Focus shifts to the eastern Ukraine after Crimea takeover.
Following the takeover of Feodosia, the third and final Ukranian military base on Crimea, taken within the past few days, Interim President Olexander Turchynov has pulled the last Ukrainian troops out of Crimea. The annexation by Russia, which began on March 16, is now a fact. The focus at once turns to the eastern Ukraine, which borders on western Russia. In this area of the Ukraine, ethnic Russians predominate and Yanukovych, the now overthrown leader of Ukraine, is in exile, so to say, still claiming to be its only legitimately elected President. Russia’s initial claim that their actions in Crimea were to protect their “compatriots”–ethnic Russians– rings ominously for the similarly composed eastern Ukraine. Tensions have mounted
First the Russians held “military exercises” near their eastern border with the Ukraine. Now those troops have been reinforced with considerably more manpower. Putin has said that he wouldn’t invade the Ukraine, but even as he said this was increasing military forces along the border. Historians would be forgiven if he or she were to suggest some parallels between Russia’s action to reclaim former territory with Hitler’s moves on Poland in 1939. The errors that Britain’s Chamberlain made in assuming that these morsels would satisfy Hitler’s appetite have been famously etched in the history of the last world war.
Meanwhile, the G-7 is meeting in The Netherlands trying to work out some diplomatic deterrent to Russia. First efforts are not very forceful or promising. Putin, speaking through Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, has already dismissed the effects of even being expelled from the G-8. He described the prospect as “No great tragedy.” Of course the real concern is the eastern Ukraine.
Secretary of State John Kerry announced that he had met with Lavrov and expressed “strong concern” about the massing of Russian forces on the Ukrainian border. But in what form does that “concern” take? Western leaders talk about increasing “the costs” to Russia. In the event that Russia does move on the Ukraine what can and will they do?
It is a dangerous game and a lot of Western thinking derives from their assessment of Putin, the man. No mean task The NY Times examined how three Presidents had viewed Putin, and came up with three profiles, then concluded that: “For 15 years Vladimir V, Putin has confounded American presidents as they tried to figure him out, only to misjudge him time and again.” I am no “Putinologist.” Yet from my study of the man, he is the ultimate pragmatist. And one of such a pragmatist’s calculations has to be his reading of the domestic sentiment in Russia. With the takeover of Crimea nationalism is reaching a feverish level in Russia, and extremist views are getting considerably more press than usual in Russia, in their calls for aggressive action in the region. They argue that Russia should reestablish itself in the former Soviet Union Republics and Bloc countries, many of which have been finessed into the European economy, if not brought into the E.C. itself. The cost in goodwill and trade with the West that an aggressive policy would engender will be offset, they argue, by increased Russian trade with those former Republics, and by turning towards what many in Russia feel is their natural partner, China.
It is a delicate balancing act for Putin. The Russian economy is very shaky and the trade agreement made with Yanukovych before he was overthrown as President of Ukraine government, has now been disavowed. This has been a direct challenge to Russian influence with their former Republic-mate and a distinct blow to the Russian economy. If the trend that exists were continued, Russian economic relations with their former Republics and allies likely will erode even further. Meanwhile sanctions imposed on Russia by our allies in Europe will be limited in proportion to their dependence on Russian Oil and investments.
Mutual interests nonetheless, should allow for some diplomatic advances. Increased trade opportunities with China and former Bloc members will take time to develop. The Russian economy is hurting now and the oligarchs’ interests have to be considered by Putin. The decline in the Russian stock market over the recent past warn of dangers to the economy. There are some signs of Russian moderation, however. Talks between Russia and the new Ukrainian government have begun, albeit just at a “feeling out” level. It is nonetheless, a beginning.z
In consultation with Turchynov, the West might consider offering incentives for the Ukraine to give Russia assurances, about the safety and well-being of the ethnic Russians there. Moves on Yanukovych can be postponed until after the new elections, which will have a legitimizing effect on the resulting victors. Meanwhile uncertainty as to more direct involvement, militarily, by the West, should Putin move on the Ukraine, would be expected to have a deterrent effect on a pragmatist like him. But no saber rattling. Above all the rhetoric, from the Ukraine and the West should be toned down. If this does not deter Russia from moving on the Ukraine, there will be ample time to take more direct actions. Plan for all contingencies in private but offer Putin a way out of the confrontation without publicly losing face at home.