четвъртък, 27 февруари 2014 г.

The limitations of military posturing in the Ukranian crisis

The situation in Ukraine is just about to enter into mittelspiel with armed Russians seizing the Council of Ministers and the Parliament building in Simferopol. Russian army personnel carriers are reported heading to the Crimean capital as Ukrainian security forces on their own will be trying to regain the buildings. The repercussions could prove immense as there is little chance that a military clash or confrontation between Russian and Ukrainian troops could be avoided.

After the flee of Yanukovitch Western politicians have consistently tried to tone down the rhetoric over the legitimacy of power in Kiev and appease Moscow by appealing for a more cooperative mode in addressing the Ukrainian crisis. Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande as well as other leaders were on the phone with President Putin trying to engage the strong man in Moscow into some diplomatic regulatory process attempting to preempt excessive aggressive response from Moscow. The core interest has been to tame the Russian leaders' angst and hurt pride in seeing Ukraine drift westward. The bottom line in the EU and Western reaction has been to secure some breathing space for the new Ukrainian government and protect it against open coercion, avert military intervention or subversive action from the East. 

Washington has remained mute, with only occasionally joining EU's appeals using classic  communication channels - phone diplomacy at the top and preferring to focus on Ukraine's looming financial, economic and ultimately social and political problems.

In so doing the EU has played the leading role with Germany finally deciding to draw the red line in Ukraine to its post war reluctance to engage as the existence of the EU itself was put at stake. Whereas the EU is able to offer a more competitive bid on Ukraine in the financial and economic areas - it seems relatively incapacitated or unable to act and neutralize Russian military advances, hard ball politics and aggressive action.
Yesterday US State Secretary Kerry admitted that the US is drifting into new isolationism, recognizing the limits of its national resource base and sending a mixed signal on its ability or willingness to counter military moves by Moscow within a cohesive and coordinated NATO response. For sure Putin is no Gorbachev or Yeltsin, and Obama is definitely no Reagan or even Clinton. The current US President has isolated himself from Central and Eastern Europe's tribulations in recent years and recharging his CEE policy seems highly unlikely within the present context.  This revelation - which might have come as a surprise to a lot of Ukrainians and Central Europeans - is not confined to this part of the world. The White House has been systematically pulling the US out of all conflict areas and denying engagement in new ones. And this is pretty well accounted for at the Kremlin.

Now if you are an East European observing that such fate is shared by America's closest ally - Israel  - how credible and what would be the net worth of a declaration of support to  Ukraine at times of looming confrontation?

Over the last 25 years most of the US and EU foreign policy pundits and strategists have lost their Cold War instincts to fight back when challenged. The political elites have been swept by the new adage of the weak or lacking resolve Russia, ignoring lightening stories and proof of Moscow's intent to step into the Soviet Union's global shoes and openly challenge America. There is a lot of political expediency and geostrategic hype in Minister Shoigu's talk on Russia's intent to build new military bases across the globe starting from Vietnam and Singapore to Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua. But the intent is clear and whether we admit or not, or whether we agree on the semantics the fact is that we are entering into a new phase of cold - information or propaganda war the West and Russia. The differences in the value set seem irreconcilable at present and Russia does not seem to be willing to accept the new realities in Ukraine.

The EU's integrity has never been tested in such turbulent times - for members' loyalty (notably ethe CEE), their willingness and capacity to stick together and coordinate action against a reassertive and increasingly aggressive Russia. There is no shortage of Russian friendly politicians or groups - leftists, nationalists, environmentalists - both in new and old Europe who are torn apart when having to put EU and their countries interests first in confrontation with Russia. It is not a pure coincidence that after flirting and fomenting the global anti-shale gas campaign, Russia's global satellite channel RT has targeted new soft spots in the EU's underbelly from the leftists in Bulgaria in the Southeast to independence seekers in Scotland to the Northwest.
Muted and Teflon type reactions to Russia's new aggressive and hate talk on protesters and supporters as neo nazis, terrorists and imperialists - only serve to encourage more reassertive action and escalation of tension. The fact of the matter is that EU foreign policy towards Ukraine has yet to translate into a strategic vision and detailed action plan - where both EU and Ukrainian nationals could seek guidance. The EU neighbourhood policy framework has been outgrown by events - it has neither been upgraded nor replaced.
Western elites, versed in the almost religious belief that the end of the Cold War and the reign of democracy in the CEE is an indisputable and irreversible fact, have been taken by surprise by the revanchist outbursts and growing pretenses of Putin's Russia on the Soviet global legacy. The Russian President's generation of politicians considers Ukraine as a proof of their humiliation and loss of self respect following the demise of the Soviet Union. They have never ceased to dream of regaining the global status of the former empire. Their newly acquired wealth coupled with the President Obama's isolationism and EU's internal identity crisis have alerted many at Kremlin of the timely opportunity. Putin has persisted in defining his foreign policy goals in line with overriding global status claims - building on tactical victories in a sequence of soft challenges to the West - starting with Iran, Syria and the Snowden affair.

The events in Ukraine, however,  mark a decisively new level of escalation, that could trigger a tailspin process ending in the disintegration of either the EU or Russia and a full blown - though not necessarily military - conflict between the West and Russia. The calls for non-interference in Ukraine's internal affairs - coming from both sides - tantamount to a new "mutual co-existence" plea or a time out before troops are called in.  Non-interference appeals are hypocritical at best given the size and scope of the stakes and resources engaged at all levels in Russia - in both overt and covert operations.

The fact that President Putin has not been seen lately in public is not an sign of weakness - just a tactical retreat. He still has never given up on exploiting old and new vulnerabilities of the West in making scores even as a classic Cold War warrior. For him Ukraine is not even "near abroad" - it is Russia proper, invaded by the West. Being part of Europe has been a corner stone of Russian identity for most of its history. Regardless of assurances coming from the new Ukrainian government of good neighborly relations intents - just the pure notion of a full EU membership for Ukraine with Russia out in the cold in the East is a nightmare for Kremlin. The Ukrainian - Russian border as inter-system border with the West would not only exemplify the nadir in Putin's rule but would tear apart the concept of Russia as the centre of gravity on the post Soviet space. Never mind the real situation or intent - perceptions matter most.

President Putin's silence has many explanations - once again as in 2004 he has bet on the wrong horse - Yanukovich - and is shocked by the potential consequences of his mistake. Once again the top priority on his list it to prevent the spill over of the Maidan virus into Russia no matter the risk or the cost.

The Russian leader has never won a free and open political contest with a level playing field. He was appointed at the top of the Russian state and has stayed there using executive privileges and all levers to suppress opposition and frustrate political rivals. One could only wonder whether and how he would have rated without his grip on executive power. His natural forte in politics is not winning hearts and minds but operating below the radar, maintaining a pragmatic look on the limits of his power and blending decisiveness and hawkishness with a cooperative and non-provoking posture. Many in the West underestimate his elite's readiness to sacrifice energy resource revenues, welfare status and interests should the group and the tzar decide to pursue grander strategic schemes.  Few other nations would be ready to sacrifice 50 billion  dollars for a fortnight of global glory in the Olympic games. Kremlin has little trouble selling a belligerent line on Ukraine, the EU and the US as the enemy to the Russian political elite and public, at least in the short term. That is an ideal red herring conveniently distracting attention from failures in domestic policies,justifying crackdowns on opposition and bigger military and security spending. 

Putin needs to chop a part of Ukraine either physically or metaphorically. His range for maneuvers is shrinking both abroad (no more Schroeders) and at home - suffice to look at the rouble falling rates and the alarming pace of capital flight - in January alone 20 billion dollars left Russia!?. The rouble depreciation is in part tacitly encouraged at the top as a convenient and silent way to lower welfare standards and balance budget deficits. This is where Ukraine as a battleground fits well as an ideal distraction.

There are a few minor details that he should account for before indulging in self-centred action. First, Ukraine is no Georgia and even without massive presence of US or NATO troops on the ground to confront Russia Ukrainian nationalists and a wide array of anti-Putin coalition could bog him down into a protracted conflict that could ultimately lead to the disintegration of Russia itself. Second, even in the unlikely event of him being able to chop off part of Ukraine - again metaphorically or physically - this will result in a inevitable strategic loss in the mid term for Russia - leading to economic collapse. Russia is overdependent of the EU for 80% of its energy exports and as a decade long negotiations with China have clearly attested - there is no quick fix for that. The winters when Gazprom turned off the tap led to a massive effort to diversify gas and energy supplies and lessen dependence on Russia. Unprecedented investments and new discoveries were made in both conventional and unconventional resources, energy efficiency gains and technology advances. The EU as of 2014 holds stronger cards on the negotiating table. At the same time Russia has missed its chance to shift its energy resource flows towards Asia and modernize its economy. The chances of reversing these trends are negligible.

The EU and the US have a vested interest in seeking a common or at least a coordinated action with Russia when providing financial, economic or other assistance in order to avoid overkill or mutual resources drain. The threat of default is a two edge sword and is in neither's interest. For the new government and acting president in Ukraine declaring default after six months in office could entail sharing responsibility with the Yanukovich's government. While defaulting on debt payments sooner could lead to heavy losses for creditors and Russia is high on the list.

The EU and Russia have a shared interest in securing Ukraine's integrity and in coordinating economic and financial assistance to avert the country falling into the precipice. Military posturing or sabre rattling are a dead end street. After all Russia and the EU have asymmetrical dependencies and Russian strongest trump card - her nuclear arsenal is of little practical value.

One thing that the EU could help avoid is a clash of Ukrainian and Russian nationalism by encouraging the new government in Kiev to lower the decibels in its nationalist rhetoric, to engage the opposition in consensus building process and to reach out to the Russian speaking and Russian minorities. The ultimate proof of a new independent Ukrainian identity lies in the ability to make good on the hope for EU accession by adopting and implementing the fundamental EU values for protection of human and minority rights, civil freedoms and shared economic prosperity.

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