Wednesday, 19 March 2014

"The Russians are a tough bunch of bastards"

That, at least, was Richard Nixon's verdict on November 1971.  His successors in office since 1989 would have done well to remember that.  The oafish, drunk, incompetent Boris Yeltsin was an exception and a national embarrassment to most Russians.  He is widely reviled for precipitating the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and facilitating the theft of the state's wealth by a small number of oligarchs.  The Clinton era is remembered in the US as the good times.  In Russia they were, for most people, a time frightening change and economic hardship, with a dose of national humiliation layered on top.

The years of the Bush administration saw better economic times in Russia, as Vladimir Putin brought a degree of stability to the country, but in foreign policy, the former KGB man Putin saw his country suffer (what were in his eyes) repeated indignities.  The US embarked on wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  NATO and the EU's borders raced eastwards, pushing up against the Russian frontier itself.  The fruits of Clinton's air war against Serbia (Russia's long-standing friend and ally) were reaped by Kosovar independence.  George W barely missed an opportunity to kick the Russian bear in Poland, the Czech Republic and Georgia.  In the dying days of the crippled Bush presidency the bear gnarled, briefly, over the latter.

And while Obama and Secretary of State Clinon famously (embarrassingly now, looking back) tried to "reset" relations with Russia, preoccupied with Libya, Syria and a "pivot to Asia", when the Obama administration did pay attention to Europe, its focus was on the crisis in eurozone.

In the meantime Poland was leading the charge to have Ukraine sign an Association Agreement with the European Union, potentially as a precursor to Ukraine joining the EU (though as I noted elsewhere I don't believe Yanukovich ever had any intention of signing it).  When Ukraine's President decided against signing the Agreement and took loans from Moscow instead, many of those who had never voted for him in the first place took to the streets to protest at him failing to implement a policy he had never promised when he stood for election.

Yanukovich's reaction was both bloody and vacillating, which exacerbated the situation.  But by late February an agreement was signed between Yanukovich and the opposition, agreeing to hold new elections: a delayed capitulation by the President, in the words of one analyst.

The February 21st Agreement was co-signed by the foreign ministers of Poland, Germany and France, and witnessed but (wisely) not co-signed by the Russian foreign minister.  And then the opposition reneged on the Agreement and unconstitutionally removed Yanukovich from office.  In its place came an interim government that, sadly but probably inevitably, included a Deputy Prime Minister and four other members from a far-right (reformed?) Neo-Nazi party, but one nonetheless that up until 6 years ago had its own paramilitary wing, complete with fascistic emblem (formerly used by Svoboda itself).

Under any other circumstances, the European Union and United States would be expressing "deep concern" about Svoboda's participation in government.

And then Crimea happened.

There has been a lot of news ink wasted on theories about what Putin is going to do and why he is doing it.  If you read only one thing to try and make sense of it all, read this by Christopher Dickey.  It is by far and away the clearest enunciation of what has led to this point.

I don't agree entirely with the argument that the Soviet Union didn't lose the Cold War.  I have even less time for the notion that the United States didn't win.  A useful parallel is America's War in Vietnam: the United States wasn't militarily defeated in Vietnam, but it did negotiate to extract itself from the conflict as it could not win and didn't have the stomach to continue fighting it.

So too the Soviet Union and the Cold War, though the irony is of course that it is generally the same people who shout most loudly that the U.S. both didn't lose in Vietnam and that it did win the Cold War.  Unfortunately a lot of them found jobs in foreign policy in the Bush 43 White House.

In war, whether hot or cold, if you negotiate your way out and allow your erstwhile enemy to achieve his goals, you lost. War isn't always a zero sum game, but sometimes it is.

My first blog post on Ukraine made the argument that the crisis there was not a leftover from the Cold War.  I stand by that analysis.  However I stand wholeheartedly behind Christopher Dickey's analysis that the crisis in Crimea is, if not quite a leftover from the Cold War itself, certainly the result of the messy way in which it concluded (for the Soviet Union and Russia at least).

At first blush, my reaction was that Putin felt Ukraine was lost to 'the West' and Crimea was the price he wanted to extract for it.  I think I need to finesse that now.

To allow Ukraine to go the way of the Baltic states would be another defeat for Russia, and it is clear that Putin is in no mood to see his proud nation humiliated again.  Crimea is his insurance policy to make sure that it never happens: a constant reminder to Kiev that he means business, and that southern and eastern Ukraine, with their Russian populations, are vulnerable to actions by "patriotic self-defence units" reacting to provocations from "Neo-Nazis, nationalists and anti-Semites".

As I wrote yesterday, Putin will be able to force the humiliating surrender of Ukrainian forces in Crimea, because the alternative will be a bloody and costly war in which Ukraine will be torn apart.

Putin will never permit Ukraine to move towards the West.

Because he is one of that tough bunch of bastards, and he wants the world to remember that.

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