If I were playing Vladimir Putin’s side of the board, I would keep the Ukraine on a low boil rather than take overt military action. Russia’s influence in Ukraine’s military is enormous (every officer above the rank of major came up through the ranks of the Red Army), and Kiev now concedes that its security forces are “helpless” against a handful of pro-Russian gunmen occupying public buildings, because elements of the military and police are collaborating with “the Russians.” That is because they are Russians.
America policy towards Ukraine, as I wrote in the cited March 26 post, isn’t even wrong. It’s irrelevant.
Our Republican mainstream leaders are like blind men in a labyrinth clutching a thread. The thread is their ideology: they believe it will lead them to a glorious era of liberal democracy, which in their Natural Law/Natural Rights belief structure is the inevitable shape of the future. The thread has taken them over broken glass, dragon’s teeth and pitfalls; after the disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan and Libya and the collapse of the Arab Spring, they are bruised and bleeding. But they clutch the thread all the tighter, because it is all they have to guide them. Without ideology they would be utterly lost in the welter of foreign tongues, customs and prejudices.
There is a crisis in Ukraine because the country imploded after twenty years of post-Communist kleptocracy. Everybody turned up at Maidan last year, from neo-fascist crazies to democratic idealists and threw out the democratically-elected president (who was not Moscow’s first choice in 2010; the Kremlin then preferred Yulia Timoshenko). Putin had offered to bail out Ukraine with nearly $20 billion of fresh money and forbearance on perhaps $20 billion of arrears for natural gas delivery. The Ukrainians didn’t want to affiliate with Moscow, and they also didn’t want to accept IMF aid if it meant the end of the subsidies that keep most Ukrainians warm and fed. Now the economy has shut down, and the country owns $35 billion to Russia and will need yet another $15 billion this year to cover its current account deficit. That’s what the West bought into after Maidan.
Ukraine is not headed towards a glorious future of Western-style democracy. The best of its young people have emigrated. In Europe’s race towards demographic extinction Ukraine leads by six lengths. It now has per capital income of $3,300, barely above Egypt. The West is not faced with another Hitler and another Sudetenland. Putin wants what Russia always has had, namely Crimea, and wants Ukraine as a buffer against NATO. If the West attempts to bring Ukraine into NATO, Russia will use force and split the country. Why the West would want this basket case in NATO is a good question: as we just saw, the Kiev government can’t trust its own military and police. Why should we?
We should have proposed a federal solution to Ukraine before the Russians did. That’s what we will get, like it or not. Ukraine is not the issue; any discussion that begins with Ukraine is not even wrong, just irrelevant.
If we play our cards wrong, we could — as Francesco Sisci warns — undo everything that Nixon and Kissinger accomplished and help bring an unfriendly Eurasian bloc into being. I can’t think of a foreign policy more self-defeating since Napoleon III declared war on Prussia.