Monday, March 3, 2014

Ukraine, Crimea, Russia...Monday morning thoughts

The hard reality is that Ukraine has next to no strategic value for the United States. We’re no longer in the business of stopping the spread of communism. That mission is dead. The only value of Ukraine for the west is that it helps to solidify a stronger Central Europe that checks the power of both Western Europe and Russia. Similar to how the map looked pre-WW1. It goes right along with the recent defense cuts proposed by Chuck Hagel. The new strategy is disengagement.  In order to disengage we must first ensure that there are adequate regional power checks.
On the other hand, Ukraine is a significant strategic priority for Moscow. The majority of European natural gas runs straight through Ukraine. Russia’s economic survival hinges on ensuring fossil fuels continue running through Ukraine’s borders. The references to the Cold War are humorous. We’re now in a Fossil Fuel War. Whomever controls the flow of energy controls the world. Moscow is fighting for Ukraine to ensure that they control the flow of energy into Western Europe.
Fortunately for Moscow all the cards are in their favor. No matter how much support the west gives to pro democracy NGO’s the economic realities will not change. Ukraine has an energy and economic problem. The U.S. and the EU can’t solve it for them. Russia can. All Moscow has to do is sit back and let panic set in. The struggling EU simply can’t write the checks that Kiev needs. The harsh realities of the Russian Georgian invasion of 2008 are the same today. The U.S. can’t intervene to protect nations in Russia’s periphery. Russia invaded South Ossetia and we couldn’t stop them. If they invade Crimea the result would be similar.
The answer:
If Ukraine has no strategic value for the U.S. but is important to Russia than what is the purpose? This is a distraction. Plain and simple. Russia has increased their presence on the world stage over the past couple of years. Iran, Syria, Snowden, and then the arms deal with Egypt was the last straw.
For years Russia has capitalized on the United State’s preoccupation with the middle east. They’ve used that to regain the ground they lost in their near abroad since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Putin felt comfortable with his periphery. Belarus was as close an ally as ever, Kazakhstan, Ukraine with Yanukovich, etc. He started to move beyond his near abroad into Iran, Syria, Egypt….into territory claimed by the U.S. comfortably for the past 50 years.
The arms deal with Egypt was the last straw. The Maidan protests in Ukraine would step up their game and begin to occupy government buildings. Yanukovich’s governemt fell. At the same time the Obama Administration scheduled high level meetings with the foreign ministers of both Moldova and Georgia. The strategy is obvious….mess in our backyard and we’ll snoop around in yours. Putin can no longer devote his attention outside his region (Syria, Venezuela, Egypt, Iran). He has to police his own neighborhood.
The lesson is learned: this is the difference between a Superpower and a Regional power.
If Moscow is busy dealing with Ukraine/Moldova/Georgia they’re not concentrating on supplying Assad with surface to air missiles. They’re not concentrating on being the major supplier of arms to the greater middle east. They’re not concerned with supporting Iran….etc.
The strategic significance of Ukraine to the U.S. is that it’s a major distraction for Russia...and that’s all.

What happens next:

Putin chose Crimea as his answer to Maidan. Eastern Ukraine is thick with ethnic Russians but Crimea is about 60% ethnic Russian. If Putin is anything like his 2008 self he’ll invade Crimea in order to “protect ethnic Russians” just like he did in South Ossetia in Georgia. Just as in 2008 the message will be clear. The U.S. can’t stop Russia from influencing their near abroad.
It’s a hard truth. Ukraine is destined to be caught in the middle between Russia and the west. Central Europeans in the west and ethnic Russians in the east. The only thing that will help to free Ukraine from Russia’s influence is natural gas from the southern gas corridor. Oil/gas from the middle east to compete with Russian oil/gas will help Ukraine break free. Until those pipelines are completed Russia will continue to control the flow of energy into western Europe and will thus keep their foot on the neck of Ukraine.
The Crimean conflict will rest squarely on the shoulders of the Ukrainian military. The U.S. and NATO will not directly engage Russian forces. My guess is that the U.S. and the EU are urging restraint. An overly forceful response by the Ukrainian military is exactly what Putin is waiting for. That’s what green lit him in Georgia in 2008.
The U.S. doesn’t necessarily want this resolved too quickly. It’s a much needed distraction for Vladimir Putin.
A strong answer to Snowden, Egypt, Syria...etc. Regardless of how this is spinned. It shows that Moscow over extended itself and is now paying the price.