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Published on: December 3, 2013
Advantage: Russia
The Great Ukrainian Knife Fight

The Ukraine story, one of the most important geopolitical events of the past few years, is still up in the air. Right now, Russia has the advantage but with protestors swarming the streets of Kiev and President Yanukovych away in China, anything could happen.

On the streets of Kiev, the knife fight over the future of Ukraine continues even as the storyline continues to change. A month ago, the EU thought that the battle was as good as won. The Ukrainians had agreed to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union that would lock Ukraine into an EU-oriented future and block the Kremlin’s dream of a Eurasian Union that would revive Russian great power ambitions.

Last week, the tables turned. After heavy lobbying from Russia, which appears to have consisted of a mix of major threats to Ukrainian exports, promises of a better deal from Gazprom and undisclosed private offers to leading Ukrainian political figures and industrialists, Ukraine’s government rejected the EU deal. Advantage: Russia.

But then the tables turned again. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in Kiev and other major Ukrainian cities to protest the deal. (They are right to do so; the deal with Russia doesn’t just marry Ukraine to economic backwardness. It marries Ukraine to political backwardness and paves the way to the gradual destruction of political freedom as well.) Government spokespeople wavered and spun; as deputies deserted the ruling party, the opposition called for a vote of no confidence. Observers remembered the Orange Revolution of late 2004; was Ukraine once again slipping out of Putin’s grasp? Gideon Rachman, chief foreign affairs commentator of the widely read and extremely prestigious Financial Times, wrote about Putin’s “miscalculation” over Ukraine. Closer to home, political scientist Dan Drezner blogged about the implications of Russia’s defeat for world politics and IR theory, pouring contempt on a recent Forbes article that hailed Vladimir Putin as the most powerful individual in the world.

That was the weekend. This morning, there are new plot twists. The vote of no confidence failed by a substantial margin, and fewer deputies than the opposition hoped deserted. The crowds on the streets began to thin out. The EU announced that it would not renegotiate the deal, making it much less likely that Ukraine would or could change its decision. President Yanukovych left on a previously scheduled visit to China, hoping now to sign some aid and trade agreements that will quiet unruly financial markets. Advantage Russia?

The story will likely change more than once going forward. Ukraine isn’t just a weak state; it is a weak polity. Much of the eastern half of the country would prefer some kind of relationship with Russia to the challenges and economic upheavals that would likely follow on a national reorientation to the west. The west, much of which was under Austro-Hungarian rather than Russian rule until 1918 and which looks to countries like Poland and Austria rather than Russia, wants to join Europe today. The industrialists and oligarchs are split. They are attracted by the economic opportunities and personal security that a European path would open up. But some of the great oligarchs in the east are more closely integrated into the Russian economy than into the EU, and many Ukrainian power brokers fear that even the gradual introduction of European legal standards would, ahem, interfere with their economic activities to some degree.

The result of these conflicting forces is a wobble. If Ukraine had its druthers, it would sit on the fence, avoiding a decisive choice between its neighbors. As the pressure mounts, it may have to slither off the fence in one direction or the other, but it will be very hard for Ukraine to do that as a united country.

Because Ukraine is so weak and divided, outside powers have a much greater opportunity to influence internal decisions than they do in stronger and more integrated countries. This is what Putin seems to understand better than his opponents in Brussels. He has identified individuals and groups in Ukraine who are either naturally inclined in Russia’s direction or can be induced by various considerations to look favorably on Russia’s suit, and he has assembled a full court press to bring them together.

The EU on the other hand, infected by the usual mix of arrogance, legalism and internal wrangling that fairly consistently undermines its influence on the world stage, assumed that the attractions of its offer were so overwhelming that relatively little needed to be done beyond restating the terms of the deal. Worse, it demanded that President Yanukovych swallow a large toad before signing up; he had to release his archrival and predecessor Yulia Tymoshenko from jail.

Not a good idea; the toad swallowing thing ensured that Yanukovych would bargain hard before accepting the EU bid and made him more open to Kremlin seduction than he would otherwise be. It also reminded the entire Ukrainian economic establishment that a deal with the European Union would threaten the freewheeling nature of oligarchical life. It reminded all the power brokers in Ukraine of just how convenient the more flexible Russian approach to matters of political democracy and economic regulation can be.

The EU underestimated Russia. Specifically, it underestimated Russia’s determination to block this deal and it underestimated the value of the advantages that its legalistic insistence on the Tymoshenko¬†release put in Putin’s hand. A smarter approach would have been to get Ukraine hooked on the EU market and weaned from Russia at almost any price. Then, when Ukraine’s westward orientation was impossible to reverse and when Russian power had diminished following the shock of Ukraine’s departure, would come the time to introduce those legal norms.

We can still hope that Ukraine slithers westward when all is said and done, but this process may fail and has in any case become much more difficult and fraught than it needed to be. There are some very unpleasant scenarios now on the table, including the break up of this fragile state. (Solzhenitsyn thought that this is what would ultimately happen.) And despite the protests in the western part of the country, Yanukovych and friends may end up tethering Ukraine to Russia once again.

But if the fatuous legalism of a “post-historical” EU managed to create a crisis and give Russia a fighting chance to snatch Ukraine out of its grasp, Washington must also take a fat share of blame. Looking at Russia through fuzzy, unicorn-hunting spectacles, the Obama administration sees a potential strategic partner in the Kremlin to be won over by sweet talk and concessions. As post-historical as any Brussels-based EU paper-pusher, the Obama administration appears to have written off eastern Europe as a significant geopolitical theater. The United States was MIA as the Europeans tried to figure out what to do about Ukraine; that was a strategic mistake and we must now just hope that the costs will not be too high.

The knife fight over Ukraine continues; the west is still waving baguettes and making hollow speeches about democracy and the rule of law. The Russians understand that the odds are against them in Ukraine; a brittle state resting on a crumbling economy and facing long term demographic decline doesn’t have a lot of advantages in foreign policy disputes. But Russia cares much, much more about Ukraine than either Brussels or Washington, and it is both much more focused and much less scrupulous as it looks for ways to make its victory stick.

This is one of three great geopolitical stories unfolding in Eurasia at the end of 2013. One is the Iranian march to regional domination as the Shi’ites gain the upper hand in the Syrian war and the United States relaxes sanctions on triumphant Tehran. Another is the latest step in China’s “cabbage strategy” of building out new layers of military and legal insulation over disputed territory near its maritime frontiers. And the third is the fight over whether Ukraine will tilt decisively toward either Moscow or the EU.

For the Kremlin, this is do or die. If Ukraine heads west, Putin is a flop and his national strategy for Russia to recover its great power status is toast. Russia will have failed decisively as a major world power and will inexorably join the other ex-imperial powers like Britain and France in the second division of the world power league.

If the Central Powers (China, Russia, Iran) win all three of these contests, the worldwide balance of power will change. The United States and its allies will be seen as having lost their nerve and their edge; from the Balkans to Southeast Asia, from the Arctic Ocean to the Bay of Bengal, smaller powers will begin to recalibrate their foreign policies. Many will tilt away from the perceived losers in the great game and align themselves with what to many will now look like the rising powers.

In every case, the economic and military forces favor the United States and its allies. In every case, western strategic cluelessness handed enormous advantages to weaker adversaries. Nowhere is this more true than in Ukraine, where western fecklessness has handed Putin the opportunity of a lifetime. He is fighting against the odds here, but Putin is fighting for his life, or at least for the heart of both his foreign and domestic political program. One interesting point now to observe: will China throw Yanukovych (and Russia) a financial lifeline in the form of some loans that quiet the bond markets. The weakest point in the loose alliance of revisionist powers is their lack of cohesion. China’s response to Yanukovych will tell us something about how united the revisionists really are.

Meanwhile, the world should not underestimate Putin’s will to win, and he is using every lever he can find, and taking advantage of every error his opponents make as he goes all out to preserve Russia’s hopes of returning to the top of the world power league.

A lot of news stories that flare up in the headlines are much ado about nothing. This one is the real deal: Ukraine is making history in 2013.

show comments
  • qet

    Dear Via Meadia: Your “baguette” line is brilliant. But by my count, you have used it on no fewer than three separate occasions in the past week. I think I speak for all commenters when I say, “Enough already!”

    • rheddles

      Or we could call him Bard’s baguette.

  • S.C. Schwarz

    What we are witnessing is the fall of the West. This is only a small step, but these small steps add up.

    • Andrew Allison

      Pace Gibbon, the small steps represent the Decline; the Fall will come a little later.

      • S.C. Schwarz

        Well put.

    • Jacksonian_Libertarian

      Every time America hits a speed bump, someone starts screaming that America is in decline, and every time they’re wrong. We as American’s are the most self critical people in the world, we see every one of our own flaws in Technicolor detail, while seeing only other nations strengths and none of their multitude of weaknesses.

      • Jim__L

        The fact that we so frequently proceed to correct those weaknesses is the source of our strength.

      • S.C. Schwarz

        There is nothing inevitable about the continued success of the US. Counties make choices and, over time, those choices can have major consequences. Contrast the fate of countries that make bad choices, such as Argentina, with those that make good choices, such as South Korea. I suspect, over the last 20 years or so, we have made more bad choices than good ones.

  • Gene

    I enjoy keeping up with these issues of balance of power, national interests and how one international player gains “advantage” over another. I also “get” why these things are important, but only inchoately.

    It would be very valuable if someone like our host would spell out, in much more concrete terms, what is at stake in these matters and relate it down to the level of the average citizen. It would be helpful to frame the argument in a way that would have impact on people prone to either ignoring such matters, and/or especially those people prone to adopt a reflexively isolationist attitude.

    • Nick Bidler

      Let me give it a go:

      The average human will feel a differnence measured in fractions of a cent. Over a country, that adds up to trillions upon trillions of fractons of a cent.

      • Jim__L

        It’s not just economic risk. The idea that we have eliminated War from the human condition is staggeringly dangerous.

        The fact that Obama and the Democrats have effectively abandoned the Pax Americana is staggeringly irreponsible. Unless we can turn things around in the very near future, historians a hundred years from now will be fully justified in pinning on Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and Barney Frank whatever chaos, death, and destruction the next decades have in store.

        • Jim__L

          (I’m curious, why is Gene’s post controversial?)

          Madeline Albright once asked a question she thought was rhetorical
          … “What’s the point of having a huge military if you never use it?”

          The point is deterrent — to get into the heads of foreign decision-makers and nip their “will to fight” in the bud. This sort of rational behavior is not beyond the Russians (MAD worked, after all) or the Chinese, and I suspect that ascribing love of apocalyptic self-destruction to the Iranians may not be any more accurate than when it was ascribed to G W Bush by his political opponents. (If I’m wrong about that, it would be best if we had a military capable of taking on Iran, wouldn’t it? So practically speaking my position does not preclude the preferences of those more nervous about Iran.)

          One could even argue that the “never use it” strategy is ideal; it’s cheaper to maintain a military if you don’t have to pay the consumable costs of war (lost trade revenue, ammunition expended and replaced, fuel costs,
          combat salaries and expanded forces, wear-and-tear on materiel) and far more humane not to get into the position of putting human beings in the category of “consumables” at all.

  • Pete

    There’s an analogy here.
    The Ukrainian elite allowing Russia to hold back the country is like American public-sector unions holding cities hostage to their greed.
    And like Putin and his Russia, it’s do-or-die for the American public sector unions. That’s because, on average, it membership is useless for just about anything.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    Worst President in History!

    • free_agent

      I’ve heard that before… If we survived Harding, we can survive Nixon/Ford/Carter/Reagan/Bush/Clinton/Bush/Obama/….

  • lukelea
  • lukelea

    “If the Central Powers (China, Russia, Iran) win all three of these contests, the worldwide balance of power will change.”

    Let’s not get carried away.

    • Jim__L

      I beg to differ. Mead makes a good case that Obama’s “strategy” is the horseshoe nail from the nursery rhyme.

  • free_agent

    One feature is that the EU is not expansionist or imperialist by taste. If the US was standing in its shoes, there would be a default desire for “manifest destiny”, to incorporate new people and new territory into the polity, and to be willing to pay political and economic costs to do so. But the EU is only going to do a deal if the current members see the deal as concretely beneficial in the short or at least medium term. They certainly aren’t prepared to sacrifice economically to spread their ideology.

    Another factor is whether Ukraine matters in any global sense.

    • tarentius

      If you don’t think that the leaders of the EU are expansionists then you have been living in a self- imposed state of isolation or delusion.

  • Jack Kalpakian

    Mead, are you so desperate for the good old days of the Cold War that you want to revive it? As your own piece shows, a significant part of Ukraine feels close to Russia. That country is best left alone.

  • hmrhonda

    “undisclosed private offers”–Two billion dollars was offered to Yanukovich’s personal bank account by Putin. What human would turn that down?

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