Sunday, March 16, 2014

Has war with Russia become inevitable?

I am cautious when I write about things that extend beyond my immediate expertise. The situation in the Ukraine is one such case. When the crisis first broke, I took a relatively sanguine position: Now I’m not so sure. My instinctive reaction at the time to suggestions that this was like Europe in 1938 was to say over-exaggeration. Again, now I am not so sure.

I don’t understand Mr Putin’s end game, but his comments about the need to protect Russians wherever they live, the way those comments are phrased, the apparent willingness to use force to bring Russians elsewhere within the embrace of Mother Russia, are actually very similar to views expresses by Nazi leaders in the context of Germans and Germany.

Mr Putin’s Russian Federation does not have the relative power of Hitler's Germany, notwithstanding nuclear weapons. For the moment, he is protected in the east, for China is unlikely to come to support of any Western attack in the West. He also faces Western communities that really do not want to fight, that will compromise. And yet, if push comes to shove, if Russia over-reaches, they will fight. And then Russia will lose. So Mr Putin’s tactical and strategic question is how far he can safely push.

The difficulty is that Mr Putin has already over-reached himself. Poland’s Foreign Minister said this:      

We cannot let Putin get away with this,” says Radek Sikorski, Poland’s Foreign Minister. His Oxford English is perfect, his tone decisive. “By annexing Crimea, Russia is forcing a major change of boundaries on Europe. It means the breaking of the post-Cold War consensus. That is verboten.”

Vladimir Putin, lacking Mr Sikorski’s linguistic skills, does not understand “verboten”. He has been taunting the west for days now, placing troops on Ukrainian soil to defend -- as he puts it -- ethnic Russians there from the “nationalist mob” who overthrew President Viktor Yanukovych. The annexation of Crimea, the southernmost region in Ukraine, looks inevitable to Sikorski: “The timetable for the Kremlin’s annexation of the region is accelerating daily.” Putin knows America and the EU are in thrall to Russia’s money, oil and gas. He reckons that with huge economic interests at stake, no one will fight for Ukraine’s sovereignity.

But Putin has underestimated EU unity, says Sikorski. “I’m seeing William Hague on Monday. We are as one on Ukraine. We cannot allow Putin to redraw the map of Europe along ethnic lines. Europe is based on the principle of overcoming borders rather than redrawing them. No one has the unilateral right to move borders in response to presumed ethnic grievances. We’ve seen what happened when a European leader tried to do that before: the peoples of the Soviet Union paid one of the biggest prices for this.”

I’m far from sure that this is an accurate reflection of EU views. I am sure, or at least reasonably so, that European countries would fight to protect Ukraine’s remaining territorial integrity.

There is a story, I have no idea whether it’s true, that the Russian General staff sent the Tsar off to play tennis so that he would not be in a position to cancel the mobilisation order for Russian Imperial forces.

The fact that wars often begin by accident is, in a way, is Mr Putin’s problem. Can he balance all this? Can he control the forces that he has now unleashed? I am far from certain. That is why, for the first time, I think that a major war may be inevitable.   


Anonymous said...

I think the rhetoric about Putin has gotten way out of hand. Hitler killed hundreds of thousands of people when invading Ukraine. Putin has the military power to reduce Kiev to a smoking crater and has decided on non lethal options.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, anon. I wanted another view. I am not sure about non-lethal options. In a way, that's the point. Will Mr Putin's options be non-lethal?

Anonymous said...

Well fwiw these are my further thoughts on what has happened and maybe what could happen to cool this crisis.

1. Putin saw the weakening of a Ukraine government which was friendly towards Russia as a direct threat to his naval forces in the Black Sea. For his own internal reasons he cannot afford to have that asset under threat.

2. (Not talking about the initial demos, more the violent step-up before it ended): It would not surprise me to read eventually that the violence in Kiev was Russian-inspired/instigated because, although Putin lost a weak ally, he took from that the needed excuse to 'protect' his people in the east - for which actually read 'his naval base'.

3. Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in return for a guarantee of its territory.

4. A possible mutually acceptable solution might be for Ukraine to cede to Russia the land containing the naval installations, to achieve the situation now existing in Cuba for the US. (please don't lecture me on the history of that place; I get it)

5. In return, Russia and the West would formally acknowledge Ukraine as 'neutral' - see Switzerland. This would have huge economic benefits to all sides of this conflict.

All that said, much like you, Jim, I see confrontation now verging on the inevitable - but as to if that becomes a 'hot' war, or simply harsh economic sanctions, who knows?

I come back to a comment I made on your earlier post: Putin will do exactly what he says because he cannot afford not to - and that is his major bargaining chip.

He needs to gain something out of this. They need to give him a way out which can't be mistaken for a step backwards.


Anonymous said...

Also, I think this analysis is worth a read:

- even tho the author dismisses a sanctions approach.

And last thought: isn't it funny that we have Putin defending the overthrown democratically elected government, and now promoting a referendum, while the US and the rest are firmly behind the 'revolution' involving some pretty dismal sorts.


Jim Belshaw said...

I disagreed quite strongly with that Telegraph piece, kvd. I would argue that it's all rather simple.

Regardless of the position inside Ukraine, Mr Putin appears to be simply expropriating territory, not just protecting Russia's strategic interests nor indeed the interests of Russians in Crimea. That's the bottom line.

In Mein Kampf, Hitler outlined his objectives. He kept his word. The result was the Second World War. I dislike comparing Mr Putin to Hitler, but that's the context.

We will see how we go. If Mr Putin grabs for more territory, there will probably be physical war. If he stops with the Crimea, there will be economic warfare for a period.

Anonymous said...

Jim, from your last comment: I'd be interested to understand just what you disagreed strongly about as raised by that article. Me, I did not accept his view on the worth of economic sanctions, however ...?

And not to raise the temperature, but your comment that it's basically all a territory grab raised my eyebrows a little?

Can't for the life of me accept that a counrty as huge and as unruly as Russia would deliberately take on yet more territory as a simple land grab.

Anyway, see (yet another) view on "what it's all about".


Anonymous said...

Anyway, see (yet another) view on "what it's all about".

.. which I forgot to append. Apologies!

(And please accept that my linking does not necessarily imply complete agreement with any author; more just that I find the viewpoints worth a read)


Rummuser said...

If you are a betting man, I will wager that nothing will happen. There will be a lot of huffing and puffing and noise and it will all eventually die down. Yes, even the sanctions. Just watch the Brits. They are the guys who will miss out on big commissions and see how they have reacted so far. No noise at all from the suits there. Ukraine will say, thank God Cremea left and the Russians will have to foot big bills in subsidies to the Cremean part of the new dispensation. It will all work out fine eventually.

Jim Belshaw said...

I'm sorry for the slow response to these comments. I have been travelling. Will respond tonight.

Rummuser said...

This is two days after I posted my comments here.

Orby Wrightville said...

Excuse me but just who is going to go to war with Russia over this?

Anonymous said...

Orby, I think you are right. I would favour also ceding Finland, and Poland and any country ending with 'ia' and 'stan' as well.

Let's simplify the map; there maybe only three colours then required! Anything to appease.

your friend Neville

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Orby and my apologies for the slow response. Hopefully, no one. However, one scenario is this.

Troubles continue in Ukraine. Russia moves troops in; I don't think that likely at this point. The EU issues an ultimatum. A ground war breaks out. A friend says that Polish media is full of war talk just at present.