Ukraine: It’s the only news story this week [update 2]
There’s only one real news story this week, and it’s not the bumblings of David Cunliffe or the trial of a South African sprinter.
The only story that matters is what Russia is doing
in to the Ukraine, and what western “leaders” are doing in response.
Not that any of them are obliged to respond. Few, if any, have any directly selfish reason for responding at all – but their reactions, or lack of them, betray the weakness that Putin obviously thought he could exploit.
The weakness is everywhere, from David Cameron’s message that if this continues, he will set the IMF on Ukraine; to John Key’s, that if it carries on he will stop NZers selling Russians trees; to the weakest and most bathetic of them all, John Kerry’s dangerous plaint (made direct from Kiev, thereby putting a US secretary of state in a firing line his commander in chief is unprepared to defend) that Putin’s aggression is like something out of the 19th century, not the 21st.
Nice try, John.
Message to John, and to everyone else who thinks simply wishing for peace will deliver it: telling someone their behaviour is ‘inappropriate’ might stop that behaviour in the kindergarten sandpit or university common room, but as Putin has demonstrated in the real world, sometimes aggressors just want to aggress. (And, note to everyone wrongly assuming America is always the world’s hegemonic aggressor: not every world aggressor is American. And America’s recent embarrassments in Syria, Benghazi and with Iran et al have demonstrated to aggressors everywhere that if aggression is begun then the US will probably do nothing about it.)
So what does Putin hope to achieve by exploiting the west’s weakness? What’s his motive? Not wanting to sound like Hilary Clinton here, but what does it matter. It could be gas. It could be control of a pipeline to Europe allowing him to tweak Europeans’ smugness towards Russia. Or, as many have surmised, it could just be the old imperialism that “great leaders” have always thought makes their country and their leadership “great”: the pursuit of Empire.
An old saying is that Russia without Ukraine is a country, but Russia with Ukraine is an Empire. But Russia already had influence in Ukraine, and had effective control of Crimea. As Richard Cohen points out, his aggression is likely to turn Ukrainians away from the Russian Bear, not towards it.
Putin has badly played his hand [says Cohen]. He lost his influence in much of Ukraine and won, really, what he already effectively had -- Crimea… It was an easy [conquest]-- followed, as it will be with Putin's, by a lifetime of anguish.
And as Britain discovered with its own Empire (and Japan discovered in its attempt to build one of its own), in an age of free trade you don’t need conquest and killing to get others resources, you simply need trade and the ability to deliver your own produce as payment.
So Putin’s motive is probably just self-destructive self-aggrandisement. He wants to be seen to have an Empire even if his actual influence there is weakened thereby. And western weakness let him think it would be any easy win.
The likes of Putin (and Assad, and the mullahs, and Kim Il Sung) can sniff weakness – and since the backdown in Syria, the disgrace in Benghazi, the giveaways in the Iranian and North Korean negotiations, the failure to back protest in Iran, the bumbling over the ‘Arab Spring,’ and umpty-tum other signs of direction-free cowardice, the stench is easy enough to detect. As you’d think western leaders might have learned from Alsace-Lorraine, the Saar, the Sudetenland, and even from the American ambassador’s easy conversational giveaway of Kuwait to Saddam Hussein1, the uncomfortable truth is that firmness in response to small aggressions is a message to those contemplating bigger aggression not to start.
That’s the real reason for a decent defence. Not because you want warfare, but because you don’t. It’s the willingness to defend that nips many plans of aggression in the bud before they start – and the admission you won’t that encourages them.
Look more closely for example at John Kerry’s latest windy response to Putin thumbing his nose at every diplomatic nostrum of modern life:
“The Russian government would have you believe that Russian actions are legitimate,” says Kerry
The Russian government cares no more now for legitimacy than they did in 1968 when Khrushchev sent tanks into Prague on the pretext of some hockey riots, or in 2008 when they rolled into Georgia on the pretext of protecting ethnic Russians. (Sound familiar?2)
“The larger point is that diplomacy, not force, can solve disputes like this in the 21st century,” says Kerry.
Yet as Putin is aware, if no-one else is, every dispute this century has shown if anything the opposite.
“The United States would prefer to see this de-escalate,” says Kerry.
But wishing will not make it so.
“[But if Russia continues this path, the US] will isolate Russia politically, diplomatically and economically,” says Kerry.
And despite his presence in Kiev, I’m sure that Kerry himself is aware that the only word in that litany that would make an actual difference is the one word he dare not say: “militarily.”
His commander-in-chief’s unwillingness to use that word to back up his previous “red lines” means any threat now would just be laughed at.
I say above that the west, particularly the US, has no selfish interest in the Ukraine. But it might have once. It might have once in the sense of protecting what might be (but possibly isn’t) a move by Ukrainians towards freedom – or in the sense of protecting some sort of principle.
When Assad flamboyantly hopscotched over Obama's red line and received no response, the world rocked on its axis. Though the Obamaites couldn't see it, every small, peace-loving nation in the world was instantly made more vulnerable. Perhaps now, with Russian ships and tanks aiming at Ukraine, they are beginning to understand how international relations work. ("It's not some chessboard," the president asserted recently, displaying his continuing confusion.) No, the game isn't chess; it's more like boxing, where the winner is the stronger one.
The Ukraine crisis flows directly from the Syria debacle, as Vladimir Putin, like Assad, has taken Obama's measure.
Its important to draw the right red lines. Not everywhere, just the ones that matter. Draw them. And then defend them.
Like Neville Chamberlain in Poland, by sitting in Kiev Kerry is now drawing a sort of pinkish line in a place he can’t defend because he allowed an earlier red line to be ignored in a place he could.
I welcome your thoughts, if you have them.
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1. From Wikipedia: On 25 July 1990, the U.S. Ambassador in Iraq, April Glaspie, asked the Iraqi high command to explain the military preparations in progress, including the massing of Iraqi troops near the border.
The American ambassador declared to her Iraqi interlocutor that Washington, “inspired by the friendship and not by confrontation, does not have an opinion” on the disagreement between Kuwait and Iraq, stating "we have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts."
She also let Saddam Hussein know that the U.S. did not intend "to start an economic war against Iraq". These statements may have caused Saddam to believe he had received a diplomatic green light from the United States to invade Kuwait.
According to Prof. Richard E. Rubenstein, Glaspie was later asked by British journalists why she had said that, her response was "we didn't think he would go that far"
2. It’s not just familiar as a pretext in Georgia, and was no more justified there than it was in Hitler’s occupation of the the Sudetenland to “save” ethnic Germans – but as Putin would have learned from that occupation, it worked. Perhaps Ukrainian leaders, if it were a live issue and ethnic Russians really did want to leave could have done as Vaclav Havel did in modern-day Czechoslovakia by splitting the country peacefully into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, which avoided any tinge of the sort of conflict that was then inflaming the Balkans.
UPDATE 1: This isn’t the only weakness spotted by the Russian Bear. Said Russian presidential advisor, Sergei Glazyev, before Putin's detente press conference early this morning:
"We hold a decent amount of treasury bonds – more than $200 billion – and if the United States dares to freeze accounts of Russian businesses and citizens, we can no longer view America as a reliable partner,” he said. “We will encourage everybody to dump US Treasury bonds, get rid of dollars as an unreliable currency and leave the US market.”
Moscow might be forced to drop the dollar as a reserve currency and refuse to pay off loans to U.S. banks…
Russia could reduce to zero its economic dependency on the United States if Washington agreed sanctions against Moscow over Ukraine, politician and economist Glazyev said, warning that the American financial system faced a "crash" if this happened.
That’s a fairly large Achilles Heel America has created for itself ….
UPDATE 2: Cartoonist John Cox does John Kerry’s portrait: