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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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.

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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