putinUkraine Up-Date, What Now? Responding and Keeping Our Head and Looking Ahead

by Harry C. Blaney III


The Ukrainian revolution has now turned into a global crisis of Cold War proportions. Now is the time for caution, steadiness and resolution. If taken off course, the outcome could be a disaster for all sides, not least for the Ukrainian people. Wrong moves by Putin, the new Ukrainian government, European leaders, and America could turn a serious confrontation into a catastrophe for all. There is also the danger of doing nothing. Recent events in the Crimea and Putin’s statements indicate a radical and dangerous series of actions including his precipitous military intervention and veiled, and not so veiled, threats against all of the Ukraine. 

The most serious element of this crisis is the imperial madness of President Vladimir Putin who risks much to gain very little. Putin is trying to take Russia back to its dark ages of horrendous authoritarian rule over what is now a growing, more informed, and engaged citizenry. He is blinded by his geo-strategic ambitions and desire to use ruthless military force. He ignores the lost opportunities for Russia to modernize and take its place among the responsible and respected nations and for its people to finally gain the fruits of good government denied them for centuries.

He has shown the world that his “word” is worthless. Treaties binding countries to acts and norms are to Putin, much like Hitler’s pact was at Munich. Stalin was more cautious in the Cold War in not confronting a nuclear armed America than Putin appears as he willfully invades the Crimea. As the Olympics in Sochi showed and the Crimea invasion now shows, he wants to be on center stage and to appear again as the “great power” that can dominate with physical force but, in reality, remains an angry spent force on a global scale.

The Russian economy is still broadly, except for its military and energy sector which needs Western technology and investment, a “Potemkin Village”—a largely weak shell that provides little for most of its people who live lives of grinding poverty in a kleptocracy and authoritarian state. But it is all the more dangerous for its inherent weakness, not least any in the Kremlin willing to tell the truth to power.

Another dimension of this crisis is the calculations by other nations of the true implication of this act of war against a nation close to Russia, a former Warsaw Pact nation, and one that prizes its independence. Putin may calculate that this will cover other “Near Afar” nations that he sees as being in his “domain.” Yet the proper reaction must be fear of such an embrace. For Western Europe, the hope for a “honeymoon” with Russia of trade, arms control, and sense of moving towards cooperation and normality is fast disappearing. There will have to be a new calculation, and it will not be favorable to Putin or Russian hope for “normality.”

The visit of Secretary John Kerry to Kiev and calls by Obama to Putin, plus the work of Merkel and other Europeans diplomatically together are aimed at finding an acceptable way for Russia to back down, working for conciliation between Russia and the new Ukraine government, and providing assurances through the use of international monitors in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine that there will be no acts against “Russian” interests and people. All this depends on the hope that Putin will realize his act may be a bridge too far. It is doubtful that acts of killing of Russian-speaking Ukrainians by Russian troops will go down well, engender support by Russian citizens, or help long-term relations with Russia.

The US down payment of $1 billion of loans will be at least some immediate help in strengthening the new Ukrainian government, but much more will be required to give the Kiev authorities the means to exert effective authority and to make their military stronger. But the real necessities remain major funding along the lines of at least $15-25 billion dollars and assisting the new leaders in making the government work for the people, and to do so without corruption.

All of the above assumes that Putin has no taste to invade Ukraine proper aside from Crimea, but that is not assured. His reckless and provocative behavior up to now along with his military’s recent belligerent demands and threats in Crimea seem to indicate long-term aggressive objectives.

For the West, it is not wise to use threats that are not real and won’t be acted on if Russia persists in its Crimea invasion or goes beyond. Threats need to be believable, and one must have the will and resources to be credible. Yet, each sanction needs to be examined by possible counter acts by Russia, and a response to those have to be in place, again, realistic and measured. That will need some courage for all, especially the Europeans. Realistic sanctions that are on the table are financial and in related economic and trade areas. Others are ready to go, like suspension of military cooperation. DOD has already acted on most of these but has wisely left some key avenues of dialogue open. One does not close down avenues for dialogue with nuclear powers for spite or bad actions. Witness Iran, North Korea, and the Soviet Union.    

While the Europeans are saying strong words now, they are cautious to the point of greedy self interest (witness the Prime Minister Cameron’s leaked “memo,” saying the UK will not act against Russia to protect the interest of their banks), and the push back from Netherlands and Germany on real sanctions illustrates fear for their energy supply and other trade. The meetings at NATO, the UN, the EU, and OSCE all are likely to produce few immediate actions of consequence given the divisions and the hope, despite the reality of Putin’s actions, of many states that the Kerry et. al. diplomatic tract will bring some peaceful resolution. This European cowardice, and the case of UK duplicity, gives Obama even fewer tools of peaceful leverage over Russia.  

For America, the question should be not how to fight Putin, but rather how to make this confrontation end peacefully for all or at least not precipitate a nuclear war or major European conflict with global impact. The options need to be used with a long term vision of an outcome that holds open the door for not only a graceful way out but reinforces our determination to work to make Russia a responsible and helpful power with real democracy and personal security for its people – in effect an “open society.”

In the end, we need a strategic vision to counter Putin’s imperial and dictatorial ambitions at home and abroad. We need do so in a way that also demonstrates we are FOR the well being of the Russian people and for Russia becoming a place of true democracy, openness, rule of law, and prosperity alongside much of the rest of the developed world. We need to do more to make this distinction via public diplomacy, people-to-people exchanges, and our words and deeds over the decades.

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