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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Russian Economy Collapsing? Merry Christmas Vladimir

In case you haven’t noticed, over the last couple of days Russia’s economy is shaking.   That perked up my day when I learned of it Monday, but I have more sober thoughts since then.

I admit to a feeling of glee when reading that Russia’s Central Bank hiked its interest rates from roughly 10 to 17 per cent, this in the attempt to stabilize the value of the ruble vis-a-vis the American dollar.  The ruble had dropped 50% since January and was dropping more.  That is a radical step to take and, as someone pointed out, its effect lasted about 10 minutes.

Just heard today that Apple is refusing to be paid in rubles along with all of Finland, I believe.  And I imagine that trend continues as I type.  A more detailed account of the events can be found in this Theworldpost piece from Monday.   And there is plenty more out there to Google.

Why gleeful?   Well, I like my beliefs to be validated and have believed Russia’s fragile economy would undermine Putin’s opportunistic foreign policy, while at the same time I did not believe he was another Hitler, only that he was the proudest of Russians humiliated by the weak state Russia had been in after the break up of the Soviet Union.

Now in a much stronger Russia, Putin has welcomed opportunities to push back at the West.  He has never wanted to conquer all of Ukraine, but just to keep it in turmoil, unstable and not a prized Western trophy, and not another Russian humiliation.

I was hoping the sanctions would do the trick, but it turns out the foremost cause has been the drop of oil prices from a high in the summer of $107 a barrel to $50-something now.   Russia’s main source of income comes from its energy sales, and now much of that income is lost.

The contribution of the Obama-led economic sanctions is hard to parse, though not surprisingly Democrats think they helped quite a bit while Republicans think their effect has been negligible.

Whatever,  the good news is Putin should have enough to worry about in keeping his hold on power over the next few months, enough worry that I read he now seems more pliable when it comes to working out some sort of political solution in eastern Ukraine, where Russian supported rebels and government forces continue to battle.

I would like to end this piece on that upbeat note, but feel the need to dampen that enthusiasm because who knows what instability and excesses might arise from an increasingly squashed Russian economy.

Putin just won the Man of the Year award in Russia for the 15th straight year and, though his popularity has slipped a bit of late, it has dropped only a few points to around 80%.  EIGHTY PER CENT!  American presidents tend to reach those upper limits at one point or another, but not for long.

The Russian hunger for revived national pride still seems to outweigh their economic values and, with Putin controlled media continually developing the narrative, this budding economic collapse will be portrayed more and more like a result of Western manipulation of oil markets as well as sanctions, both aimed at destroying Russia.

What will happen, who will Russians blame and how will Putin react?

I am reading a biography of Putin and am struck by a number of points made, like his describing himself as a thug when growing up and his childhood dream to become a KGB agent, while most other Russian boys dreamed of becoming an astronaut.  He often got into fights, and he seems to have suffered from the little-man-syndrome, the need to show he was the toughest guy around to compensate for his small stature.

One childhood friend states:  “If anyone ever insulted him in any way, Volodya (Vladimir) would immediately jump on the guy, scratch him, bite him, rip his hair out by the clump – do anything at all never to allow anyone to humiliate him in any way.” (1)

A little tough guy who refuses to be humiliated and I would add identifies so closely with mother Russia that he takes all slights to the nation personally.   It seems those are traits the Russians love, but how long will they love him if the predicted deep 2015 recession comes to pass.

And how will he react to it all?

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(1)  Quoted from:  The Man Without a Face:  The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, written by Masha Gessen, a Russian-American journalist who lived in Moscow when this book was published in 2012.   Gessen contends that Putin’s rise was largely a freakish accident, a guy who was in the right places at the right times and one so nondescript (“no face”) that it allowed others to envision him to be just what they wanted.

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.