Kiev and Russian backed separatists in Eastern Ukraine have agreed to a ceasefire while they work on the details of autonomy for the Donetsk/Luhansk regions. A few skirmishes have flared but all in all the ceasefire appears to be holding.
Many people in the West are left scratching their heads wondering what the deal is. What does this mean? What is Putin doing? What’s the end game?
How did we get here?
It’s been both amusing and disturbing how the media has reported on the Ukraine crises. Regardless of whether it’s TV, radio, or print you’ve probably been duped into thinking that after much struggle the evil Vladimir Putin twisted his mustachios and walked away having outsmarted the West. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Let’s make this abundantly clear...Russia has endured a tremendous loss in Ukraine. When Viktor Yanukovych halted deals with the EU he made it very clear that Ukraine was no longer neutral and would be a partner with Russia. This effectively alienated 75% of the country and plunged them into full on revolt. The rumor from the inside walls of the Kremlin is that Putin fired his entire staff of Ukrainian advisors after Yanukovych was deposed. He was furious with their reckless miscalculation.
Annexing Crimea was a last ditch effort and one that Putin had no choice but to take. Yes, he gained Crimea….but he LOST Ukraine. Moscow’s strategy since the fall of the Soviet Union has been to keep Ukraine neutral. Neither tipping one way or the other. The usually patient and calculating Putin uncharacteristically moved too soon. This had the effect of pivoting Ukraine towards the West rather than to Moscow. Putin has been in full on chaotic damage control ever since.
What does Ukraine mean to Russia?
First of all, it’s important to identify what Ukraine’s importance is to Russia. That’ll be important to clarify when we contrast Ukraine’s importance to the West.
Ukraine is Russia’s strategic priority in Central/Western Europe. Ukraine represents the gateway of either foreign invasion into mother Russia or mother Russian invasion into Western Europe.
Zbigniew Brzezinski was Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor in the late 70’s and early 80’s. In the book The Grand Chessboard Brzezinski says this about Ukraine:
“Ukraine, a new and important space on the Eurasian chessboard, is a geopolitical pivot because its very existence as an independent country helps to transform Russia. Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be a Eurasian empire.”
“However, if Moscow regains control over Ukraine, with its 52 million people and major resources as well as access to the Black Sea, Russia automatically again regains the wherewithal to become a powerful imperial state, spanning Europe and Asia.”
Russia must maintain influence over Ukraine if it ever aspires to be a dominant Empire again. Even if Putin see’s those aspirations as being far off or even untainable again Moscow must continue to pursue it. To do otherwise would show considerable weakness to Russia’s periphery, the rest of the world, and their own citizens.
Ukraine represents Russia’s symbolic and actual desire to be an empire once again.
What is Russia’s strategy in Eastern Ukraine?
Putin’s Ukrainian strategy is similar to what he has done in other breakaway regions in Eastern Europe such as Georgia and Moldova. The goal is to unite and arm minority ethnic Russians and have them claim self determination.
If the host nation responds violently Putin can intervene claiming humanitarian relief to ethnic Russians. If the host nation grants autonomy Putin can use the threat that eventually the autonomous region may eventually try and achieve full on independance. Possibly even amalgamation by Russia entirely.
The threat of ethnic instability will be a considerable lever Moscow can pull to gain leverage. That along with energy control is how Russia manipulates her periphery.
The biggest problem with this strategy is two fold:
- Putin is stoking ethnic tension in an area that is highly volatile. At a time where nationalism and far right groups are gaining ground rapidly. Ethnic Ukrainians are rising up in considerable numbers. Rather than having a favorable opinion towards Russians or even neutral, Putin has turned Ukrainians into enemies.
- Ethnic Russians in many regions that Putin is employing this strategy are on the decline. Ethnic Russian birth rates are going down in places like Eastern Ukraine, the Caucasus, Georgia, etc. The older generation that remember the glory days of the Soviet Union are dieing out.
What does Ukraine mean to the United States?
Ukraine has no immediate strategic value to the United States. Ukraine’s primary purpose for the U.S. is to distract the Russians. Washington knows that Ukraine is vital to Moscow and this provides an obvious weakness. Russia can never let Ukraine fall out of influence. They’ll literally drop everything they’re doing to run to that battle field. It’s that important.
6-12 months ago Moscow was making a push into the world that we hadn’t seen in a long time. They were challenging US interests in the Middle East, South America, etc. Putin made considerable strides in Syria, Egypt, Venezuela, and China. He also stepped up aggressive politics in his periphery attempting to gain leverage in the former Soviet influence states of Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, etc.
From the Western point of view it appeared that Putin had reached a point where he believed that the time was ripe to expand Russian influence and power in the world. It’s of no coincidence that the Ukrainian revolution quickly followed. Overnight Moscow went silent on Syria, Egypt, etc. All Russian assets focused on Ukraine. This in turn freed up the U.S. and her allies to re-engage and gain momentum in other parts of the world without Russian interference.
What is the United State’s strategy in Ukraine?
The United States will not resort to a strong military response in Ukraine. Don't take this the wrong way. We're definitely not scared to do it. In fact if we were really serious about halting Russian advances in Ukraine we would most definitely encourage NATO to put boots on the ground in Eastern Ukraine.
George Kennan was the father of the Soviet containment policy and had this to say about the Russians:
"Soviet power, unlike that of Hitlerite Germany, is neither schematic nor adventunstic. It does not work by fixed plans. It does not take unnecessary risks. Impervious to logic of reason, and it is highly sensitive to logic of force. For this reason it can easily withdraw--and usually does when strong resistance is encountered at any point.
Thus, if the adversary has sufficient force and makes clear his readiness to use it, he rarely has to do so. If situations are properly handled there need be no prestige-engaging showdowns."
We have no intention of forcing Putin to back down so early in this conflict. If we did we would have responded as per our knowledge and doctrine on Russia tells us what will work. This doctrine is true today just as it was in the 50's. Show Putin you're willing to hit him on the jaw....he'll back down.
The truth is we don't want him to back down yet. We want this to drag on as long as possible.
Long term strategy
Putin looks to control the Russian periphery with minority ethnic Russians and natural gas control. The United States pursues a strategy of economic reform and maintaining pro democracy groups that form mass demonstrations like the one at Maidan.
There of many examples of how the U.S. tempts nations with their economic superiority. Even in Eastern Europe. In the 1950’s during the Cold War General Electric bought into light bulb manufacturing in Hungary. That along with other Western foreign investment provided a considerable temptation to the native Communist party.
More recently, the United States has almost single handedly transformed Poland into one of the strongest economies in Europe. Between 1992 and 2001 the United States pumped in over 50 billion in foreign investment. You can track U.S. interest in a country by following foreign investment.
Today in Ukraine we see similar signs that U.S. economic power is starting to sneak in. Organizations such as the U.S.-Ukraine Business Council (USUBC) are quietly bringing in Western companies to invest.
U.S. energy company Westinghouse has also moved in to supply Ukranian Nuclear facilities with nuclear fuel. This is part of a much larger plan to begin weaning Europe off of Russian energy as a whole.
In the end Ukraine currently represents two things: A grand strategy to Russia and a grand Distraction Mechanism by the West. Remember that geopolitics ultimately is a big game against competing nations. The name of the game is who can politically dominate the most space. Russia is concentrating on her region and the U.S. is more concerned with Russian interference in other parts of the world.
As for the Ukrainians? The name of their game is the same as its been their entire existence. Survival. Survive while being tugged on between powerful outsiders. Caught in the middle of an argument they didn't start. Geography is cold and and without empathy. Ukraine is an example of a nation destined for struggle based off of its unforgiving geography.