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.

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April 15, 2014: A Scary Day in Ukraine

In my prior post I had some fun with the Ukraine turmoil as it was the only way I could get myself to tackle that unfortunate mess at all.   However, today is a particularly scary day there, as the possibility of a break out of civil war seems real depending upon how events unfold.    One problem is the picture is both murky and volatile, tough to gauge even with frequent reports from news people in the area.

Location of Donetsk (red) and Donetsk Oblast (...

Location of Donetsk (red) and Donetsk Oblast (pink) on the map of Ukraine. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The gist of the situation is that pro-Russian, separatist actions have been taking place in the eastern Ukraine regions of Luhansk and Donetsk in recent days, with various government buildings becoming occupied by apparently well trained uniformed forces without insignia’s similar to those that acted in Crimea.

The general opinion outside of Russia is that Russia is instigating these actions.   Of course, Russia denies that while Russian TV shows a steady stream of programming blaming the “Nazi led” central government in Kiev for instigating the problems through its actions and lies.

The Kiev government has been warning that if the “protestors” don’t give up the buildings, they will use force to remove them, what appeared an empty threat until today when some Ukrainian troops have moved into the region.   While Ukraine’s military numbers only a few thousand and are not well armed, they may have more support in those regions than is obvious, as it is an open question as to what the people living there want, even though Russian ethnics make up nearly 40% of their populations.  One thing many may well want is more attention than they have been receiving from the weak central government in Kiev.

The wild card of note is the force of 40,000 Russian troops camped out just across the border from Luhansk and Donetsk and Putin’s repeated threat to intervene if ethnic Russians are endangered.   How might that play out?

Of course, there are various diplomatic moves afoot and Putin and Obama talked on the phone yesterday, but nothing seems settled in any way.

An indication of the seriousness of the situation can be found in a late addition to this morning’s Washington Post on line, an editorial by James Jeffrey, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq in the Obama administration and U.S. ambassador to Kuwait from 1996 to 1999.   He makes a case for the U. S. sending ground troops to Ukraine.   Not enough to challenge Russia, but to show that we will not take another incursion into that country lightly.

Also, for those who want to either delve further into this issue or just to keep apprised of unfolding events, check out this Wall Street Journal site.   It offers much information and even if it’s too much, you might at least want to scroll down to see a map of those regions indicating where government buildings have been taken over.

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