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Careful Optimism or What Would Have Done (or Would Do) Ronald Reagan with the Situation in Crimea

Careful Optimism or What Would Have Done (or Would Do) Ronald Reagan with the Situation in Crimea

8 March 2014

‘I am not going to start that World War III because of you”

General Michael Jackson (General’s response to the order to knock out Russian troops from the Pristina airport during the conflict in Kosovo in 1999)

“The Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them”

The words attributed to Vladimir Lenin

Instead of an introduction

Before proceeding to the main issue of this publication, I would like to place some coordinates that will define how I see the situation around the Crimea in its international aspect.

When Vladimir Putin came to power in Russia in 2000, during his first inaugural speech he mentioned, among other things, the restoration of Russia as a great power. Currently in the theory of international relations such a Russia means one that dominates at least in its region – in this particular case we are talking about the Post-Soviet space. It means that implementing Putin’s idea to restore Russia as a great power would not be possible without reformatting the former Soviet Union region with the Kremlin’s exclusive right to veto strategic decisions of the former Soviet republics – the so-called reincarnation of “Brezhnev Doctrine”, but in a much narrower region compared to the communist era.

In fact, during his time in power Putin allocated lots of time and resources for this aim. And Ukraine had and still has a central place in such plans – successfully implementing the plan to establish informal control over our state would mean that Putin will be able to conquer other countries in the European part of the former Soviet Union, given the much lower potential of these countries compared to Ukraine. Therefore, it is clear that any attempt of the West (either through NATO enlargement – which according to Moscow is an openly hostile form of Western activity — or in a milder form of association agreements and free trade area with the EU) to reformat former Soviet space without Russia’s participation, arouses resistance. Therefore, confrontation is inevitable: this in fact we are seeing today. The only question is in the manifestations and forms – a cold war could escalate into something more active.

The question

Actually today’s confrontation in Ukraine is a unique form of informal dialogue-discussion between the West and the Kremlin as to the rules under which the former USSR countries will live and what should be the role of Russian Federation in these countries.

The seizure of Crimea by Vladimir Putin poses a clear question to the West – do you recognize in West that Post-Soviet space is a sphere of our privileged interests (as Dmitry Medvedev said in 2008)?

Actually after conflicts in Kyiv finished with signing of the agreement with the mediation and help of France, Germany and Poland, we faced another problem – how Russia will react on these events. And to put it simply – at what price the Kremlin is ready to give up.

On 24 February 2014 Financial Times publishes Zbigniew Brzezinski’s article where he offers a plan of “Finlandization of Ukraine” – meaning no entry of Ukraine into NATO with gradual integration into the EU.

Why should we defer to his thoughts today? Let me just say that in 2008, Zbigniew Brzezinski advised future President Barack Obama on international affairs, and thus his present opinion was also important for the US government, and as it often happens, may affect the decision.

Similar ideas were also supported by Thomas Graham, who in 2004-2007 was the leading advisor in the George W. Bush administration on issues of Eurasia, in an article for the American Interest magazine.

Let me deviate a little bit from the main topic and mark the evolution of Brzezinski’s position, and largely the American leaders’ position, on Ukraine’s place in the system of international relations, and the meaning of Ukraine in the strategy regarding Russia. There is only one conclusion – Mr. Brzezinski of 1997 and 2014 are two different people. After all, in the world-famous book “The Grand Chessboard” he wrote about the need for Euro-Atlantic integration of Ukraine – today he talks only about the European one. It could be explained by the fact that for a long time confrontation has been going not around the Post-Soviet space, and the US cannot allow themselves to alienate Russia and throw it into the arms of China: Washington and Beijing still need to find a way to coexist in the world and approaches to achieving this. Of course this does not apply to us regular Ukrainians directly – but Ukrainian leaders must understand it. So to speak, in order not to have too many illusions about US interests with respect to Ukraine and Russia.

Coming back to the main question, it is worth mentioning that the Kremlin was not satisfied with such informal proposals of West with respect to Ukraine’s future. Russian experts clearly say that Ukraine needs to change its course towards strengthening of relations with the EU.

And, thus, Vladimir Putin started to attack. It is worth mentioning the words of the famous diplomat and strategist George Kennan that attack in Russia usually means a defense function. Therefore, all Putin’s actions can be recognized not as an act of courage, but just a simple fear for his own regime. As it was nicely put by the Russian political scientist Liliya Shvetsova – a successful Ukraine would be equal to a death sentence for the current Russian government.

Putin’s determination only strengthened the events surrounding Syria in August and September 2013, when Barack Obama refused to use force after promising to do so in 2012 in case of use of chemical weapons. While in fact Washington’s policy of “reset” of 2009-2013 in relation to Moscow was perceived as a sign of the US’s weakness, after all, it was America’s initiative and Russians were waiting for some eligible proposals. This is the mystery of Russian’s strategic culture when the willingness to have dialogue and cooperation is seen as a weakness. Therefore, after the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Putin decides to attack and Russia actually captures the Crimea. In my opinion, the purpose of this was to create yet another lever of influence on Ukraine in form of a separatist region, as the classic toolkit of Kremlin’s pressure on Ukraine stopped being persuasive enough. It strikes attention that the “frozen conflicts” is largely the main means of Russian influence on the countries of the European part of the former Soviet Union – that is why they used the approved plan.

The answer

Clearly, now it’s West’s turn to answer the question. And the answer would define the rules under which the Euro-Atlantic space will live, as well as the role of Ukraine and Russia in it. It is clear that Kremlin must receive appropriate arguments. The US had already formed its answer – the people of Ukraine have to decide their own destiny and choose with whom to have closer ties in form of integration. Translating this from diplomatic language, this means that Washington does not recognize that Post-Soviet space is a sphere of Russia’s privileged interests.

However, the West will have problems with putting the arguments.

While reading Times on the situation in Ukraine I came across the comment which is landmark for further analysis. JohnMadison11 wrote the following: “Why do some ppl think the military option is “off the table” for US, EU or NATO? We would kick Putin’s crazy butt. We have better weapons systems than the Russians and vastly more people. My Grandpa was brave enough to fight in WWII to stop one crazy leader from taking over other countries in Europe… I understand if some of my fellow Americans are too scared but I would fight if we were called upon for the same reasons my Grandpa did and I mean that honestly.”

Of course, we can only be grateful for the willingness of the American citizen to follow the example of his grandfather and also fight against aggressor in Europe. Basically, all that JohnMadison11 wrote about better equipment of the US army is truth. Indeed, the US army dominates the Russia in conventional weapons. However, there is only one problem which President Barack Obama always bears in mind – Russia is the only country in the world which can in case of necessity destroy the US with its nuclear weapons. That is why I used for the epigraph the words of the of US General Michael Jackson who in 1999 refused to storm the Pristina airport which was taken by the Russian paratroopers performing peacekeeping mission in neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina and who promptly arrived by the order from Moscow to the capital of Kosovo.

It is sad to recognize that the US’s possibilities with this regard are limited. Washington did not dare to start the military conflict even in 1962 during the Caribbean crisis, when the US had the advantages over the Soviet Union in strategic weapons. Theoretically, the US could have made counter-force attach and destroy the strategic nuclear forces of the USSR. At that time there were 22 intercontinental ballistic missiles (they could have been embattled in 23 hours and 45 minutes) and a few dozen of strategic bomber planes the chances of which to reach the US were minimal.

In addition, Russia has the ability to neutralize the conventional superiority of the US, especially in the part of the Navy, as Russian military forces will be working on their land. Of course, we can be happy about the news that American supercarrier USS George HW Bush (CVN- 77) in the nearest time will be in the Aegean Sea. However, from a legal point of view it will not be able to enter the Black Sea – its tonnage is 97,000 tons, and under the Convention dated 1936 the non-Black Sea countries can have ships in the waters of the Black Sea with the total tonnage not exceeding 30 thousand tons.

Of course, how can we talk about the international law when Russia did an action of aggression against Ukraine. The Russia, however, will find an opportunity to fend off the US military power. We should not forget that the missile cruiser “Moskva”, which is the flagship of the Black Sea Fleet, is the ship of the 1164 “Atlant” project which on West is referred to as a “supercarrier killer”. Such ship has 16 anti-ship missiles P-1000 “Vulcan” on its board. In addition, Russia has an opportunity to create a group which will be armed with anti-ship missiles and other defense systems, which will be cover in air by defense systems C-300 and C- 400.

Therefore, the military option in such case, as Americans would say, is “off the table”. Though, as the history shows (e.g. the Crimean War), it could have been the best way to teach Russian leaders who understand only force.

Vladimir Putin is flexing his muscles and using one of the biggest weaknesses of the Western strategic culture. The modern European strategic culture envisages soft and structural force in its foreign policy, rather than the military one. This disadvantage is of course compensated by the American strategy and by such institution as NATO. But the US is also facing military restrictions in Russia’s case – the possibility of a nuclear apocalypse has a big deterrent effect.

In fact during 2008 conflict between Russia and Georgia, the US could only bring humanitarian aid using the Navy. Of course, the possibility of using force was considered, particularly with regard to blocking of the Roksky tunnel. However, as later noted by the former US President’s adviser on issues of national security Stephen Hadley, the Bush Junior administration understood that in the case of Russia the United State came to the point where they cannot cross the line without starting the third World War.

But what about the economic pressure, as an impatient reader may ask? Indeed, in the case with Russia economic pressure could be an effective tool in solving the problem around the Crimea.

In such case we need to consider West not as a single entity, but rather as the EU and US The US’s possibilities to put economic pressures on Kremlin are limited. The mutual trade between the two countries is USD 39,9 billion. Therefore, even the complete rupture of trade relations with the United States will not bring fatal consequences for Russia – unlike the EU which accounts for 50% of the total foreign trade of the Russian Federation. Thus, Washington decided to suspend negotiations with Kremlin on the trade agreement which would allow bringing the trade regimes closer to the FTA.

The relevant EU policy towards Russia will be decisive, since Russian oil and gas make up 27% and 31% respectively of the energy balance of this integrated community. Andreas Umland, a political scientist, stated in one of his recent publications that united Europe can put Russia on the spot, if it wants to, because today Kremlin is more dependent on oil dollars from Europe than Europe on Russian energy carriers. That means that Russia has no other market for gas and oil, which could replace the European one. In contrast, the EU implements an effective policy of energy supply diversification.

The point is that there are must be a political will. In this context, it would be worthy to get back to the history. In 1980s, the former president of the USA Ronald Regan understood the importance of energy carriers for the survival of the USSR and made all his efforts to prevent the construction of the “gas pipeline of millennium” – well-known today as Urengoy-Pomary-Uzhgorod. His success was still not complete, since the European partners continued the realization of the project, although the number of main lines was reduced from 2 to 1.

What does this story show us? Germany and France approved the realization of the project at the time when the Soviet army was located in the center of Europe, it could have reached Bonn, the former capital of the FRG, in a day (of course the nuclear weapons, which would have been immediately used, are not taken into account). What can be said today when the Kremlin’s appetites are only limited to the Post-Soviet space?

Given our situation, some important details must be clarified. On 03 March 2014 Laurent Fabius, the Foreign Minister, stated that France would continue to implement fully all agreements with Russia, including those in military sphere (this is about the construction of the helicopter carriers “Mistral” for the Russian Navy). On the same day, the mass media of Great Britain revealed the secret government document saying that Russia will still be able to access the London financial market and local real estate.

The same can be said about Germany – Gerhard Schroeder, the former Chancellor of the FRG and the head of the project “The Nord Stream”, delivered a lecture at the German embassy in France, having criticized the sanctions against Russia and its exclusion from the G8. The news that Gerhard Schroeder will be introduced to the Board of Directors of “Rosneft” (“Russian oil”) may sound even more ironical in the light of his speech.

The reaction of Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who criticized the idea of Russian isolation, can also demonstrate a lot. This is in strong contrast to that role Germany played in the regulation of the inner crisis in Ukraine.

A historical parallel with the already mentioned Crimean war can be drawn. At the time when English and French armies tried to conquer Sevastopol, ships with Russian wheat were heading to Europe, and to Great Britain as well.

In fact, Vladimir Putin plays with the weak sides of capitalist system, so properly described by Vladimir Lenin. Moreover, not only Western Europe cooperates closely with Russia but also many countries which seem to have relieved of Kremlin’s domination not that long ago. The Czech Republic, the Slovak Republic, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania are among them.

Hungary and Bulgaria take part in the realization of Russia’s “South Stream” project, which they promise to protect, confrontating the European Commission. Moreover, Bulgaria got Russian loans in 2013. In January 2014, an agreement was signed between Russia and Hungary concerning the construction of two energy blocks on the Nuclear Power Plant Paksh, financed by means of the Russian state loan. The Czech Republic and Romania want to get access to the Russian market. While participating in realizing the American plan of missile defense (the ground component of the US missile defense complex must be installed on the Deveselu base in 2015), Bucharest offers Russia its vote in NATO and in the EU in case of a decrease in the negative trade balance and a return of the Romanian gold. The Slovak Republic can benefit from the price reduction, made by “Gazprom” at the end of 2013. The new price is kept in secret.

Taking into account the factor of slow economic recovery after the financial crisis in the EU, the European countries may not want to lose the Russian market.

That means that only Poland and Baltic countries have more weighted positions towards the challenges from Russia. The situation in Ukraine and the reaction of their NATO-colleagues make these countries doubt guarantees of the Article 5 of the Washington Treaty. As we can see, the USA and the EU have diametrically opposite positions regarding economic pressure. Of course, Europe can become more radical, but Mr. Putin must “do his best” for that – so it becomes clear why Russia is focused only on the Crimean peninsula. Of course, the USA can weaken Russia’s position on the global energy market by increasing the demand on the European gas market. Washington has already seen the results of the “shale gas revolution” — the USA will soon export the remaining gas to Europe in order to keep the price for energy carriers inside the country on such a level that will allow the flow of investments into the shale gas extraction. The same can be said about relations between the USA and Iran – stabilization of relations by solving disputes around the nuclear program can lead to at least 3 million barrels of oil per day appearing on the global market.

However, we need to some time to implement all this. It took 4 years (1981-1985), for Ronald Regan’s administration to convince Riyadh to increase the amount of oil extraction.

Instead of a conclusion

The situation in the Crimea and the ambiguous reaction of the West proves the point highlighted by the new Foreign Minister, Andrii Deshchucya, at the beginning of this week – Ukraine must rely on itself.

We must still be optimists, but careful optimists so that we are able to analyze the current situation objectively.

There are a couple of reasons to believe that the problem will be solved in favor of Ukraine.

This year’s revolution and the threat from the outside can foster further building and consolidation of the Ukrainian political nation which is the main prerequisite for successfully implementing reforms. Western countries have agreed to give us financial bailouts supported by the IMF. Of course, we must be ready for difficulties, but the implementation of structural reforms in economy will make it possible to lay the path for the successful realization of the Ukraine-project.

At last, our oligarchs began to think in terms of the state, even if only because of the fear to lose income. This is very important, since the prosperity of Western countries has its roots in understanding of the necessity of changes by the elites.

Vladimir Putin will think twice about his aggressive policy in order not to scare Western Europe too much, on which the survival of his regime depends. Today, approximately 500 billion dollars of Russian assets are in Western banks. However, he will still try to get Crimea under his control, making it absolutely independent in terms of energy and transport from the rest of Ukraine. This is what Russian government is working on now.

The West is likely to try to find the balance between the reaction on Russian tricks and the necessity to keep it from the fairway of China. Thus, we must not expect a lot from the Western countries. Although, the example of the Ronald Regan administration teaches that Washington can put back Kremlin if there is a political will. Using the language of the systematic approach, the peripheral raw empire cannot dictate its rules to the сore of the capitalist order.

P.S. We should still have some positive conclusion. Thus, I will remind you the words which were already mentioned here – a successful Ukraine will be a challenge for Putin’s regime. We have all conditions for successful reforms – we just need to use them. This would be our best response to Putin’s aggressive behavior.


[The source of the article in Ukrainian –link; translated by Alina Sviderska and Olga Karasevych]

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