Russia and Ukraine What It’s Really About: Diplomatic Challenge for Obama
It is a widely held belief that the West has no real military options to prevent Russia from moving on Eastern Ukraine. Which is not to say that they couldn’t cause one heckuva Alka-Seltzer headache for Putin—even on the military front. Weapons, financing, and even “military advisers,” could require too many shots of vodka in all of those Alka-Seltzers to make any such move by Russia, if not unthinkable, at least quite uncomfortable to seriously contemplate. And that is not even considering the cost of economic and political sanctions that are all but a certainty should Russia move to take over Eastern Ukraine. And yet, the steps taken so far, are eerily familiar: An ethnic Russian population takes over government buildings, Russia concerned for the safety of those ethnic Russian Ukrainians should a civil war begin, Russian military in place to “protect” those ethnic Russians.
Why would Russia risk all of this, especially in the aftermath of the “good feelings” left by the enormously costly Sochi Olympics? First of all, Russia, from the second half of the twentieth-century, and earlier in some cases, until the fall of The Soviet Union, has had “special” economic and political relations with the member states of the Warsaw Pact, and, of course, the Ukraine, Moldova, Besarabia, etc., were member Republics of The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). In many of those areas there are still large populations of ethnic Russians: 17.7% in Ukraine, 24.8% in Latvia and 26.2% in Estonia. In Moldova, just to the Southeastern portion of the Ukraine, in what is sometimes known as the “bite of Ukraine,” just 5.8% of the population are ethnic Russians. Yet, even there, in the slice of Moldova from the Dniester River, and slightly beyond, to the Ukrainian border, is the region known as the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR), where ethnic Russians form a majority. And, yes, as we shall see in the coming weeks, Transdniestria, as they call themselves, has emerged out of occupied government offices with cries for a Crimean-like reunification with Russia. Transdniestria’s location just to the North and West of the key Ukrainian Port of Odessa makes the threat not very opaque.
Between NATO and the European Community, the West has integrated enough of their former allies and fellow Socialist Republicans, to make Russia feel like an economic and political noose has been placed across its neck. Russia has sought to be the only major European economic power not identified with the West. To enhance this independent economic status in 2009 Russia began the formation of a customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan. Their goal was to establish a Eurasion Economic Union by 2015. Two former member republics of the Soviet Union, Kyrgyzsstan and Armenia have petitioned to join the union. Yet most scholars and politicians agree that getting Ukraine to join, with its 46 million souls, is the key to a successful Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). When Viktor Yanukovych was President of the Ukraine, he sought to balance a growing economic integration with Russia and the EEU, against a strong wooing from Europe.
Putin appealed economically to Ukraine by offering soft credit terms and notably reduced gas prices among other percs. But most of all he appealed to their common heritage and history. He spoke of “the spiritual unity of two fellow Slav peoples, both largely adhering to the Orthodox Christian tradition, and to the prominent role that Ukrainians had played in the history of the Russian empire and then the Soviet Union.” Though they share, along with Belarus this Eastern European culture, it is not, Putin argued, merely an extension of Western Europe, and in particular the European Union (EU). “Rather it seeks to become the EU’s peer not only (as) a strategic unit,” but one based upon the similar culture and history that they share.
It is now a matter of recorded history that Yanukovych rejected the EU offer and went with a trade agreement with Russia, and this led to popular demonstrations in Kiev and elsewhere in Central and Western Ukraine resulting in the overthrow of his government. One of the first things the new caretaker government did was renounce the economic agreements with Russia, made by Yanukovych and as they say, the rest is history.
The challenge to Obama and his Western allies is to try and find a diplomatic solution that will protect the independence of Ukraine while at the same time making enough concessions to Russia that will not only allow them a face saving avenue out of the crisis, but will seem like an easing of that noose that they perceive of around their neck.