Conducting an orderly retreat is the hardest thing not only in war but also in politics, as Russian President Vladimir Putin is now learning. His own desire to avoid humiliation gets in the way of rapid disengagement from a losing battle, which why he waited until two days before last Sunday’s Ukrainian presidential election to say that he would respect the result. And even then he said “respect”, not “recognise”.
The Ukrainian election went well. Petro Poroshenko, a minor-league oligarch with business interests in Russia, won convincingly in the first round, and 60 percent of voters actually showed up at the polls. Even in Donetsk province, where most city centres are occupied by separatist gunmen, seven out of twelve district electoral commissions were able to operate normally. It’s a good start on stabilising the country.
So why didn’t Putin just say “recognise, when that is clearly what he will have to do in the end if Russia and Ukraine are to have peaceful relations? Why prolong the uncertainty about his intentions in the West, where the belief that he is an “expansionist” bent on recreating the Russian/Soviet empire takes deeper root with each passing day? The answer is pride – and Russia will pay a significant price for Putin’s pride.
Last week Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, enlivened his royal tour of Canada by telling an elderly Polish immigrant that Hitler’s relentless take-over of European countries in the 1930s was “not unlike what Putin is doing now”. Prince Charles is well known for saying silly things, but what he said in Canada sounded quite sensible to many people in the West. That is a big problem for Putin.
Putin’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine, though completely illegal, was not the first step in his plan for world conquest. That is preposterous: Russia is a relatively poor country of only 140 million people. But it is a regrettable fact of life that the Hitler analogy has a powerful grip on the popular imagination throughout Europe and North America, and Putin’s aimless belligerence has been setting him up in Western minds as the next Hitler.
He was very cross when his tame Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, was overthrown by protesters after he obeyed Putin’s demand to break off trade talks with the European Union. Putin punished Ukraine by annexing Crimea, and he started doing some heavy breathing about Ukraine’s eastern provinces as well.
He encouraged pro-Russian gunmen to seize government buildings in eastern Ukraine and warned that he might intervene militarily if the Ukrainian government used force against them. He moved 40,000 troops up to Ukraine’s eastern border on “exercises”. It was quite pointless, since he could neither annex the eastern provinces nor remove the Ukrainian government without actually invading, but he was VERY cross.
Three months of that, and the damage to his and Russia’s image is starting to pile up. Simple-minded people like Prince Charles talk about a new Hitler. Terrified Poles, Estonians and other Eastern Europeans who used to live under the Soviet yoke fear that they might be next and demand NATO troops on their soil. And clever people in the Western military-industrial complexes see an opportunity to sell more of their wares.
So at last, in early May, Putin sobers up and calls off the fright campaign. He says that the Ukrainian election could be a move “in the right direction.” He publicly urges the pro-Russian gunmen in Donetsk and Luhansk provinces to postpone a planned referendum on union with Russia. He even says that he is withdrawing his troops from Ukraine’s borders.
But he doesn’t really withdraw the troops yet. He doesn’t use his influence to force the separatist gunmen in eastern Ukraine to postpone their referendum, and he doesn’t actually say that he will recognise the Ukrainian election as legitimate. Putin wants to walk away from the game, but it’s too embarrassing to do a complete about-face. So he leaves the pot of fear and suspicion boiling for another three weeks.
FINALLY, only two days before the Ukranian election, Putin says he will “respect” the result, and his tanks start to pull back from Ukraine’s border. Too damned late. There won’t be any more Western sanctions against Russia, but Putin has managed to resurrect the image of Russia as a mortal threat to its neighbours. It will not lie down again soon.
European defence budgets will stop falling, and the integration of the armed forces of the various new NATO members in Eastern Europe will accelerate. Leading-edge technologies like missile defence will get more funding in the United States. Foreign investment in Russia is already declining. And the countries of the European Union will move heaven and earth to cut their dependence on Russian gas exports.
Putin has already turned to China as a new customer for Russian gas, but it will never pay as well as Europe did. He used to be able to play the Europeans and the Chinese off against each other, but that game is over. NATO sees him as a wild card at best, and at worst a real threat. The master strategist has lost his touch.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“So…weeks”)
By Gwynne Dyer
With due apologies to God, Voltaire and the Ukrainians, I must point out that if Ukraine did not exist, it would not be necessary to invent it. It is not a great power, it has no resources the world cannot do without, and it is not a “vital strategic interest” to anybody except the Ukrainians themselves. Not even to the Russians, although they are acting at the moment as though it were.
Bosnia was nobody’s vital strategic interest either. It isn’t now, and it wasn’t a hundred years ago. But Bismarck warned in 1898 that if there was ever another major war in Europe, it would come out of “some damned silly thing in the Balkans,” and an assassination in Sarajevo in 1914 fulfilled his prophecy to the letter.
Some things have changed since then, however. The next world war will not come out of Ukraine (which is only slightly north-east of the Balkans) no matter what happens in the next few weeks and months. Russia might invade Ukraine, there might even be a new Cold War for a while, but there will be no fighting in Europe beyond Ukraine’s borders.
Indeed, apart from the Balkans there has been no full-scale war in Europe for the past 69 years, and there was never the slightest risk that the fighting in the 1990s would spread beyond the borders of former Yugoslavia. Indeed, there was probably never a single day during the 45 years of the Cold War when either side seriously considered attacking the other.
The reason was simple: they knew what would happen next, even if neither side used the thousands of nuclear weapons at its disposal. Twice in thirty years, in 1914-18 and 1939-45, a major war using modern weapons had been fought over almost all of Europe’s territory.
On the first occasion, they lost a generation of young men. The second time, most countries from Germany eastwards lost around ten percent of their populations killed – and most of the casualties that time were civilians. Half of the continent’s great historic cities were reduced to ruins even without the help of nuclear weapons. It was a very expensive education, but the Europeans did finally learn their lesson: don’t do this any more.
That is why, even as Russian tanks drive right up to Ukraine’s eastern borders and the Ukrainian army prepares to die in a fight it knows it would lose, nobody else in Europe is getting ready for war. If the Russians want part or all of Ukraine, they can have it – and pay the long-term price for taking it, which would be very high. But nothing in Europe is worth blowing all of Europe up for.
Do not be alarmed by the fact that troops and planes from as far away as the United States and Canada are currently being sent to NATO countries that have borders with Russia. The numbers are militarily insignificant. Their purpose is simply to remind the Russians that the alliance will protect its own members should Moscow ever decide that it has also a right to “protect” Russian-speakers in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.
Moscow does not actually need to be reminded of that. It has seized Crimea, and is toying with the idea of seizing more of Ukraine, precisely because that country does not fall under the NATO umbrella. And it does not belong to NATO because NATO didn’t want to take military responsibility for its defence.
That was an entirely rational decision, because the Russians clearly thought Ukraine fell within their sphere of influence. This is the first time it has been independent from Russia for any appreciable period of time in the past three and a half centuries.
Moreover, the post-Soviet governments in Kiev had been horrendously corrupt and incompetent, the country as a result is even poorer than it was in Soviet times – and the population in the eastern part of Ukraine is terrified of getting tangled up with the West because it inhabits an industrial museum whose products are only saleable in Russia. What eastern Ukrainians really fear for is their jobs, not their right to speak Russian.
All this was clear twenty years ago, and that’s when NATO decided that Ukraine’s independence would have to depend on Russia’s good-will, not on NATO’s tanks. And for twenty years Russia more or less respected Ukraine’s independence, while seeking, naturally enough, to ensure that its governments were friendly.
The collapse of the status quo is partly the European Union’s fault, for demanding that Ukraine choose between closer trade and travel ties with the EU and full membership in Russia’s “Eurasian Union”. It is even more the fault of Moscow: President Vladimir Putin has been both emotional and opportunistic. He’s scaring people, which is never a good idea.
But if he does take more or even all of Ukraine, the West will not fight him. It will just take in all the Ukrainian refugees, strengthen its eastern defences, and begin the slow process of bringing down Putin by crippling the Russian economy. That would take years, but nobody would forget about Ukraine. It is a UN member, and even China has stopped supporting the Russian position. Remember East Timor.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10-12. (“That…friendly”) You may prefer to lose part of the first sentence (“With due apologies to God, Voltaire and the Ukrainians, “) and the very last sentence (“Remember East Timor.”) if you think they are too obscure for your readers.
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.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10, 11 and 12. (“In the meantime…in the east”)
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.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“By disarmament…cities”)