Monday, 3 March 2014

The Western Playbook in Ukraine.

Consensus appears to be that Russia has "won" and "the West", meaning the EU and USA is weak.

Russian Troops in Ukraine (source)

Strong countries do not have trouble keeping their satellites in orbit. The need of Russia to intervene in its near abroad, like the annexation of South Ossetia from Georgia in 2008 is a signal of weakness, not strength.

The Georgians are angling for NATO membership, which is why they're the top non-NATO contributor to the War in Afghanistan. Unlike many nations, they're keen to put their soldiers in harms way to the extent that, with the grim humour of soldiers everywhere, the lights of a casevac helicopter into ISAF bases have become known as "Georgian disco lights". Georgians are dying to get into NATO, quite literally.

Russia for obvious reasons feels threatened by the idea of NATO on its borders, and feels this especially strongly in Ukraine. Do you really need to be reminded that the Eastern Front accounted for 95% of German casualties between 1941 and 1944 and 65% of all allied casualties were soviets, mostly fighting on Soviet territory? Some of the Blame for the appalling casualties suffered by the Soviets in the Great Patriotic war lies at the door of the Kremlin but the Russians still fear invasion from Europe. They fear it rightly, more than we fear invasion from the East, and so Russia likes to have buffer states between it and hostile forces. NATO remains the pre-eminent military power on the planet which was (is?) conceived with Russia as the main enemy. This is why Russia sees the control of its near abroad as key to its security.

So Ukraine will not (or at least should not) get NATO membership, however much NATO or indeed the Ukrainians want it. The potential for miscalculation when NATO and Russia stare at each other directly over a border is just too great. The EU is a different matter.

The EU has a good track record (second only to the British Empire...) in sowing the seeds of democracy in thin soils. The carrot of EU membership, and the prosperity  it brings, has kept many states which would otherwise have descended, like Russia and Ukraine into kleptocratic oligarchy retaining only the pretence of democratic accountability, fully functioning democracies. And in having a prosperous Poland and Czech republic within the single market benefits the UK too. The EU needs to be able to hold the hope of Ukrainian membership without Russia feeling threatened. Indeed it may one day fall to the EU to finally tame the Russian bear itself.

So, in the short-term, Russia has annexed Crimea. Ukraine will probably have to accept that there's little more the west can do to prevent Russia reclaiming a territory which is home to the Black-sea Fleet, and was only transferred by to Ukraine in 1954. It's the most pro-Russian (about 60%, following some Soviet ethnic cleansing..) province. If that's the limit of Putin's ambitions, then the West will bluster, but probably let it go. But the rest of Ukraine will look firmly west, if a little grumpily in some of the Eastern provinces as a result of Putin's invasion.

What will most discomfit Russia will be an economically successful Ukraine, firmly tied into the western democratic sphere by trade and friendship. Just as the principle complaint of the citizens of Lviv is the speed at which Poland, a country they were part of in living memory, has got richer within the EU. Russians will look at their friends and relatives in Ukraine getting richer once they pull away from Russia's toxic orbit, and ask themselves "why?".

Putin gets his "win" and will gloat about the annexation of Crimea. The price: it gets a little harder for Russian oligarchs to hang onto their loot as economic sanctions bite. The value of their Russian businesses falls sharply, and especially in hard-currency terms, and the relative cost of Mayfair town houses becomes that bit greater. Putin therefore hurts his most influential supporters where it matters most. The west, already nervous of the reliance on Russian energy, looks elsewhere for Gas. Funnily enough, the USA has a glut of the stuff. Europe may even start fracking its own gas one day. It takes time to build the infrastructure, but without Gas revenues from Europe, Russia would be utterly bankrupt, as they produce almost nothing anyone else wants. The Russians will not be able to afford all the new toys they've ordered for their over-manned and ill-disciplined military. Like the first cold war, the second one will be won by the system which delivers wealth. And yes, lefties, financial crisis notwithstanding, the West is a stronger economy than Russia.

The West's inability and unwillingness to throw enormous military forces into the region is not weakness but a symptom of our  greatest strength. Western policy in Ukraine will be driven by our merchants to the benefit of our people, not our soldiers to the benefit of national willy-waving. This is because, unlike Russia, the interests of Western European Governments are (with exceptions, mostly) aligned with those of the people. There is simply no need to go to war over the Crimea. Ukrainians, especially in the west, have seen representative government at work in Poland. Russians, still subject to Russian regime-friendly media, are fearful of "Fascists and Nationalists" because their history has taught them to be so. Doing anything military to stop the annexation of Crimea will play into Putin's hands.

Killing people and breaking things is sometimes necessary, but is not often the best the way to make people stop fearing you. Give Putin his Pyrrhic victory, and welcome the rest of Ukraine into the Western fold. We win, Ukrainians win. One day even Russians might win, at the expense of their nasty little regime.



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