Danger, Will Robinson!

It may be time to heed the warning of the robot in the 1960’s television show “Lost in Space” when it comes to Ukraine and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s speech at the Kremlin yesterday concerning the annexation of Crimea.  (The Kremlin transcript of the speech may be found here.  If one takes him at his word, and I think we should, beware.)

It is past time to stop categorizing Putin’s pronouncements as nothing more than incredible Russian propaganda.  He is serious.  Yesterday he laid down a blue print for restoring Russia to what Putin believes is its rightful place in the world order.  I do not think he is bluffing and I do believe that he says what he means in this speech.  In it, he uses several historical references to bolster his claim that what Russia did in the Crimea was in keeping with previous precedent.  He is taking the long view  — a vision of Russia for the future — in the speech.  Clearly when he uses words like “plundered” in reference to the end of the cold war and the loss of Crimea to Ukraine and the departure from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS)  (the immediate follow-on to the Soviet Union) of former Soviet republics, he is laying the groundwork for his case that Russia should reclaim its historical lands.  (Historical in the context of a Russian empire, not necessarily the context of the totality of history.)  He follows it up with claims that following the break up of the CIS, Russian citizens “went to bed in one country and awoke in different ones, overnight becoming ethnic minorities in former Union republics, while the Russian nation became one of the biggest, if not the biggest ethnic group in the world to be divided by borders.”  Given his actions in Moldova, Georgia and now Ukraine, this statement should set off all kinds of alarm bells in Europe, the United States and indeed, the rest of the world. When he speaks of an “outrageous historical injustice” it is not rhetoric, it his view of the world.

He may not act in the next few weeks, or even in the next year, but clearly Putin has designs to restore the empire formerly known as the Soviet Union.  In my view it does not mean that he will literally do so, and it does not mean a return to communism in Russia (he and his pals are getting too rich off the current system to want to go back).  It does mean that he intends to restore what he sees as the glory of the Russian state and that he will not tolerate nations on Russia’s borders that do not bow in the direction of Moscow.  He doesn’t need to occupy as long as he can intimidate them and have them join his Eurasian Economic Union of former Soviet states vice join the European Union and move towards the west.  This is where Ukraine ran afoul of the Russian bear.

In his speech, Putin uses a very legalistic approach as he delineates why the Russians not only can act, but should act.  To me, this further defines that his speech is not meant as propaganda or even only to justify his actions in Crimea.  It means that further actions in the same context are justified.   Clearly, time and again in the speech, Putin makes clear that Russia has been wronged and that it is time to act to rectify the situation and to restore Russian greatness.  He refers to the policy of containment in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries by the west and sees it as the height of “hypocrisy.”  In so doing, he claims that “our western partners have crossed the line, playing the bear and acting irresponsibly and unprofessionally.”  Sound familiar?

A significant trigger to his actions is the growth of NATO.  This is considered a direct threat to the well-being of Russia.  Ukraine joining NATO (whether or not that was a realistic development) was probably the last straw in Putin’s view.  As he says; “For all the internal processes within the organisation, NATO remains a military alliance, and we are against having a military alliance making itself at home right in our backyard or in our historic territory. I simply cannot imagine that we would travel to Sevastopol to visit NATO sailors.”

Despite some of the domestic political rhetoric in the United States, it would not have mattered who was sitting in the Office of the President of the United States when the events in Ukraine unfolded.  Putin acted predictably when his chosen ally, deposed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych left the country and a pro-western interim government emerged.  The question is now what to do about it?

International diplomacy is a tough, slow endeavor.  This is especially true in a situation such as the annexation of Crimea where the average European or American citizen cannot really see what difference it makes to their lives.  So what?  Likewise, the west has been trying to give Putin “off ramps” and face-saving solutions to the problem.  Why?  Putin is now rubbing the results in our face — he is not interested in saving face because he feels that he has the upper hand.  It is the west, in his view, that needs to save face.

Coupled with this is the clear unlikelihood, barring an outright military invasion of Poland (sound familiar?) or other NATO nations, of US or NATO military action and Putin knows he is in the position of strength.  Just as after World War I, the US and Europe have expressed their war weariness following Iraq and Afghanistan and have expressly demonstrated no interest in engaging in another military action.  (See Syria:  Pundits blame President Obama for drawing a “red line” on Syria and not following through, but remember that it was the UK Parliament and the US Congress that refused to support it, among others.)

Make no mistake, I am not advocating military action to return Crimea to Ukraine, nor should any other direct military action now be on the table under the current set of events.  The steps taken to reassure our NATO allies with increased deployments of aircraft, although more symbolic than militarily effective, are sufficient for now as a military response.

Where we do have the upper hand is economically.  Russia’s economy is very weak and both the nation’s economy and the oligarchs surrounding Putin depend heavily on exports of gas and oil.  This is where significant efforts to convey to Putin that we take him seriously, and he should take us equally seriously, can be made.  Russia has threatened counter-sanctions should the west impose sanctions and follow-up on the rhetoric.  So be it.  Taking the long view, Russia will suffer far more than Europe or the United States.  The problem is that few people take the long view.  Short term comfort or profit seems to be more important.  It’s cold so we need natural gas.  We like the money the oligarchs have invested in the west, especially Germany and the UK.  (How many people know that the NBA Brooklyn Nets are owned by Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov?  I’m not saying he is necessarily a Putin crony, just that most people do not know how wide-spread the business interests of Russian billionaires — making their billions in the post-Soviet chaos of Russia in the 1990s — may be.)

Likewise, major US corporations are heavily invested in Russian markets and fear losing those investments if the US and Russia get into an economic tit-for-tat.  They have been lobbying heavily for minor actions to protest Russian movements without jeopardizing their stake in Russia today.

What is clear is that putting sanctions against seven relatively minor Russian officials and four former Ukrainian officials is not going to have any impact on Putin or his decisions.  (The European Union put travel bans and asset freezes on twenty-one people — still not even really a slap on the wrist.)

Additionally, US and European actions thus far have been reactive in nature.  Telling Putin “if you do this, then we may do something” is not going to deter him, especially when the actions we do take are more symbolic than practical.  We are in a period where miscalculation on either side can lead to long-term negative consequences.  Stop sending ambiguous messages and formulate specific meaningful actions.

Look, I am no former Cold Warrior looking to restore the good ol’ days of yesteryear.  Those days are gone — good riddance — and I don’t think that in this interconnected world that we will see those days again.  I do believe, however, that the world continues to be a dangerous place with dangerous people in it.  Taking Russian actions around the world in totality — support of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, support to Iran, granting temporary asylum to Edward Snowden, the nationalistic display at the Sochi Olympics, etc. etc. — means that the Russian bear must be taken seriously.  We cannot become grand foes once again, but we must have our own interests at heart and follow through on our commitments.  In my mind, we have yet to do so concerning Russia, Ukraine, and the impact on surrounding nations that we now call our friends.

Just as I think our inaction in Syria sends a signal to the world, inaction here will strengthen the misperception that the US is too tied up in domestic issues to get involved in world issues.  As a nation, it is time we put partisan politics aside, buckle our chin straps, and get into the game.

Danger, Will Robinson.  We cannot ignore it.  I am not an alarmist or war-monger, but I think we are coming up short on our understanding of Putin’s intentions.  We need to take the long view, put Putin’s actions in their historical context and work to keep his nationalistic adventurism in check.  Deterrence, not reaction is needed.  Serious economic sanctions are our best weapon.

Friday Thoughts

There are at least two big stories that continue to percolate along today and that have been going on for some time.  One is a mystery and one is an old story that I hope does not repeat itself.

A Modern Mystery

Like some mystery in a movie or an episode of “Lost” the search for Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 continues with rampant speculation coming from every source, but with no resolution of the fate of the 239 people on board.  You have undoubtedly seen the news reports that lead one to believe that no one knows what happened to the Boeing 777 airliner — an aircraft with an exemplary safety record — and  thus no one is sure exactly where to look.

Several things come to mind.

  • The world is not as interconnected as everyone thinks.
  • It is not possible to survey every bit of the world at every moment watching for everything, unlike popular belief.  Satellites have to be focused on particular locations and tasked to look for particular events.
  • The ocean is vast and holds its secrets dear.  Those of us that have spent time at sea know that it is an unforgiving place and even a jet liner can get swallowed up.

None-the-less, it is amazing that after seven days no sign of it has appeared.  If it crashed into the jungle of Malaysia or elsewhere, it is not surprising that it has yet to be found.  The jungle can be as unforgiving as the ocean for those unprepared and without guidance.

The one thing that is clear is that the fun of speculating on what happened, ranging from the aircraft being lost at sea to being abducted by aliens, is not so humorous in comparison to the fate of those on board and the feelings of frustration and loss of those family and friends that need to know answers.

Get Ready Ukraine

The part of Ukraine that has been taken over by Russian sailors and troops — the Crimea — is scheduled to hold a referendum to vote on re-joining Russia (it became a part of Ukraine in 1954).  Incredibly, Russia continues to deny that Russian forces are deployed in Crimea and in fact, according to news reports earlier this week, Russian television continues to broadcast that armed gangs are roaming Kiev (the capital) killing pro-Russian sympathizers and that the U.S. 82nd Airborne has deployed to keep what they call the illegal regime in power in Kiev.  It would be funny if it wasn’t so serious.

Given his KGB background, Russian President Vladimir Putin is not above creating an “incident” in the eastern part of Ukraine as an excuse to move troops into that part of the country.  Indeed just today the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement, reiterating Putin’s earlier claim, that Russia is prepared to invade eastern Ukraine to protect “compatriots” and “fellow citizens.”  Yesterday protests in the eastern city of Donetsk left one protester dead, an incident specifically mentioned by the Russian Foreign Ministry in their statement.  Anti-Moscow protesters claim that the dead man was actually from their group.  The details will be unimportant for Putin, indeed there don’t need to be any actual details, for him to act.

It is unclear whether Russia will actually annex Crimea — in fact they don’t have to formally do so to have de facto control — although the Russian Duma or Parliament, has already passed a resolution allowing it.

Once the referendum is complete and the Crimean vote (fair or not) is for leaving Ukraine, stand by for the next round of events involving the rest of Ukraine.  Although Russian forces are currently holding “exercises” on the border with the rest of Ukraine, it is unclear whether Putin will decide to invade.  Only he knows for sure.  However, if I lived in Ukraine, I would expect and plan that he will do so sometime in the next few weeks following increased tensions and a series of incidents (probably manufactured, certainly presented as a major threat).

Why is this important to us?  This will be the first time in Europe since World War II that one country has annexed territory from another.  Following the events in Georgia in 2008 (where there was no contest but Putin learned that his troops were not as effective as they needed to be and thus embarked on a program to improve their training and equipment), events in Ukraine become part of a pattern.  Where will it stop if not here?  The impact of Russia annexing part or all of Ukraine will have profound effects on the rest of Europe, but most especially on those former Soviet republics that border Russia.

Initial efforts to impose political and economic consequences on Russia have been minimal.  The US is working to build an international consensus and that takes time, especially since many nations not directly on the Russian border are taking a wait and see approach to determine whether the annexation takes place and whether further Russian encroachment takes place.

The international community must take action now to make the risks apparent to Putin, in a meaningful way that keeps him in his box.  If the world does not deal with him now, it most certainly will have to deal with him later when the stakes are likely to be higher.

Ukraine — Putin Makes His Point

If you looked at the evening news or read a newspaper recently, you know that a popular uprising in Ukraine led to the creation of a new government there.  This was followed by Russian troops securing a portion of Ukraine traditionally thought of as “Russian” in Crimea, the province on the Black Sea that borders Russia.  Frankly, this latter development should be no surprise.  The question is whether or not Russian President Vladimir Putin will stop there or make further incursions into other parts of Ukraine.

Despite comments by Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) Senator John McCain (R-AZ) and other elected Republicans placing the cause of the crisis at the feet of President Obama and his administration, there is little to nothing that the United States could have done to stop the events from unfolding.  (A tip of the hat to the Republican Senate leadership for trying to score domestic political points during a time of international crisis — true statesmen.  There is plenty of time after the situation is resolved to start calling names and investigating the political opposition.)  Vladimir Putin is an ex-KGB colonel with visions of empire dancing in his head.  If Ukraine succeeded in rejecting ties to Russia and moved into a close relationship with Europe and the West, his own vision of a great and powerful resurgent Russia would be in grave jeopardy.  No matter what the United States or any other nation did or said, Putin would have acted no differently.

If one wants to point fingers at what we have done or failed to do, a more apt comparison would be the Russian war with Georgia in August of 2008.  As was claimed over the last few days in Crimea, Russian forces drove the Georgian military out of South Ossetia in order to protect Russian citizens living there.  The area is still occupied by Russian forces.  The international community protested, but took no real steps to deter Russia from acting.  The Russians, especially under Putin, will act wherever they feel like it in the geographic areas with historical ties to their country and where “Russians” are living.  Remember that in the glory days of  the Soviet Union, entire populations were moved out of their native lands and Russians were re-settled there.  This is the case in Crimea where the native Tatar population was under constant threat of elimination starting in the 1800s.  After decades of discrimination including massacres and forced starvation, in 1944 Stalin shipped the remaining Tatars out of  Crimea.   The point is that Russia feels that it can act with impunity in its own backyard and has a long history of doing so.

So the question remains as to what can or should be done.  The options are wide-ranging but probably depend most on whether Putin stops with the invasion of Crimea or if in the next few days, he moves into other areas in Ukraine.  While international action is likely even if Putin stays out of the rest of Ukraine, it will probably be of a token nature and certainly, in Putin’s calculation, worth the cost.  Should he move into eastern Ukraine, the situation could become grave as the international community will almost certainly put significant pressure on Russia, especially economic sanctions, which will then cause Russia to implement its own sanctions and actions to put pressure on Europe, especially through the disruption of oil and natural gas exports to Europe.

There are many unknowns.  Drawing upon his KGB days, I have no doubt that Putin is willing to create an “incident” in eastern Ukraine that gives him an excuse to send troops to protect the Russian speaking citizens living there.  So far, the new Ukrainian government and their military have shown remarkable restraint in not confronting the Russians in Crimea or elsewhere, thus robbing Putin of his excuse, despite his bizarre press conference yesterday where he claimed no Russian troops were in Crimea and that the situation was one of extreme lawlessness and violence with hundreds of thousands of refugees pouring across the border.  (It is hard to know how he can make such claims in a press conference while keeping from bursting out laughing.  He must also know that there are hundreds of western journalists in the area loudly telling a different story.  He doesn’t care — he is playing to a different audience — and he is also putting the international community on notice that he will say or do whatever it takes to get his way.)

Given the emotion on both sides and the numbers of people moving about the country with weapons at their disposal, it is difficult to believe that peace will continue to prevail.  Should widespread violence break out it will get very ugly very fast.  To prevent that, it is imperative that diplomatic efforts succeed in getting impartial international observers on the ground.  So far several nations have offered their services and Ukraine is willing to allow them in, but Russia has not agreed to do so in the Crimea and also questions their veracity should they deploy to other parts of Ukraine.  Putin is in no hurry to resolve the situation.

So despite the armchair quarterbacks and those trying to score political points on the American domestic front, Putin would have done what he did no matter who was our president.  It merely adds to his image of self-aggrandizement and self-importance that he can disrupt US foreign policy by refusing to play along be it in Syria, Iran or Ukraine.  His sole goal is to restore what he thinks is Russia’s rightful place in the world as a major power.  Meddling in Ukraine is his way of making that point.  I hope that the international community, with the United States out front, comes up with concrete actions that check Putin’s power grab and puts him back in his place.  He needs to be disabused of the notion that he has any real power.

Regardless, the next few days will be interesting and if I was a Ukrainian I would be worried.