Brinkmanship at the border-Ukraine and Russia
The litmus test that is Transdniestria didn’t change over the week. Still Orange. Stable but remains at a high level of tension. Things are more uncertain at the Eastern edge of Ukraine, where Russian troops are still poised, making just enough incursion noise to produce a roller coaster of oil prices in Europe. Inside eastern Ukraine the situation is even more tense as new cities are added to the list of those where vigilante groups, presumed to be acting with Russian support, if not direction, have taken over local government buildings and police offices. Indeed, in an irony of no mean proportion, the independence of some of these groups may pose more of a threat than if they were under complete Russian control. This is because if diplomatic efforts led to a ratcheting down of the takeover threat by Russia, controlling these insurgents would be a trickier proposition.
This past week saw an attempt by Ukrainian forces to oust the rebels from at least two cities. This in turn, brought movement at the border by the Russian troops as Vladimir Putin was threatening military action to protect ethnic Russians—which many translated as those who took over the local government buildings. It is by no means certain that all ethnic Russians in the eastern Ukraine want to join Russia. From the evidence of many of their behaviors to basically shut themselves up in their homes, it seems likely that the mass of ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine want peace in their cities as a first priority. The possibility of a direct confrontation between Ukrainian forces and a Russian incursive force was put on hold by the Ukrainians agreeing not to pursue the insurgents who are assumed to be mostly ethnic Russians at this time. Russia then backed away, only to continue their provocative and threatening presence at the border. Continued troop movements under the guise of training exercises reminds us of the Cold War days of dangerous brinkmanship.
Meanwhile, President Barak Obama and his Secretary of state John Kerry continued to pursue a diplomatic strategy that could gain support of our European allies while holding off the hawks at home. Such a diplomatic offensive would have to take into account retaliatory measures against Europe, primarily in the form of oil shipments there. It is thought that such a strategy, to be effective, must be narrowly focused sanctions that will hurt Russian oligarchs on whose support Putin depends. We seem to be following such a course with increasing sanctions set in place should Russia not respond to the diplomatic path-as they, at first, seemed to be doing in the agreement in Geneva a few weeks ago. Amidst calls by such hawks as Senator John McCain for a more forceful response, President Obama wondered out loud about why the desire to rush to war. At the same time, he froze assets of many of the Russian Oligarchs and indicated clearly that more would come unless the Russians halted their provocative and threatening actions. If the stock market in Moscow is any measure, it’s clear that Russian investors view the sanctions as harmful, and every Russian movement threatening incursion produces significant selling there.
In most analyses of the situation, there is an assumption of rationality on the part of Putin. Generally these conclude that he won’t move into eastern Ukraine because of the costs. It should be noted than a small but increasing number of the so-called experts on this area take the opposite view and argue that because of our timidity in responding to his threats, Putin will, in fact, take the step to move into the ethnic Russian areas of the Ukraine. Uncertainty as to how much military support we are prepared to give Ukraine, should Russia invade east Ukraine, is a powerful weapon. It is something that it appears we are going to have to use, if not in public pronouncements, which could have the effect of backing Putin into a corner, where he might be forced into an even more aggressive mode to save face, but in private. Wise diplomacy is often best planted out of the public eye.