The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Tag: Ukraine Page 1 of 3

Clarity on Putin’s Aims

This video which I first saw at Naked Capitalism, is the best explainer of what Putin is probably trying to do, why and whether he’s achieving his goals.

I don’t endorse all of it, but it’s worth watching.

The first 10 minutes alone, if you aren’t inclined to more.

Putin Is Running the Georgian and Kosovo Playbook in Ukraine

As I noted last week, the playbook for Russia in Ukraine is based on what happened with Kosovo.

Putin recognized the breakaway regions, moved troops in, and is now attacking and bombing Ukraine — just as both Serbia and Georgie were attacked. I didn’t expect the general invasion, but I should have, especially since I wrote:

It’s ironic revenge for Kosovo and Serbia. Say there are atrocities/genocide, recognize a break-away, bomb and use troops to enforce your will.

I will be surprised (and wrong) if there is a general occupation of Ukraine, but it is possible because of the NordStream cancellation. What will most likely happen is the Ukrainian military will be defeated in the field, as were the Georgian and Serbian militaries, to make the point that they can’t resist, they have to let Russia do what it wants, and, as Putin himself has said, to demilitarize it. (“We destroyed your military, and you will not build one up or let foreign troops in, or we will do it again.”)

If Putin does occupy Ukraine, it will be because he considers it (like Taiwan) nothing more than a breakaway province, considers Western sanctions inevitable (he said so in his most recent speech), and figures, “Fuck it, might as well take the pain now as later.”

It was wise of NATO nations to remove diplomats, as that means it won’t matter if there’s an “accidental” embassy bombing, which is what happened to the Chinese embassy during the Serbian war.

With the announcement that NordStream will not happen, Russia has very little reason to play by Western rules (we can do it, you can’t), and they won’t.

Welcome to the world I have been predicting for a few years. Russia will be increasingly cut off, China is next on the list (they will not cooperate with US and European sanctions on Russia), and the world will split into two economic areas at cold war, though it won’t be immediate unless things spiral completely out of control.

Europe will be hurt badly by this, as they need far more from China and Russia than they do from the US, as this excellent article by Michael Hudson points out.

Welcome to interesting times.

Update: If NATO responds militarily, there is a good chance the war goes nuclear. And if it does, China will use the opportunity to reconquer Taiwan.

Update 2: What George Kennan, the architect of USSR containment, said back in the 90s.



How to Understand Russia’s Playbook in the Ukraine

It’s ironic revenge for Kosovo and Serbia. Say there are atrocities/genocide, recognize a break-away, then bomb and use troops to enforce your will.

Westerners have never understood how angry the whole Serbian intervention made Russia, who saw Serbia as a core ally. It’s one of the main turning points in Western/Russian relations.

To Russia, this is their “humanitarian intervention.” I’m quite sure Putin finds it very, very funny.


If Russia Invades

It will just be Donetsk and Luhansk, where they have support. They are not going to be drawn into a guerilla war by trying to control all of Ukraine. Most likely, they will recognize the regions, then move in.

There will be no full-fledged invasion and occupation, though, if the Ukrainian military seriously resists, Russia will destroy it.

Ethno-linguistic map of Ukraine

More on Russia, not directly related to Ukraine, soon.

The Ukraine Crisis Is Just a Chance to Acknowledge Choices Already Made

I read two fairly good articles this week. One, in Foreign Affairs, makes out the maximalist Russian case:

Putin also believes that Russia has an absolute right to a sphere of privileged interests in the post-Soviet space. This means its former Soviet neighbors should not join any alliances that are deemed hostile to Moscow, particularly NATO or the European Union. Putin has made this demand clear in the two treaties proposed by the Kremlin on December 17, which require that Ukraine and other post-Soviet countries — as well as Sweden and Finland — commit to permanent neutrality and eschew seeking NATO membership. NATO would also have to retreat to its 1997 military posture, before its first enlargement, by removing all troops and equipment in central and eastern Europe. (This would reduce NATO’s military presence to what it was when the Soviet Union disintegrated.) Russia would also have veto power over the foreign policy choices of its non-NATO neighbors. This would ensure that pro-Russian governments are in power in countries bordering Russia — including, foremost, Ukraine.

This is, of course, the maximalist Russian position, but it is very tiresome to have it presented as “take it or leave it.” What it is, is a negotiating position. In negotiations, one traditionally asks for more than one expects to get. But Washington has responded to this negotiating position by refusing everything. Every single thing.

The Time article, written by someone who remembers Russia in the 90s, and thus knows it could have been a Western ally, sketches out what a negotiated settlement would look like:

There are three possible elements to a compromise with Russia, two of which the West has in effect already conceded. The first is either a treaty of neutrality or a moratorium of ten or 20 years on Ukrainian membership of NATO. The West loses nothing by this, as it is clear that Ukraine cannot, in fact, join NATO with its conflicts with Russia unresolved. In any case, the U.S. and NATO have made it absolutely clear that they cannot and will not defend Ukraine by force.

The second element is a return to the (Adapted) Conventional Forces in Europe Agreement limiting NATO forces in eastern Europe and Russian forces in contiguous territories. And the third is internationally-guaranteed autonomy for a demilitarized Donbas within Ukraine, according to the Minsk II agreement of 2015 brokered by Germany and France but since, in effect, rejected by Ukraine.

Failing at least initial moves towards such a compromise, it does indeed look likely that there will be some form of new Russian attack on Ukraine, though by no means necessarily a large-scale invasion.

Putin isn’t insane, and he doesn’t expect to get everything he wants. But he is old, like me, and the three of us –me, Putin, and the Time writer — remember that George Bush Sr. promised NATO wouldn’t expand past a reunited Germany.

So much for Negotiation 101. Let’s move on to the world model. I think this is somewhat accurate (from the Foreign Affairs article).

The modern Kremlin’s interpretation of sovereignty has notable parallels to that of the Soviet Union’s. It holds, to paraphrase George Orwell, that some states are more sovereign than others. Putin has said that only a few great powers — Russia, China, India, and the United States — enjoy absolute sovereignty, free to choose which alliances they join or reject. Smaller countries, such as Ukraine or Georgia, are not fully sovereign and must respect Russia’s strictures, just as Central America and South America, according to Putin, must heed their large, northern neighbor

Now, here’s the thing: I’m Canadian.

So I KNOW that Canada is not a fully sovereign nation. When the US really gets serious about cracking the whip, we buckle, because we have a population one-tenth of that of the US, and a much smaller military and economy, and Americans are savage warmongers who have invaded or hurt the nations around them (and nowhere near them) hundreds of times in the past couple hundred years.

No South American or Central American nation is under any illusion they have full sovereignty. They don’t. The US is clear about it, too, from its actions and words. Hell, the US is currently holding on to 90 billion dollars it stole from Afghanistan as Afghans starve, nowhere near the US. The US is holding Venezuelan assets, and seizes other countries merchant ships on the high seas, then sells the contents if it feels like.

The US is a fully sovereign nation. No nation in Central or South America is. I would say that no one in Europe is, either, given that Europe is still an American protectorate (if barely). The EU could be a fully sovereign nation if it ever chooses to grow up and accept responsibility, but it isn’t now, though it’s more sovereign than anyone other than the US, China, and maybe Russia. (India might be fully sovereign, I suppose, but I don’t consider them a true Great Power yet.)

Is this “how it should be?” I’d say no. I’d prefer a world full of fully-sovereign nations. I don’t like being under the American boot, personally, and I’m not interested in trading that for some other taste of boot leather.

But this is the way the world is, and US foreign policy “professionals” refuse to admit it, while Putin is clear.

All that is being argued about here is whether almost everyone will be under the US boot, or whether or not there will be three boots: China, Russia, and the US — with perhaps the EU putting on some nice German black leather boots itself, if it ever decides to take responsibility for itself again, and the rest of the EU decides that they’re okay with even more German rule, eased a bit by the French.

The Foreign Affairs author understands this:

Weakening the transatlantic alliance could pave the way for Putin to realize his ultimate aim: Jettisoning the post–Cold War, liberal, rules-based international order promoted by Europe, Japan, and the United States in favor of one more amenable to Russia. For Moscow, this new system might resemble the nineteenth-century concert of powers. It could also turn into a new incarnation of the Yalta system, where Russia, the United States, and now China divide the world into tripolar spheres of influence. Moscow’s growing rapprochement with Beijing has, indeed, reinforced Russia’s call for a post-West order. Both Russia and China demand a new system in which they exercise more influence in a multipolar world.

The nineteenth- and twentieth-century systems both recognized certain rules of the game. After all, during the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union mostly respected each other’s spheres of influence. The two most dangerous crises of that era — Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s 1958 Berlin ultimatum and the 1962 Cuban missile crisis — were defused before military conflict broke out. But if the present is any indication, it looks as if Putin’s post-West “order” would be a disordered Hobbesian world with few rules of the game.

But every time I see “rules-based international order,” I reach for my gun, because I know what that means is the US seizing ships and invading countries and slamming everyone in sight with financial sanctions while fomenting fake revolutions and engaging in coups. Oh, other countries have been bad actors too, but really the “rules-based international order” means “there’s only one superpower.”

So yes, Putin, and for that matter Xi, want a multipolar great-power world. So does Iran, Venezuela, Iraq, Libya, and most African countries. (Though I suppose Putin might acknowledge the US right to crush Venezuela given his own rights are respected.)

BUT, this is the maximal position. The US “rules-based international order” is doomed. That’s simply a fact; the US is no longer powerful enough to support it. You can’t have that after you’ve given up your position as the primary manufacturing state to another country. It’s impossible. Britain didn’t keep it, and neither will the US — the only question is how many hundreds of millions of people will die creating the international order.

If the US wanted a fair world order, truly, then it would have to actually acknowledge and genuinely respect the autonomy of other states. But Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Venezeula, Iran, and, yes, Russia, among many others indicate it doesn’t. If it did, the US would have vast numbers of allies.

But that order wouldn’t be the “rules-based international order” of today. You wouldn’t be able to unilaterally cut nations out of the payment systems and invade other countries with the acquiescence of only a few core European allies.

So what’s being argued over isn’t about a choice between a “good system” versus a “bad system,” despite the author’s mutterings about Hobbesianism, but a choice between two bad systems.

And in that case, it’s just a question of the power of those who want to keep the status quo and those who want the new state. And in that case, it’s not clear that the US can keep its precious privilege to hurt everyone else because it’s the only real great power. If you want to the only hegemonic state, you have to have the power and enough lackeys who are willing to fight with you.

If the US does, and is willing to fight, then maybe it can keep its order.

But I doubt it, again for the simple reason that US primacy was based on economic primacy, and the US doesn’t have that any more. (Their military primacy, since the Industrial Revolution, has been based on industrial primacy.)

Given that US elites decided to give China their industrial core in exchange for a few pieces of silver (so they could kick the shit out of the poor and the middle class internally), they’ve already made their choice. They got their money and their internal supremacy. The price is going to be their international primacy.

That was always the price. US international primacy was based on power and benefit-sharing at home. When US elites decided that they’d rather be oligarchs, they decided they’d also rather not rule the world.

Putin and Xi are just pointing out the consequences of decisions already made.




Ukraine and the perils of lack of commitment

The Ukrainian government has essentially admitted that their military is defeated.  The separatists (with Russian backing) are in the ascendent.  NATO countries are being mealy-mouthed about whether or not to send arms.  For now, Putin and Russia appear to have won, and any deal will have to be on their terms.

The protests which caused the crisis by engendering a coup were heavily backed by America, and to a lesser extent by the Europeans (much lesser, Europe was aware of the potential for disaster.)

America spent decades trying to get the Ukraine into the Western, NATO orbit, as a way of making sure that Russia could never rise as a European power again.

Then, having finally gotten a government which would do what it wanted, they blinked (or one hopes they have.)

Why?  Because the Ukraine is far more important to Russia than it is to the West.  They were right: Russia can’t afford to have Ukraine fall into Western hands, let alone join NATO.  Leaving aside the “empire” issue, it would put troops far too close to Moscow.

So Russia gave the separatists the necessary aid to win and America did not give the government the aid it needed.

Hung out to dry.

The game is not over, however.  In particular the results of the coming presidential election in America will matter a great deal.  Hilary Clinton is even more of a hawk than Obama, and has repeatedly insulted Putin.  She is much older than Obama and she grew up in the Cold War.  She seems to genuinely fear the rebirth of a modern version of the USSR or the Russian Empire, and she’s been playing a hawk for so long that I believe she now really is one.

Many of the potential Republican candidates are little better.

I don’t regard this is as necessarily a good thing, both because Russia is unlikely to blink, and because the antagonists are nuclear armed.

But there is a window to make a deal: Ukraine not in NATO, and federalized, with some sort of economic arrangement which acknowledges its dependence on Russia.  Ukraine’s window for this is closing not just because of the possibility of American intervention (which might be in the interests of the government, but is unlikely to be good for the actual population: war on your own soil rarely is), but because Russia is moving to reduce its dependence on pipelines thru the Ukraine to Europe.  Once they no longer need Ukrainian pass-through, they can simply shut the pipelines off.

Ukrainian winters are very cold.  Very.  And much of their industry needs those hydrocarbons.  Getting them from anyone but Russia will be much more expensive, and will come at the cost of massive IMF austerity and foreign buyouts of everything the Ukraine has worth owning.

Let us hope a deal is made, for everyone’s sake.

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So, the Separatists are now on the offensive in the Ukraine

Granted, I think the evidence points to significant Russian support.  Nonetheless, the Ukrainian army is just embarrassing at this point.

Back in 2008 I wrote that Crimea and the Ukraine would be the next likely flashpoint, and that Russia would never tolerate any possibility of losing Sevastapol.  The serious people who know how the world works told me how wrong I was—that the Ukraine and Europe and Russia were in a mutually beneficial arrangement.

But arrangements change, and Russia has always been a country with a clear view on what its strategic interests are.

So now we have an economic war against Russia and a shooting war in the Ukraine, encouraged by the Russians (and by the Americans: the first big Ukrainian offensive occurred after CIA chief Brennan visited.)

Sanctions did little to the Russian economy, but crashing oil prices did.  Russian currency dropped almost exactly in concert with the drop of oil.  Given the consensus that dropping oil prices so precipitously was a Saudi decision, meant in part to take out high cost unconventional oil production, but also in part to damage Russia and Iran, this can only be seen as hostile foreign action by the Russians.

Russia’s vulnerability is due to mistakes made by the Russians.  The lack of diversification of the economy, and the vast corruption made Russia a petro-state, reliant almost entirely on oil revenues.  Countries which need to import a great deal are always vulnerable to foreign economic action.

The question, then, is this: how threatened does Putin and the rest of the Russian leadership feel?  Putin is unlikely to survive a leadership change for long unless it is his hand-picked heir who takes over, and maybe not even then.  Many others in his government would similarly be in danger.

If they feel endangered, then the traditional thing to do is start a war.  This proxy-war in the Ukraine may not be enough.

Keep an eye on the security of Putin’s leadership.  If it starts looking insecure, the Americans will think they are close to getting what they want: a new leader, who will understand he rules only so long as they are kept happy.  But it will also be the point Russia becomes most dangerous.

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Rumors of the Ukrainian Rebels demise

were exaggerated.  Or rather, the information in the Western press was essentially propaganda.

I think it’s worth acknowledging that I swallowed it, only to be corrected by a number of readers.  The Ukrainian rebels were tougher than I expected, Russian support seems to have been more significant and the Ukrainian military was simply not up to the task.  They couldn’t win the street fighting.

This means that Russia still has a strong negotiating position with regards to Ukraine’s future: their preferred option, of course, is federalization and forbidding NATO expansion into the Ukraine.

Meanwhile we must continue to keep an eye on sanctions.  The risk here is real sanctions being imposed on Russia, Russia retaliating with a gas shut off and an economic collapse in Europe.  Note that the key player here is actually China, who can easily keep Russia afloat if they choose to (China is printing far more money than the Fed was at the height of its unconventional monetary policy.)  The West keeps assuming it is the only game, and that it controls the money spigots: shut them off and they can crush anyone.  That is no longer true.  The question will be “what does China want to keep Russia afloat, or alternately, from the West, to cut them off.”

In my opinion, while China and Russia have some differing interests, those pale compared to their need for each as allies against the West.  The American Foreign Affairs and security establishment has been clear that they want to pivot against China, whom they see (correctly) as the largest threat to American hegemony.  For China to allow the West to crush Russia would be a colossal mistake, especially when the cost of keeping them alive is not that significant a world awash with printed money.

As for Europe, they are being fools and they will pay the price for it.  Satraps of a self-interested and cruel hegemonic power are never treated well, and Europe does not need to be a satrap, yet chooses that path against their own self-interest.

So be it.

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