The Cool War Cometh*
By Sol W Sanders
Sunday, March 2nd, 2014 @ 11:57PM
No, Russian President Vladimir Putin has not ushered in the return to The Cold War with his assault on the integrity of Ukraine. But he has confirmed that the United States and his Russian regime–very likely as long as he lasts–is engaged in a bitter new geopolitical contest. The Obama Administration–and its predecessor Bush II–had refused to acknowledge the onset of this conflict. Washington now finds itself wrong-footed in Ukraine, a crowning blow to an already growing perception of U.S. foreign policy failure and general retreat across a worldwide screen. That’s leading to a replay of old rivalries, if on a more temperate scale.
But the situations of both countries–especially Russia–has changed dramatically in the almost three decades since the Soviet Union imploded. But its hold on Germany and the rest of Central and Eastern Europe under Communist domination is gone if not forgotten. Moscow retains a huge nuclear arsenal and missile delivery systems that make it one of the world’s greatest potential purveyors of weapons of mass destruction. But there are multiple signs that the overinvestment in the Soviet military-industrial complex on which post-Soviet Russia has been coasting is about played out. Putin’s repeated effort to rebuild Russia’s limping conventional military has largely failed. And his economy, while rewarding a new urban class, still cannot cope with a collapsed agriculture and an almost total dependence on fossil fuel exports is eroding rapidly under the impact of the American shale gas revolution
Still, Putin certainly has won the first battle in the war for the future of Ukraine, an important East European country with its population of 45 million and considerable undeveloped resources–for example, it was once the breadbasket of the Soviet Union with its famous black soil belt. But more than any other region in the USSR, Ukraine took a beating from the Communist regime for most of the 20th century–oppression and mismanagement to the point of repeated famine. It also suffered disproportionately from the Nazi onslaught in World War II and the Holocaust– after Poland a great part of Europe’s six million Jews lived in Ukraine and were a significant part of its entrepreneurial class.
The post-Soviet regime has suffered all the ills of a newly independent, only partially industrialized state including outrageous corruption among its leadership. (The guess is that Putin’s proffered $13 billion loan to the Viktor F. Yanukovych just about covered what the afrocked president had swindled away to foreign banks and investments, short of the gold plated plumbing fixtures in his palatial Kiev home.]
The whole question of Ukrainian identity, itself, often disputed before and after the fall of the Russian Empire and the Communist era, is probably moving toward a crescendo. The academic arguments over whether a separate Ukrainian nationality existed during its centuries-long close relationship with the Great Russians is irrelevant. (Just as in the case of Algeria or Palestine, once invented and politicized, the identities took on life. As late as World War II, for example, “Palestine” referred to Jews and Jewish institutions in the British Holy Land League of Nations Mandate.) Ukrainian nationalism is now the most powerful weapon in any struggle by the West to maintain any vestige of its independence and promote economic progress, even if there is danger of excesses from some of its advocates on the right.
That nationalism reaches full bloom in the western reaches of the country, where Ukraine’s small (5 percent) but potent Roman Catholic community lives (with its ties to Ukrainian Americans). It is significant that while Ukraine has suffered the same catastrophic demographic decline as other former Soviet Slav areas, the western reaches, mostly rural, has among the highest birthrates in Europe. And if current trends continue, they–and not the dilapidated industrial areas in Eastern Ukraine along the Don River where Russian ethnics and pro-Russian sentiment predominates–are likely to dominate any future Ukrainian state.
That’s of course if its integrity can be preserved. One of Putin’s options, presumably, would be to try to detach the ethnic Russian areas in the east in a Russian satellite–or even annex them as the Russian parliament hinted last week. (Moscow has successfully used old salami tactics with the sliver of Trans-Dniestr to blackmail Romanian-speaking Moldova, keeping it from rejoining Romania where it was pre-World War II). One suspects that Putin, having bamboozled President Barack Obama on Syria, Iran, and now Ukraine, will play his options by ear. Listening to the Soviet–oops! Russian–UN Security Council delegate, one has proof that whatever else the Russians have lost of their Soviet glory, the old Communist agit-prop techniques are still held in high esteem and practiced with skill.
Staring bankruptcy in the face, the current pro-Western Kiev interim government is putting up a fight to fend off Putin’s domination–even if he does not move beyond his military action in the Crimean peninsula, where Moscow had base rights among a ethnic Russian population. (Interestingly enough, there is some evidence from on-the-spot interviewers that sympathy for affiliations with the EU and the West are strong even there, simply because of the economic pull compared with affiliation to a stagnant Russian economy.) If worse comes to worse, and Putin does go on the warpath, it is not clear his still largely conventional forces would do better in Ukraine than they did when they stumbled into Georgia in 2008 snatching off two provinces while a befuddled West watched after promising Tiflis NATO membership.
Among the many ironies of the situation, few recall that a newly independent Ukraine in June 1996 shipped its last 9,000 nuclear warheads to Russia for dismantling under joint Moscow-Washington auspices. Furthermore, it was dictated by the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, signed by the United States of America, Russia, and the United Kingdom, pledging Ukraine territorial integrity. That’s why if the Obama Administration fails to rescue some face-saving remnant from this present debacle for the West’s strategy, it will impact the whole structure of American treaty arrangements all around the world.
Sorting all this out will not be easy, even under the best of circumstances. The announced 90-minute conversation between Obama and Putin this past weekend is not comforting, nor was the U.S. President’s absence from an announced conclave of his security officials to discuss Ukraine about the same time. Remembering that live-mike reference by Obama to how he would have “more flexibility” after the elections when in March 2012 in Seoul he met former Russian president (now prime minister) Dmitry Medvedev , one can only assume a compromise was being hatched despite the tough U.S. rhetoric at the UN. But with the history of Obama’s international deal-making, neither the Ukrainians nor the free world can take encouragement about the cause of longer-term world peace and stability.
The Ukrainians do have cards to play. Despite the corrupt deal by former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder to help Russian Gazprom in its effort to take over European gas markets by skirting the Baltic states and running a pipeline down the Baltic Sea from St. Petersburg to Germany, more than 40 percent of Russia’s natural gas sales to Western Europe go through Ukraine. Unfortunately, until Shell or Chevron, both looking for shale gas in western Ukraine, strike, Ukraine is dependent on Moscow for its own energy at whatever price they can make, which in the past has included filling officialdom’s pockets. But Gazprom’s recent 10-percent discount to the Europeans suggests the impending pressure high-cost producer Russia will feel not only from U.S. shale developments and coming LNG exports but also new sources of Central Asian gas reaching Western markets through Turkey, and even the new exports from Israel already arriving in its neighbor Jordan.
What the Ukrainians need right now, of course, is economic aid–some estimates put it at about $53 billion immediately, possibly to come from the EU, the U.S. and the IMF. (A million here, a million there, and pretty soon, you are talking about real money, as a Texas politician in Washington once said: the Greek rescue so far has been something like $150 billion and still counting.) It was in fact, what Kiev viewed as less than a generous EU offers for an associate membership that touched off this current crisis, giving Yanukovych an excuse to turn to Putin. That in turn brought on peaceful street demonstrations, which the former president answered with repression and secret police tactics, and some of the dissidents then responded with Molotov cocktails. The rest is history.
Putin now holds virtually a royal flush. He may settle for a relatively small deal with Obama now–why not, since as in other venues, he has welshed? Or he may be tempted to go for broke, what with his growing economic–and perhaps–political difficulties, as American future fossil fuel exports to Europe and China dim his own export prospects.
At stake for Putin is his campaign to return Russia to former Soviet glory on the world stage. The first necessity for that is a return of Russian hegemony in the “near abroad”, the former Soviet “republics”, not least the oil and resources of the central Asian, Siberian and Far East regions where the Chinese increasingly are competing for influence. But if Obama again “leads from behind”, Putin may well get all he needs for the moment in Ukraine, without firing a shot,
But in any outcome of the current Ukraine crisis, there is little doubt the new Cool War will continue.
* A version of this column will be published at http://yeoldecrabb.com/ on Monday, March 3, 2014.