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Ukraine Cock-Up

This is what former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, subsequently driven from office by mass protests in Kiev, said to German Chancellor Angela Merkel just one year ago, at the start of the crisis. It was recorded by a Lithuanian television crew, eavesdropping on the conversation with a directional mike, at the European Union summit in Vilnius where Yanukovych announced that he was not going to sign an EU-Ukraine trade deal.

“The economic situation in Ukraine is very hard, and we have big difficulties with Moscow,” Yanukovych explained to Merkel in Russian (which they both speak fluently). “I would like you to hear me. I was left alone for three and a half years in very unequal conditions with Russia…one to one.”

The Ukrainian president was not overthrown by a “fascist” plot, as Russian propaganda would have us believe, nor was NATO hoping to make Ukraine a member. (Indeed, NATO had repeatedly told the previous Ukrainian government, which was very pro-Western, that under no circumstances could it ever join the Western alliance.)  Exactly one year into the crisis, it’s useful to remember what really happened.

The basic question you have to ask about any international crisis is: conspiracy or cock-up? The Ukrainian crisis definitely falls into the latter category. Nobody planned it, and nobody wanted it. Here’s how they stumbled into it.

Yanukovych inherited the negotiations for a trade deal with the EU from the previous government when he returned to the presidency in 2010. (He was overthrown by the “Orange Revolution” in 2004, after winning a rigged election, but in 2010 he won narrowly but cleanly.) And he didn’t break off the talks with the EU because that would have alienated half the country: the western, mostly Ukrainian-speaking part.

Yanukovych was a typical post-Soviet political figure, deeply corrupt and almost comically greedy – the presidential palace he lived in on the banks of the Dnieper was so lavish it could have been in the Middle East – but he was a competent politician. Almost all his votes had come from the eastern and southern, mostly Russian-speaking parts of the country, but he knew that he couldn’t simply ignore the west.

On the other hand, he couldn’t ignore Moscow either. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin saw the EU as a stalking horse for NATO, and was trying to persuade Yanukovych to join his own “Eurasian Economic Union” (EEU) instead. Moreover, Russia had huge economic leverage, since it provided most of Ukraine’s energy and bought half of Ukraine’s exports (mainly coal, steel and heavy industrial goods made in eastern Ukraine).
So for three years Yanukovych temporised, trying to get financial guarantees out of the EU that would make up for the economic punishment Putin would inflict if Ukraine signed the trade treaty. The EU wouldn’t budge: there would be no special help for Ukraine. It would just have to take its punishment, Yanukovych was told, but the trade deal would be good for the country in the long term.

Politicians have to live in the short term, however, and in 2012-13 Ukrainian exports to Russia fell by half as Putin turned the screws tighter. Those exports mostly provided income for people in industrial eastern Ukraine, i.e. Yanukovych’s own supporters. The EU had left him “alone for three and a half years in very unequal conditions with Russia…one to one” – so in late 2013 he made his choice: break off the EU talks, and sign up with Putin’s EEU instead.

Did Yanukovych foresee that there would be big demonstrations against him in Kiev, where people had pinned their hopes on association with the EU? Of course he did, but he probably didn’t foresee that the protests would be fuelled by the ham-fisted resort to violence by his own officials. He certainly didn’t foresee that he would ultimately be overthrown – nor did Putin, who had put him in that impossible position.

All the subsequent escalations of the conflict in Ukraine – the Russian annexation of Crimea, the pro-Moscow revolts in the two eastern provinces with the largest ethnic Russian minorities, the direct Russian military intervention that saved those revolts from collapse last August – have been driven by Putin’s determination to reverse his original error.

If Ukraine cannot be brought back into Moscow’s sphere of influence, then Putin’s strategy is to neutralise and paralyse it by maintaining a permanent “frozen conflict” in the east. In coldly rational terms, Ukraine’s best strategy now would be to abandon those two provinces, Donetsk and Luhansk, which are basically open-air industrial museums, and leave it to Russia to subsidise them instead.

But it’s not going to do that, because sovereign states never give up territory voluntarily. Realistically, therefore, Kiev’s best option is to strengthen the current ceasefire and let the front lines congeal and stabilise into de facto borders, while maintaining its legal claim to the two provinces. It remains to be seen if Moscow will even let that happen.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 13. (“If Ukraine…happen”)

Caspian Games

Russian politician Andrei Zhirinovsky is all mouth, so it would not normally have caused a stir when he suggested earlier this year that Russia should simply annex the parts of neighbouring Kazakhstan that have a large Russian population. But the ultra-nationalist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party actually frightened the Kazakhs, because there is a bigger game going on.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, in power since before Kazakhstan got its independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991, was so alarmed that he openly expressed doubts about whether Kazakhstan should join Moscow’s “Eurasian Economic Union” (EEU) when it launches next January. “Kazakhstan will not be part of organizations that pose a threat to our independence,” he said in August.

The EEU is the same organisation that Ukrainians rebelled against joining last year when their pro-Moscow former president, Viktor Yanukovych, abandoned plans for closer ties with the European Union (EU). But Kazakhstan under Nazarbayev has always been on good terms with Russia, so Russia’s autarch, Vladimir Putin, immediately cracked the whip.

“Kazakhstan never had any statehood (historically),” Putin said. Nazarbayev merely “created” the country – with the clear implication that it was an artificial construct that might, if the wind changed, just be dismantled again. With Russian troops in eastern Ukraine “on holiday” from the army (but taking their armoured vehicles and artillery with them), it was a veiled threat that Kazakhstan had to take seriously.

There has actually been a Kazakh state. Almost the entire area of the current country, and substantial parts of neighbouring countries, were ruled from the 15th to the 18th centuries by a powerful Kazakh khanate, the traditional form of state among the Islamic, Turkic-speaking peoples of Central Asia. The reason it never evolved into a modern state is that the whole area was conquered and colonised by the Russian empire.

Russia is still the only great power within easy reach of the Central Asian states, and it underlined its displeasure with Nazarbayev by holding military exercises near the Kazakh border in early September. But Putin was not just restoring discipline in a prospective member of the EEU, his pet project to rival the EU.

Putin’s strategic objective is to control oil and gas traffic across the landlocked Caspian Sea. The last thing Moscow needs is cut-price competition from Central Asian producers in its European markets.

Moscow at the top of the Caspian Sea and Iran at the bottom have their own pipelines to get oil out to the markets. Azerbaijan, on the western shore, has built pipelines through Georgia into Turkey, one of which reaches the Mediterranean, so Russia cannot control its exports. But Moscow still has a stranglehold on the big oil and gas producers on the eastern side of the sea, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.

Neither of those former Soviet republics can escape Moscow’s grip unless it can move its oil and gas in pipelines across the Caspian seabed to Azerbaijan and out to the Mediterranean from there. So Putin has been trying for years to get a Russian veto on any such pipelines. He’s nearly there.

If the International Law of the Sea applied, then each country’s Exclusive Economic Zone, with control over seabed developments, would extend 300 nautical miles from its coast. The Caspian is not that big, so all five EEZ’s would meet in the middle – and Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan’s zones would both touch Azerbaijan’s, so the question of trans-Caspian seabed pipelines would be beyond Moscow’s control.

But since the Caspian Sea is not part of the world ocean, the five countries around it can agree on any local rules they like. Russia is by far the greatest power on its shores, and the rules it likes would confine each country to a 15-nautical-mile sovereign zone and a 25-mile exclusive fishing zone.

Under this regime, the middle of the sea would remain a common area where any development would need the consent of all five countries. Hey presto! A Russian veto on any pipelines crossing the Caspian Sea, and continuing control over oil and gas exports from Central Asia to Europe.

Following a summit meeting of the five countries’ leaders in Astrakhan at the end of September, it’s practically a done deal, although the final treaty will not be signed until 2016. Late last month Richard Hoagland, U.S. assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, visited Astana, the Kazakh capital, and said that the US firmly supported Kazakh independence and territorial integrity, but everybody knows who’s boss in the region.

Sidelining Kazakh and Turkmen competition in the European gas and oil markets will not help Moscow much, however, if Putin’s behaviour on Russia’s western borders continues to frighten the Europeans. They will be scrambling to cut their dependence on Russian gas and oil as fast as they can, and the fracking Americans, with their soaring production, will be more than happy to help.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. “There has…EU”

25 Years Later: The Berlin Wall

In China, the Communists had just massacred the students in Tienanmen Square and won themselves another quarter-century in power. On the other hand, the Poles voted overwhelmingly for Solidarity in June, and by September Hungary had opened its border with the West.  But it was the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November, 1989, that really opened the flood-gates.

I had been spending a lot of time in the old Soviet Union since 1987, when I visited Moscow after a five-year absence and found the place unrecognisable. People had lost their fear: in the kitchens, and sometimes in the streets, they were saying what they really thought. It was the first time I had gone to Russia without feeling that I had left Planet Earth.

So I went home and told my friendly neighbourhood network that something very big was going to happen. I didn’t know exactly what, but if they gave me a travel budget I’d spend a couple of weeks in the Soviet bloc interviewing people every three months, and when the big thing happened I’d give them an instant radio series on it. Networks had more money and more nerve in those days, so they said yes.

By 1989 I had kind of worked out what was going to happen, but I didn’t know if it could all be done non-violently. The signs were good – I had spent much of the summer in the Soviet Union, and the first big demos had already happened peacefully in Moscow – but where and when the dam would finally break was still anybody’s guess. Then in early September I flew from Moscow to Hungary for a quick look around on my way home.

On the way in to Budapest from the airport, the streets were full of abandoned East German cars, mostly pathetic Trabis that any sensible person would abandon. But still….

The taxi driver explained that Hungary had opened its border with Austria. East Germans were coming down in droves across the “fraternal” Communist country of Czechoslovakia (no visa needed), to travel onwards to Austria and thence to West Germany. So I had the taxi take me up to the Young Pioneer camp in the hills behind Buda that was serving as a transit camp.

Every few minutes a taxi would pull up and East Germans – usually a young couple – would get out. Every hour an enormous coach would drive up and take them all off to the West. And after an hour or so interviewing them as they arrived at the gate, I knew what was going to happen next.

They didn’t see themselves as refugees fleeing to start a new life in the West. They were taking advantage of an opportunity to see the West, and they’d be safe there if things went badly wrong in East Germany, but most fully expected to be home again, in a democratic East Germany, within a year.

When I got on the plane home, I started writing a piece in which I compared East Germany’s Communist regime to a Walt Disney character who had run off a cliff – but wouldn’t actually start to fall until he looked down. And as soon as we landed, I booked a ticket back to Berlin for late October. I was just in time for a great party.

What astonished everyone was the way the old system just rolled over and died. This amazing new technique of non-violent revolution had been working well in Asia since 1986 – the Philippines, Thailand, South Korea, Bangladesh – but taking down a COMMUNIST regime seemed like a much more dangerous and doubtful enterprise, especially after Tienanmen Square.

The party was so great because most people were enormously relieved that it had been so easy. They were fed up to the back teeth with the petty-minded, boring Communist bullies who dominated their lives, and they were sick of being poor, but nobody wanted to die in an old-fashioned revolution. Yet the Communist ideology OBLIGED the believers to launch a civil war rather than surrender power peacefully.

So when it turned out that non-violence worked even against Communists, at least in Europe, people quite rightly felt that they had been very lucky. And as a bonus, the threat of a nuclear World War Three went away. The old NATO alliance still trundles on a quarter-century later, picking up work wherever it can, but it has become the sound of one hand clapping.

There were some problems later on in places like Romania and Russia, but it was a radical, amazingly peaceful revolution in a part of the world that was not best known for its ability to change peacefully. So once the celebrations died down in Berlin I rented a car and drove off to Warsaw to see how the new post-Communist government was doing in Poland.

I parked outside a government ministry right on Nowy Swiat, and while I was inside interviewing the minister somebody broke into my car and stole my bag, including all the interview tapes from Berlin and the piece of the Wall I was bringing home to my daughter. The soldiers who were marching back and forth inside the fence saw it happen, but pointed out that stopping thieves was not their job.

So I reported the theft to the police for insurance purposes, and explained to them that if they spotted a well-dressed man who was limping badly, it was probably the thief. The stolen bag contained the suit I wore for interviewing presidents, but I had mistakenly packed two left dress shoes with it. They didn’t laugh – they had been trained by the Communists, after all – so I drove off down to Prague for the next revolution.
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This article is somewhat longer than usual, in case you want to use it as a weekend feature, but it cuts down to the same length as usual. To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 11 and 12. (“So…yes”; and “The party…clapping”)

Ukraine: A Game of Chicken

It is quite possible for soldiers to cross a frontier “by accident on an unmarked section,” and that is how Moscow explains the capture of a group of Russian paratroopers on Ukrainian territory last weekend. Poor lambs, they just wandered across the border by mistake. When they get home, they’ll have to be sent on a refresher course in cross-country navigation.

The flaw in this story is that the ten captured Russian soldiers, from the 331st Regiment of the 98th Guards Airborne Division, were caught in a group of unmarked vehicles THIRTEEN MILES inside Ukraine. That’s a third of the way from the Russian border to the besieged rebel city of Donetsk, and it’s really hard to explain away as a navigational error.

Besides, there is plenty of other evidence (though no other video interviews with captured Russian troops) to show that there is now a three-pronged Russian offensive underway in eastern Ukraine. There are probably fewer than a thousand Russian regular army troops on Ukrainian territory at the moment, but their purpose is clearly to stop the collapse of the pro-Russian rebels and reverse the momentum in the ground war.

Last week the Ukrainian forces finally cut the last remaining road from Russia to the besieged city of Luhansk, shortly after a large convoy of Russian trucks violated Ukrainian sovereignty and drove up that road to deliver “humanitarian” aid to the city. The rebel forces have now launched a counter-offensive to reopen the road, and Russian self-propelled artillery units have entered Ukraine in the Krasnodon area to support their attacks.

Another Russian force, including tanks, crossed the border on 24 August thirty mi. south of Donetsk, the capital of the other rebel province, and is trying to open a corridor to that city. (The captured paratroopers were part of that force, which is currently stalled near Ilovaisk.) And on 25 August a column of Russian armour crossed into Ukraine well to the south, heading west along the coast of the Sea of Azov towards the port city of Mariupol.

This last incursion, presumably an attempt to open a third front and relieve the pressure on the two besieged cities, has now occupied Novoazovsk, about twenty km. east of Mariupol. The Ukrainian forces say they destroyed a dozen armoured infantry carriers there, but in the end they were driven out. Russian helicopter gunships also killed four Ukrainian border guards and wounded three others in an attack on a border post east of Luhansk on Tuesday.

It’s not yet all-out war between Russia and Ukraine, but there is no doubt that Ukrainian forces are now in direct combat with Russian troops on several fronts. Russia still officially denies all this, of course, but its denials are not meant to be believed. Rather than see the separatist forces that Moscow has sponsored in the two eastern Ukrainian provinces simply collapse, Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided to escalate the conflict.

The message is that Russia will do whatever is necessary militarily to keep the rebellion alive. But is that really true? Putin is now just one step short of a full Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine, and Russia is already suffering serious economic sanctions. Take that last step, and it’s back to the Cold War – a war that Russia would ultimately lose, and it wouldn’t take forty years this time either.

Today’s Russia has only half the population of the old Soviet Union, and it is no longer a major industrial power. Without its oil and gas exports, its citizens would be as poor as Ukrainians. If NATO started to take the “Russian threat” really seriously and re-armed itself accordingly, Russia simply couldn’t keep up militarily – and even trying would wreck its fragile economy. In the end, that would probably bring Putin down.

Putin presumably understands this at some level, but his pride, and his desire to restore Russian power, won’t let him just accept defeat. So the current escalation is best seen as his next move in a game of chicken: can he frighten the West into making a deal that saves his face and turns Ukraine back into a political and economic dependency of Russia? The answer is: probably not.

Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, certainly does not intend to go back to the old days. When he called a parliamentary election last week, he was effectively declaring that Ukraine will continue to be a sovereign and centralised state, not the neutered and decentralised state that Moscow wants – and that it will keep its options open on joining the European Union and even NATO (though neither of those options is currently on offer).

The problem with games of chicken is that each player must demonstrate his willingness to go all the way, even though going all the way is crazy. The first one to give way to an attack of sanity loses. The only way to avoid a disastrous smash-up and still not lose is for both players to go sane at exactly the same time. That is what diplomacy is for, but so far it isn’t working.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 9.  (“This…Tuesday”; and “Today’s…down”)