Dances With Bears — The Putin/West Waltz

By Jay Holmes

On February 23, 2014, with the help of ethnic Russians in Crimea, Russia’s special forces and intelligence services stepped up their pro-Russian campaign to a degree that signaled that a Russian invasion and that annexation of the Crimean region was likely to occur. Emboldened by Russian military support, pro-Russian protesters in the area became more violent and more demanding.

During the last three years, national sentiment in Ukraine has shifted toward closer ties with Europe. How and when, not if, Ukraine would enter the European Union was the topic of daily debate in Ukraine. While Europeans, including most Ukrainians, were forging those closer ties, the infamous Dancing Bear of Moscow, Vladimir Putin, began to formulate a very different view of Ukraine’s future.

Base image from Agencia Brasil.

Base image from Agencia Brasil.
wikimedia commons

 

Prior to February of 2014, as these tensions played out in Ukraine, Western nations were relying on two basic strategies. The strategy pursued by most Western nations ranged from “Where is Ukraine?” to “How soon can they join the EU?”  The US pragmatically pursued a more focused policy—the “I hope that all goes well and nothing bad happens in Ukraine.”  Once a Russian invasion of Crimea was imminent, the West quickly reacted with new strategies. Most European nations seemed to be relying on the US to “do something.” The US responded by upgrading its own strategy to “Gosh, I really, really hope nothing bad happens in Ukraine.”

On February 28, 2014, the not-so-sneaky Russians did their best impersonation of a “sneak attack” in Crimea. All the West’s best hopes and wishes had not prevented the obvious. US President Obama (a.k.a. Dances With Bears) and other Western leaders quickly announced that there would be “consequences” for Russia in response to their invasion of Ukraine. Predictably, Putin responded by claiming that Crimea belonged to Russia all along. He then reminded Europe that they like Russian gas supplies.

As expected, the “consequences” promised by the West have been mild.

Base image by Elizabeth Cromwell, GNU Free Documentation License, wikimedia commons

Base image by Elizabeth Cromwell,
GNU Free Documentation License,
wikimedia commons

Moderate economic sanctions and a list of Russians who will not receive US entry is all it amounted to.  Across Western Europe, the political rhetoric varied from near silence to mild displeasure. Putin is probably thrilled by this lack of a coordinated response on the part of the West.

Since February, Russia has officially annexed Crimea and continues to orchestrate, supply, and partially man protests and riots in Eastern Ukraine. Russian mechanized forces are staged along the Russian Ukraine border.  So now what?

On May 7, Vladimir Putin gave a televised speech to the Russian people. The speech was the usual double talk that we can always count on Putin to deliver. Here is a small, translated excerpt of Putin’s speech. “We must look for ways out of the situation as it is today. We all have an interest in ending this crisis, Ukraine and its people above all. Thus I say that we all want the crisis to end as soon as possible and in such a way that takes into account the interests of all people in Ukraine, no matter where they live. The discussion with Mr. President showed that our approaches to possible solutions to the crisis have much in common.”

Putin meme i don't always invade a foreign country

When he said “Mr. President,” Putin was referring to the visiting president of Switzerland. As far as his claim that they share “much in common,” it’s true in the same sense that the chicken and the fox might momentarily share the same hen house. In case you wonder, the translation is the official translation to English done by the Kremlin media office. As usual, Putin sounds semi-conciliatory, and as usual, his words don’t mean much except to the Russian public. In the same speech, Putin directly contradicted his own foreign minister by claiming that he supports the upcoming May 25 elections in Ukraine as “a step in the right direction.”

Fortunately, most Western leaders are responding to Putin’s speech with muted skepticism.  A few Putin admirers and the occasional innocent have welcomed Putin’s speech as a turning-point in the Ukraine crisis. Putin’s military dispositions on the Ukraine border and his country’s ongoing operations in Eastern Ukraine are a very clear measure of Putin’s actual intentions. In light of that, the West should formulate a united response to Russian aggression. That response should include increased economic sanctions.

Thus far, the economic sanctions have had a small negative impact on the Russian economy. If those sanctions are increased and continue in force, the impacts will be far more significant. Russia has significant foreign debt in the form of bonds. As the trade value of those bonds continues to drop and interest rates rise, Russian companies will find it difficult to finance growth. That will drive up unemployment to levels that will not keep Russians happy with Vlady the Dancing Bear.

Thus far, one positive development has occurred as a result of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Europeans, especially Eastern Europeans, have prioritized finding new sources of natural gas so they can avoid dependency on Russia. This will include the delivery of liquefied petroleum gas from the USA to a new port facility in Lithuania. Let’s all hope that the facility is well designed and safely operated. Don’t buy a vacation home in that neighborhood. New gas supplies will not be prepared quickly. It will take several years to make a sizeable impact in the European gas supply, but there is now more cooperation than ever before in the energy planning of Western states. It’s about time.

So here is my best guess for the near future in Ukraine. Putin is not going to relinquish Crimea—not this month, or any month. Russia will likely not launch an all-out invasion of Eastern Ukraine. Putin has taken the measure of his geopolitical dance partners in the West. He does not want full-scale cooperation against Russia by the US, Canada, and Europe. Russia could all but eliminate the strife in Eastern Ukraine by withdrawing its military and financial support for pro-Russian Ukrainians and by ending its clandestine operations in Ukraine. However, in all likelihood, Russia will continue to direct a smoldering conflict in Eastern Ukraine while pretending to be “seeking peace.” The uncertainty and chaos in Ukraine suits his purposes. From Putin’s point of view, it keeps the West “on the edge” without causing a more harsh Western response.

In my view, the best way for the West to help the Ukraine is to avoid vague threats and present a united front with well-enforced economic sanctions against Russia. That bear dances well, but all bears must eat, and the Russian bear has a big appetite that feeds on cash from U.S. and Western banks. Reasonable sanctions won’t wrestle the Crimea from Russia, but they can prevent Russia from invading and seizing a third of the remaining Ukraine without firing a shot.

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Dances with Bears — The Putin/West Waltz

Ukraine Crisis: Vladimir Putin and the Power of Gas

By Jay Holmes

If we are to have any chance of understanding the present dynamic of the Russian invasion of the Ukraine, we must look to the history of the region and its people. In Part One, we followed the Ukraine Timeline from the founding of the first Ukrainian city in 907 A.D. through the ascendance of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, a.k.a. Stalin 2.0. In Part Two, the Timeline continues up to the present Russian invasion. Today, we look at current situation and what it means to Europe and the West.

Kiev Protestors February 18, 2014 image by Mstyslav Chernov/Unframe/http://www.unframe.com.jpg wikimedia commons

Kiev Protestors February 18, 2014
image by Mstyslav Chernov
Unframe.com
wikimedia commons

The crisis in Ukraine is the product of many factors. Russian speaking pro-Russian citizens populate the Crimea and other areas of Ukraine. Putin is using this most effectively to satisfy the centuries-old Russian imperial ambitions to expand southward. Russia has well equipped military forces based in the Crimea by treaty with the Ukraine — a treaty that many Ukrainians no doubt deeply regret today. Ukraine shares borders with Poland, Romania, and Moldavia, which are all becoming more “Europeanized” and more “Western-looking” with each passing year. Unfortunately for Ukraine, they also share borders with Russia and with her pro-Putin police state ally, Belarus.

A clear majority of Ukrainians have rejected the police state values of Russia and Russian allies. They have made it clear that they want to be part of Europe. On the surface, this is evidenced by the Ukraine’s attempts to forge a trade agreement with Europe. That trade agreement included provisions for basic human rights such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and an independent judiciary. Vladimir Putin remains opposed to that trade agreement and opposed to those basic human rights because such basic human rights make it more difficult for him to operate as a dictator in Russia and to achieve his goals for the Russian-led Eurasian Customs Union.

The Crimea and the region of Ukraine that lies between Russia and the Crimea are of immense value to Putin. If he is able to annex or control those areas, Russia and any members of the Eurasian Customs Union will then have direct access to the Black Sea and hence the Mediterranean. Part of Putin’s timing in taking over the Crimea has to do with the weather. Historically, the winter has meant a decrease in military operations in and by Russia. In a reversal of that trend, Russia now prefers to conduct as much of its military operations in Ukraine while the weather is still cold.

Russian Gas & Oil Pipelines Through Ukraine map by Victor Korniyenko, wikimedia commons

Russian Gas & Oil Pipelines Through Ukraine
map by Victor Korniyenko, wikimedia commons

That’s because Ukrainian gas supplies come from Russia. Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Slovakia, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Slovenia, Moldavia, and Turkey all get between 64% and 100% of their natural gas supplies from Russia.  Austria, France, Germany, Italy, and Romania receive between 14% and 48% of their natural gas supplies from Russia.  Those natural gas supplies are more critical during colder months. That basic fact of European life gives Russia important leverage over any European response to its actions in Ukraine.

Given Putin’s naked expansionist ambitions and Western Europe’s dependency on Russian natural gas and Russian oil, Putin may be boldly aggressive in Ukraine. Responses from the West will range from muted to lame “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will not be without a stiff price.” However, Russia has been trying for a thousand years to rule the Crimea and the greater Ukraine. In spite of ruthless genocides and unbridled brutality, it has never succeeded in the past, and it’s unlikely that the Ukrainian people will bend to Russian will regardless of support or the lack thereof from the West.

Vladimir Putin is telling his audiences in Russia and in Ukraine that Ukraine’s anti-government protestors are led by a Jewish conspiracy. He is simultaneously telling everyone outside of Russia and Ukraine that the protestors are dangerous anti-Semite Nazis. They are neither. The protestors in Ukraine are a broad coalition of diverse affiliations ranging from women’s rights groups and lesbian and gay rights groups to right-wing Ukrainian nationalists. What they share is a desire for Ukraine to be free of Russia and for its citizens to enjoy basic human rights.

Putin may see a victory for himself in Ukraine, but should he be unlucky enough to pursue and achieve that victory, the results will make the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan resemble a picnic compared to dealing with the Ukrainians and their sympathizers in the West. Putin will undoubtedly make his best effort to gain as much territory as he can and as many Ukrainian concessions as he can without instigating a full-scale war in Ukraine.  If he miscalculates, the price will be steep for Ukraine, but it will also lead to a severe decline in the Russian economy, which might further erode Putin’s popularity at home.

March 2, 2014 Protestors against Russian invasion: "Crimea is Ukraine." image by BO CBo6ona, wikimedia commons

March 2, 2014
Maidan protestors against Russian invasion:
“Crimea is Ukraine.”
image by BO CBo6ona, wikimedia commons

An overwhelming majority of Ukrainians has made it clear that they want independence from Russia, human rights, and membership in the European community. Their demands are reasonable. For the sake of the Ukrainians as well as Russians and Europeans, let us hope that the power-thirsty Russian dictator does not overplay his hand.

Special Thanks to photographer Mstyslav Chernov of Unframe Photographers for the amazing photographs he made available at Wikimedia Commons. Please visit the Unframe Photographers site at Unframe.com and Mstyslav Chernov’s site at MstyslavChernov.com for more outstanding documentary photos.

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Ukraine Crisis: Vladimir Putin and the Power of Gas