Monday, March 03, 2014

Thoughts on the Ukraine Situation

There has been an enormous amount of speculation around the Ukraine situation on social media today.

First, let me be abundantly clear:  I do not support the Russian actions towards Ukraine in recent days.  Russia would be far wiser to allow the Ukraine to have an open election or referendum focused on the issues that started the riots in Kiev (or Kyiv - I've seen both spellings and I'm not sure which is more correct).

My personal speculation is that Putin is working to do two major things.  First, he wants to reignite the old cold war hostilities.  He knows full well that the western powers are unable or unwilling to intervene directly in a conflict with Russia, and the fact that he has very successfully embarrassed the US on both Syria and Iran in the recent past has bolstered his ego.

Second, I suspect that Putin is trying to rebuild what we often referred to as the "Iron Curtain" from the Soviet era.  This has been quite apparent in the way that he has gone after conflicts in several former Soviet republics in recent years.  As much as possible, he will try to make these "bloodless" takeovers.  He wants nominally friendly "puppets" in place for now.  That's all he needs.

Putin knows full well that the spectre of the cold war era has not been forgotten in the west.  If he can push things back to their old cold war footings, it allows him to play on a field that he knows very well.  The cold war situation serves Putins immediate and long term interests quite nicely.  It gives an enemy that he can "demonize" in much the same way that the Bush II presidency went after "terrorism" - the enemy is so abstract that you can accuse it of anything and nobody will call you out for it.  That allows Putin to "shadow box" with this enemy and look as if he is being a hero, which plays fairly well in Russia itself.

Rebuilding the "Iron Curtain" is another hero moment for Putin.  He can claim that he is taking Russia back to its grand status as the anchor of an empire, returning it to its former glory.

Is he likely to try invading across the north pole into Canada or Alaska?  I seriously doubt it.  The logistics of doing so are enormously complex, and there would be little to be gained compared to the costs of such an invasion and occupation.  The threat will be present, but for the same reasons that the old Soviet Union regularly flew heavy bombers over the pole.  It's easier for Putin to gain control over the old satellite states of the Soviet Union, and there is more political gain to be had for doing so.

In terms of the Ukraine itself, I expect Putin will end up splitting it, keeping the eastern third of the country which borders Russia itself, and allowing the remainder to align with the EU for now.  The one thing that will stay Putin's hand in this matter will be the political cost of trying to put down the uprising that has already begun in western Ukraine.  He can make an argument for taking control of the eastern portion of the country that would be at least moderately palatable to his allies on the world stage, and what he is taking over isn't something that the western powers would be terribly interested in trying to do anything about. 

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