Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Cri Me A River

  “When all is said and done, more is said than done.” – Lou Holtz

  It’s been a rough couple of months for the Ukraine although to be more accurate it could be said it’s been a rough couple of millennia for the country located in a no-man’s land between Europe and Russia whose fertile soil and lack of natural protective borders have long made it an attractive target and way station for invaders. Ukraine has been overrun time after time in its history. Mongols, Cossacks, Poland, Lithuania and Russia have all had turns conquering the Ukraine in prior centuries and Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union have had their turns in the 1900’s. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine became an independent nation in 1990.

  Over the last 25 years, Ukraine has been forging closer ties with the European Union and flirting with the idea of joining NATO. The last few times the flirting threatened to blossom into a romance, Russia asserted its influence by emphasizing Ukraine’s dependence on Russia for its energy needs in general and natural gas in particular. Ukraine is heavily dependent on Russia for its energy needs. It imports almost all its oil and natural gas as well as most of the nuclear fuel for its 16 nuclear power plants (not counting the disastrous Chernobyl facility that suffered a meltdown in 1986). In 2006 and 2009, Russia cut off natural gas supplies to Ukraine over price and repayment disputes. This affected the rest of Europe since 20 percent of all their natural gas is supplied by Russia through pipelines that pass through Ukrainian territory.

  In 2013 Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was ready to sign a trade pact with the European Union that would have brought $870 Million in duty fee reductions and even release his political rival Yulia Tymoshenko from the type of prison that all political opposition leaders tend to reside in that part of the world while they are in the opposition. Russia came up with an offer to buy $15 Billion of Ukrainian debt and offer a 33% discount on natural gas if Ukraine signed an agreement with Russia as opposed to the EU and the threat of significant natural gas increases if the offer wasn’t accepted.

  Yanukovych signed the Russian agreement which sparked protests throughout Ukraine and the government reacted by passing an anti-protest law. This led to bloody protests and riots which caused Yanukovych to flee Ukraine for Russia. A new government has been formed in the Ukraine and Russia reacted by annexing and invading the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea using as a rationale the need to protect the Russian population and a hastily held vote which was overwhelmingly in favor of secession from Ukraine and joining Moscow. Crimea was ceded from Russia to Ukraine in 1954 and Russia has had a military presence there for over 200 years. The base on the Black Sea is Russia’s route to the Mediterranean Sea.

  The United States and the European Union are trying to show they have a handle on the situation, but have been reduced to symbolic gestures like not holding a group meeting in Russia later this year and imposing travel restrictions and asset freezes on selected Russian and Crimea officials. Even these symbolic sanctions are more than what followed Russia’s 2008 invasion of their former client state of Georgia which was met by then President George W. Bush’s administration warning of deterioration in the two countries relationship and hinting at more severe consequences.

  I have no idea who is right and who is wrong in the Russian-Ukrainian-Crimean situation. I don’t think much of the ‘instant’ vote of Crimea to secede from the union and the invasion on the pretext of ‘protecting Russian citizens and Russian speakers’, which sounds eerily similar to Nazi Germany’s rationale for taking over Czechoslovakia and Austria before World War II. On the other hand, the protests or riots that led to a new Ukrainian government seem a lot like a coup and makes a respectable rationale for Russia to invade in order to secure its naval base.

  The US and Europe are saying all the right things but what will happen if Russia decides to similarly invade Estonia, Lithuania, or Latvia? Like the Ukraine, all three countries have a sizable Russian population but unlike the Ukraine, all three countries are members of NATO which theoretically obliges all the member countries to defend any member that is attacked. Vice President Biden was in Lithuania last week and said “The president wanted me to come personally to make it clear what you already know that under Article 5 under the NATO treaty, we will respond. We will respond to any aggression against a NATO ally." Biden didn’t say the United States would respond militarily - just that they would respond.

  Could this be the start of World War III? I don’t think so. I think it more likely a carving up of territories and a state of perpetual military tension along the lines of the George Orwell classic Nineteen Eighty-Four where Oceania, EastAsia, and EurAsia are in constant war with one, the other, or both. The United States and Europe effected regime change in Libya and helped with one in Egypt (and stood idly by as a second regime change in Egypt brought a more palatable result) with no Russian interference and were well on the way to doing the same in Syria until the Russians pushed back. Now it seems to be the Russians turn to grab bits and pieces for their empire. Will this show of Russian military might provide a reason for the Western nations to further beef up their defense budgets and continue the spying or data collection of internet and email and cell phone communications for the ‘greater good’ now that the threat of militant Islamic terrorism has faded enough into the background to create a demand for a scaled back military and less tolerance for spying? Sometimes I think Orwell was the 20th century Nostradamus.

  Russian President Vladimir Putin was mocked by the Western press and his country painted as ‘backwards’ and ‘unenlightened’ during the recent Sochi Olympics for he and his country’s anti-homosexual views but in this case Russian President Putin tried things the ‘Western’ way by offering a valued trading partner a large financial incentive to keep them in the fold. I don’t see his 15 billion dollar offer to Ukraine much different than the 2 billion dollar public works project Republican Senator McConnell received for his home state of Kentucky in return for using his influence to deliver enough votes to break the government shutdown and raise the debt ceiling last year. The big difference is that while the people of Kentucky seem to have no issue with their Senator trading his influence in return for some pork for their state, the Ukrainian people rioted against their leader taking the biggest offer on the table.