I've been closely following the situation in Ukraine for some time. In the one hundredth anniversary of the start of The Great War, I have to say I am horrified by the potential for a new great power conflict with the weaponry at the disposal of the powers today. The world, of course, is a different place than it was in 1914, but the possibilities of great power conflict through a misunderstanding of interests or miscalculation by the leadership of the countries involved could easily lead us to another costly conflict.
Is it probable? As of this writing it is not. Is it possible? Yes. And, given that we have to think of the possibilities (9/11 taught us that, if nothing else), what are the scenarios? How should we--as the liberal/progressive base--react? What happens if the situation spirals out of control?
This is the most important contest between the powers since the end of the Cold War. How it plays out will impact the foreign policies of all the powers for many years to come.
Follow me below the squiggle for more.
What does Russia want? Putin has, since his coming to the presidency the first time back in 2000 desired to restore Russia's place in the world after the demise of the USSR and the mess created in its aftermath. He saw Yeltsin as weak and ineffective, both in allowing the kleptocrats within Russia to gain so much influence and in Russia's standing abroad. He was reasonably successful at reining in the business sector, famously imprisoningMikhail Khodorovsky, Russia's richest man via oil (now seen as a dissenter, but a very flawed one). Putin did all of this while playing to the Russian nationalists.
Internationally, Putin has tried to reestablish Russia's position as a great power to be taken seriously. Russian intervention in Georgia in 2008, the sending of Russian naval vessels to ports not seen since the USSRand an independent, if not intransigent, position in international affairs (Kosovo, Libya, Syria, etc. Putin even said recently that Kosovo was part of Serbia). Usually, these positions are contrary to the West (EU and US). Putin has been compared to a modern Charles De Gaulle, and I think the comparison makes sense.
Putin's policies are not being made up in a vacuum, but following long-held Russian objectives that span the histories of the USSR and Tsarist Russia. The goal has been to expand Russia's influence in those regions bordering it--especially the Black Sea, but also the Baltic, Eastern Europe, Central Europe and, to a lesser extent, the Pacific. In the Black Sea region, Russia's old goal has been Constantinople/Istanbul. Controlling the straits to the Mediterranean would provide Russia with easy access for its navy to the rest of the world. Russian Orthodoxy has long seen itself as the true heirs to the religion of the East, with the Greek Orthodox Byztantine Empire being the heir of Rome. With the fall of Constantinople in 1452, Moscow saw itself as the new heirs of Rome, hence the title of Tsar (Russian for Caesar).
It is not a surprise that Turkey has had a role in the negotiations in Ukraine this week.
The Crimea has been an integral part of Russia's Black Sea policy since it acquired the region in the 18th century. The names of Sevastopol and Balaclava should both ring in the ears of Westerners, as the Crimean War (1853-1856) was fought to hold back Russian expansion in the region (the Ottomans were then the country being assisted by the West, most notable France and Britain).
Today, Tennyson's poetry reminds us of the past conflict in the region:
"Forward, the Light Brigade!"So, Putin is following a well-worn path. However, as 1914 proved, local conflicts can become international conflicts very quickly. Following Christopher Clark's recently published The Sleepwalkers (an outstanding book, btw), what was originally a local Balkan conflict between an intransigent Serbia and an Austria-Hungary seeking retribution after the assassination of its heir to the Hapsburg throne turned into a global conflict after Russia made the decision--based on internal nationalistic politics and a Slavophile public--to mobilize on behalf of the Serbs (who were clearly responsible for the assassination). Russia was egged on by France, which was decidedly anti-German. Germany supported Austria. Upon Russian mobilization, Germany put the Schlieffen Plan into action, hoping to win a two-front war by defeating France (as they had in 1870) and then turning to Russia before full Russian mobilization had occurred. The Result: 10 million plus dead and the world would never be the same.
Was there a man dismay'd?
Not tho' the soldier knew
Someone had blunder'd:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
While the circumstances are different, we once again face a Russia willing to use military force against a neighbor. In this case Ukraine has guarantees of its territorial sovereignty from the West. The potential for a broader conflict should Russia invade is greater than ever since the end of the Cold War.
The implications of a Russian intervention do not stop at Ukraine. The Czech ambassador to Russia was withdrawn, stating that there should be no more Prague Springs. The Baltic states have been the most vocal of the EU in calling for restraint by Russia.
What happens if Russia invades? I don't know. As Chuck Hagel said today:
The Pentagon chief declined to spell out any specific steps the U.S. might take as a result of Russian forces entering other parts of Ukraine, but he added, "This could be a very dangerous situation if this continues in a very provocative way. We have many options, like any nations do. We're trying to deal with the diplomatic focus. That's the appropriate responsible approach and that's what we're going to continue."I hope an international coalition would use diplomacy to force Putin to withdraw and face serious penalties. However, a military response by the West is not out of the question. The US has plenty of air and naval assets in the region (the US 6th Fleet in the Med, airbases in Turkey and Europe, naval forces in the Persian Gulf, and who knows how many subs throughout the region). We, along with NATO, could make things very uncomfortable for the Russians.
If we respond militarily, how does Russia react? This is where scary scenarios come into play. Should Russians get killed in any US operations, will Russia try to go after US assets?
Cyberstrikes might be one way. Russia has a history of hacking into US systems. Perhaps a Stuxnet-type attack against US infrastructure would be one way for Russia to reach the US without actual military assets being used.Russia argues that Stuxnet was used against one of it nuclear facilities last year. This would just be retribution.
Russia still has an extensive submarine network worldwide. Their use against American shipping could be another option. They have advanced weaponry and could also be used against targets on land.
Finally, if Russians are being defeated by US/NATO forces, how long might it be before someone in the Russian government considers a nuclear option? Do we really feel that Putin is such a rational actor that he would not consider it?
So, what can we do? I strongly believe that we have to rein in the hawks both within the administration and elsewhere in our political system. The often sad Democratic efforts to show strength when the GOP complains about weakness must be resisted.
Already, the GOP warmongers are ratcheting up the rhetoric:
"Putin is playing chess and I think we're playing marbles," said Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, speaking on Fox News Sunday. Rogers said the Russians have been "running circles around us" in negotiations on such items as Syria and missile defense.In the 2004 election, it came to light that John Kerry has extensively studied The Great War. He understands the lessons and I have faith that he will do everything he can to avoid its mistakes. However, we are in a very tense situation and anything can happen....
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., speaking on CNN's State of the Union, said "we have a weak and indecisive president," and that "invites aggression."
6:43 PM PT: UPDATE: John Kerry is on his way to Kiev. Putin has agreed to allow for an OSCE fact finding mission after a discussion with Merkel.
Mon Mar 03, 2014 at 7:36 AM PT: From the BBC:
15:15: Breaking News
Russia's Black Sea Fleet has given Ukrainian forces in Crimea until 5:00 local time (03:00 GMT) on Tuesday to surrender or face an all-out assault, according to Ukrainian defence ministry sources quoted by Interfax-Ukraine news agency. "If by 5am tomorrow morning they do not surrender a real assault will begin on units and sections of the Ukrainian armed forces all over Crimea," defence ministry officials are quoted as saying. So far there is no further confirmation of the ultimatum from other sources.
Mon Mar 03, 2014 at 9:20 AM PT: from the BBC:
The Russian defence ministry has apparently denied reports that Russian forces gave an ultimatum to the Ukrainian troops in Crimea (see 15:58 entry). "This is utter nonsense", a spokesman for the Russian defence ministry told Vedomosti, a Russian broadsheet.