Ukraine Crisis: A Ticket To Somewhere Unpleasant

HOT ON THE HEELS of a “referendum” in Crimea — showing 97% of voters wanted to become part of Russia, with Vladimir Putin seemingly ready to oblige — ominous portents continue to appear around the worsening crisis on Europe’s eastern flank; the United Kingdom warns of “a new Cold War” if Russia attempts to annexe the Crimean peninsula, while a state-sanctioned Russian TV network has made a thinly veiled nuclear threat against the West.

The problem with games of brinkmanship is that they can escalate beyond control, and whilst I still think the most likely outcome of events unfolding in Ukraine will be some kind of accommodation that de-escalates rocketing tensions between Russia and the West, those nominally in control of proceedings certainly aren’t showing signs of moving in that direction just yet.

Most readers will know that the hastily convened referendum in Crimea at the weekend — providing voters with a choice of either joining Russia or reverting to a more autonomous, 1992-era constitutional arrangement as a semi-independent province of Ukraine — resolved, with nearly 97% of the vote, to amalgamate with Russia.

“No change, quite literally, was not an option on offer.

In the days since, the West — led in this case by Britain and its Foreign minister, William Hague — has vowed not to recognise the referendum result.

Indeed, Hague has warned that Russia faces “a new Cold War” if it moves to formally annexe the Crimea, with the EU suggesting that Russia faces “a ‘far-reaching’ economic blockade.”

For good measure, the EU has drawn up a list of Russian MPs, government officials and business people who will be subjected to travel bans: a move likely to have absolutely no impact.

All of this comes as the interim government in Ukraine readies to call up 40,000 reserve troops in readiness for war with Russia, a prospective contest likely to prove futile for Ukraine to even participate in should it eventuate.

It comes as reports are circulating today in the European press that Moldova is the next ex-Soviet satellite on Putin’s radar as he apparently sets about implementing his plan to “recreate” the USSR and restore it to is allegedly rightful place as a world superpower, with Romania on the list after that.

And it comes as a Russian television journalist — hand-picked by Putin as a state-sanctioned mouthpiece for the Russian government — has suggested that Russia is capable of turning the USA “into radioactive ash,” in a news report featuring a large nuclear mushroom cloud as its backdrop.

Whilst the proposition might seem far-fetched, the fact a propaganda stooge has been the one to raise it certainly indicates Putin is in no mood to cool the temperature of rapidly worsening relations between his country and the West.

My sense remains that there will be some kind of accommodation of Russia; perhaps tolerating its “annexation” of the Crimea on the basis that its majority Russian population and historical status as part of Russia before 1954 make the change something the West can grudgingly live with.

Any move by Russia to repeat the Ukraine episode in Moldova — or beyond, for that matter — might be a different story.

On one level, the West (and the EU and NATO in particular) can do little to stop Crimea rejoining Russia without risking military conflict with Russia, the consequences of which could be dire: and by dire, the demonstration on Russian television I have mentioned is the kind of thing such a war could easily escalate into, and represents a scenario too terrible to contemplate.

Yet at some point — should he pursue territorial claims beyond the Crimean peninsula or, at the very least, those ex-Soviet countries that are not NATO member states — the West will have no choice but to intervene to stop Putin from re-establishing the Iron Curtain across Europe.

The whole neo-imperialist adventure that Putin seems to have embarked upon all adds up to a ticket to somewhere that is potentially very unpleasant indeed. It is to be hoped that some way of sabotaging the campaign bus can be found and enacted before it is able to continue much further along that destructive path.

 

 

War Clouds: The Chilling, Brutal Reality Of Ukraine

WITH THE SITUATION in Ukraine continuing to deteriorate — and the prospect of Russian military intervention increasing in likelihood — there are a couple of chilling and brutal realities that so far have failed to dare to speak their name. I hope and wish the crisis in the Black Sea can be resolved peacefully and without appeasement; should the protagonists involved come to blows, the outcome is likely to be very, very ugly indeed.

Let me reassure readers that I haven’t taken leave of my senses: I’m not paranoid, given to conspiracy theories, a career pessimist or willing on defeat. But in this case, an astute reading of events means knowing what is said — and what is fact — even if it comes to nothing by way of an adverse outcome. In this case, I post today purely to provide readers with something to think through.

Among the many sources of information, intelligence and background reading I avail myself of, however, is an American columnist who is regularly accused of being all of those things. His name is Jeffrey Nyquist, and we have looked at one or two of his pieces during the time I have been publishing this column.

Back in 2008 (not coincidentally, by the way, in the immediate aftermath of the Russian invasion of Georgia under similar circumstances to those in Ukraine) he wrote an article that I thought at the time was a little on the far-fetched side, but there was just enough in the case he made for me to commit the piece to memory for possible future reference. I would suggest every reader of my article reads this and then come back: the pertinence of the Nyquist article will immediately become obvious, and especially when it is remembered that it was written more than five years ago.

Russia — for at least the time since it was first led by Putin as President — has been modernising, rearming, and militarising; the entire vision Putin has for his country lies in its reclamation of the status and prestige it lost when the USSR formally dissolved and its designation as a superpower — socially, economically and militarily — was forefeited. Putin is not so much a communist as a modern-day Tsar; Russia through the ages has been a peasant society governed by a small, all-powerful ruling elite. It was ever thus. In the absence of the Communist Party, Russia’s Tsarist tradition has found new expression through the totalitarian nationalism of its present President.

There are many, both in Australia and internationally, who pooh-pooh the idea of a militarily resurgent and aggressive Russia. Its armaments are in decay, they say. Its armed forces are subject to a desertion rate so high it is impossible to maintain troop numbers, they say. Russian democracy may well have started out with the best of intentions. But Russia is not a democracy (although many are naive enough to believe it is) and far from sinking into military disarray, Russia has been readying — both directly and through a well-orchestrated series of international allegiances — to reclaim what it sees as its rightful place in the world for some time.

Putin is on record as saying that the break-up of the Soviet Union was “a travesty,” and has made no attempt to hide the fact his objective is to reassemble the old order in this regard.

The invasion of Georgia was opportunistic, made possible as it was by an uprising in South Ossetia that was in Russia’s interests to crush and counter to those of the West for it to interfere. Nonetheless, Russia was able to annexe additional territory from the exercise. Beyond that, it had to wait: and Russians, famously, can be very patient indeed.

The situation in Ukraine, however, is vastly different to the one six years ago in Georgia.

For one thing, Ukraine sits wedged between Russia and the EU (in some respects as North Korea does between China and South Korea), making its strategic importance critical to an expansionist regime in Russia.

For another, the internal struggle in Ukraine between integration with Europe and the West or re-integration with Russia is one Russia cannot afford to “lose” the outcome of: for Russia to lose all effective control and influence over Ukraine would be to suffer a colossal blow to resurgent Russian prestige, and a strategic disaster that would permanently tilt the balance in Europe back toward the West.

And in any case, the concentration of ethnic Russians in Ukraine makes the entire situation impossible to draw black and white conclusions around: the Crimea, gifted to Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev in 1954 as a token gesture, is full of Russians, and ostensibly the pretext Putin is using to justify manoeuvres involving 150,000 troops ahead of almost certain deployment. If Russia’s interests extended no further than regaining the Crimean peninsula — ostensibly providing a safe haven for other ethnic Russians in Ukraine who did not wish to join the EU — there might be an acceptable case to be made for that.

But the latest reports are that an initial 6,000 Russian troops (at a minimum) are about to be sent into the capital, Kiev, and if that should occur, then all bets are off.

The interesting thing about the Nyquist article (which if you haven’t read, go back to the link now and do so) is that of all the Western European powers involved in the Ukraine crisis, it’s the Germans who are calling most loudly for the USA to get involved. It’s the Germans who are making the most noise about NATO. And it’s the Germans, who — the UK aside — are the most dependent on the natural gas supplies that flow through Ukraine from Russia that Russia has shown in the past its wont to literally turn off the tap as an economic and diplomatic weapon when it suits its agenda.

(As an aside, once this is all over, Western Europe must make fresh arrangements to secure its fuel requirements: the Russians simply can’t be trusted when it comes to energy security — a fact that, hopefully, has dawned on the leaders of the German government).

If friendship and partnership with Russia is a mistake — as Nyquist clearly asserts — then current events give every indication that the Germans have awoken to that fact. But it may be too late to benefit anyone.

If Putin wanders into Ukraine and a war breaks out, it will begin conventionally; after all, nobody — not even the Russians — wants to risk all-out war in which even the “fruits” of victory (to paraphrase JFK) would be the taste of ashes in their mouths.

Should such a war be confined to conventional means, it is likely the Russians would prevail; Putin could move hundreds of thousands of ground troops into Ukraine before Britain and the US could send their own deployments in numbers meaningful enough to influence proceedings. It is worth remembering that at a time of war, the Russians would also be able to shoot down aircraft or sink ships carrying NATO troops without fear of subsequent prosecution for war crimes.

In such a scenario, does the West sit back and allow Putin to staple Ukraine back onto Russia as a huge leap forward in his quest to reassemble the USSR? Or — God forbid — does David Cameron or Barack Obama order the unthinkable in retaliation, and launch a nuclear strike on Moscow?

Many will talk of wiser and cooler heads, of the uselessness and pointlessness of nuclear arms, and the guaranteed eventual extinction of humanity were they ever to be used on a widespread basis.

But the alternative, at that point, becomes an existential calculation of its own. If they do nothing, where will Russia stop? Are its territorial ambitions confined to Ukraine, and if not, how widespread are they? And if the Iron Curtain, in time, were to be re-established, what would remain to stop Putin then turning his sights on the enemies who put up a token resistance, but were just too weak to take the only measure that could stop him?

In short, should Putin be appeased over Ukraine, or is doing so just a recipe for eventual calamity on an even greater scale that should be dealt with sooner rather than later? Suddenly, parallels between 1930s Europe and the crisis today are too compelling to dismiss.

In case anyone thinks all of this is hypothetical, here’s another article: this time from Britain’s Daily Express. We may be nearer finding out answers to these terrible questions much faster than anyone ever hoped.

If Russian troops already in the Crimea advance further into Ukraine, or indeed into its capital, then any ambiguity around the question of whether Russia has “violated┬áthe territorial integrity of Ukraine’s borders” will be summarily dispelled.

And if argument over whether the so-called Budapest Memorandum — committing the UK, USA, Ukraine and Russia to protect the integrity of Ukraine’s borders — can be formally invoked on the back of a clear breach by Russia concludes that it can be, then Britain and America will find themselves at war with Russia.

From there, God alone knows what could happen.

But if Russian troops advance on Kiev today — and as things stand, the prospect of them doing so appears certain — then World War III may very well begin today too.

Wiser and cooler heads are very much needed at such a delicate time and in the context of such a delicately poised point in global politics.

It’s a fair bet, however, that as night falls on Europe, Britain’s Vanguard submarines — the operational vehicles for its Trident missile system, and the first line of the NATO nuclear strike capability — are nowhere near their base in the Firth of Clyde in Scotland, and it is to be hoped their whereabouts, in the context of the current situation in Ukraine, never become apparent.

 

POSTSCRIPT: As I publish (just before 1am on 3 March, Melbourne time) there are unconfirmed reports that Russia has issued a declaration of war on Ukraine.

 

Dangerous Game As Putin Readies To Invade Ukraine

THE BRINKMANSHIP that has been played out in recent months over the future and fate of Ukraine seems destined to come to a head, with news Russian President Vladimir Putin has sought parliamentary approval to send troop deployments from the Russian army into Ukraine; such a move would seem to cross a red line marked out by Western governments, and any armed conflict could easily spiral out of control.

This really is a very short post only this morning, although I will post on the subject again later in the day as need be; the situation in deeply divided, conflicted Ukraine — split between seeking its future with the West and the European Union, or being pulled back into Russian control and patronage — is charting a dangerous new course today as Russian President Vladimir Putin seeks to use force to “safeguard Russian interests:” a pursuit that could easily be a euphemism for God only knows what.

Clearly, we haven’t covered off on this issue in this column, although I have been following it closely; readers will know that I have periodically faced greater constraints than usual thus far this year on account of my business activities, and it has unfortunately not necessarily been possible to pay every issue I wish to discuss the attention it might deserve.

Even so, I think everyone knows the drill in Ukraine: an uprising against a pro-Russian leader who sought to defy popular will and take his country back toward Russia rather than in the Western direction his people wished to head in has brought Ukraine to a virtual state of civil war: that President, Viktor Yanukovych, is currently being sheltered in Russia following his overthrow in a popular revolt, and Russia refuses to recognise the legitimacy of either the interim government nor the validity of new national elections that are in the process of being scheduled.

It has been postulated by many that Putin — for years harbouring a vision of a return to Russian prominence as a world power, even a superpower — may use the crisis in Ukraine as the platform from which to launch an audacious bid to subdue Ukraine and bring it back to the fold as part of his dream to recreate the Soviet Union.

World leaders and key figures in their governments — from US President Barack Obama, to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, to British Foreign Secretary William Hague — have, in the past few days, issued increasingly strident warnings to Putin that any invasion of Ukraine by Russia (“euphemistically phrased as a “failure to respect Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty,” and similar formulations) will elicit costs, consequences, and would amount to extremely dangerous military activism that could result in unforeseen consequences.

Obviously, it doesn’t take Einstein to deduce the chillingly clear message behind such utterances.

To date, Putin has failed to publicly acknowledge or respond to any of these warning shots across his bows; on the contrary — and in developments that come as no real surprise — he has simply gone about his business, plotting and scheming and preparing to do exactly as he likes.

I wanted to get a quick post in on the Ukraine situation (at a tick after 2am, Melbourne time) because things now seem to be moving more quickly; unfortunately — packed with penicillin and still only half-recovered from the nasty I was hit with this week, courtesy of my children’s day care disease disseminators — the option to sit up even later to follow developments simply isn’t open to me. For once in my life, I need sleep this week — even with the ominous events in the Black Sea that are unfolding going on.

As promised, I will revisit this issue later in the day if there’s anything exceptional to comment on, and from here on we’ll keep a closer eye on what transpires in Ukraine, and how Russia — and the Western powers increasingly ranged against it — respond to them.

In the meantime, readers may like to access this link from the online portal of Britain’s Telegraph newspaper, which is being updated in real time, every couple of minutes, with the latest developments in Ukraine — and with particular emphasis (for now at least) on the Russian President’s threat to send his military into the country to advance the Russian agenda.