Friday, December 10, 2004

What is the US doing in Ukraine ?

The usually prescient Robert Kagan published an interesting piece in Sunday's Washington Post. Mr. Kagan argues that the cooperation of the US and EU in the recent Ukrainian election imbroglio constitutes "one of those rare hinges of history whenlooming disaster was turned into glittering opportunity." Unfortunately, Mr. Kagan is carried away by his enthusiasm for this "flagrant act of transatlantic cooperation" and allows his faith in a "postmodern" era dominated by soft power to blind him to the very real disadvantages the present US policy toward the EU and Russia in general and the Ukraine in particular is courting in the realm of old fashioned hard power.

Mr. Kagan's article demonstrates yet again that the great limitation of logic is that logical conclusions are only as strong as their underlying premises - and some of Mr. Kagan's premises are extremely suspect. According to Mr. Kagan, Europe is "...not a global player in the traditional geopolitical sense of projecting power and influence far beyond its borders. Few Europeans even aspire to such a role."

Of course they do not, at present, because the EU, like America prior to 1914, is effectively a free-rider, with defense of its worldwide interests currently subsidized by the United States just as defense of US interests was effectively subsidized by Britain prior to 1914. Why would Europe be interested in projecting geopolitical power, if it can avoid it ? Armies and fleets are expensive. But the US can no longer afford, and will increasingly be unwilling to carry the burden for the Europeans. If Europe is interested in survival, then like it or not, it is going to rejoin the "traditional" geopolitical game, and it will probably do so in ways that the United States will not appreciate.

Kagan himself points to one of the reasons the peaceable European kingdom will not continue, namely the "...unruly tangle of potentially catastrophic problems" on Europe's borders, an "arc of crisis if ever there was one." This arc of crisis will interact with another geopolitical fact -- the collision between US and European economic and geopolitical interests in the Middle East and elsewhere.

The European political resistance from 2002 through the present to the deposition of Saddam Hussein and the replacement of the Baath regime in Iraq, as well as the steady trickle of revelations concerning the benefits the European powers (particularly France) extracted from Saddam under the UN’s Oil-for-Food should make clear that European and American geopolitical interests are rapidly diverging. America and Europe increasingly covet access to the same mineral resources and will have increasingly different views over, inter alia, military power, economic resources, access to capital, debt and how much to accommodate Muslim fundamentalism.

All of the above means that Europe and its constituent states, (particularly Germany and France) will develop their own military capability, that this will happen sooner rather than later, and will be deployed in ways that will cause us concern. Under these circumstances, stability on the EU’s eastern borders means that more European attention may be devoted to pursuing differences with the United States. It follows that such stability (at least, stability in Europe’s favor) is not necessarily to the interest of the United States.

These considerations should be kept in mind when considering the unfolding drama in the Ukraine. As El Jefe has said elsewhere, we should view the difficulties of Ukrainian democrats with sympathy. However, geopolitically speaking, there are ample reasons not to throw the weight of the United States behind any of the various factions vying for power in Kiev.

We have heard plenty about what is at stake for Ukraine. But have we adequately considered the situation from the Russians’ point of view ? It’s 475 miles from Kiev to Moscow – 300 from the Ukrainian border to Moscow. (Houston to New Orleans is about 320, Houston to Pensacola, 489). Just imagine how Americans would feel if the United States had lost the whole Pacific Northwest within the last fifteen years and then had to suffer the Russians telling them they felt the anti-US party in a Pacific Northwest election was more democratic. This is pretty much where the Russians are today.

Do you begin to see why the Russians are concerned ? Keep thinking. If the more anti-Russian, pro-Western party in Ukraine -- Viktor Yushchenko’s -- wins the just announced new election, Ukraine will clearly become more pro-European Union. It’s possible that Ukraine, oriented in such a way, could be invited to join NATO. Certainly, the Ukrainians would want to be under the NATO umbrella, to better prevent Russian meddling in future elections. And yes, El Jefe knows there is “no way” Ukraine would join NATO – just like there was “no way” the Warsaw Pact would collapse; “no way” the Soviet Union would collapse; and, more importantly from the Russians point of view “no way” the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) would join NATO. The Russians were given assurances on this last point – but assurances/smurances, here we are, and Stalin’s little stolen Balts of 1940 are now in NATO. (Tallinn, Estonia to St. Petersburg, 215 miles).

Speaking of “no way,” there is no way the Russian security establishment can be convinced a hostile Ukraine is not a dire and mortal threat to their country. Should they be convinced otherwise ? As pointed out above, if Yushchenko wins the new election that’s coming, the odds are pretty fair that Ukraine winds up in NATO. If that happens, German panzers could be legally sitting within 300 miles of Moscow. Nobody in Russia has forgotten the last time that happened. Sixteen million Russian dead in the “Great Patriotic War” started by a surprise attack from a country that was supposedly a friend and quasi-ally. Are the Russians that wrong to be suspicious, or bending over backwards to see that a pro-Russian faction wins the election ?

Going back to my analogy above, if the US was where Russia is today, perhaps the US would have to be quiet, and take its lumps, but if I were a citizen of the US in that position, or of a Russia now watching foreigners settle affairs on its borders, I would certainly hope that at some day or time in the future, my government could and would do what was necessary to reverse that situation. This leads straight to trouble: the necessity of submitting to such humiliations, however necessary in the short run, gives fanatic nationalists their audience in the long run. (Hitler, Tojo, Mussolini...)

In any case, no Russian government, to the extent it can avoid doing so, is going to sit still for having Ukraine jerked permanently and completely out of the Russian orbit. The Russians are not helpless, but since the national game is chess, the immediate response may be indirect. The Russians can make plenty of trouble for the US in central Asia, in Afghanistan, in Iran (helping the mullahs get their nuke ?) and in Iraq. (See El Jefe’s Tuesday post on Putin’s statements on the Iraq election).

There is another possibility. The last time the Russians felt cornered and alone, they made themselves a temporary pact with the Devil – the Hitler/Stalin Pact of 1940. This freed the Germans to concentrate on fighting the western powers. Of course, this later left Hitler free to attack the Russians as soon as his hands were free in the west.
If the Russians truly feel there is no stopping the Europeans from consolidating their position in Eastern Europe, perhaps the Russians will try to put together some (hopefully for them) more successful variant of the 1940 deal. The Russians may well try to achieve some kind of free-trade/resource/mutual defense pact with the EU. The US will love that – because the EU will then be free to pursue its quarrels with the Americans without problems on its eastern flank. We will be alone in the world, sandwiched between powerful rivals in Europe and China, with the doubtful help of Japan and India.

El Jefe thinks the Americans need to work with Russia. There are so many places where US and Russian interests coincide: Islamic terrorism, peace and quiet in Afghanistan, keeping the EU from becoming too strong, giving China something to pay attention to besides getting rich at our mutual expense, tamping down nuclear proliferation. American capital and Russian resources could lead to mutually beneficial economic relations – and this would be better in the long run for the Russians than arrangements with Europe, simply because the Americans will have more of an interest in a powerful and independent Russia then the EU is likely to have.

Don’t get El Jefe wrong. El Jefe is a red-stater, card-carrying conservative. El Jefe hasn't been smoking liberal weed, and is not going mushy. What bothers El Jefe is his impression that nobody in Washington or the American press, in the midst of bleating about free and fair elections, appears to be even THINKING about these considerations.
Part of this is left-over Cold War inertia – the foreign policy establishment both wants to and is used to working with Europeans; and the Republican portion of that establishment is reflexively hostile to Russia. Also, it probably does not help that the American foreign policy apparatus is without a clear leader: Secretary of State Powell is leaving, and Condelezza Rice has not yet assumed control. Truly however, this is not much of an excuse, because this situation is so critically important, probably more so even than the struggle with Al Qaeda. Osama Bin Laden will be captured or killed and, one way or another, the Middle East is going to be put in order, possibly sooner than we imagine. But the geopolitical direction of these great political units: the EU, the US and Russia, is going to affect the balance of power in the world and everything else on this planet for generations.

To conclude, El Jefe thinks the present American policy towards Russia, especially over Ukraine and the “near abroad” is LUNACY. Instead of antagonizing the Russians, the US desperately needs to find ways to work with Moscow, or at least to back off.


Rose said...

Not bad. I haven't paid much attention to the Ukraine elections beside the slant I hear on NPR some mornings.
Not a bad thing to disagree with our party either. After all, this is a democracy! There is always the popular fear of letting Russia get what they want. Who knows what else they are seeing that we don't?

MerryMadMonk said...


The Russians are a proud people, but then so are the Ukrainians. Of course, Ukraine is only now finding itself after years of being subjugated to the Soviets. So you have that dynamic. Life was pretty miserable for them under Soviet rule. They look at the United States and of course they would rather hitch a ride with us, so to speak -- at least that's the sentiment in the Western part of the country.

Having said that, your point about Russia and her borders cannot be overstated. This point is especially sharp when one considers that the "Red Army", despite our improved military relations, is keenly wary of NATO expansion. There's also the Black Sea fleet and their access to warm waters to consider. Would Ukraine, as a NATO member, continue to grant access?

Putin overpromised when he vowed to rapidly return Russia to its previous greatness, but that's what won him the backing of the Red Army and he can't govern without their continued support. They haven't liked it a bit playing second fiddle to the USA. Sort of a chip on the shoulder about us being the "lone superpower". So they're going to hold Putin to his promise or find someone who will take them there. So far, he has maintained their confidence.

From the perspective of some Russian military brass, the USA and Russia have another common enemy besides Islamofascists (and potentially the EU): China. They'll tell you this in private every chance they get. So they get pretty agitated when we seem to undercut them on Chechnya or Ukraine. Of course, they pissed in our canteen cup over the 2002 UN vote on Iraq -- but they'll swear it's because we pissed in theirs first.

Still aways to go in the trust department.

While Putin and President Bush seem to have a genuinely warm relationship, post-12/26/04 Ukraine could be a very bumpy road. I hope they can keep it between the ditches.

It's always a delight to find a blog such as yours. Thanks for stopping by mine.

I'll be back.