Thursday, December 19, 2013

A Country, and Not a Road

Stratfor has a good piece on the tug of war over Ukraine, which literally means "on the edge." I find it interesting that George Friedman's focus on the primacy of geopolitics is curtailed by his trust in Putin's intentions toward Ukraine.

Yes, Russia has a security interest in making sure no hostile power controls flat Ukraine:

For Russia, Ukraine is a matter of fundamental national security. For a Western power, Ukraine is of value only if that power is planning to engage and defeat Russia, as the Germans tried to do in World War II. At the moment, given that no one in Europe or in the United States is thinking of engaging Russia militarily, Ukraine is not an essential asset. But from the Russian point of view it is fundamental, regardless of what anyone is thinking of at the moment. In 1932, Germany was a basket case; by 1941, it had conquered the European continent and was deep into Russia. One thing the Russians have learned in a long and painful history is to never plan based on what others are capable of doing or thinking at the moment. And given that, the future of Ukraine is never a casual matter for them.

I think we have an interest in keeping Russia as far from Western Europe and as isolated from the Mediterranean Sea as possible (do we not have enough problems in that region?). And just denying Russia a potential economic asset is important given their paranoia about our intentions.

Note, too, that Hitler and Napoleon invaded Russia without owning Ukraine first. Might not a Russia firmly established in the Ukraine want to keep moving west and south? Just saying.

Not to mention the simple decency of wishing the Ukrainians a better future than being a province of Moscow.

But more to the point, I'm to believe Russia's security interest is limited in practice?

The Russians are not, I think, trying to recreate the Russian empire. They want a sphere of influence, which is a very different thing. They do not want responsibility for Ukraine or other countries. They see that responsibility as having sapped Russian power. What they want is a sufficient degree of control over Ukraine to guarantee that potentially hostile forces don't gain control, particularly NATO or any follow-on entities. The Russians are content to allow Ukraine its internal sovereignty, so long as Ukraine does not become a threat to Russia and so long as gas pipelines running through Ukraine are under Russian control.

Really? Russian paranoia is so easily sated?

Ukraine can't join NATO under NATO's rules (Russia retains bases in Ukraine, something forbidden to NATO states) and Europe without America is no military threat--joining the EU pretty much is neutralizing Ukraine as a military threat to Russia.

I can believe that at this moment, Russia does not want to own Ukraine. But that is only because that objective is so far off that they can't imagine it. Right now, the negative objective--keeping Ukraine out of the "hostile" (in their minds) West.

But if Russia gets their negative objective of a Ukraine not anchored in the West, Russian geopolitical interests and a long-held feeling that a failure to control risks a hostile Ukraine (and look at all the Russian provinces and allies who ran the moment they had the chance, as proof of this to the Russians) will lead Russia to raise their objectives.

Say, what did Putin do to Russia's provinces--twice!--when he had the chance?

President Vladimir V. Putin signed a law on Tuesday that could roll back a reform pushed by his predecessor allowing the direct election of regional governors. The new law allows regional legislatures to forgo elections and appoint governors from a list of candidates approved by Mr. Putin. He abolished direct elections for governors in 2004, during his second term as president, but President Dmitri A. Medvedev pushed a law through Parliament last year to restore them in what was seen as a major concession to a growing political opposition movement. Mr. Putin, now serving his third term as president, has said that the new law is needed to protect minorities in regions where elections could be combustible. Critics said the law would allow the pro-Kremlin United Russia Party to avoid election defeats by using its control of regional legislatures to bypass popular voting. The law was the latest unwinding of Mr. Medvedev’s initiatives since Mr. Putin returned to the presidency.


And say, what about Abkhazia and South Ossetia? Surely, they aren't a great drain on Russian finances. But just what security enhancement did their 2008 conquest (technically they have independence) provide Russia?

Ukraine is "a matter of fundamental national security" for Russia, after all. Why would Russia start the process of neutralizing the perceived threat from or through Ukraine, yet halt momentum to achieve total control? Belarus seems further down this road, no?

Fine. Russia has long-standing security interests in Ukraine. But why should that constrain Ukraine if they want to live on the edge looking east from within a flawed European Union rather than returning to the edge of the east within an authoritarian Russia, looking west?

Ukraine is a nation, and not a road, after all.