WASHINGTON – Vladimir Putin is winning in his ruthless and perhaps crazy effort to regain control over at least a few pieces of the Old Soviet Empire. His excuse for land grabs (Crimea) and for his efforts to absorb in another fashion pieces of the old Soviet sphere of influence rests on (not totally preposterous) claims of historic ties between these lands and Russia, and on the fact that there are many ethnic Russians living there.
Ethnic Russians outside of Russia
Theoretically Moscow has legitimate concerns for the welfare of ethnic Russians who found themselves outside of the borders of the new Russian Federation, after the sudden and messy collapse of the Soviet Union, (December 26, 1991). Still, these concerns could have been addressed in a much more civilized manner by a different Russian leadership.
For instance, in the case of Crimea, the Kiev provisional government, (prior to the annexation), publicly stated that it was ready to grant Crimea even more autonomy, so that the ethnic Russians who constitute the majority of Crimea’s population could have determined their own destiny without much interference from the Ukrainian central government.
No interest in solving the issue
But it is clear that Russia does not want to “resolve” the “ethnic Russians” issue. After the succesful annexation of Crimea, Putin wants to exploit it as an almost perfect excuse for stirring more trouble in Eastern Ukraine.
And, I am afraid, unless Washington is willing to take chances by threatening really serious consequences unless Putin stops bullying the neighborhood (and I do not see that happening), there is no way to stop Russia.
Weak Russia wins
Compared to the combined strength of Europe and America, Russia looks like a midget. Russia has a GDP of about $ 2 trillion. Europe and the US together get to about $ 34 trillion. America still has the most formidable armed forces.
However, notwithstanding its small economy, Russia has the enormous advantage of an insurmountable tactical superiority “in theatre”, (50,000 Russian troops now stationed close to the Ukrainian border), while Europe and the US have zero assets close to the theatre.
Worse yet, while Putin is determined, neither Europe nor America have any appetite for escalating this confrontation with Russia up to a level that might force Moscow to reconsider.
Russian endless appetite for conquest?
That said, the scary talk offered on US cable TV by conservative military experts is rather silly. Th notion that Russia is following a strategy that bit by bit will lead to Russia’s complete domination of Eurasia is preposterous. Ukraine is a unique case. There may be other targets of opportunity in Moldova. But this is it.
Stirring trouble in the Baltic Countries (Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania) is theoretically possible; but it carries more risks, because these otherwise weak and exposed countries are now members of NATO. While I am not so sure as to how NATO would react if some of its more vulnerable members came under threat, such a move on Russia’s part would carry a much higher level of risk.
However, even if we assume that Putin wants to do his best to recreate a larger Russian sphere of influence that will extend beyond the borders of Russian federation, I doubt that his plans include the subjugation of Germany, or even the attempt to force Poland back into its sphere.
Why should Washington care?
Given all this, why should Washington worry so much about Russia’s “revisionist” attempts, as they are unlikely to upset the global balance of forces?
Here are two different reasons. The first one is that Washington cannot just ignore a land grab in Europe and Russia’s open attempts at destabilizing Ukraine, a sovereign country. International law should be upheld. Russia’s behavior is illegal.
The second one is about Ukraine itself. It is in the interest of the West and of the US that Ukraine will have a chance to align itself with free market oriented Western democracies. Therefore Washington should support the provisional government in Kiev.
However, since the Obama administration has ruled out the use of force in Ukraine, the Kiev government has to realize that it cannot pursue the really complicated task of economic reforms, while there is an ongoing insurrection in the East.
Independence for Eastern Ukraine
As it is clear that Washington will provide only economic support, the only way for Kiev to resolve this crisis is to grant independence to Eastern Ukraine. The sooner the better. Once the parts of the country with most ethnic Russians are gone, Putin has no issue. To the extent that the Kiev government resists the separatists, the pro-Russian insurgents, (funded and organized by Moscow), have an excuse to continue their violent demonstration. And at any point this may give Putin a pretext for intervening, in order to “protect” them.
As I stated above, a different West could send Putin an ultimatum: “Either you stop this nonsense, right now, or we shall make you pay a very high price”.
But I do not see this Western united front. In fact I see the opposite. America has no appetite for engaging in a new confrontation that might escalate. Europe still depends on Russian energy, while many European companies want to keep their business ties to Russia.
Case in point. Just as America dispatched a few hundred (yes not even a thousand), US paratroopers to Poland for exercises, as a public relations effort aimed at reassuring key NATO allies, Ben van Beurden, the CEO of Shell, went to Moscow for a chat with Putin. The implicit message is clear: “We find this crisis regrettable; but we want to continue business as usual”.
For all of the above, the Kiev provisional government should reassess its options and conclude that the West does not have the will to stop Russia’s mischief in Eastern Ukraine. Therefore, if Western Ukraine wants to have a real shot at joining Europe, it should allow Eastern Ukraine to secede. This is painful, of course. But the alternative is a permanent crisis that the Russians have no interest in resolving.