Playing Checkers on a Chessboard.
Posted on 12:32, March 3rd, 2014 by Pablo
So John Kerry says that Russia’s military intervention in Crimea demonstrates that it is acting “in 19th-century fashion by invading another country on (a) completely trumped-up pretext.” He goes on to say that “It’s an incredible act of aggression,” and threatens Russia with expulsion from the G8 and a raft of sanctions.
My oh my. I realize that an essential element of politics and diplomacy is to be able to lie with a straight face and turn hypocrisy into an art form, but this really is up there on the chutzpah scale. Has someone pointed out to Mr. Kerry that this incredible act of aggression has resulted in zero deaths, unlike, say, some other military interventions over the last ten years? In any event, such rubbish is about all that the US has left when it comes to effectively replying to the Russian gambit.
Before I delve into why Putin is playing a larger game while the US reacts and responds simplistically, let me ask a couple of questions. Does military intervention by an autocracy feel any different from military intervention by a democracy on the part of those being occupied? And if the locals welcome the intervention even if their government does not (and in Crimea both the regional government and locals overwhelmingly welcome the Russian intervention), does that legitimate the use of force against a sovereign state?
Putin’s move reiterates his resolve to protect Russian interests and ethnic Russians along its borders. Already proven in Georgia, this latest move secures Russia’s strategic interests by defending its warm water naval bases in Crimea as well as the local Russian population. If extended to Eastern Ukraine where ethnic Russians are a majority, it could well provide a significant, albeit riskier bargaining chip for the Russian leader. His time window is relatively short, but if played right the strategic gains for Russia could be significant.
For example, withdrawal of Russian troops from the Crimea and/or Eastern Ukraine could be traded off for more than the continuation of a pro-Russian status quo in Kiev. The Russians can tie such a withdrawal to better terms for the Assad regime in Syria (where Russian strategic interests are also at stake), and even more- favorable-to-Russia terms for dealing with the Iranian nuclear program (which the Russians have an interest in given the larger interest in maintaining Iran as a buffer against Western influence in the Middle East). The Russians also have numerous points of contention with the West (particularly the US) in its near abroad, particularly in Central Asia amongst the various “Stans.” Any of these can be used as bargaining chips in the negotiations to secure a Russian withdrawal from the Ukraine.
The ball is the Russian court, They have presented the West with a fait accompli in the guise of boots on the ground. They are going nowhere soon and will not be dislodged by force.
Why? because after nearly two decades of continuous war the US is exhausted of fighting. GOP and Fox News chickenhawks notwithstanding, the US public has no stomach for another fight and the US military is suffering from a slow burning crisis of morale than has been seen in gross ethical lapses from command to barracks across all of the armed services, to say nothing of the 20-30 military suicides per month and the epidemic of PTSD amongst young veterans. The US may still have a technological edge when it comes to weapons systems and a more experienced combat force, but its strategic interests in Ukraine are less than those of Russia and its emotive stake in a Ukrainian conflict is closer to zero when compared with that of Russian troops defending their ethnic kin living in Ukraine.
Then there is the small matter of escalation should the US and its allies get involved, which given the relative stakes and nuclear arsenals sitting at the top of each side’s weapons pile, is as good a deterrent as any.
If the US will not respond with force, then no one else will. NATO troops will go on alert, but even an increased supply of weaponry or foreign military advisors to the Kiev government will risk Russian retaliation beyond what the Europeans will find acceptable. If the Ukrainians go to war, no one will come to their defense other than to provide covert logistics and intelligence. But that will not be enough to overcome the Russian military advantage, although it might raise the costs of it remaining in Ukraine for a long period of time. So counter-force is not a real option.
As for the idea that the CIA somehow orchestrated the Ukrainian uprisings as part of some master plan (a theory put forth by at least one Left commentator), well let’s just say that the recriminations with the Beltway about a lack of warning, to say nothing of this outcome, would suggest not. In fact, the contrary is true: given the ethnic tensions within and Russian historical ties to and strategic interest in the Ukraine, the failures of intelligence and diplomatic reporting when it comes to assessing possible outcomes have been major (if for no other reason than this is the stuff of basic comparative foreign policy research). That means that Western intelligence services also will have limited to no effective say in the eventual resolution of the crisis–they will just report on developments as they occur.
The Budapest Memorandum of 1994 (signed by the US, UK, Russia and the Ukraine), which pledged non-interference in and respect for Ukrainian sovereignty in exchange for it giving up nuclear weapons on its soil, is a dead letter. It is not a Treaty and has no enforcement mechanisms other than what each country or countries choose to impose on each other. The Russians claim that the right to self-defense supersedes the memorandum, and that the presence of military bases and citizens in Crimea give Moscow the right to militarily intervene in their defense against Ukrainian aggression, even if done preemptively. In fact, if the Russians wanted to be really cynical they could invoke the “responsibility to protect (R2P)” doctrine that was used by NATO in Libya to justify its intervention against the Gaddafi regime (and R2P does not need UN sanction to be invoked).
Kerry flaps his jaws about expelling Russia from the G8 and imposing sanctions on Russian businesses. The EU makes lapdog noises about “serious consequences.” Does anyone think that Putin is cowed by those remarks? In fact, if anything the day of reckoning is upon Europe, not Russia. For instance, Germany is seriously dependent on Russian energy imports and has re-calibrated its foreign policy in recent years towards Russia. What is it going to do now, abandon all of that in order to make a point about the Ukraine?
Diplomatically, Russia has the upper hand has the upper hand here and it involves (but is not limited to) its relations with Europe and the US.
As for the issue of economic sanctions threatened by Mr. Kerry.
Russian capital has flowed out of the mother country and is now invested–seriously invested–all over the world, to include places like the UK, Singapore, Dubai and the US. Are these states seriously going to consider freezing the assets of those who have made such investments? Will there be a united response when it comes to sanctions or will it be fragmented, porous and ineffectual?
Russia is not Cuba, South Africa, Iraq under Hussein or even Iran and North Korea today. Imposing sanctions on it is a far more difficult proposition, both in terms of getting states and private entities to adhere to any sanctions regime as well as with regards to Russian retaliatory capabilities.
Russian energy supplies are a lifeblood for many countries as well as Russia itself. States that choose to genuinely hurt Russia economically do so at their peril.
The UN will condemn the intervention and resolutions will be introduced in the Security Council to that effect. Russia will veto them. Nothing concrete will be done. If it were to get kicked out the G8–which is a long shot–then Russia can turn to the G20 for diplomatic support. Among its members are nations not entirely enthused about the US, UK and other colonial powers, so it is easy to suppose that its response will be lukewarm to any proposed sanctions or collective punishment.
Bilaterally, it will be hard for all but the most powerful nations to do anything meaningful to Russia. Perhaps countries will issue statements of regret and disappointment, perhaps even suspend talks on items of mutual interest, perhaps even recall or expel an ambassador. But symbolism aside, does anyone think this is going to sway Putin one way or the other?
Putin has a domestic constituency to consider. He may rule from behind a rigged electoral facade but he does represent a specific, and fairly broad constellation of Russian interests. These interests converge when it comes to defending Russia’s borders and near abroad, as well as Russians living outside the motherland. These constituents matter far more to Putin than the likes of David Cameron or John Kerry.
For all these (and several more) reasons, the Russians have the dominant hand in this situation. They will use it to extract concessions on matters of concern to them in exchange for an eventual, likely phased and partial withdrawal from Ukrainian territory. Their strategic interests will be reaffirmed and recognized by their adversaries.
Barring a miscalculation or over-reach on Putin’s part that would bog his troops down in a protracted war (which would inevitably be irregular, unconventional and asymmetrical given the forces involved), Russia stands to gain most from what basically amounted to a window of opportunity created by the Ukrainian uprising.
Policy-makers in Western capitals should have thought about this before rather than after Putin made his move.