Putin's Munich Moment
Protected by two oceans with friendly neighbors on our northern and southern borders, Americans aren’t naturally inclined to concern themselves with disruptions in other parts of the world. Nothing shows our global disinterest and detachment more than not knowing the location of a country or much about it – unless it’s one of the biggies like Germany, Russia, China, and maybe a handful of others.
Take Ukraine, for example. Where the heck is that place? What’s all the fuss about Russia and Crimea? And why should I care?
Google a map and you’ll see that Ukraine is due south of Moscow. Russia borders about half of its northern border and its entire eastern border. On the Ukrainian south is the Black Sea. Jutting out into it like the Greek Peloponnese is Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula so much in the news.
When the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics collapsed the day following Christmas in 1991, Ukraine was one of the 15 Republics to escapee the embrace of the Russian bear hug. Like the other escapees, Ukrainians are bilingual – Russian was the required lingua franca – and many were multilingual since a great number of ethnic groups make up their society. But Slavic Ukrainian is the mother tongue for two-thirds on the country – increasingly so as one travels west today– and one-third are Russian speakers with Ukrainian as their second language. The majority of Russia speakers are concentrated in Crimea.
Looking at a map of the former USSR, one is struck with the size of Russia – 11 time zones wide – and the indicators of its poor economic condition: Russia has 30% fewer miles of paved road than the state of Texas and its [GDP](en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ListofcountriesbyGDP_(nominal) is slightly less than Brazil’s and slightly more than Italy’s. Russia’s GDP is one-eighth (12%) of the US GDP.
Crimea is an autonomous province within Ukraine. It was created in 1954 when Nikita Khrushchev, who was half-Ukrainian, transferred it to Ukraine oversight. At the time it meant nothing since both Crimea and Ukraine were part of the USSR. But lately Vladimir Putin has been crying, “We wuz robbed,” as he disputes the legality of the 1954 transfer. Since Putin was two years old at the time he was not consulted. About 60% of Crimean residents are native Russia speakers, many of them living around Sevastopol, the principal port for the Russian Black Sea fleet. Crimea has a governing parliament, but the Ukrainian government has veto power over its actions. As the USSR was falling apart in 1991, 90% of Ukraine voted to secede. The Crimean vote for independence was 56% despite its large Russian population.
While Crimea may be an autonomous province, its economy and infrastructure is integrated with Ukraine. Over a billion dollars of Crimea’s annual budget revenue comes from the Ukrainian capital at Kiev. Most of its water, 80% of its electricity and two-thirds of its natural gas comes from Ukraine. In other words, Crimea is not a country that can go it alone.
The decade following independence was difficult for Ukrainians (including Crimeans) as its economy converted from the centralized Soviet command economy to a market-based economy. But relative prosperity arrived and continued until the 2008 world economic meltdown. As Ukrainians tasted the good life, they tilted toward the west. The west in turn tilted toward Ukraine, inviting the country to join the European Union provided it cleaned up its political act. One of several conditions required freeing Yulia Tymoshenko from prison, the details of which can be read at her hyperlink. (You may recall that she was Prime Minister when Viktor Yushchenko became the third post-independence president. He allegedly was poisoned by Russian agents who favored the pro-Russian candidate, Viktor Yanukovych. Yushchenko’s face was grotesquely pocked by the poison but he eventually healed.)
A victim of the 2008 global meltdown, the Ukrainian economy went south along with Yushchenko’s popularity. He lost the 2010 presidential election to Viktor Yanukovych, a corrupt Russian stooge. Despite Yanukovych’s promise to join the EEU, when the time came to sign on the dotted line, he reneged. His best bud, Vlad Putin, had made him a better offer – a $15 billion loan, discounts on natural gas imports from Russia, and membership in the Eurasian Union, also called the Customs Union, which Putin intends to be a counterweight to the EEU. The Customs Union does not even exist at this time and won’t exist until early 2015, if then. But one fact is certain: no democracies need apply.
The Customs Union will be a political and economic union more in the mold of the former Soviet suppression of civil, political, and economic liberty. It will be a throw-back to old style Cold War paranoia. Putin’s Kremlin suspects the real motive behind the EEU flirtation with Ukraine is to weaken Russia and its influence in the world. Thus, Putin’s Syrian mediation, which bested Team Obama-Kerry game, set, and match, showed his commitment to be a global alternative to the influence of the west.
President Yanukovych’s repudiation of the EEU last November squelched hopes for westernizing Ukraine. Gone were the hopes of improving the lives of its citizens through the much needed economic, political, and judicial reforms which EEU membership would have compelled. Protestors responded by taking to the streets. This is what they did to dispute the rigged 2004 election which Yanukovych supposedly won but the Court nullified it allowing Yushchenko to become President. Unlike 2004 in which street protests were peacefully tolerated by the government, this time the incompetent Yanukovych government fought back. A number of protesters were killed. Yanukovych fled Kiev for eastern Ukraine which was more pro-Russian. Parliament voted to remove him from office and replace him with an interim President. And Tymoshenko was released from prison allowing her to fly to Germany for treatment of spinal injuries she received while imprisoned.
Seizing upon Ukrainian political instability Putin expanded his military presence in Crimea. He alleged the move was made to protect the security of the Russian fleet base and Russian revenues from natural gas lines which went through Ukraine to Black Sea ports. Hogwash. Russian troops also crossed the Crimean-Ukraine border to seize a natural gas plant on Ukrainian soil.
An extraordinary election was called to give the pro-Russia Crimean peninsula the opportunity to secede from Ukraine and rejoin Mother Russia. The election ignored all constitutional requirements. People opposed to secession and Russia repatriation failed to vote, fearful of their lives. Some who voted may have done so illegally, including voting more than once. Election observers and cameras weren’t allowed. Remarkably, 125% of the registered voters voted. Not so remarkable, secession won by 96.7%. Therefore, as of Sunday, Crimean time was set to Moscow time, banking reorganization began to integrate with Russian banking, and other forms of Russian integration were initiated.
Putin further claims he has the right to “defend” “Russian citizens” anywhere in Ukraine. Since Russians are scattered throughout the country, that means he can invade at will, despite the fact that more than a few Russians don’t want repatriation with Mother Russia.
If you’re a student of history thinking all of this seems strangely familiar, you’d be correct. In 1938 Hitler demanded that Czechoslovakia cede the Sudetenland – that portion of Czechoslovakia which was populated by German speakers. The cowards in the west led by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and French Prime Minister Édouard Daladier did nothing – but talk.
Like Hitler, Putin is a bully and one heck of a good poker player. He effectively invaded Georgia almost six years ago and annexed two provinces. As it had done 70 years earlier, the west did nothing but talk. Putin now invades Crimea, crosses into Ukraine to seize a gas production facility, and reserves the right to make further incursions. Obama and Kerry talk, warn, wag fingers, and do nothing.
Putin has seen these two clowns in action before. Obama-Kerry established Syrian red lines and did nothing. They warned Iran that going nuclear wouldn’t be tolerated and did nothing. They warned North Korea about firing provocative missile test shots and did nothing. They warned China about maneuvers in the international waters of the South China Sea and did nothing. Putin watched as America shed its military might to increase welfare spending. He watched as Obama pulled out of Iraq and Afghanistan so inadvisably as to squander all gains paid by American blood and treasure. He watched as Obama abdicated the US role as world leader and focused his administration on US income inequality. He watched and watched and watched, and rightly concluded that Obama is an over-cautious professorial politician in the Woodrow Wilson mold … a good talker but a feckless leader.
We don’t have to respond to Putin with military action. In many respects Russia is a third-world country. Shutting down all business – and I mean ALL BUSINESS including our energy purchases – with Russia and trying to get our allies to do likewise would bring Russia to its knees. Who will give Russia economic aid then? China? It has its own economic problems. Sending military aid to Ukraine would help salvage “Ukraine military” from its current oxymoron status, arming it to resist. There are other non-military initiatives we could take to let Putin know he was in a bare knuckle fight. But alas, Obama hasn’t the spine to face down Putin as his hero Kennedy did to Khrushchev in the Cuban missile crisis.
With a little imagination anyone can see where Putin is headed. He wants to reconstruct the collapsed Russian empire, which he has called “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”. Putin’s geopolitical mentor, Aleksandr Dugin, promotes a radical ideology that sounds very much like Hitler’s Anschluss – except now reuniting of all of the Slavic people in Europe. “Only a global crusade against the US, the West, globalization, and their political-ideological expression, liberalism, is capable of becoming an adequate response. … The American empire should be destroyed.” And the Russian empire should be resurrected. Tough talk. Google Dugin’s name. You’ll get an eyeful.
Putin hasn’t been jetting around Eurasia making friends, loans, and weapon deals because he’s collecting frequent flyer points. As Admiral Painter famously told Jack Ryan in The Hunt for Red October, “Russians don’t take a dump, son, without a plan.”
Those who think my concerns are just conspiracy theories should remember that six months after the 1938 Munich Agreement, Hitler swallowed up all of Czechoslovakia. Six months after that he invaded Poland and massacred its citizens. Six months later he invaded France, defeating it in one month. For the next five years, the world fought a war that cost 60 million lives. Almost one and a half million were Ukrainians – 15% of the Soviet losses.
Evil cannot reveal its aims when it initially appears. Its course and ultimate consequence are determined by the neglect of men anxious to minimize their response it.
Now, what was that prophetic statement by George Santayana?
Ah, yes: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”