The Ukranian Crisis

Wire reports suggest that Russia has seized the government buildings in the Crimea:

Dozens of pro-Russian gunmen in combat fatigues seized parliament and government buildings on Ukraine's volatile Crimea peninsula Thursday as lawmakers in Kiev prepared to approve a pro-Western cabinet for the divided ex-Soviet state.

The dawn raid came a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered snap combat readiness drills near the Ukrainian border, which raised fears of the Kremlin using its military muscle to sway the outcome of a three-month crisis that has pitted Moscow against against the West in a Cold War-style confrontation over the future of the strategic nation of 46 million.

The BBC says Russian forces on Ukraine's border are on high alert: "Russia has put 150,000 combat troops on high alert near its border with Ukraine. The Russian defence Ministry says it is taking measures to guarantee the safety of the Black Sea Fleet, which is based in Crimea."

For legal cover, the former president of the Ukraine has asked for Russian protection. "Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych has released a statement saying he still considers himself president of Ukraine and asking the Russian authorities for protection."

Ukraine's acting interior minister has put internal security forces on high alert after reports that Russian proxies had seized buildings in the Crimea.

Meanwhile, according to Reuters, Ukraine said "it would regard any movements by Russian military in Crimea outside the Russian Black Sea fleet's base in Sevastopol as an act of aggression. Acting President Oleksander Turchinov issued the warning in the national parliament after armed men seized the regional government and parliament buildings in Crimea, where some ethnic Russians want the region to join the Russian Federation."

Another Reuters report says that "fighter jets along Russia's western borders have been put on combat alert, the Defence Ministry was quoted as saying on Thursday by Interfax news agency":

"Constant air patrols are being carried out by fighter jets in the border regions," Interfax quoted a ministry statement as saying. "From the moment they received the signal to be on high alert, the air force in the western military region left for the ... air bases."

The USS Mount Whitney has left the Black Sea and is currently reported in Istanbul, rumored to be on its way back to the Med.

It is obvious that a very dangerous international crisis has emerged in Eastern Europe. The following days will answer the following questions:

  1. Will Putin take the Crimea by force? And if so, will his ambitions be limited to simply securing the Black Sea Fleet's bases or are they more extensive?
  2. What else, besides issuing statements, are the Western powers, especially President Obama, prepared to do?

Particularly worrisome are reports that Viktor Yanukovych, who still considers himself president of the Ukraine, has invoked Russian protection. Yanukovych cannot merely be the president of the Crimea. Either he -- and the Russians -- rule over the whole of the Ukraine, or nothing at all. Of course Yanukovych may simply be putting on airs or being held up as a bargaining chip, but the stakes have never been higher.

So far, this crisis has been characterized by mutual miscalculation. If the West did not anticipate that the previous Ukranian government would renege on the EU deal, neither did Putin appear to recognize the power of the opposition. Both sides have blundered into this confrontation. The wild card is the Ukranians, who will now be pressed to deal, but who may not deal. Another source of uncertainty is the effect of national pride, which so absent in the West is yet a potent factor in Russia.

The last source of uncertainty is Western leadership. It seems fair to say there are differences between the EU leadership and Washington. Ordinarily, those fractures might not be vitally important. But as President Obama contemplates the ruins of his "reset" policy, all the defects of his leadership are magnified in this crisis. Things really matter now; the time for "fast and loose" is over.

One of the most interesting backfixes on the crisis is provided by George Soros, who wrote just yesterday about the role he played in Ukranian events and his hope for a German-led dominion of Central Europe:

I established the Renaissance Foundation in Ukraine in 1990 -- before the country achieved independence. The foundation did not participate in the recent uprising, but it did serve as a defender of those targeted by official repression. The foundation is now ready to support Ukrainians’ strongly felt desire to establish resilient democratic institutions (above all, an independent and professional judiciary). But Ukraine will need outside assistance that only the EU can provide: management expertise and access to markets.

Ukraine would thus open its domestic market to goods manufactured or assembled by European companies’ wholly- or partly-owned subsidiaries, while the EU would increase market access for Ukrainian companies and help them integrate into global markets.

I hope and trust that Europe under German leadership will rise to the occasion. I have been arguing for several years that Germany should accept the responsibilities and liabilities of its dominant position in Europe. Today, Ukraine needs a modern-day equivalent of the Marshall Plan, by which the United States helped to reconstruct Europe after World War II. Germany ought to play the same role today as the US did then.

I must, however, end with a word of caution. The Marshall Plan did not include the Soviet bloc, thereby reinforcing the Cold War division of Europe. A replay of the Cold War would cause immense damage to both Russia and Europe, and most of all to Ukraine, which is situated between them. Ukraine depends on Russian gas, and it needs access to European markets for its products; it must have good relations with both sides.

Here, too, Germany should take the lead. Chancellor Angela Merkel must reach out to President Vladimir Putin to ensure that Russia is a partner, not an opponent, in the Ukrainian renaissance.

One is almost tempted ask: what could go wrong? How much danger could there be in putting German and Russian interests in opposition in the Ukraine? In carrying out the ambitions of George Soros? For many years the single most important function that America played was to stand between the fuel and spark. That was the thankless role of the hegemon. To keep China and Japan apart. And so it was through all those decades until someone came to Washington convinced he knew better. But as President Obama put it so well, who needs a George Kennan?

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