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Ukraine: How To Avoid a War

9 April 2014

Ukraine: How To Avoid a War

On one hand, eastern Ukraine appears to be slipping out of the government’s control, as pro-Russian groups seize control of official buildings in big eastern cities like Donetsk and Luhansk and demand referendums on union with Russia. They almost certainly do not represent majority opinion in those cities, but the police stand aside and people who support Ukrainian unity are nervous about expressing their opinions in public.

On the other hand, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, has just announced that the EU, the United States, Ukraine and Russia will all meet somewhere in Europe next week to discuss ways of “de-escalating the situation in Ukraine.” That will be the first time that Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, has agreed to meet with a representative of the Ukrainian government.

So is this crisis heading for a resolution or an explosion? It still depends on whether Russian President Vladimir Putin thinks that the annexation of Crimea is enough compensation for the humiliation he suffered when his ally in Kiev, former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, was overthrown by a popular revolution. And clearly Putin hasn’t yet decided that himself.

Rationality says take your winnings to the bank and quit the game while you’re ahead. Putin’s action has guaranteed that almost any imaginable Ukrainian government will be hostile for the foreseeable future, but the NATO countries will be willing to forget about Crimea after a while if he goes no further. Does he really want the United States, Germany, France and Britain as his enemies too?

Yet the temptation is there. Putin’s agents are everywhere in eastern Ukraine, he has 40,000 troops ready to go at a moment’s notice just across the frontier, and all the Russian navy’s amphibious assault ships are now in the Black Sea – he could grab the Ukrainian coast all the way west to Odessa at the same time. The Ukrainian army would fight, but could not hold out for more than a day or two, and NATO would not send troops. Why not do it?

There are lots of good reasons not to. Putin would face a protracted guerilla war in Ukraine (he would call it “terrorism”, of course). He would find himself in a new Cold War that Russia would lose much faster than it lost the last one: it has only half the population of the old Soviet Union, and now depends heavily on Western markets for its modest prosperity.

He would find new NATO military bases opening up in various countries on Russia’s borders that joined the alliance for safety’s sake, but have so far not allowed  foreign (i.e. American or German) troops to be based permanently on their soil out of consideration for Russian anxieties. He really shouldn’t even consider grabbing Ukraine, but he is a man with a very big chip on his shoulder.

So what sort of line should the Europeans, the Americans and the Ukrainians be taking with Russia next week? This is about hard power, so appeals to sweet reason are pointless. “Sanctions” are also irrelevant: this has now gone considerably beyond the point where gesture politics has any role to play. The economic and strategic prices that Russia would pay need to be big and they need to be stated clearly.

But at the same time, Russia’s own legitimate concerns have to be addressed, and the main one is its fear that Ukraine might some day join NATO. That requires a firm commitment that Ukraine will be strictly neutral, under international guarantee. Russia will also try to get a promise that Ukraine will be “federalised”, but that is none of its business and should be rejected.

In the meantime, the shambolic Ukrainian provisional government needs to get a grip: not one of its leading figures has even visited the east since the revolution. In particular, it needs to take control of the police in the east (whose commanders were mostly Yukanovych’s placemen), and restore the chain of command from Kiev to the local municipalities.

Then it will be relatively easy to take back the occupied government buildings without violence. Just stop all movement in or out, turn off the water, and wait. None of this stuff is rocket science, but it’s not being done, and so the situation gets steadily worse.

Finally, money. Russia, under relatively competent authoritarian rule, has a GDP per capita of about $14,000. Ukraine, after a quarter-century of incompetent and sporadic authoritarian rule, has less than a third of that: $4,000 per head. It helps that Russia has a lot of oil and gas, but the contrast is huge, and Ukrainians are aware of it – especially in the east.

Ukraine needs lots of money, in a hurry, to stay solvent while it holds an election (on 25 May) and sorts itself out politically. And if all that is done, then maybe Putin will settle for Crimea and put up with the prospect of having to live next door to a neutral but democratic Ukraine.

Otherwise, it’s going to get quite ugly.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10, 11 and 12. (“In the meantime…in the east”)

A Federal Ukraine?

2 April 2014

A Federal Ukraine?

Two things were clear after US Secretary of State John Kerry’s four hours of talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Paris last Sunday. One was that the United States accepts that nothing can be done about Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Kerry continues to describe Russia’s action as “illegal and illegitimate”, but Crimea was not even mentioned in the communique released to the public.

The other is that the transformation of Ukraine into a neutral, federal state is now firmly on the table. Kerry repeatedly voiced the mantra that there must be “no decisions about Ukraine without Ukraine,” but he also agreed with Lavrov that the subjects that need to be discussed include rights for national minorities, language rights, the disarmament of irregular forces and a constitutional reform that would make Ukraine a federal state.

By “rights for national minorities” and “language rights” he meant a special political status for Ukraine’s 17 percent ethnic Russian minority and maybe even for the much larger number of Ukrainians – probably 40-45 percent – who speak Russian on a daily basis. Moscow is asserting its right to intervene in Ukraine’s internal affairs to “protect” these minorities, and Kerry is at least willing to talk about it.

By “disarmament of irregular forces” Lavrov had meant the armed right-wing groups that played a small part in the revolution and still make occasional appearances on Independence Square and elsewhere in Kiev. These groups are Moscow’s pretext for claiming that there has been a “fascist coup” in Kiev, from which it says that it has a duty to protect Russians and Russian-speakers in Ukraine.

Kerry may also have had in mind the armed pro-Moscow militias that occasionally appear in eastern Ukrainian cities, but he didn’t say so. Nor did he mention the fact that the Kiev government is already moving to disarm, break up and arrest the right-wing groups in western Ukrainian cities.

By talking about “federalising” Ukraine, Kerry was implicitly accepting that the Russian demand for a radical decentralisation of the country (which could give pro-Russian governments in some eastern Ukrainian provinces a veto on decisions in Kiev) is a legitimate topic for negotiation.

It’s no wonder that a satisfied Sergei Lavrov called the talks “very very constructive”, or that the Ukrainian foreign ministry spokesperson said Russia was demanding “Ukraine’s full capitulation, its split and the destruction of Ukrainian statehood.” And although Kerry promises “no decisions without Ukraine,” Kiev might not be able to reject American pressure to accept these concessions in its current gravely weakened state.

If all this makes John Kerry sound like a latter-day Neville Chamberlain appeasing Moscow, well, maybe he is. But that’s not clear yet.

Maybe the United States is getting ready to sell Ukraine down the river, or maybe Kerry is just giving sweet reason a try before the gloves come off. Likewise, maybe the Russians are really planning to turn Ukraine into a satellite – or maybe they just want to make it formally neutral. And how awful would that be?

There is nothing wrong with trying to stop this thing from turning into a new Cold War. Since NATO has no intention of offering Ukraine membership, formal neutrality could be a sensible way out of the current crisis so long as it does not preclude closer trade and travel ties with the European Union. But the Russians are also pushing hard for a “federalised” Ukraine.

“Given the proportion of native Russians in Ukraine,” said Lavrov, “we propose this and we are sure there is no other way.” That could be a deal-killer, especially since Moscow is starting to insist that the constitutional changes and a referendum on them be completed BEFORE the national election in Ukraine that is currently scheduled for 25 May.

These changes would be decided not by the Ukrainian government, but by a “nationwide dialogue” in which all regions would have an equal voice – including the eastern regions where there are many Russians, and 40,000 Russian troops poised just across the border. And, said Lavrov, the regions should have more power over, among other things, foreign trade, cultural ties abroad, and relations with neighbouring states, including Russia.

It is a programme, in other words, for the effective dismantling of the Ukrainian state, and it’s hard to see how even John Kerry and President Barack Obama can support that. Meanwhile, the level of panic is rising in the eastern European members of NATO, and especially in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, which also have Russian minorities and border directly on the Russian Federation.

Vladimir Putin, fresh from his Crimean victory, is seriously overplaying his hand. Poland and the three Baltic states are now pushing for permanent NATO military bases on their territory, something the alliance has avoided since they joined in order not to antagonise Moscow. A confidential NATO paper leaked to Der Spiegel even talks about boosting military cooperation with Moldova, Armenia and Azerbaijan, all former Soviet republics.

And Moscow is now accusing Ukrainians of plotting terrorist attacks on Russian territory.  The odds on a new Cold War have gone up quite a lot in the past week.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“By disarmament…cities”)

A Premature History of the Second Cold War

2 March 2014

A Premature History of the Second Cold War

The first mistake of the Ukrainian revolutionaries was to abandon the agreement of 23 February to create a national unity government, including some of the revolutionary leaders, that would administer the country until new elections in December. It would have left President Viktor Yanukovych in office until then, but with severely diminished powers, as the constitution would have been changed to restore the authority of parliament.

Leaving a man who ordered the murder of dozens of protesters in power even temporarily was a bitter pill to swallow, but it had tacit Russian support because it saved President Vladimir Putin’s face. However, the crowds on Independence Square refused to accept the deal, and Yanukovych was forced to flee.

Parliament subsequently ratified his removal, but it was the mob, and especially the right-wing fighting groups like Praviy Sektor, who led, and the leadership who followed. Putin was humiliated, and he was given the pretext for claiming that Ukraine had fallen to a “fascist coup” as a justification, however flimsy, for rejecting the legitimacy of the new Ukrainian government.

The second grave error – and this one was entirely unforced – was the new government’s decision to repeal the law giving Russian equal status as an official language in provinces with large Russian-speaking populations. It delighted Ukrainian-speaking ultra-nationalists in the west of the country, but it needlessly alienated the two-fifths of Ukraine’s population who speak Russian as their first language.

So now Putin is bringing pressure on the new Ukrainian government by backing a secessionist movement in Crimea (where three-fifths of the people speak Russian). The rubber-stamp Russian parliament has also granted him authority to use Russian troops elsewhere in Ukraine to “protect” Russians – by which it seems to mean Ukrainians in eastern Ukraine who speak Russian, although they are not actually under attack.

Putin has not yet sent Russian troops into the eastern parts of Ukraine. However, pro-Russian crowds have appeared in cities like Kharkov, Donetsk and Lugansk demanding Russian “protection” – amid plausible reports that many people in those crowds are actually Russians imported from just across the border for the occasion, and not Russian-speaking Ukrainians at all. The promised Ukrainian election on 25 May may never happen.

The Ukrainian army has been mobilised, and actual fighting could be only days away if the Russians invade eastern Ukraine, or attack the encircled Ukrainian garrisons in Crimea. Maybe Putin is just bluffing; more likely, he doesn’t yet know himself how far he is willing to go. But one thing generally leads to another, and some bluffs are hard to walk away from. Are we on the brink of a new Cold War?

It wouldn’t be a hot war, except in Ukraine. Nobody will send troops to defend Ukraine, nor should they. Nobody is in position to stop Russia from conquering Ukraine if it chooses to, and turning it into a wider European war (or a world war) would not help matters.

In any case, Moscow would probably not try to conquer ALL of Ukraine. Kyiv and the the west would fight very hard, and after they were defeated they would continue to resist a Russian occupation with guerilla tactics, including terrorism. Putin doesn’t need that, so part of Ukraine would remain free, and call for outside help.

It would come, in the form of financial and military aid, and maybe even what has hitherto been rigorously excluded from the discussion: NATO membership. And there Russia and everybody in NATO would sit for the next five or ten or twenty years in a frozen confrontation that would include a trade embargo, an arms race, and a remote but real possibility of a nuclear war.

This is not at all what Putin intends or expects, of course. He is calculating that once he controls the Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine, he will be able to enforce a restructuring of the country as a federation in which the government of the eastern, Russian-speaking part will be permanently under Russia’s thumb, and will have a veto on the decisions of the central government.

That’s all Putin wants out of this: a Ukrainian government that always respects Russia’s wishes. It could even pursue a different policy on issues like human rights, if it wants (so long as it doesn’t give Russians ideas). He doesn’t want to micro-manage the place. He’s not out to conquer the world. He’s not even out to re-conquer Eastern Europe.

But Putin’s calculations about Ukraine have been wrong every single time since the turn of the century. He backed Yanukovych before 2004, and the Orange Revolution proved him wrong. He backed Yanukovych even more enthusiastically after 2010; the policy blew up in his face again. And here he is yet again, backing Yanukovych as the president-in-exile of his Russia-friendly fantasy version of Ukraine.

His calculations are wrong. If he continues down this road, he will cause a quite needless political disaster.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 12.  (“Putin…all”; and “That’s…Europe”)

Afghanistan: The Najibullah Syndrome

10 March 2013

Afghanistan: The Najibullah Syndrome

By Gwynne Dyer

“Yesterday’s bombings (in Afghanistan) in the name of the Taliban were aimed at serving the foreigners and supporting the presence of the foreigners in Afghanistan and keeping them in Afghanistan by intimidating us,” said Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai on Sunday. What on Earth could he have meant by that?

The “foreigners” he is talking about are the troops from the United States and various NATO countries in Europe that have been in Afghanistan for the past dozen years. They will almost all be gone by the end of next year. Can Karzai seriously think that the Taliban bombs in Kabul and Khost last Saturday, which killed 19 people, were meant to get the Americans, British, Germans et. al. to keep their soldiers in Afghanistan longer?

If he were the leader of al-Qaeda, you can imagine him saying that. It was always al-Qaeda’s goal to get Western military forces entangled in military occupations in the Muslim world, in the belief that that would nurture popular hostility both to the West and to the local leaders who collaborated with it. But Karzai IS a collaborator, parachuted into Afghanistan after the American invasion in 2001.

He may have won the first presidential election in 2005 legitimately, but by the second election in 2009 he has so unpopular that he was only re-elected thanks to massive vote-rigging, tacitly condoned by the United States. And when the Americans leave, he had better leave with them.

So what is all this nonsense about the Taliban bombs being an attempt to persuade the “foreigners” that they have to stay, and to “intimidate” Karzai and his cronies into letting them stay? It can best be explained as a manifestation of the “Najibullah syndrome”.

Najibullah was the Communist leader who ruled Afghanistan during the latter stages of the Soviet occupation and immediately after the Russians left. When the Taliban finally took Kabul in 1996, he was tortured, castrated, dragged through the streets behind a truck, and then hanged from a traffic light. It can be safely assumed that Karzai and his cronies, when they contemplate the forthcoming American departure, are acutely aware of this precedent.

This leads to various flailing attempts by members of the regime to distance themselves from the American occupation forces who originally boosted them into power. Karzai has been increasingly vocal in criticising the NATO forces in Afghanistan, as if he had nothing to do with their presence in the country, and didn’t owe his presidency to them.

Let’s deconstruct that remarkable statement of Karzai’s. The message is that he is an Afghan patriot who is trying to make the “foreigners” go home, whereas the Taliban are trying to keep the Americans and their NATO allies in the country to further their own nefarious purposes. It makes no sense whatever, but what else can he say? That the Taliban are winning, the Americans are getting out, and he is doomed?

He’s not really doomed. Since the constitution does not allow him to run for the presidency again, he can easily leave the country for “health reasons” or whatever before the foreign troops depart. He must have salted away enough money abroad to live quite well in exile, as have almost all the other members of the regime. So why does he act as though he might have a future in post-occupation Afghanistan?

The Najibullah precedent is instructive here, too. The former collaborator with the Soviet occupiers stubbornly believed that the Taliban would understand that his motives had been pure, and after all he was a Pashtun like them. He refused to leave Kabul before the Taliban took over, even though numerous friends implored him to. Karzai apparently suffers from the same delusions, and may eventually suffer the same fate.

This is not to say that the Taliban will overrun all of Afghanistan after the NATO forces leave. They will undoubtedly gain control of the Pashtun-majority south and east, and they will probably take Kabul. They didn’t gain control of the Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek minority regions in the north of the country last time, and they may not do so after this bunch of foreigners leave either.

The likeliest post-occupation outcome in Afghanistan, therefore, is a reversion to the situation that prevailed there before 2001. Karzai will either leave or be tortured and killed, as will most of his senior collaborators. Pakistan will be the dominant influence in Taliban-controlled parts of the country, and the minorities will have to fend for themselves.

If this is the final outcome, what have the “foreigners” been doing in the country for the past twelve years? Several thousand of their soldiers have been killed, hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent, and things will be about the same after they leave as they were before they arrived – apart from the al-Qaeda terrorist training camps, which were dealt with before the end of 2001.

For the NATO alliance, which has been searching for a new role ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Afghan operation at least helped to justify its enormous budget. For the United States, it never made sense from any point of view. And for Afghanistan, it was merely the continuation of a disaster now more than thirty years old.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“He’s not…fate”)