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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Foreign Affairs: Glancing About for Hints of Good News

I have been writing this blog for over two years and have never felt so overwhelmed by trying to understand international events as I have lately.   Secretary of State John Kerry is hopping around the world dealing with hot spots so frequently I wonder how he can recall what he is supposed to be doing at any given moment.   I get confused just rushing  to the next room.

John Kerry - Saving Face

John Kerry – Saving Face (Photo credit: DonkeyHotey)

I’m not even positive where he is right now, maybe Washington, but a couple of days ago he was in Vienna trying to finish up that nuclear deal with Iran by this Sunday deadline.   He said there are “real gaps” in the negotiations but we have  a few days to hope.

Some good news came when Kerry was in Afghanistan late last week.  He brokered a deal between presidential candidates Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani who had both contested election voting results to agree to abide by the results of an audit.  We’ll have to see how well the loser and his followers abide by that recount, but at least we no longer have Hamid Karzai bugging us at every call.

While Kerry is busy elsewhere, the Egyptian government has tried to broker a cease fire between Hamas and Israel, but from the hope perspective I should have written this sooner as Hamas has refused the deal and Israel seems to be ramping up its attacks on Gaza (tired as they are of Hamas lobbing hundreds of missiles at them for months).

The one positive I see here is that Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi is no friend of Hamas, unlike the Muslim brotherhood who formed the government before him.   That means they have less access through Egypt for various forms of support.   On the other hand, that may be one reason Hamas did not approve their deal as they don’t think of Egypt as an “honest broker”.   Hard to find a ray of hope here.

Where I do see hope is in the Ukraine.   True, Russia and Ukraine are exchanging heated words about cross border shellings and that might get out of hand, but I still doubt Putin wants to send his troops across the border.  The Ukraine is an economic mess he doesn’t want to own.  I think he would rather deal with Ukrainian President Poroshenko’s than make war against him, but all of his bravado about protecting Russians everywhere has put him in a bind as Poroshenko’s troops have shown a willingness to fight now and they are squeezing the rebels.   A delicate situation, but my sense is this will be worked through without Russian troops pouring across the border (if I’m wrong, I’ll get back to you).

A more chaotic situation than Ukraine at the moment is Iraq, though yesterday the parliament finally elected a speaker. a Sunni moderate.   This is the first step to then finally forming a new government in six weeks (details here).   Real slow p9key I know, what with ISIS doing its best to threaten Bagdad, but there are signs of infighting between ISIS and other Sunni militants that is a plus for the government.

Also, given all the enemies ISIS has developed as mentioned in a previous post, I find it hard to believe they can actually succeed in their quest to establish a new Muslim empire.   Unless, of course, they are destined by Allah to do so.   Whatever, they can cause a hell of a havoc while trying.

Finally, while Syria remains the problem from a hell, it seems worth mentioning that the deal struck months ago between the Russians, Assad and us about the destruction of chemical weapons there has actually accomplished the destruction of most of them, at least the worst.  That achievement doesn’t get the attention it deserves because  “crises” grab more attention than solutions.

It also points to the necessarily fragmented nature of our foreign policy these days in response to an increasingly fragmented world.   Necessary because while at times we seem close to playing bullets and bombs with Russia in one spot, we are working with them in many others.   With other countries as well, as is likely happening in Iraq in quiet ways now.    In a future post I will say something about the tension between a foreign policy based on a desire for international stability, and other ways to serve self-interest as well as democratic values, a tension difficult for us to deal with which also makes policy erratic, which is not always a bad thing, yet is always lambasted as such.

Inside Putin’s Brain: “Fire burn and cauldron bubble.”

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.

English: Vladimir Putin in KGB uniform Deutsch...

English: Vladimir Putin in KGB uniform (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

Ukraine: Lost in the Globalized Shuffle?

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.

Lesser Coat of Arms of Ukraine

Lesser Coat of Arms of Ukraine (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

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(*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.

 

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Are Vladimir Putin and Lindsay Lohan an Item?

You heard it here first.

Vladimir Putin - Olympic Host

Vladimir Putin – Olympic Host (Photo credit: DonkeyHotey)

Because I just made it up.  What I didn’t make up is that Putin’s divorce of his wife of 30 years was finalized last Wednesday.  I won’t bother mentioning her name as there is  too much to remember these days as is and all references to her have been expunged from his  “official biography”, so…

As far as I know she hasn’t been expunged, which would seem in keeping with  Putin’s saying they wanted a “civilized divorce.”

But my point is now the world’s sexiest man (as Henry Kissinger once said:  “power is the greatest aphrodisiac”) is free to be a wild, crazy bachelor type and who better to be it with than Lindsay Lohan, for a while at least?

Bossy (Lindsay Lohan song)

Bossy (Lindsay Lohan song) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

I fantasized this possibility when struggling with what to say about the “Ukraine crisis,” which continues to simmer with  some 40,000 Russian troops on the Ukrainian border and a few raucous, separatist demonstrations not far from those troops in eastern Ukraine, demonstrations that may well be Russian instigated.

Of course the EU and NATO are having meetings to discuss possible greater sanctions if Russian troops do roll into eastern Ukraine, but those nations have varying degrees of dependence on Russian gas and oil, not to mention a multitude of business interests that apply  pressure on these governments to  maintain the status quo.

Because of all that, some have speculated that Putin is gambling that commercial interests in the west carry enough weight to minimize the impact of economic sanctions on Russia, since it will cost them, too.   That makes sense to me because I think, above all, Putin loves to be a player.

While you can find many analyses indicating that this is a losing strategy over time for Russia, this may be a winning strategy for Putin in the short term.  He is less risk averse than are the European friends of the U. S., perhaps because he sees it as his mission to restore the prestige and international position of the motherland, not to reap the maximum economic benefits of globalization.

Also, while Russia’s economy is overly dependent on its export of gas and oil, again something that figures to hurt that economy over time, those resources work for it now, given European reliance on that energy and the hunger of China and India to have greater access to it.

In that regard, a big energy deal with China is in the offing.  And, though this past week the UN  easily passed a resolution to continue to treat Crimea as part of  Ukraine (1oo votes in favor, 11 against), 58 nations voted to abstain, two of them being China and India.   The last-named pair aren’t eager to get on the outs with Russia.   They have other shared interests with Putlandia besides energy, such as India’s import of a huge amount of arms, 75% from Russia.

Having blurted all that out, you can see why I would  hunger for a simple solution to the Ukraine crisis, even if out of  left field like my Lindsay Lohan plot.   Putin has made a number of clever moves politically in recent months and I think we need something to distract him, and who better to do that than Lindsay.

I just checked Google and she says she is still sober, having graduated from treatment for the sixth time last summer.   Since she goes through boyfriends faster than a chain smoker turns cigarettes to ash, she might prove an interesting challenge to the Vlad man, and he certainly is a guy who likes a challenge.

Finally, in case you haven’t been paying attention, Lindsay is not yesterday’s news.  Lilo appeared on Letterman last night, looking better than ever I’m told.  She is also in a segment of 2 Broke Girls some time this week, and the shows’  two “stars” deny she was a “train wreck” to work with.

Just short of World War III, what could garner more pub than America’s never ending troubled teenager hooking up with Russia’s self-styled people’s czar?   Put those wedding plans on hold Brangelina.

All the hoopla surrounding the relationship might distract Vlado  from focusing on expanding Russia for a while.  At least it would provide me with a respite from the Kardashians always staring at me in the super market line.

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P. S. – Those who feel like biting their nails in response to the tensions in eastern Ukraine may want to check out this article in today’s Washington Post.  Besides giving a thumb nail sketch of the simmering situation there, it provides a couple of useful maps, including one which breaks down the per cent of Russian ethnics in various parts of southern and eastern Ukraine.

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The U. S., Russia and Ukraine: Recall the Tortoise and the Hare?

What is happening in Ukraine makes for very tricky, fast moving business and President Obama is right to move carefully even if his public statements seem weak and indecisive.  And yes, even with the Russians publicly stating they will send troops to the Crimean region right after Obama statements about severe consequences if they do so.   Russia already has gained control of Crimea through what one commentator has called a “stealth invasion” as can be inferred from daily news reports.   Linked here is a brief timeline indicating how rapidly events have unfolded over the past 11 days.

Former Ukrainian President Yanukovych was brought down 11 days ago because he nixed an already approved deal with the European union because of economic pressure from Russia, which in turn spurred the protests which prompted the president’s removal and his fleeing east.  Eastern Ukraine has much stronger ties to Russia than found in the capital of Kiev and parts west.  The Crimea region particularly so.   The population is about 60% Russian ethnic background (a majority but not really “most” of the people as I sometimes hear from TV commentators).  Also, the region was actually part of Russia until transferred to Ukraine way back in 1954, a which didn’t mean much as long as the Soviet Union remained in tact.   In addition there are some 25,000 Russians inhabiting a Russian naval base there, which is of great importance to Russia. 

This has made it easy for a “stealth invasion” to occur before Russia got around to declaring they would send in troops to protect its Russian relatives.  They are already well protected.  So, Putin has already won the first leg of this race, which of course the likes of Senator McCain and fellow constant critic columnist Charles Krauthammer will continue to lambaste Obama for, perhaps even drawing a false analogy to Hitler and Munich some time soon.

Here are two of my biases:  John McCain’s first answer to any foreign problem is to get tougher while never complimenting Obama for anything, having never gotten over over losing the presidential race, a position he thought was rightfully his.  Krauthamer loves calling the Obama foreign policy clueless implying that he, General Krauthammer would know just how to react to the burgeoning number of international crises though seldom offering suggestions sufficient to reveal his own cluefullness.   Fortunately, in a recent editorial the wise one actually made a concrete suggestion for a change, that a U. S. fleet should immediately be dispatched to the Black Sea to show we really mean business this time around.   I bet U. S. admirals love that idea.

Leaving aside the basic military concern about placing one of our fleets in what is basically a huge lake with only one narrow entrance/exit….  and the likelihood of ratcheting up tensions with unclear consequences…..What would the fleet do once there?   How would we act tough?  What would cause us to bomb someone or shoot someone down? And if we did, is war with Russia an option?   Oh, we could win a war with Russia.  That is one of our big problems these days.  We have a hugely sophisticated and expensive military that could beat any one in a war, but simply winning wars seldom win the peace anymore.  Just what did winning in Iraq get us? For one, an Iran made stronger as Iraq, its ongoing enemy, disappeared as a counter balance (yes, as evil as Sadam was, he had his uses).  Then there is the “new Iraq”, hardly a friend and experiencing ongoing upheaval which makes it one more source of instability in the region .  And not even any special oil deals.

Let’s punish Putin for this latest move, but slowly like a boa constrictor.  The Obama team can be criticized for being too optimistic about “normalcy” with Russia given Putin being Putin (or “naive” as conservative critics like to put it), but to act like we are back on cold war footing is silly.  We are not about to rattle nuclear weapons at each other, and we do have some mutual interests.  The trick is to craft a policy that has some of the good cop bad cop chemistry found in policing.   Frankly, the Obama administration hasn’t done a great job of this, but getting our relationships with Russia just right is no easy thing to achieve and those eager to act more aggressively would likely muck things up more, i. e. Admiral Krauthammer.

Finally,  let’s think about this:  Time is on our side.  While Putin is parading around for now, Russia is heading towards another economic collapse, which is what led to revolution and the break up of the Soviet Union.   Oil and gas (and maybe something else I can’t recall at the moment) are Russia’s only real exports and the price of both are declining.  This is a result  of new sources being discovered in North America and elsewhere and a lessening world energy demand from developing countries like China, whose growth is slowing. Besides that, only big gamblers want to invest in Russia these days, given the Russian government’s corrupt incursions into the economy.  Russia is not a hot spot for world investment except for big risk takers.

The critics have all sorts of advice for the president in terms of sanctions on Russia, many of them I imagine the government is considering, but can take time to develop.  If military involvement was one of them, time would be of the essence, but it is not.  Sure, Putin continues his string of bows and bragging rights, but his taking such decisive steps in Ukraine may work out in our favor.   This latest power grab will likely make it easier for Obama to rally support for harsher economic reprisals of Russia over time.   And, that could be more powerful than one might expect given that nation’s inherent economic problems.

In any case.  Getting off to a fast start doesn’t necessarily win the race.   Remember the tortoise and the hare?