Feb 08 2015

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Ukraine and the New European Crisis

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On the March Again...

On the March Again…

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande were conducting shuttle diplomacy over the last few days, desperately seeking a cease-fire in the growing, Russian-sponsored war in eastern Ukraine. While a short-term end to the shooting is still possible, the longer-term prospects for a lasting peace in a Ukraine are much darker, with potentially profound impacts for the EU and US.

One need only apply a cold eye in surveying the strategic situation from the Kremlin’s perspective. The old Soviet maxim of a “correlation of forces” would clearly indicate that now is the time to move and settle the Ukrainian “question,” regardless of Western pleas for compromise,  for these reasons:

1) The Economy: the Russian economy has been hit by falling oil prices and Western sanctions imposed over Russian seizure of the Crimea as well as Russian support for the ongoing conflict in the eastern provinces of Ukraine. Russian GDP is expected to contract by three percent this year, with higher inflation and continued capital flight. For the first time in more than a decade, Russians will be hurting.

Economic growth has been key to the Kremlin’s control and ever-expanding power. To prevent any threat to his leadership, Putin must demonstrate that if there must be economic privation, that it  serves a larger national purpose. Decisive action in Ukraine fits that bill. Paradoxically, the concerted Western economic response almost forces Putin’s military hand.  The quicker he delivers the coup de grace to Ukraine, the quicker he can begin the campaign to undermine Western sanctions on Russia as a “relic” of a settled geopolitical issue. In the meantime, the EU and US serve as useful bogeymen for the Putin regime to blame.   Having stoked nationalist fires to improve his standing, Putin is now at their mercy of those very forces.

2) The West is Distracted: terrorists are killing French civilians in Paris. ISIS is brutally murdering foreign civilians on You Tube with virtual impunity, while subjecting the populations of conquered territory in Iraq and Syria to savagery not seen since the Middle Ages. Iran is pursuing a proxy war through the embattled Syrian regime, as well as surrogates in Hezbollah and Hamas. The pro-American regime in Yemen was overthrown by allies of Tehran.  In the Pacific, China has grown strong and restive, asserting itself militarily from the Kurile Islands to Singapore.

Economically, the EU is on the cusp of a deflationary cycle, while growth for the overall Union remains anemic. Large swaths of southern Europe have suffered from chronic recession and durable unemployment at over 20 percent. EU mandated austerity has triggered political instability in Greece, with the rising prominence of fringe parties in Italy, Spain and the UK; parties that question the very utility of monetary union.

Politically, while the heavyweights in the EU are solidly pro-Ukraine and support sanctions, certain member states to the EU are anything but supportive of the Union’s stance against Russia in the Ukrainian crisis.  The first official act of the new, leftist government in Greece was not an official demand for debt relief from the Union, but rather a decree protesting EU sanctions against Russia. Hungary’s government is openly pro-Russian, while members of the Bulgarian parliament are mulling the formation of a pro-Russian party. Outside the EU, but in Europe, Serbian and Albanian  citizens have volunteered to fight with Russian-backed, Ukrainian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

3) The EU Remains Dependent on Russian Energy: 30 percent of the EU’s energy comes from Russia.  While a shutting down the pipelines would be as cataclysmic for the Russians as the EU (Russia depends on the hard currency generated by the energy exports to fund the government), there are a wide variety of steps that the Kremlin can take to create pressure including price increases and spot shutdowns that can play havoc with EU economies.

4) Ukraine is a “Grey Area” for the West: while the Ukraine currently represents the very embodiment of the values that the West holds dear – liberty, democracy and free markets – Ukraine has never been integrated as a full member of Western defense structures. Putin can march to Kiev and there is no document or obligation for the US or the West to do anything.

5) NATO is Over Exposed Politically and Undermanned Militarily: Ukraine’s nebulous status is important as the West couldn’t even consider a possible military intervention in Ukraine when existing NATO forces would be hard-pressed to provide a coherent defense for its existing members, some of them, new, “front-line” states. It is the irony of Western policy that aggressive NATO political expansion in the ’90s and ’00s was accompanied by drastic reductions in NATO’s European members’ military spending, standing armies and general combat readiness.

The combined armies of the UK, France and Germany are smaller than the Ukrainian army, which is having such a hard time containing the Russian-supported Ukrainian rebels. The US, which during the Cold War had over 200,000 combat troops in Europe today has 30,000, mostly stationed at bases in Germany, far away from Ukraine and NATO “front-line” states of Poland, Romania and Slovakia (which border Ukraine) not to mention Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, which border Russia itself.

While the Russian military is only a shadow of its Soviet era capability, it is easily more than a match for the Ukrainians. In addition, Russian geography provides Putin with the ability to create rapid, local military superiority. In truth, nothing but the political uncertainty regarding American resolve to binding NATO treaty agreements with the Baltic states stops Putin from marching into Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.

Putin does not have that concern with Ukraine.

Simply put, the West and NATO are unprepared for a shooting war with the Russians, and that impacts all Western responses to the Ukrainian crisis that could trigger wider-ranging consequences for the Alliance.

6) President Obama is Perceived as Weak: the world has caught on fire during POTUS’ term. While all the global unrest cannot be attributed to Obama, his policies and reactions to world events have created genuine concern regarding American resolve at the same time as the American military is shrinking precipitously.

Consider the political rush to depart Iraq and Afghanistan at all costs. The uneven and hesitant response to the Arab Spring. The “leading from behind” in the Western intervention in Libya. The unnerving policy reversals on Syrian use of chemical weapons – requiring a direct Putin intervention to bailout the President, while advancing Russian strategic interests. The slow response to the threat of ISIS and the hollow military response. The naïve faith in Iran’s good intentions regarding Tehran’s nuclear program.

Putin has taken his measure of the man, and found him wonting. If Putin is going to make moves, he will do so while President Obama is in office.

In sum, the Ukraine crisis casts in stark relief the folly and hubris of Western policy in Europe over the last three decades. A politically expanded but militarily weak NATO. A monetary but not political integration of Europe. The ever-increasing EU energy dependence on Russia. The very belief that Western economic and military structures that did not incorporate Russia would supplant the historic, great power rivalry in Eurasia.

The Ukrainian crisis should be a wake up call. The US and the EU must revitalize their military strength, with the ability to credibly project forces to protect NATO member states. The Europeans must diversify their energy sources and institute policies revive economic prospects of the monetary Union.

Unfortunately, all of that will take time. For now, it is Russia’s advantage and Putin has broken field running.

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