Saturday, March 1, 2014

Hard to keep up

Events in Ukraine and, especially, in Crimea have been developing too fast for anyone to keep up except as a live blog, which I am in no position to do. It would appear that few people are even when they say they are live blogging.

So, here are a few thoughts and a few links:

Firstly, I think putting out the bunting for Ukraine the new democracy of Europe is a little premature. We have no real idea what the government is going to be like and who the President will be. Let me remind all my readers of the last successful Ukrainian democratic revolution, the Orange one around a decade ago. For the time being there is no particular reason to suppose that this one will fare any better than that one. Of course, it might, but we need to be a little wary and, above all, less demonstrative with our offers of cash for unknown purposes. Nor must we forget that among the many disparate opposition groups there are some very nasty ones and, at this stage, we do not know how much power or influence they will have. As to the latest heroine, Yuliya Tymoshenko, she is not an unknown quantity and was not a huge success in any way in her last reincarnation as a politician. In fact, as Edward Lucas points out, she was ruthless but incompetent and corrupt.

Secondly, Crimea, the most recent addition to Ukrainian territory. Through some whim of Khrushchev's Crimea was attached to Ukraine in 1954 (the second latest addition is western Ukraine or eastern Poland, which was added to the country in 1939 and, more definitively, 1944). It is majority Russian in population though there is the complication of the Crimean Tatars, deported by Stalin in 1944 and gradually and grudgingly allowed back in the eighties. They appear to be pro-Ukrainian though it is not at all clear how most of the peninsula's population feels on the subject. There is also a Russian naval base there and one of the accusations levelled at Russia by the acting Ukrainian President is that sailors and officers have been taking part in illegal military activity in various cities, thus breaking previous agreements about their behaviour.

For anyone who is interested in the background, bearing in mind that Crimea has been a bone of contention between Russia and Ukraine since the collapse of the Soviet Union, here is a lengthy analysis by the Taras Kuzio, an expert on Ukraine, published in 2010. It has been suggested to me that the people of Crimea might not want to stay in Ukraine especially if some of the nastier elements of the opposition take over (unlike the nastier elements of Yanukovich's government). That is not impossible but why send in armed goons or organize some local ones to take over various important buildings in that case.

Who the armed goons are precisely still seems a little vague what with them wearing unarmed uniforms and coming up with different stories (this might clear up by the morning) but the idea that the Russian government is not involved at some level is very unlikely.

That leaves two questions: what on earth does Putin think he is doing and what on earth can the West do? The second question also includes such sub-headings as "did no-one (apart from Sarah Palin) anywhere near the top in politics think that something along these lines might happen? Apparently not, as there seem to be no plans at all and I do not think President Obama's vague threats show any planning. Before we go any further, let me announce quite categorically that I do not think we, any of us should consider going to war with Russia. But is there anything we can do? Well, yes, as it happens there is but I doubt we shall.

We can push Russia out of the G8 and return to it being G7. Oddly enough, that would hurt. Also, as several people have suggested, we should impose personal sanctions on various members of the Russian elite: no more visas, no more property buying in Britain or the United States, no more shopping in the West, no more places for their offspring in our boarding schools, which can probably survive without them. Other ideas will occur as we go along.

As to Putin's actions, I can only surmise that he really has gone off the rocker. Russia is in no condition to wage a war against Ukraine and what good would come of it, in any case? Even detaching Crimea and annexing it to Russia is fraught with future problems for Russia and it state. Timothy Snyder is well worth reading on the subject. Among other things he points out that it is Russian foreign policy that turned what was going to be a temporary demonstration into a full scale riot and, if not a revolution precisely, certainly an upheaval and a loss of a good ally in the shape of Yanukovich. (Mind you, I think Yanukovich's own stupidity did not help there.)

There is more.
If Russia excludes its own borders from the general international standard of inviolability, it might face some unwanted challenges down the road. If Russia's external frontiers are flexible zones, to be pushed in various ways with appeals to the rights of ethnic brethren and passport holders, then what will happen, down the line, in Russia's eastern Siberia? There, Russia holds major natural resources along its border with China, the world's longest. Some 6 million Russian citizens in eastern Siberia face 90 million Chinese in China's bordering provinces.

Beijing pays attention to Ukraine because it has a major stake in Ukrainian agricultural territories. It will likely note the developing Russian doctrine on the flexibility of Russia's external borders. China also has a stake in eastern Siberia. It needs fresh water, hydrocarbons, mineral resources such as copper and zinc, and fertile soil for its farmers. The Chinese economic relationship with eastern Siberia is a colonial one: China buys raw materials and sells finished goods. Beijing actually invests more in eastern Siberia than does Moscow. No one knows the exact number of Chinese citizens in eastern Siberia -- in part because the last Russian census declined to count them -- but it certainly dwarfs the number of Russians in Crimea, and is expected by Russian analysts to increase significantly with time.
In general, one would say that moving around borders is not a good idea unless you have worked out a number of steps ahead. The Russians are always described as chess players and many of them are but it does not appear that Vlad and his friends have looked at the board too carefully.

That is as far as one can go at the moment.

1 comment:

  1. Helen, nice work here and well worth the wait. It seems like Mad Vlad is so stuck in the later cold war years that it has clouded his thinking. He is inviting brush fires all along the border with Ukraine and you can bet the Chechen rebels are waiting for their moment to cause him trouble. His border in Siberia with China can easily see the same thing. His mental picture of the "glory" of the USSR must have a full orchestra just off camera playing patriotic songs.