The Correspondents Weigh in: Crisis in Crimea

The Crimea Region is highlighted in Red on this map of the Ukraine (via Wikimedia Commons)

This piece will be the first of a special “Weigh In” series that is going to be started on Glimpse, which will focus on momentous current events.

Thomas D. Armstrong:

Recent op-eds have labeled Putin as a mastermind or a megalomaniac fool. I am of the opinion that Putin is a megalomaniac mastermind exploiting a disempowered US. However, debating Putin’s psychological profile is less constructive than analyzing the economic foundation of his regime. Putin and his Russia survive on energy revenues, and war is only making him richer. Unlike 2008, when Putin invaded Georgia, oil prices have held steady. In fact, the threat of sanctions on Russia have only driven oil prices marginally higher, up $2 dollars to $110.8/bbl as of writing. Putin is financing expansionist dreams (and his own savings account) thanks to his near-monopoly on Russia’s energy industry. Therefore, the best way to rein him in is to drive global energy prices down. The US can accomplish this quite easily with a reformed national energy policy. Currently, the US is sitting on an unused 727-million-barrel underground cache of crude oil, and is producing more and more natural gas by the day. If the US were to supplant Russia as Europe’s primary natural gas provider, and flood the global market with American oil exports, energy prices would plummet. A decrease from $110/bbl to $80/bbl would cost the Russian oil industry alone an estimated $120 billion, plus billions more in foreign exchange earnings. Putin is a deft leader, but even he could not survive such a sustained economic collapse.

Nick Kosturos:

Russia’s move to deploy soldiers in Ukraine is indicative of feelings of insecurity rather than confidence. Putin knows that such a large loss of influence in Ukraine, a critically important country in economic, cultural, and geopolitical terms, would be devastating to Russia’s ultimate goal of increasing its regional sphere of influence and international prestige. Putin’s domestic considerations and tensions can also shed light on these aggressive actions. If a small country like Ukraine can successfully stand up to the Kremlin by ousting its man from Kiev, what will Russians think of a leadership unable to control their “Small Russia?” Russia is acting out of desperation, not strength. Putin’s clownish justifications for Russia’s military actions do not hold up to scrutiny and are made under a façade by what I recently labeled an “imitation democracy.”

While the West has multilaterally condemned this act of aggression, which is a positive first step, it should now increase pressure on Russia to relent. In order to force Russia to withdraw and accept Ukraine’s sovereignty and a chance at a peaceful political transition, the West must maintain a multilateral and wide-ranging coalition of rejection, isolating Putin via sanctions on both his allies and competing oligarchs (including their overseas funds and visas), and by supporting Ukraine’s new government through assistance and advisement. At this point, conventional military power projection against Russia is not a viable option – no matter how tempting – as it could spark an unintended military provocation leading to conflict. The current situation is very difficult to manage, although the international community should know that the West ultimately has the upper hand. Russia’s desperate authoritarian strategy based on oppression is doomed to fail in the long-run.

Luke Phillips:

The situation in Crimea is nothing more than the Russians managing their own geopolitical periphery, and so far as it has to do anything at all with expansion, it is only due to the fact that Russian power is presently contracted to levels far below what Moscow would like. America would do and has done the same thing in the event of revolutionary unrest in our neighbor states, as is evidenced by our interventions in Mexico a century ago and in Cuba a half-century ago.

The question here, I think, is what the United States is going to do about it. Part of our grand strategy since the end of the Cold War has been to keep the Russians from establishing formal or informal dominion over the former U.S.S.R. Another part has been supporting the thin veil of liberal international order that girds the power politics flowing subtly underneath in an effort to at least grant a semblance of order and harmony in international affairs. These imperatives have come under increasing pressure in recent years, but in 2013 and 2014 more than ever before. I don’t know what the proper policy response should be, but I hope it isn’t more of the lectures, gestures, and silences with which President Obama responded to the Russians in the Snowden and Syria affairs.

Jacob W. Roberts:

America is in no position to intervene nor should it.  To the western world, Putin’s actions appear nefarious, but from the perspective of many Russians he is acting well within the parameters of international law.  Professor Tatiana Akishina of USC argues that, since the prime minister of Ukraine’s semi-autonomous Crimea region has called upon Putin for military support, his intervention is in accordance with international law.  Moreover, America has intervened with greater frequency and intensity over the past century, thus it is highly hypocritical of US authorities to castigate Russia for meddling within its region.  That being said, it is somewhat disturbing to witness Russia fail to respect the sovereign rights of an independent nation.  One can only hope that Putin’s intervention into the region will be short lived.

Alessandro M. Sassoon:

There is a risk of ethnic cleansing. It starts with classification. Weeks before this conflict made the front pages of the New York Times, reports emerged that Russian-Ukrainians in Crimea were being given Russian Passports. Russians have lived in Crimea for some 200 years, and Ukraine has held the territory for half a century. Then there are the Tatars, the people for whom Crimea is an ancestral home dating back to the Mongol Khan Empire. The Tatar population, which accounts for 13% of Crimea’s inhabitants, is predominantly Sunni Muslim. Under Stalin’s Russia, the Tatars were accused of collaborating with Nazi Germany and deported en masse to other parts of Russia (read: Siberia). It should come as no surprise then that they are more keen on being governed by Ukraine than by Russia. As things stand, there are three populations with strong ethno-nationalist tendencies who inhabit a geographic area they all feel they have a historical, political, or legal claim to. Of the eight stages of Genocide, we’ve passed #5: polarization. That means preparation, extermination, and denial are next.

Sabrina Mateen:

Before this conflict, my knowledge of Ukraine consisted solely of “ex-USSR”. I assumed the region consisted of Russian natives, and that they were considered to be allies with their ex-country. However, with the news of an outbreak of civil war, it has become apparent that there are opposing nationalities, languages, and mindsets that are all helping to tear Ukraine into pieces. The conflict seems to be reaching increasingly dangerous heights as Russia begins to put pressure on Ukraine in the form of planned military drills and in one case, an unspecified military presence that looked to be Russians supporting Crimeans. Although the conflict is being called a civil war, it is beginning to seem like one of the many moves Putin has been making to restore Russia to its USSR-era square footage. It is important to see what the United States plans to do, as the Obama Administration is already under scrutiny after the ill-advised response to the crisis in Syria.  Any move from the newly war-shy United States will be seen as an escalation in a conflict that has all the makings of a new Cold War.

Kerry Collins:

Recent developments in the volatile Ukraine situation show the autonomous Crimea region voting to join the Russian Federation. Crimea has a Russian ethnic majority and is predominantly Russian speaking, so it might not come as a surprise that the region is in support of the secession. If it is what the people want, then perhaps the region should have never been a part of Ukraine to begin with. These recent moves that Crimea has made are violations of international law, which puts the United States in a tough response position. The President has been making frantic calls to Putin urging a diplomatic end to this crisis, but to no avail. Meanwhile, Putin doesn’t seem particularly concerned with US warnings. What the EU and the US bring to the table are economic sanctions, and it will be interesting to see if those “sticks” are enough to make Putin falter.

Stepping out of Russia’s Shadow? Ukraine’s Next Moves.

A protester at Euromaidan. (Ivan Bandura via flickr)

This past week, Ukraine experienced the worst period of violence in its post-Soviet history and a stunning political development as President Yanukovych was forced out of power by the Ukrainian parliament. The cost of this political victory for the opposition has been great; aggressive clashes between government security forces and protesters resulted in at least 77 deaths and 577 injuries. Although a potential breakthrough peace deal emerged Friday calling for early elections this December, a lessening of the powers of President Yanukovych, and the establishment of a “national unity government,” the Ukrainian parliament voted Saturday to remove President Yanukovych from office and to hold elections on May 25th in a stunning rebuke of his regime. This political whirlwind places Ukraine in a vulnerable position. Although the opposition movement achieved a great victory in eliminating Yanukovych from power, its efforts may prove futile if a fair political transition is not undertaken in the coming months, especially if Russia continues to bully Ukraine into submission. If Ukraine is to move towards a freer and more just society, then the West must work with Ukraine to ensure fair and free elections while offering strong guidance and support during the upcoming political transition.

The unprecedented violence in Ukraine was appalling and indicative of a deteriorating security situation on the ground, suggesting significant gains in the opposition movement and feelings of insecurity on part of the Yanukovych regime. To combat demonstrators, Ukrainian security forces were issued combat-grade weapons and fired upon protesters . Opposition members attacked security forces with Molotov cocktails and possibly firearms . Although both sides have committed acts of violence, there should be no doubt that the preponderance of force came from government-sponsored security forces; reports indicate that government-sponsored snipers killed at least 20 protesters this past week. This suppression is unacceptable and revealed the true authoritarian nature of the Yanukovych government. Although the main perpetrator of the violence has been effectively removed from power, the West must continue to isolate those responsible and should take an active role in shaping the next phase of the political transition.

Even though the U.S. and EU are becoming more active in Ukraine’s political crisis, the most influential external actor in Ukraine is undoubtedly Russia. President Putin and his allies are taking bold steps to keep their Ukrainian puppets in power thereby preserving the status quo. Indeed, Russia’s provocative moves instigated the political unrest when it bullied Ukraine into rejecting a trade deal with the EU in favor of $15 billion dollars in aid and a tantalizing 33 percent discount on Russian natural gas. Naturally, Russia has many reasons to prevent Ukraine from developing relations with the EU. In his quest to restore the idea of a “Great Russia” and a sphere of influence similar to the former Soviet Bloc, Putin knows that Ukraine is the most important country in pursuit of this goal.

Historically, Ukraine has been known as “Small Russia.” The concept of a “Modern Russia” is said to have started in Ukraine, and Ukraine is seen as the birthplace of the region’s Orthodox Christianity. Linguistically, the two countries are also very similar as many Ukrainians speak both Ukrainian and Russian. The economic ties between Ukraine and Russia are also vital in gauging Russia’s interest. If Ukraine does not join Russia’s Eurasian customs union (which recently recruited Armenia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan), then the whole concept could disintegrate. Russian companies have a large investment presence in Ukraine accounting for about 7 percent of Ukraine’s total foreign investment in 2013. In addition, many Ukrainians have migrated to Russia providing a substantial labor force for Russian companies. Ukraine also has geostrategic importance for Russia hosting Russia’s Black Sea Fleet naval headquarters. If the naval base’s lease were threatened by a more independent Ukraine, Russia would suffer a significant loss in a critical region. Clearly, Russia has a substantial interest in keeping a pro-Kremlin government in Kiev. Although Russia has indicated perhaps a softer stance by sending in a more reasonable diplomat to conduct negotiations during this tipping point, this gesture should not be considered a serious change of intention or attitude. Russia knows that losing Ukraine to the West will be a momentous blow to its aspirations of restoring the idea of a “Great Russia.”

When evaluating the West’s efforts to support the Ukrainian opposition and influence the Ukrainian regime, it is important to understand that the U.S. and its Western allies are at an inherent disadvantage. Unlike the Russian state which has few reservations in actively supporting authoritarian regimes that suppress their own people, such as the Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria, the West generally does not support corrupt autocrats in such a brash manner. It also is difficult to provide assistance to an opposition that is not well defined. Nevertheless, the EU’s decision to place individual sanctions on Ukrainian officials , and the U.S.’s move to revoke 20 Ukrainian visas were positive efforts to punish President Yanukovych’s regime. These individuals must be held responsible for their actions, especially if they continue to receive guidance from Russia urging the state to resist tectonic reforms in the coming months. However, more must be done beyond sanctions to ensure a meaningful political transition and reform process.

More often than not, the West views elections as the end game of democratic reform, even when the elections in question are severely flawed. The West must actively monitor and offer guidance to the Ukrainian political transition team via diplomatic channels and civil society groups to ensure free and fair elections. Yanukovych and/or his allies may attempt to retain power in the upcoming months resulting in a Russian-backed political machine winning the elections. According to international observers, Ukraine’s 2012 election cycle was plagued with fraud, so it is likely that history could repeat itself if the election process is not regulated and monitored. Western countries should also keep an eye on rising leaders within the opposition movement that could be potential puppets for President Putin. Wealthy oligarchs such as Henadiy Boholyubov and Ihor Kolomoyskyy, who both have billion dollar plus holdings in the financial, media, and energy industries, have recently switched allegiances to the opposition movement even though they have traditionally supported the Yanukovych regime. These powerful actors could potentially hijack the opposition movement and resist any meaningful change that threatens their interests, which could include greater independence from Russia. Ukraine’s proposed political transition and reform could easily become a sham if the U.S. and the EU lose focus and decrease pressure.

Russia is bold to accuse the West of “puppeteering” in Ukraine via diplomatic support since the Kremlin has actively supported a bloody regime that has massacred civilians. While the current situation is not a proxy war, it is hard to ignore the emerging political divide and international political implications of Ukraine’s transformation. Western Ukraine supports further integration with the EU, and Eastern Ukraine is supportive of a strong Russian presence. Moving forward, it will be very difficult to reconcile these two viewpoints in a political transition that seeks a “national unity government.” However, the West and EU can continue to punish Ukrainian officials guilty of oppression and help support and shape meaningful political reform that keeps President Yanukovych and his cronies out of power. The ouster of Yanukovych by parliament, while a positive development, should be watched closely. The inevitable scramble and disorganization that follows such a momentous event could lead to the rise of another corrupt regime that seeks to ally itself to the highest bidder. Regardless of this possibility, those Ukrainians who desire a freer and more just society have won a substantial victory. Let us hope this victory is the first of many to come culminating in a Ukraine that aspires to be more than just a “Small Russia.”

The Bear and the Dragon

An hour outside of Mandalay in upper Burma (Myanmar), construction of the Sino-Burma pipeline tears through the thick jungle. The pipeline is a joint venture between China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) and Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprises (MOGE) and is designed to ease China’s dependence on oil/gas transfers through the Strait of Malacca. (Photo Credit: Reid Lidow, All Rights Reserved 2012).

An hour outside of Mandalay in upper Burma (Myanmar), construction of the Sino-Burma pipeline tears through the thick jungle. The pipeline is a joint venture between China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) and Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprises (MOGE) and is designed to ease China’s dependence on oil/gas transfers through the Strait of Malacca. (Photo Credit: Reid Lidow, All Rights Reserved 2012).

In recent months, international news has focused intensely on ominous developments in the East and South China Seas, along with the bloody sectarian dramas engulfing the Middle East. Conflicts across Africa, from Somalia to Nigeria to the Central African Republic, have also captured attention, though they remain largely under-reported in the Western press. Major political shifts between Iran, its neighbors, and the West, along with the confusion and unrest in the Ukraine as it seeks to define its relationship with its Eastern (i.e. Russia) and Western neighbors, rightly command the bulk of our attention as of late.

But in the midst of all this, beneath the eyes of a world preoccupied with clashes worthy of box office films, far subtler power plays are at work that will likely matter far more to the course of history than the flashpoints in Syria, Egypt, Somalia, and Ukraine. Consider foreign policy developments in Moscow and Beijing – though both states are plagued by internal unrest and beset by international humanitarian pressure, both states are clearly ascendant in their respective, and overlapping, neighborhoods. Their maneuvers in Asia will increasingly bring them into tension, and perhaps conflict, in the years to come. This is a development Americans should watch closely.

The tense relationship between the Bear and the Dragon in Russia’s Far East and China’s Northeast is legendary, from the days when exhausted Cossacks dealt with (and stole from) the Qing Dynasty. The Soviet Union propped up Communist states in Xinjiang and Mongolia while warlords, Nationalists, and Communists all squabbled over the ruins of China. When a Communist victory became apparent, the Soviets sought to make Red China essentially an arm of their global strategy, a relationship which Mao and his followers deeply resented. As the People’s Republic came into its own, it grew increasingly autonomous vis-à-vis patrons in Moscow, which would precipitate a series of violent border clashes in the late 1960s. Nixon and Kissinger’s skillful manipulation of this rivalry has been recorded in the history books. So fraught has been the relationship between the authoritarian giants that they only resolved their border disputes along the Ussuri River in late 2008.

The start of the 21st Century has seen a cooler, and on the surface more cooperative, Sino-Russian relationship. While the United States was distracted in Iraq and Afghanistan prior to 2011, both Beijing and Moscow began asserting themselves in their historic borderlands and defending each other’s positions. Their mutual condemnation of international interference in internal affairs, as seen with respect to Syria and Iran, seems to have pushed them closer together. Additionally, their alignment in the Shanghai Cooperation Association grants them at least hollow Eurasian authoritarian solidarity. Xi Jinping’s first foreign trip as President of the PRC was to Moscow; the diplomatic import of this visit should not be lost on us.

But the story does not end there. Important fractures continue to underlie the relationship, though they are far less tense in their present iteration. Russia and China remain powerful states with rising ambitions. Chinese-born workers and contractors take up a large share of the labor market within the Russian Far East province, and analysts estimate that the population of China’s border provinces is at least four or five times that of Russia’s border provinces. The immense resources of Russian territory are assuredly a powerful strategic draw for Chinese planners, and wary Russian policymakers strive to develop these resources without surrendering a total monopoly to the Chinese. What happens in this strategically critical region matters to Beijing and Moscow’s relationship.

Looking further afield, the Chinese and Russians are looking to balance their resources in the region to offset the other’s gains, though not explicitly. Russia has been working to improve its relations with South Korea, signing arms deals and free trade agreements far more generous than those it shares with its client states in Eurasia. To the South, Russia extended an invitation Vietnam, an old Soviet ally, to join its Eurasian Customs Union. To sweeten the pot, Russia has sold Vietnam refitted Soviet submarines. Looking West from Vietnam, the Kremlin is increasingly engaging with India, continuing to supply much of its military hardware while simultaneously negotiating bilateral energy deals. It is important to note that each of these three countries fought savage wars with China in the 21st Century and continue to engage in strategic competition with the dragon.

Russia’s grand strategy looks like a classic case of power politics. The ancient Indian strategist Kautilya argued that border states would always be enemies, and therefore states separated by a buffer would be natural allies. A brief glance at the map shows that China separates Vietnam and India from Russia, while South Korea borders China through North Korea, long China’s client state. Russia’s strategy is not necessarily bellicose, however as prudent statesmen have long recognized, when the time comes to exert pressure on another nation, it helps to have friends on that nation’s borders who fear and envy it.

Meanwhile, China continues its economic expansion and integration of the Asian continent. As has been widely reported, it initiated oil drilling in Afghanistan last year, making it the first energy investor in the war-torn state. Its pipelines crisscross Russia’s sphere of influence in Central Asia, traversing Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. China’s pipeline and highway projects in Myanmar stand poised to modernize that nation, while connecting the Indian Ocean’s trade directly to the Chinese heartland. Beijing also continues to provide security assistance to a Pakistan increasingly distrustful of the United States, and Pakistan hosts a Chinese port at Gwadar.

It is clear that the Chinese are concerned with boosting international economic development; foreign trade, especially in energy sectors, will be essential in sustaining China’s remarkable economic growth story as it seeks to pivot away from unhealthy domestic infrastructure spending sprees that have defined the last decade. But aside from being a mere cash cow, these foreign assets provide China with leverage in the host countries. That’s the power of the purse.

The new great game in Asia is not a particularly violent one, but it is an important one. As Russia and China rise and balance against each other, not unlike two scorpions in a jar, their interests are bound to clash. Policymakers in the US should continue to monitor these developments carefully as such problems will surely present challenges and opportunities. It is not hard to imagine American policymakers working with their Russian counterparts to contain a rising China while simultaneously working against an advancing Russia in contested regions such as Eastern Europe and the Middle East. American policymakers may even find themselves working more closely alongside their Chinese colleagues if the Xi Jinping era presents such an opportunity. The shifting geopolitical fortunes of Russia and China demand our statesmens’ most vigilant attention.