Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Ukraine: It’s the only news story this week [update 2]

There’s only one real news story this week, and it’s not the bumblings of David Cunliffe or the trial of a South African sprinter.

The only story that matters is what Russia is doing in to the Ukraine, and what western “leaders” are doing in response.

Not that any of them are obliged to respond. Few, if any, have any directly selfish reason for responding at all – but their reactions, or lack of them, betray the weakness that Putin obviously thought he could exploit.

The weakness is everywhere, from David Cameron’s message that if this continues, he will set the IMF on Ukraine; to John Key’s, that if it carries on he will stop NZers selling Russians trees; to the weakest and most bathetic of them all, John Kerry’s dangerous plaint (made direct from Kiev, thereby putting a US secretary of state in a firing line his commander in chief is unprepared to defend) that Putin’s aggression is like something out of the 19th century, not the 21st.

Nice try, John.

Message to John, and to everyone else who thinks simply wishing for peace will deliver it: telling someone their behaviour is ‘inappropriate’ might stop that behaviour in the kindergarten sandpit or university common room, but as Putin has demonstrated in the real world, sometimes aggressors just want to aggress. (And, note to everyone wrongly assuming America is always the world’s hegemonic aggressor: not every world aggressor is American. And America’s recent embarrassments in Syria, Benghazi and with Iran et al have demonstrated to aggressors everywhere that if aggression is begun then the US will probably do nothing about it.)

So what does Putin hope to achieve by exploiting the west’s weakness? What’s his motive? Not wanting to sound like Hilary Clinton here, but what does it matter. It could be gas. It could be control of a pipeline to Europe allowing him to tweak Europeans’ smugness towards Russia. Or, as many have surmised, it could just be the old imperialism that “great leaders” have always thought makes their country and their leadership “great”: the pursuit of Empire.

An old saying is that Russia without Ukraine is a country, but Russia with Ukraine is an Empire. But Russia already had influence in Ukraine, and had effective control of Crimea.  As Richard Cohen points out, his aggression is likely to turn Ukrainians away from the Russian Bear, not towards it.

Putin has badly played his hand [says Cohen]. He lost his influence in much of Ukraine and won, really, what he already effectively had -- Crimea… It was an easy [conquest]-- followed, as it will be with Putin's, by a lifetime of anguish.

And as Britain discovered with its own Empire (and Japan discovered in its attempt to build one of its own), in an age of free trade you don’t need conquest and killing to get others resources, you simply need trade and the ability to deliver your own produce as payment.

So Putin’s motive is probably just self-destructive self-aggrandisement. He wants to be seen to have an Empire even if his actual influence there is weakened thereby.  And western weakness let him think it would be any easy win.

The likes of Putin (and Assad, and the mullahs, and Kim Il Sung) can sniff weakness – and since the backdown in Syria, the disgrace in Benghazi, the giveaways in the Iranian and North Korean negotiations, the failure to back protest in Iran, the bumbling over the ‘Arab Spring,’ and umpty-tum other signs of direction-free cowardice, the stench is easy enough to detect. As you’d think western leaders might have learned from Alsace-Lorraine, the Saar, the Sudetenland, and even from the American ambassador’s easy conversational giveaway of Kuwait to Saddam Hussein1, the uncomfortable truth is that firmness in response to small aggressions is a message to those contemplating bigger aggression not to start.

That’s the real reason for a decent defence. Not because you want warfare, but because you don’t. It’s the willingness to defend that nips many plans of aggression in the bud before they start – and the admission you won’t that encourages them.

Look more closely for example at John Kerry’s latest windy response to Putin thumbing his nose at every diplomatic nostrum of modern life:

“The Russian government would have you believe that Russian actions are legitimate,” says Kerry

The Russian government cares no more now for legitimacy than they did in 1968 when Khrushchev sent tanks into  Prague on the pretext of some hockey riots, or in 2008 when they rolled into Georgia on the pretext of protecting ethnic Russians. (Sound familiar?2)

“The larger point is that diplomacy, not force, can solve disputes like this in the 21st century,” says Kerry.

Yet as Putin is aware, if no-one else is, every dispute this century has shown if anything the opposite.

“The United States would prefer to see this de-escalate,” says Kerry.

But wishing will not make it so.

“[But if Russia continues this path, the US] will isolate Russia politically, diplomatically and economically,” says Kerry.

And despite his presence in Kiev, I’m sure that Kerry himself is aware that the only word in that litany that would make an actual difference is the one word he dare not say: “militarily.”

His commander-in-chief’s unwillingness to use that word to back up his previous “red lines” means any threat now would just be laughed at.

I say above that the west, particularly the US, has no selfish interest in the Ukraine. But it might have once. It might have once in the sense of protecting what might be (but possibly isn’t) a move by Ukrainians towards freedom – or in the sense of protecting some sort of principle.

But as Mona Charen argues, that is long gone.

When Assad flamboyantly hopscotched over Obama's red line and received no response, the world rocked on its axis. Though the Obamaites couldn't see it, every small, peace-loving nation in the world was instantly made more vulnerable. Perhaps now, with Russian ships and tanks aiming at Ukraine, they are beginning to understand how international relations work. ("It's not some chessboard," the president asserted recently, displaying his continuing confusion.) No, the game isn't chess; it's more like boxing, where the winner is the stronger one.
    The Ukraine crisis flows directly from the Syria debacle, as Vladimir Putin, like Assad, has taken Obama's measure.
    Its important to draw the right red lines. Not everywhere, just the ones that matter. Draw them. And then defend them.

Like Neville Chamberlain in Poland, by sitting in Kiev Kerry is now drawing a sort of pinkish line in a place he can’t defend because he allowed an earlier red line to be ignored in a place he could.

I welcome your thoughts, if you have them.

* * * *

1. From Wikipedia: On 25 July 1990, the U.S. Ambassador in Iraq, April Glaspie, asked the Iraqi high command to explain the military preparations in progress, including the massing of Iraqi troops near the border.
    The American ambassador declared to her Iraqi interlocutor that Washington, “inspired by the friendship and not by confrontation, does not have an opinion” on the disagreement between Kuwait and Iraq, stating "we have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts."
    She also let Saddam Hussein know that the U.S. did not intend "to start an economic war against Iraq". These statements may have caused Saddam to believe he had received a diplomatic green light from the United States to invade Kuwait.[24][25]
According to Prof. Richard E. Rubenstein, Glaspie was later asked by British journalists why she had said that, her response was "we didn't think he would go that far"

2. It’s not just familiar as a pretext in Georgia, and was no more justified there than it was in Hitler’s occupation of the the Sudetenland to “save” ethnic Germans – but as Putin would have learned from that occupation, it worked. Perhaps Ukrainian leaders, if it were a live issue and ethnic Russians really did want to leave could have done as Vaclav Havel did in modern-day Czechoslovakia by splitting the country peacefully into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, which avoided any tinge of the sort of conflict that was then inflaming the Balkans.

UPDATE 1: This isn’t the only weakness spotted by the Russian Bear.  Said Russian presidential advisor, Sergei Glazyev, before Putin's detente press conference early this morning:

"We hold a decent amount of treasury bonds – more than $200 billion – and if the United States dares to freeze accounts of Russian businesses and citizens, we can no longer view America as a reliable partner,” he said. “We will encourage everybody to dump US Treasury bonds, get rid of dollars as an unreliable currency and leave the US market.”


Moscow might be forced to drop the dollar as a reserve currency and refuse to pay off loans to U.S. banks…
Russia could reduce to zero its economic dependency on the United States if Washington agreed sanctions against Moscow over Ukraine, politician and economist Glazyev said, warning that the American financial system faced a "crash" if this happened.

That’s a fairly large Achilles Heel America has created for itself ….

UPDATE 2: Cartoonist John Cox does John Kerry’s portrait:pp-kerry.jpg


  1. WWPD? What would (Lord) Palmerston do? Reposition a few ships in the Med, fly a few jet exercises over Poland, run some missile bases through their routine test procedures. Then issue a one sentence statement & go watch the cricket.

    I thought Key's position was pretty much the best NZ can do. Yes, the US/UK response is weak, and a consequence of years of foreign policy weakness from the 'smart-diplomacy' set. Kerry's kind of 'help' is harmful - whadda self-important blowhard ass.

    But ... where's Western Europe. Western Europe? It's their backyard.

    Best thing for Ukrainians is to fast realise they're on their own here, and figure it out from there. The wider signal is that the Pax Americana is over for now.

  2. re: Russia dumping its US Treasuries... shades of the UK in Suez - except there it was a friend pulling the financial plug.

    Russia could be over-reaching here though. Sleeping giant, etc...

  3. The wider signal is that the Pax Americana is over for now.

    Oh for goodness sake! Pax Americana? From when to when? The US didn't rush in when the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia or Hungary, or when they put the missiles in Cuba. Why on earth would Ukraine be any different? All Russia has done is reëstablished the status quo ante, where Ukraine is firmly in the Russian orbit. That's not any victory - rather it is a sign of Russia weakness that Ukraine, a country directly bordering Russia and the largest Russia military bases outside Russia itself, even considered aligning itself with the West.

    Imagine if the UK or Canada chose to align itself with Russia, or Japan with China --- after a large number of protestors were gunned down by police in the capital city. Do you really think the US would not intervene to restore democracy and capitalism if that looked as if it was happening?

  4. The American-led Period of Peace, Part 1: 1945-1989
    The American-led Period of Peace, Part 2: 1989-now

    Do you really think the US would not intervene to restore democracy and capitalism if that looked as if it was happening?

    Based on the current administration, only with the support of THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY (TM).

  5. Europe has never had the ability to sort out it's own problems. Examples are WW1, WW2, and Yugoslavia in the 1990's.
    This means its theoretically up to the USA to yet again be the worlds policeman & sort this out, however, they have an idiot of a president, and they aren't the world power they used to be.
    A Russian student, I knew a few years back, referred to Putin as the new Stalin. Unfortunately, I think he's right & Russia will eventually become an empire to be feared yet again.

    B. Whitehead

  6. You can bet that Japan and South Korea are watching this very carefully.

    The US has a defense agreement with Ukraine, promising defense from Russia in return for getting rid of their Nukes. This is a similar arrangement to the ones with Japan and South Korea. If the US reneges on their arrangement, those two countries may start scaling up their militaries in response, which will irritate china.

    This can end very badly, but we may only find out how badly in 3 years time.

  7. the drunken watchman5 Mar 2014, 16:19:00

    .. someone please tell me how long Crimea has been 'officially part of' Ukraine , as opposed to being 'officially part of' Russia?

  8. When I was a boy in 1986 there was the Chernobyl disaster in the Ukraine, and that was the first I had ever heard of the place; very tragic for the poor folk who died.

    The next time I heard Ukraine mentioned on the news, or in conversation, or gave it a single thought, was a couple of weeks ago - 28 years later - when a friend in America emailed me about it.
    I must confess I had to look it up! haha!

    Somehow I very much doubt I am the only chap in the World who is in the position of there being a very long time between drinks 'hearing-or-thinking-about-Ukraine-wise'.

    Yet in recent days I have found it amazing - truly astonishing - the number of Ukraine experts out there!

    Turn on FoxNews, One News or read the NZ Herald and they are overflowing with Ukraine experts all telling us - (we 99.999999875% of the population who had not heard of the place until a couple of weeks back) - these people are the "goodies" and these people are the "baddies" and we should support the "goodies" and dislike the "baddies".

    Unless I am seriously 'missing something' and in fact a vast percentage of the World's population had given Ukraine some thought prior to a couple of weeks ago, I cannot help thinking this is all a bit "Tailor of Panama" stuff.
    (For those who don't know The Tailor of Panama is an hilarious novel by John Le Carre where a quite imaginary war becomes 'real' for a couple of hours....just long enough for a corrupt MI6 agent and Diplomats to line their own pockets haha!)

  9. drunken watchman;

    Since Feb 19, 1954 when the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet transferred jurisdiction over the region from Russian to Ukrainian.

  10. the drunken watchman5 Mar 2014, 20:29:00

    ... mmmnnn, thanks

    Crimea doesn't sound so Ukraniian to me, then?

    I wonder why everyone so exercised over Russia taking back a former territory?

  11. I agree with you Peter, albeit that some libertarians are of the isolationist variety, the key point is that the US, particularly the Obama Administration (although Bush wimped out over Georgia) has withdrawn from the world.

    Putin has effectively annexed two parts of Georgia, he has frightened the US into not implementing a missile defence system in Poland and the Czech Republic (despite both countries being members of NATO and wanting it) and now he has taken part of Ukraine.

    China is watching because it wants to see what would happen if it took the Diaoyutai/Senkaku Islands, or the Spratlys and Paracels. It will see that for the next two years at least, the US is led by a President who will say a few words but do nothing. The implications for this will be considerable.

    NATO, once led by the US, is paralysed as it is split between its Members. The UK, which was ready to act on Syria had been kneecapped by the appeasers in its backbenches and the Marxist now leading the Labour Party. France feels, rightly so, that it has been doing enough in Africa to deal to Islamists that it isn't going to lead on Ukraine. Germany is terrified of being portrayed as replaying WW2, and so is impotent on any of this.
    The EU, eager to replace NATO as a foreign policy instrument, is trying to be oh so earnest, but can't deliver either.

    Meanwhile, Japan is watching and considering repealing its wartime constitution because it fears it wont be protected by the US - despite paying the US for its bases for the past 20 years. South Korea is sufficiently armed to the teeth to feel confident it can take on the north.

    Obama, by extending his peacenik opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and belief in US guilt for many of the world's ills, is engaging in isolationism unseen since before WW2. It's popular mind you, Americans are war weary and the mainstream view in much of the West is cynically anti-American.

    However, if people weren't so happy with Pax Americana, wait till they see Pax Bruxellis, Pax Russia and Pax Sinica.

  12. the drunken watchman6 Mar 2014, 00:34:00

    come now, you are exaggerating...

    Crimea was part of Russia as recently as 1954, right?

    why are you attempting to make it souind worse than it might very likely be?

  13. In 1954 the USSR was a sovereign state. How it arranged the regional administration of its dictatorship was of little interest. In 1991 the USSR disintegrated, and all of its constituent parts, including republics occupied by the USSR since WW2, gained independence and international recognition based on the borders they inherited, and distributed vast state assets proportionately. Russia retained the Black Sea Fleet on Ukrainian territory.

    Kosovo was an integral part of Serbia until 1974, which was an integral part of Yugoslavia at the time, but so what?

    There is an endless list of potential territorial claims from states that can say "but this was our territory in year x". Therein lies scope for endless conflict. Few states in the old world don't have old territorial disputes with neighbours that nationalist thugs can sabre-rattle about if they so wish.

    The problems are borders and nationalism. Free trade and movement of peaceful people do away with most of the issues, whilst states that recognise basic individual rights and treat everyone equal under the law address the others. The answer here is for Ukraine's interim authorities to guarantee the latter and snub the real, albeit small fascist Ukrainian groups seeking a nationalist state, and for Ukraine and Russia to agree on open borders. However, Putin misses the USSR and sees conquest of small, but hysterically significant territory and making him a hero as he plays the misguided nationalist card in his own fascist state, and he also shows that the declining, diminishing Russia can still tweak the nose of the West and get away with it.

  14. Libertyscott

    You ought to change your tag to Neoconscott. The line that the US has withdrawn from the work is a trowel of night-dirt, as is much of what you've written on this page. If you are so keen to meddle in the business of other people thousands of miles away, people you have never met, go there yourself. Go take your busybody carcass over there and see how you go telling them what their history is, what they ought to do, what should happen according to you and how to they ought to spend their lives.


  15. PC

    Your analysis is flawed. The elephant in the room is that the Russian Government gang is concerned about encirclement being set up by the US gang, as well as the expansion of NATO towards its borders. The US and associates have been pumping US$20-million per week into destabilising the Ukraine (not to mention all the sterling efforts to stir things up in Africa, the Middle East, Central Europe). Nuland and other US officials have been revealed discussing how they are going to cut up the Ukraine and who they'll have running it (a central banker). The Russian government is also concerned about how various treaties and agreements between Russian government and USA government are being broken in contravention to international law.

    Putin has already won this confrontation just as adeptly as he won with Syria. He holds all the high cards. The longer this crisis persists the more severe the consequences will be for Europe and the USA. In the longer term, the likely outcome is a new power grouping of Germany, Russia, China. The consequences of that will be a realignment of minor governments (NZs included) to avoid getting wiped. It is the US that is waning. Meanwhile time is on the side of the Russian government.

    If at some point the frustrated US government seeks a shooting war things will not work out well. It will, as usual, think it can win and, as is now usual, it will fail to achieve its stated aims. A war would be a disaster for the world and it would mean the collapse of the US as presently configured.


  16. Amit

    A namecall isn't an argument. You might think that when a state makes commitments to the security, territorial integrity and sovereignty of another, particularly when it was once part of an aggressive totalitarian empire that was out to eradicate your freedoms and those of your allies, it might mean something.

    You might think that, for all of its flaws (and shortlist of violations), the international system that was created after WW2 under the UN Charter to respect the territorial integrity of peaceful states, might be worth preserving.

    However, you've swallowed the moral equivocating propaganda of the Putin mafia state, which refuses to understand that NATO expanded because the states that were once occupied by the Red Army, were and are all very keen to have an umbrella of nuclear deterrence protecting them from the army that succeeded it. The NATO encirclement thesis (which is nonsense, as very little of Russia's borders are at or close to a NATO member, unless you count Canada) is bluster from the Soviet-thinking military-industrial complex (which is real and monopolistic in Russia) to justify a far too large military.

    There is a legitimate response, which is to discuss it at the UN Security Council (yes a resolution will be vetoed, but that will be transparently self-serving), to reaffirm the absolute commitment to NATO Members of their collective security and to confirm that there will be no recognition of unilateral annexation of Ukrainian territory. There are things that can be done far short of direct military action, but then you already knew that I bet.

    Of course to you Ukraine is a far off country of which you know nothing - so isn't anyone else's business.

    Russia is a power in long term decline, with its mafia boss looking to unite his apathetic population under a fascist nationalism that he accuses Ukraine of having (which it does in parts). The US, is not anywhere near that bad, it isn't losing several percentage points of its population annually to emigration and apathy. Russia is still recovering from the trauma of 70 years of Marxism-Leninism, and a couple of decades of kleptocracy.

  17. Libertyscott

    I've been in Eastern Europe, Russian Federation (including Ukraine) for long enough (decade +) to say for sure your view is neocon nonsense. You do not know at all what you are on about.

    Have you even been to Ukraine yet? Have you met and discussed politics, history, culture & economic situation with people that live there? Have you been a guest in their homes and listened to their experiences and their opinions?


  18. Amit

    I've studied international relations and international law enough to know what is in the UN Charter and what is basic international law on state sovereignty, and how to interpret treaties (I've signed a couple on behalf of the NZ government in fact). So it is not "neocon" nonsense, but if pejoratives are your key argument then this is a waste of time. Indeed, the position I am taking is completely consistent with anyone opposing the invasion of Iraq - it is an old fashioned defence of state sovereignty.

    I'm pleased you've been there. I haven't been to Ukraine, although I have been to Russia and Belarus. If you knew history you'd know my reference to "a far away place of which you know nothing" is how Neville Chamberlain referred to Czechoslovakia, after signing it over to Hitler.

    I know there are Ukrainian citizens who want to live under the rule of the Putin mafia state, just as there are citizens of Bosnia-Hercegovina who wanted to live under the rule of Milosevic's genocidal fascist regime, just as there are Russian citizens of Japanese extraction who want to live under Japan's rule on the islands the USSR annexed after WW2, and there are Serbs in Kosovo who want to be governed from Belgrade rather than Pristina, and Catholics in Ulster who want to be governed from Dublin rather than Belfast and London, etc etc.

    You might think that its fine for one country to use force to take over territory of another, because some of its citizens want them to. However, you might want to spend some time in the part of Europe that has eschewed this approach, and you'll learn the difference between Ukrainians who look West, and look to a system that broke down barriers between states, trade and movement of people (albeit with a new statist agenda from Brussels), and one which harks to the 19th century.

    and before you ask, yes. There is an issue with Ukrainian nationalists, as there were with Slovak nationalists, Croatian nationalists, Albanian nationalists and the rest. The answer is not to pander to endless visions of "ethnically pure" states with borders that fit homogeneous populations, because the only way that works is by placing the "unpure" under the jackboot of nationalist states, which may ultimately lead to their expulsion or extermination.

    That's the problem with the "oh so simple" view that one people should be united under a state - what happens with their neighbours who are different?

  19. Can anyone tell me, if the Crimean people vote in the upcoming referendum to join Russia, why they shouldn't be allowed to?

  20. Libertyscott said at 3/06/2014 10:45:00 am

    In refernece to Russia
    The US, is not anywhere near that bad, it isn't losing several percentage points of its population annually to emigration and apathy.

    No worries, thanks to annexing Crimea, Putin has reversed the last 10 years of Russia's falling population.


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