Russia Moves on Eastern Ukraine: What Is To Be Done?

Yesterday there was violence in eastern Ukraine, as armed men loyal to Russia seized police stations in several cities, and the Russian flag was raised in some locations. The video below shows pro-Russian forces taking control of the police headquarters in Kramatorsk. These were not a bunch of guys from the neighborhood; this was a military operation:

Ukraine’s government sent special forces to resist these encroachments in several cities, and there were a handful of fatalities. The pro-Russian press is putting the anticipated spin on events:

Ukrainian authorities have crossed the line and are to blame for the bloodshed in east Ukrainian town of Slavyansk, where protesters rallied in support of federalization, Ukrainian presidential candidate Oleg Tsarev said Sunday. People have been taking to the streets for months, announcing their demands, but authorities refuse to hold talks with them. Negotiations were carried out only through law enforcement, arrests, intimidation, blackmail and today they used force, Tsarev said.

A national election is scheduled for May 25, and one school of thought holds that Russia cannot allow that election to take place. With Crimea not now participating, pro-Russian elements can be expected to do poorly and therefore weaken Russia’s claim to eastern Ukraine. Thus, the thinking goes, Russia likely will move in the near future to annex the eastern part of the country, or at least create enough chaos to prevent the election from going forward in that region. Perhaps that effort began yesterday.

Nor is Ukraine the extent of Russia’s ambitions. The broader question is what to do about Russia’s effort to re-assert control over the territories that were part of its empire prior to the collapse of the USSR. The conventional view (on the right, at least) is that the U.S. is in a weak position vis-a-vis Russia because of the incompetence of the Obama administration. While that incompetence can hardly be doubted, a knowledgeable reader argues that the problem goes much deeper and, in fact, there is little or nothing the West can or should do to oppose Russia’s current ambitions. Whether you agree with this perspective or not, it deserves to be considered:

Obama has shown that he doesn’t know when to avoid non-credible bluster (Syria) and yet he doesn’t seem reluctant, surprisingly, to threaten force when in a (political) jam; it’s a dangerous combination. He has now walked into a potentially devastating trap in eastern Europe and allowed a crisis to develop in which we have no good options.

I am far from an isolationist, but I think we do have to figure out correctly our basic strategic position. It isn’t 1948 anymore: we don’t have 50% of global GDP, a nuclear monopoly or the victorious and huge Red Army 200 miles from the Rhine River. It isn’t 1991 either, with the U.S. having global military hegemony. We won the Cold War, the Red Army is a shadow of its former self and is 1,000 miles away, and now the Russians are a potential ally as a counterweight to China and, more important, against the real threat, Islamic radicals with nukes. They have at least as much to fear as we; China, too, which is no longer a backward country living on a handful of rice a day. It’s a brave new world, much more like 19th century Europe — balancing competing and complementary interests among several Great Powers — than like the post-war situation.

So you have to know what is strategic and what isn’t. For my money, kooks with nukes is strategic, but unfortunately for them, Estonia, for example, is not, for us. But Estonia IS strategic for the Russians, and certainly Ukraine is.

But it’s worse. Putin could take Estonia completely in about an hour and 45 minutes on a Wednesday afternoon and there is nothing we could do realistically. NATO would NOT invoke Article 5 over it —- and by the way, Article 5 doesn’t say what we have been told it says anyway. The simple fact is that no one in the West is going to be provoking or risking WWIII with Russia to keep Estonia in NATO. No one.

…Estonia’s position vis-à-vis Russia [is] far weaker than that of Ukraine except for one thing; Estonia is a member of both the EU and NATO….It makes no sense for Europe to risk destruction to defend Estonia, less than it did over the Ukraine, but the EU and NATO are based on the lie that an attack on one is an attack on all. Putin’s goal is to exploit this as a lie; Estonia is Verdun, a strategically worthless target that political factors forced the French army to defend to the death. In this case it’s Putin’s goal to draw NATO and the EU into a battle not of armies, but of political capital, and to destroy that capital in the open fields of the Baltic shore.

So in an afternoon’s work Putin could wreck NATO by a simple demonstration that the NATO/U.S. military guarantees won’t be honored–not without cost, sure, but that would be it for NATO. You don’t make threats or promises where you can’t back it up….and you don’t back it up if the game isn’t worth the candle. In the new NATO states of eastern Europe we can’t and it isn’t. I have no doubt that that’s exactly what Putin told Obama when they talked by phone in a “frank and direct” conversation.

It isn’t Obama’s fault that we reneged on Bush I’s promise to Gorbachev of no NATO on Russia’s borders. Clinton brought in Poland, the Czechs and Hungary–bad–but worse, Bush II brought in the three Baltic republics, which both border Russia and were for centuries in the Russian Empire, and Slovakia (borders Ukraine), Romania, Bulgaria (both directly on the Black Sea) and Slovenia (who cares?!), but Obama has to fix it whether He likes it or not.

He should be working on a grand bargain….“Finlandization”, i.e., guarantees of economic and political autonomy but military neutrality, for the Baltics, Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine, with some rational border adjustments, if necessary, in exchange for a de facto alliance against Islamic terrorism, meaning, if necessary, preventive war in Iran for starters. That’s what Bismarck would do…..the Concert of Great Powers….Conference of Berlin or Vienna…..I think that in fact that is what is going on behind the scenes and that also it’s what Putin told Obama, and what Kerry and Lavrov are secretly working on.

It’s a way out of the trap we’re in in eastern Europe with a settlement of the Cold War on a more rational basis, more suitable for our overall strategic situation and interests. Better to solve the problem by enlarging the scope and having a realistic compromise than having that result forced on us, with a potentially disastrous war as the only alternative.

Ignore the source, but I think this perspective from one of the most knowledgeable Russia experts has a lot of validity.

Anyone got a better idea?

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