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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SYRIA: The Vladimir Putin Show

Vladimir Putin - Caricature

Vladimir Putin – Caricature (Photo credit: DonkeyHotey)

As indicated in my post last Monday morning the Syria issue appeared to be the Barack Obama show, one getting panned by many reviewers, but still his show.  However, that afternoon Vladimir Putin upstaged him.   As columnist Michael Gerson sums up what happened between then and the president’s Tuesday evening address:  “We have seen a Putin power play, based on a Kerry gaffe, leading to a face-saving presidential retreat — and this was apparently the best of the available options.”

After offering a hand to save our president from the embarrassment of losing a vote to back him in Congress, Putin then verbally slapped him around a bit in a NY Times editorial Wednesday, scolding him for talking about American exceptionalism and urging him to  “stop using the language of force and return to the path of civilized diplomatic and political settlement.”

The former KGB thug now the second coming of Gandhi?  It was just plain weird leaving me wondering who really wrote the column.  It seemed so well crafted for an American audience.  Like a product of an American PR firm.  Or could Edward Snowden have helped out?

In any event, over the last two days Secretary Kerry and the Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov,  accompanied by large staffs, have hurriedly been thrown together in Geneva, Switzerland to see if the initial steps of a plan to eliminate the chemical stock piles in Syria could be worked out.

If you have listened to or read any news reports you know the path forward is labyrinthian for several reasons, starting with Russia’s apparent unwillingness to put some “teeth” into a proposal that would force Assad to comply.   Even if they could work that out, there is the Rubiks Cube-like logistical issue of removing chemical weapons from numerous sites in the midst of a civil war.   To begin with, there are reports that Syrian troops are dispersing some of these weapons to sites harder to hit from the air, which is not a good faith effort to say the least.

It is hard NOT to believe this is a Russian maneuver to both buy time for the Assad regime while rubbing our noses in our own disjointed policy. But what if Putin actually wants the securing of these chemical weapons to take place as much as we do?

There are many reports that he shares with us a fear of those chemical weapons getting into the hands of  Muslim extremists of which he has his share in the southern parts of Russia.   If somehow the chemicals could be removed while Assad be kept in power, that would seem his preference.   And given our own fears of Muslim extremists among the various rebel groups, the Obama government seems in no hurry to topple Assad.  They have even been slow in giving small arms to their rebels of choice – the Free Syrian Army.

It could be a dirty deal for the rebels, but it still  might work to get rid of the chemicals and perhaps in time Assad, too.  It is not like he is Putin’s brother.  He simply suits Putin’s interests at the moment.

A second factor is Putin’s extraordinary vanity which has been allowed to flourish in recent days.  Have you seen photos  through the years of Putin’s manly, often bare chested displays, usually catching, wrestling or killing something?  He believes he is the most interesting man in the world, not that guy in the beer commercial.

Putin has long resented the fact that Russia is no longer a super power, which means he never gets top billing.   Maybe he is tired of always playing the spoiler, a character actor rather than the lead.  Over the past few days he has had the leading role in world events and I imagine he has loved it.

But he has also put his own reputation on the line by implying he could solve this chemical weapons crisis himself.   If things don’t work out, he regresses to second fiddle again.

What would be more pleasing to his ego than to become known as the peacemaker of Syria?

Every actor loves playing a role contrary to type.

What accolades he would garner!  Maybe even a Nobel Peace Prize.  He would have a better claim on one than Obama did, and what would he love more than that?