What’s At Stake In Ukraine?


An awful lot, or so Kim R. Holmes believes, including the European order itself:

Putin’s larger goal appears to be to change the nature of the international system, particularly with respect to Europe. … If successful Putin will have succeeded in changing how Westerners view power and influence. The normal indices of national power — military and economic, for example — will have been shown to be far less important. Asymmetrical warfare will not be merely a thing waged by jihadists huddling in caves but by emerging great power leaders occupying palaces in Moscow and Beijing. That war will be fought at the strategic level, not to conquer one another’s territory or to destroy each other’s populations, but to alter the values and rules of the international system. All methods can and will be used (from cyber-warfare to “lawfare” to psychological warfare) in this type of conflict; the side that better understands the game will have the best chance of prevailing.

Far from the 19th- or 20th-century mentality he’s accused of harboring, Peter Pomerantsev argues that Putin’s strategy is responding cannily to – and in turn reshaping – the geopolitics of the present day:

The Kremlin’s approach might be called “non-linear war,” a term used in a short story written by one of Putin’s closest political advisors, Vladislav Surkov, which was published under his pseudonym, Nathan Dubovitsky, just a few days before the annexation of Crimea. Surkov is credited with inventing the system of “managed democracy” that has dominated Russia in the 21st century, and his new portfolio focuses on foreign policy. This time, he sets his new story in a dystopian future, after the “fifth world war.” …

This is a world where the old geo-political paradigms no longer hold.

As the Kremlin faces down the West, it is indeed gambling that old alliances like the EU and NATO mean less in the 21st century than the new commercial ties it has established with nominally “Western” companies, such as BP, Exxon, Mercedes, and BASF. Meanwhile, many Western countries welcome corrupt financial flows from the post-Soviet space; it is part of their economic models, and not one many want disturbed. So far, the Kremlin’s gamble seems to be paying off, with financial considerations helping to curb sanctions. Part of the rationale for fast-tracking Russia’s inclusion into the global economy was that interconnection would be a check on aggression. But the Kremlin has figured out that this can be flipped: Interconnection also means that Russia can get away with aggression.

Speaking of the European order, Max Fisher passes along the satirical map seen above, which he says is actually pretty accurate:

Ukraine is divided between the “Old New Russia” east, where Russia is backing the pro-Moscow separatists, and the “Eurofascists” west, the pro-European government of which has been portrayed by Russian media as a crypto-fascist conspiracy. The Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are labeled “Nervous?” in reference to fears that Russia might invade there next; they were formerly part of the Soviet Union and still have significant ethnic Russian populations. And Poland is labeled “drama queens” as a play on the pro-European government’s tough rhetoric on Russia’s recent aggression.

There’s more good stuff going on in this map. Cyprus (the island nation south of Turkey, in the eastern Mediterranean) is labeled “Piggy-Bank” because the country is a huge offshore banking haven for Russians. The Russian city labeled “Sankt Putinburg” is Sochi, location of the recent winter Olympics. Georgia is labeled “SHH!” in reference to the country’s disastrous 2008 war with Russia — the little country is also portrayed with some of its breakaway territories as part of Russia.

Evaluating the West’s response thus far, James Goldgeier and Andrew Weiss conclude that a different approach is needed:

Isolating Russia politically and economically was an important step in the immediate aftermath of the annexation of Crimea to make clear to Putin that his actions were unwarranted, illegal, and strongly opposed by the international community. But our paramount goal now has to be different—saving Ukraine as a country. If Kiev cannot hope to hold meaningful elections on May 25 or reassert control over key parts of the country, what can the West do?

First and foremost, we need to find a way to get beyond the West versus Russia narrative. The sad truth is that neither side in this geopolitical tug of war is going to be able secure its goals all by itself or without serious bloodshed. Any attempt to “win” Ukraine will almost certainly lead to the country’s collapse and de facto partition.

What Ukraine really needs is an Afghan-style loya jirga, a grand assembly, ideally under the auspices of the United Nations or Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), with the full backing of all outside powers. Participation in the loya jirga by representatives of all political, regional, and economic stakeholders from inside Ukraine would have to be mandatory.

The Bloomberg editors, on the other hand, want tougher sanctions now now now:

The events in Odessa also give the lie to Merkel’s argument, in her joint news conference with Obama last week, that it’s fine to wait to impose broader, so-called stage-three sanctions to see whether or not Ukraine stabilizes in time to hold elections. May 25, she said, was “not all that far away.” In fact, it’s hard to imagine a legitimate election being conducted in eastern Ukraine today, let alone after the turmoil is given three weeks to worsen, failing determined intervention from both Russia and the West to pull the two sides back.

Only Merkel can make Putin believe in the threat of comprehensive economic sanctions, and Germany’s push since Friday for another round of talks in Geneva, after the abject failure of the last, makes sense only if that threat is imminent, detailed and on the table. This is the West’s chosen tool for influencing Putin, and it must be used now if it is to be used at all.

Previous Dish on Putin’s novel approach to conflict here and here, and on his worldview here.