Bad Idea Jeans: Ukraine Edition

Thursday, April 17, 2014

I read an editorial in the Washington Post the other day that called for sending American soldiers to Ukraine. The piece, written by former (Obama-era) US Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey, advocates a strong stance vis-a-vis Putin by sending American troops to the region (emphasis is my own):

Despite much diplomatic effort, the situation in Ukraine worsens. A coordinated Russian campaign, including an invasion threat, special operations destabilization in eastern Ukraine patterned on the Crimea model, and warnings of gas cutoffs document ever more clearly Vladi­mir Putin’s aim to cripple the Ukrainian government and control much or even all of this strategically vital European country.
The West’s reaction has been weak. The sanctions imposed and contemplated are not dramatic, regardless of immediate Russian losses in volatile stock and currency exchange markets. Europe’s dependence on Russian hydrocarbons, and affinity for Russian investments, were apparent last week when the German foreign minister feted Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov for trade talks, even as NATO photos of Russian military equipment stockpiled near Ukraine emerged. While European foot-dragging is the biggest obstacle to an effective response, some of Washington’s initial comments and actions suggested unwillingness to face the reality of Putin’s actions. The Obama administration also bears the burden of its Middle Eastern policy of avoiding military conflicts. NATO member states in Eastern Europe are asking the same question many in the Middle East have: Can we rely on Washington to make hard military decisions?
The best way to send Putin a tough message and possibly deflect a Russian campaign against more vulnerable NATO states is to back up our commitment to the sanctity of NATO territory with ground troops, the only military deployment that can make such commitments unequivocal.
On closer inspection, Jeffrey's piece is not as bad as it seems: he's advocating sending American troops to Poland, the Baltic states and Romania, rather than to Ukraine.  The problem with the piece, however, lies in its overall approach. Like a lot of the old Cold War types who have been front-and-center in the public discussion of Russia-Ukraine this year, Jeffrey: a) personalizes the conflict around Russian President Vladimir Putin; b) assumes that Putin is in control of the situation in eastern Ukraine; and c) focuses upon the need to look tough vis-a-vis Putin, as if that were an end in itself. 

In other words, Jeffrey's piece at first glance reminded me of something:

'Normally I wear protection, but then I thought when's the next time I can get involved in a conflict over eastern Ukraine?' 

But before we slip on our Bad Idea jeans and start talking about direct American involvement in the present events, there are some other points that we need to think about. When the Cold War ended, the United States never stopped extending its influence into territories that had previously been in the Russian sphere of influence. In 1999, former Warsaw Pact members Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary all joined NATO. Five years later, not only did former Warsaw Pacters Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria join up in eastern Europe, so too did three former republics of the USSR itself--Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Altogether, the alliance--which had just 16 members in 1990--now includes 28 countries.

In January of 2008, then-president George W. Bush called for further enlargement of NATO--specifically to include Georgia and Ukraine.

There were good reasons for joining NATO. Leaders and ordinary people in central and eastern Europe were looking for opportunities to shore up their independence, and the United States (along with the European Union) seemed to offer the best hope of allowing these countries to exist outside Russia's influence. Secondly, by joining NATO former Warsaw Pact countries which may have otherwise shared difficult relations post-Cold War (Hungary and Romania, with their shared historical claims to Transylvania, come to mind) were locked into an alliance with one another. Whereas there were a number of opportunities for conflict to occur in the former Warsaw Pact, the expansion of NATO made it more difficult for rulers in these countries to embark upon adventures of the sort Putin is involved with right now (a point I made 17 years ago in an opinion piece I wrote back in Turkey). Thirdly, joining NATO helped a lot of these countries present themselves internationally as a more stable environment for investment. While integration into the European Union was a much more important priority in almost all of these places, NATO membership was seen by many people as a chance to get security guarantees while going through the stages of EU candidacy. 

Meanwhile, NATO expansion also brought economic benefits to the US and other weapon-producing countries in Europe. When countries join NATO, not only do they become part of an American-based military alliance, they also make themselves weapons customers. One of the stipulations of joining NATO is that new members, who are often already struggling economically, have to upgrade their existing weapons and equipment to make it conform with NATO standards. This constitutes a huge windfall to American and European weapons manufacturers, who are given a new customer every time a country joins the alliance.

Eastern Europe has been, I think, a more peaceful place the last two decades due to NATO's expansion. At the same time, however, the alliance's expansion has also created antagonism in Russia. How do you think people in the United States would respond to Russia concluding a military pact with Mexico, Grenada or Puerto Rico? Do you really think that any of those people who are insisting today that the United States go toe-to-toe with Russia over eastern Ukraine would similarly believe that neighbors of the US have every right to form alliances with whomever they wish?

It is also worth noting that there is a good chance that this adventure could end up blowing up in Putin's face. In 2003, the United States invaded Iraq against the vociferous objections of not only Russia, but also most of America's allies. Nobody in the United States cared about Putin's objections to the invasion of one of Russia's client states. Instead, 64% of Americans supported invading Iraq, a country that had done nothing more to the US than Ukraine had done to Russia. Ten years later, a majority of Americans called the Iraq war a mistake

My sense is that should Russia get involved militarily in eastern Ukraine, a decade from now there will be a similar set of regrets among Russians about the folly of indulging in wars of choice.

What could go wrong for Russia in Ukraine? All of those maps showing neat divisions between 'Ukrainians' in the west and 'Russians' in the east are pretty misleading. In fact, even eastern Ukraine is considerably mixed between Russians and Ukrainians. There is a great amount of intermarriage, and most people are mixed. The Army is also mixed, and has the potential to split in two.

Moreover, Russian military involvement in a separatist conflict in Ukraine would bring risks to Russia that are far more serious than even the problems that Bush created for the US in invading Iraq. While the US is still struggling with the horrible domestic mess that the invasion created (leaving aside for the moment the incredible and pointless suffering of millions of Iraqis), the types of problems that Putin could be creating for Russia connect to Russia's very existence as a country.

Districts and republics of the Russian Federation

Think about it: Putin could very well be leading his country into a violent quagmire right on his country's borders. For a country that is already made up of literally dozens of ethnically-based republics, districts and regions, such a policy seems insane.

For years, Russian governments led by Yeltsin and Putin pursued a conservative foreign policy based upon maintaining existing borders and non-interference in domestic affairs. This was the approach of the Kremlin throughout the 1990s in Yugoslavia, as well as in Iraq in 2003. No more. Putin's 2008 adventure in Georgia marked the end of that approach, as Russia broke off two republics--Southern Ossetia and Abkhazia--from Georgia. Now, in Crimea and elsewhere in Ukraine, a similar policy is underway.

Indeed, my sense is that Putin originally had no desire to go into eastern Ukraine, which has relatively little strategic value to Putin other than as a threat to use against the government in Kyiv. While it is very possible that there are Russian agents in the region, my guess (and it's only a guess) is that the people occupying buildings right now really are locals who are working on their own. Think about how quickly the operation in Crimea went down, as opposed to the back and forth of the past couple of weeks. The events in Crimea looked like a professional operation. Eastern Ukraine, by comparison, has resembled amateur hour.

The eastern Ukrainian tail could end up wagging the Kremlin dog if Russia actually does end up getting involved militarily in the region.

But this is a dangerous game for people in Russia to be playing. For two decades in places like Chechnya, Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, the Kremlin has been seeking to regain control over Russia's myriad of republics and regions, a number of which had declared autonomy or outright independence in the early 1990s. How do you argue that it's okay for Crimea to break away from Ukraine, and for Southern Osettia and Abakhazia to break away from Georgia, but then turn around and argue that it's wrong for Chechnya and other parts Russia to similarly go their own way?

Of course, Putin doesn't have to be intellectually consistent. That's one of the nice things about being powerful, as American leaders--who are no less consistent on this issue than Russian ones (think Kosovo)--have known for some time. If, however, eastern Ukraine turns into the mess that it has the potential to become, the problem for Putin will not be intellectual consistency, but rather the instability that his own policies have fomented. 

And what about the people of Ukraine? They are the ones--no matter what language they speak--who will end up suffering as a result of the great power politics that have played out in the territories of the former USSR over the past twenty years. Caught between a powerful neighbor and a distant suitor who makes only vague promises but offers no concrete guarantees, both Ukraine and Georgia--the two countries singled out by Bush in 2008 for future NATO membership--have been torn apart by this mess. No matter what, they are the losers in this game.

Also see:

Will he or won't he? Putin and Eastern Ukraine

Crimea and Eastern Ukraine: Things Can Always Get Worse

Tough Options

Russia and the Politics of Citizenship

The Crimea: More Than Just a War

More Thoughts on the Crimea

Crimea on the Brink: What's Going On?

South Ossetia and the Fate of the Mini-Republics

More thoughts on South Ossetia

Obama, Russia and the Middle East

Trouble in Ukraine
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