  She speaks good Russian from having grown up in East Germany and Putin speaks good German from his work in the KGB there.   Also, Merkel worked for the East German government at one point, so she has a better sense of Putin’s perspective than do other western leaders.

That her conviction is that Putin must be punished for his actions even though nations like her own will be hurt in the process seems the most important news regarding the Ukraine’s future  this past week.

For additional background and perspective I recommend this New York Times article.

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Obama’s Foreign Policy, Reality and Putin: Enough with the tough talk, already!

Barack Obama & Vladimir Putin at Putin's dacha...

Barack Obama & Vladimir Putin at Putin’s dacha 2009-07-07 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On March 2 the Washington Post editorial board opined that “President Obama’s foreign policy  is based on fantasy, the fantasy being:  “Invasions, brute force, great-power games and shifting alliances — these were things of the past.”

It is hard to believe Obama is that naive, since we have practiced our own  invasions, brute force and great power games in recent years, but let’s not complicate the Post’s simple fantasy of reality just yet.

When people talk about reality, they barely get the half of it, not to mention the nuanced complexity revealed when a given situation is truly examined.   The reality ignored by the Post is that these countries, at least Russia and China, are integrated into our global economy for the most part.   Yes, they rely on brute force, but again so do we.  And this being a global economy makes little if anything simple in terms of foreign policy because ramifications abound since we are so interlinked.  This limits our options when it comes to taking decisive actions in a crisis like Ukraine because hurting Russia economically, in this case, is also likely to hurt our allies.   It is hard for us to get tough, when they have little or no inclination to do so.

The armchair warriors  seem upset by Putin’s ability to play us as seems the case in Crimea, implying that Obama should be able to act with similar decisiveness.   Putin is a brutal dictator with no one in Russia effectively blocking his moves and no international considerations that he is unwilling to ignore for passing glory.   He is also acting on his doorstep, so actions are simple to take and, given the historical ties with Crimea, with a sliver of justification.

Obama, on the other hand,  is constrained by actual relations with many other countries whose interests he takes into account, while about half of our Congress carps at everything he does, including his failing to come through on the “red line” statement in Syria even though they would not back his acting in Congress.  They blame Obama for projecting a weak national image, while they do their best to weaken that image with their politically driven propaganda assailing him for being weak.

While there are various economic sanctions that we can muster against Russia,  much depends on our allies’ willingness to string along because we don’t trade all that much with Russia and some of them do.   Germany in particular has a lot of trade with them, but you may have noticed Angela Merkel is not talking tough.  She is barely audible at all.  For her to put economic sanctions on Russia is to also shoot Germany in the foot.   Along with much trade, Germany depends on Russia for a sizable share of its natural gas which is piped through Ukraine, by the way.   Angela is all about letting things cool down rather than warm up.  Her inclination is to make a deal and tough talk does not help, it hinders.

In short, our options to be tough and decisive are limited because we have gotten mostly past the cold war them-or-us reality to a point of economic integration with the likes of Russia and China.  But Putin has remained a law unto himself.   He operates with no concern for anyone but Russia and even then is willing to risk Russia’s future for gleaming moments of super power like glory now.   Reportedly Angela Merkel has said he lives in his own reality.  We have to somehow come to terms with that.

If I have persuaded you of nothing else, hopefully you realize how any talk of reality that hinges upon being tough and decisive vs. weak and slow moving in foreign policy is the most dangerous fantasy of all.