Ukraine and Russia. How We Got Here. What’s Next?

maidan

Before the invasion of Crimea, the European Union followed a policy of benign neglect toward its former Soviet neighbors Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine and the states in the south Caucasus. It did so through modest funding of its so-called Eastern Partnership. Happy to help, but don’t expect us to go out of our way.

The idea seemed to be that spending some obscure foreign policy money wouldn’t cost much relatively, while at the same time EU states could claim they were engaged. EU leadership knew their modest investment wouldn’t bring its former Soviet neighbor countries up to EU standards, but they reckoned they might discourage Russia in the Bloodlands. With their hands full during the Euro crisis, EU states essentially did the least they could do, in effect ceding to Russia just the thing Russia loudly demands, a tacit sphere of influence.

But after the invasion of Crimea, ten months on from the fall of the Yanukovich government it looks as if President Putin’s impetuous pique at the Maidan uprising may squander just what Russia has long sought.

If the EU can be criticized for half-measures when it comes to winning hearts and minds, so can the Russians. In part because of Russian influence, every day in the more than twenty years since the Berlin Wall fell, citizens of the largest of the former Soviet states, Ukraine, have continued to endure petty, low grade, daily Soviet-style corruption.

Let me give you an example. Our car was once pulled over for speeding on a highway outside Kyiv. Igor, the driver, climbed out into the snow to engage with the traffic cop and when he returned, gave us a lesson in Ukrainian daily life.

He explained that while the fine wasn’t astronomical, about $30, he would have to go to the bank to pay the fee then to the police station to show them he had paid, so slipping the cop some cash would save him a whole day’s pay at work. It was a system, he said, built for bribes.

He knew it and the cop knew it and he didn’t even begrudge the cop, miserably paid and standing outside all day in the snow, because he had a family to feed, too. Endemic, daily petty corruption wears you down.

•••••

Americans hardly noticed when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich cast his lot with Moscow by declining to sign the Ukraine–EU Association Agreement at the Vilnius summit in November, 2013, but Ukrainians were having none of it. They demanded better. Enough was finally enough and Kyiv’s Independence Square, the Maidan, erupted to life.

Twice in ten years events have galvanized the common folk to make a stand on that bitterly cold promenade in central Kyiv. This time they sustained their agitation (even employing a medieval catapult!) right through the long, bitter winter until ultimately Yanukovich fled Kyiv one Saturday in late February, 2014.

On that particular day President Putin kept his host’s grin fixed tightly in place at the Winter Games in Sochi, much as it must have galled him, as the medals were awarded for cross-country skiing, biathlon and Alpine skiing.

But scarcely a week after the closing ceremonies, little green men started appearing on the Crimean peninsula. Using a new, unique brand of organized unpredictability and a complete mastery of media to feed the fog of war, Russia quickly had its way with Crimea.

Months later, official Russia remains angry enough about the Maidan uprising and the expulsion of Yanokovich to foment and maintain the frozen conflict in the region of eastern Ukraine known as Donbas.

Russia has induced three other frozen conflicts, in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which are in Georgia, and in a part of Moldova called Transdnistria. In each it rules by mafia-style corruption and extracts tribute.

It is a mystery whether the Russian leadership believes that giving Russia’s criminal networks another place to do business by creating a further mafia statelet in the Donbas is a strategic win. Or is the rot so pervasive in the Kremlin that nothing else comes to mind?

That is an important question since the lawlessness itself has had consequences for Russia. Once its hardware caused the crash of MH17, Russia felt unable to admit its obvious culpability or to offer to make amends. Which is appalling, uncivilized and has done more than anything else to galvanize the Europeans behind sanctions.

As for the future, Dmitri Trenin thinks that the German position on Russia has materially changed and that “(T)he course for Russia’s gradual Europeanization has come to an impasse.” Mark Galeotti believes President Obama should demand more from the Russians than he fears the U.S. may settle for. And there is a new dynamic for the new year, dramatically lower oil prices and their effects on both the Russian and European economies.

We’re off to a new year. Let’s watch and see what happens next.

•••••

See my photos from Kyiv, Chernobyl and Odessa here. This story on Medium here.

Russia in Ukraine, It Just Doesn’t Wash

The Russian position in Ukraine is just untenable, despite the best efforts of its Foreign Ministry. Consider the audacity of these quotes from Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevicha in a BBC report back at the beginning of U.S. air strikes against ISIS:

“The US president has spoken directly about the possibility of strikes by the US armed forces against Isil (IS) positions in Syria without the consent of the legitimate government.”

Meanwhile the Russian president has lied about verified strikes by Russian armed forces against Ukrainian positions inside Ukraine without the consent of the legitimate government.

Again, Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevicha:

“This step, in the absence of a UN Security Council decision, would be an act of aggression, a gross violation of international law.”

Meanwhile the Russians’ steps, in the absence of a UN Security Council decision, are an act of aggression, a gross violation of international law.

Next?

It’s War Hysteria, Again

More than half the visits to CS&W come from outside the U.S., so as Americans head off to enjoy a long holiday weekend, readers from afar might be interested to know that domestic American news is filled just now with beating of war drums about ISIS.

The beheading of the free lance American journalist James Foley did it. It touched a sensibility in the country that has led to a situation reminiscent in every way of 2003 and the run-up to the second Iraq war.

Remember this?

powell

Here, then Secretary of State Colin Powell makes the case for Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction before the United Nations Security Council. Turned out what he said was not true. But his speech was part of a larger, orchestrated effort to make Americans afraid to go to sleep at night, so that they would support military action against Iraq.

The same sort of government and media alarm bells are clanging right now about ISIS, the retrograde band of thugs that controls more empty desert than cities, but aided by willing media, tickles American fear.

Never mind that the sprawling bureaucracy that afflicts you at every airport and the $38.2 billion Homeland Security 2015 budget exist precisely to protect the country against the hundred or thousand misfits and lost souls with U.S. or European passports who have ended up latter day John Lindhs. Watching American TV you’d be sure the DHS is damp, listless and overmatched, because BAD MEN ARE COMING TO GET YOU! Y-O-U! THE HEARTLAND IS UNDER ASSAULT!

Eleven years ago such fear-mongering served to prepare Americans for the military plunge into the desert that yielded the current crop of Levantine woe. Watching American TV right now, you would be forgiven for thinking the same is happening today.

And even though it’s been said before, at the same time a land invasion by a nuclear power is being carried out in broad daylight in a state bordering NATO. To Americans, and America’s leadership, this is decidedly a second tier story.

President Obama held a press conference yesterday. Cauterized by his Syrian red line a year ago, he determined not to go too far this time. He declared that “This ongoing Russian incursion into Ukraine will only bring more costs and consequences for Russia.”

Don’t you imagine that that’ll show ’em?

While the ‘costs and consequences’ mount in the administration’s calculus, here is what a pair of Swedish defense researchers suggest the Russians are crafting:

Ukrainemap

I wear my Donbass battalion t-shirt and my thoughts are with the besieged people of eastern Ukraine.

Enough. For now, back to vacation. And happy Labor Day weekend, everybody, from Anguilla.

The Difference Between the ISIS and Ukraine Stories

Islamic_state_of_iraqTV viewers react with well-founded, visceral fear to the ISIS story, but at bottom ISIS is a band of thugs with an archaic worldview that a willful president and his or her allies, if they had a mind to, could clobber using Colin Powell’s overwhelming force commensurate with ISIS’s brutality. The challenge to Ukraine, on the other hand, is an assault on the world’s organizing principles, with the potential to collaterally undermine both NATO and the Obama administration.

The creeping annexation of first Crimea and now the Donbass is more subtle and harder to follow than the plight of people stuck on a mountain, yet it has more potential to undermine international systems. Dire warnings by the professional national-security-for-profit apparatus that JIHADIS ARE COMING TO YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD are far more sensational than real, but they make great TV. By comparison, an academic discussion about Ukraine and competing power blocks in the post Cold War world only prompts a rush for the remote.

Many of the institutions set up at the end of World War Two need a sharp, thorough overhaul. But they remain in place because they have provided more stability than chaos and no challenge has emerged that promises more liberté, egalité and fraternité.

In 1990, with Kuwait occupied by Iraq, George Bush proclaimed a New World Order but over time Americans grew reluctant to propose new institutions to deal with new realities. It turned out they rather liked their hyperpuissance. Since the Clinton years the new order has remained largely inchoate (though not for lack of predictions). Should Russia now redraw the map of Ukraine on its own, some of the mist will begin to clear and few west of Moscow will like what they see.

Ukraine right now is hugely important because Russia is challenging the fundamental ways the world has organized itself for seventy years and the whole world is watching. The potential impact of the ISIS insurgency is much smaller. It is a manifestation of the post-Ottoman Sykes-Picot agreement, an element of the reshaping of the Middle East region and not the entire world.

Flag_of_Ukraine.svg

So what about Ukraine? Today the pertinent news sites and #Ukraine, #Donbass, #convoy, #Crimea and so on on Twitter read like play-by-play.

We knew nothing good would come of this convoy thing, didn’t we? Just like in Crimea when the war was over while we still celebrated the #Euromaidan, it’s all happening today, Wednesday, in eastern Ukraine. 

Rostov is south of any crossing point proposed so far. If you’re intent on creating chaos, just peel away and melt into … who knows where. And while shamelessly hoisting the forged banner of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

280 military trucks carrying ‘aid’ under hastily assembled white canvas, juking, their recipient not knowing their route or their intent – least of all the ICRC dude standing outside their building in Geneva dispensing press statements.

Meanwhile, as I mentioned last night:

This morning, well:

It’s all just so unseemly. Russia lurks on the gangstas side of town. Always has. In the Cold War, cynical authoritarianism under equality’s cloak. Now it’s the same authoritarianism under the cloak of, well, nothing.

Web Resources for War News

RussianTroopsTweet
Me, I got this uneasy feeling. It may be that them what know ain’t saying and them saying don’t know, but the Polish PM and NATO are queasy, and when the Russian UN ambassador calls for “humanitarian intervention” and the Putin team uses RT to wail it, it looks like boxes are being checked for an invasion. The U.S. Defense Secretary is in the region, saying as much. It’s a good thing everybody’s got so much confidence in our president.

I’d guess it would start overnight one night, and since we’re seven hours earlier here on the U.S. east coast we might find ourselves up all night one night soon working the internets and the news channels. Just in case, here are a few internet resources and live TV feeds from the region:

The Interpreter translates news from Russia
Espreso.tv from Kyiv has a live feed
TV5, Kyiv live feed
UkrainianJournal.com, in English
The Kyiv Post
The Carnegie Moscow Center and especially Demitri Trenin and Lilia Shevtsova (click “latest analysis”)
Tons of links from Johnson’s Russia List
Life News live TV from Russia. Some call it the information arm of Russian intelligence.
Russia24 live feed
Ukraine News1 in English
The Warsaw Voice in English
thenews.pl, news in English from Poland
Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, which runs a live Ukraine blog during the day, CET
NATO’s blog
Live stream from Spilno TV. Not always on.
Ukraine at War blog in English.

I’ll add more as I find them. Please suggest others, if you like.