Monday, March 03, 2014

Musings on the Ukraine

My apologies for not posting since Thursday. I have been travelling, gathering new information and ideas.

A friend asked me what I thought of Tony Abbott. It was a neutral question, and I asked why. My questioner commented that so far as my writing was concerned, I seemed to be politically neutral. That got me wondering about the nature of bias. Many of my colleagues would not wonder, they would provide a straightforward explanation. I found that I couldn't, although I outlined my concerns. There were too many shades of gray.

Maybe it's wimpy of me, but if I am asked for an objective assessment, I feel the need to provide balance, to observe, to give information. Of course I have opinions, sometimes very strong ones. For the life of me, I cannot provide an objective assessment of Paul Keating. He arouses absolutely visceral  reactions in me. So far as Australian politicians are concerned, he is actually a unique case, someone who managed to strike at things that I considered important to the point that I responded at a purely emotional level. It wasn't so much what he did, but what he said and the way he said it. Mr Abbott seems to arouse similar style responses in many people and for similar reasons.

As I write, Russian troops appear to be occupying the Crimea. This has lead some commentators back to the Crimean War. I am not sure that the commentary is always well informed, for Lord Tennyson's poem The Charge of the Light Brigade has coloured views in the anglosphere. Memories of perceived British incompetence linger:

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death,
Rode the six hundred.
'Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns' he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

The reality appears to be that this war was a considerable success. It was also the war where the progressive spread of the telegraph suddenly made battlefield events and reporting available within hours in London or Paris, changing things for ever.

Other commentators have been influenced by Mr Putin's view towards gays and the Sochi Olympics, as well as his authoritarian tendencies. These things are important, but they ignore a key issue, the strategic importance of the Crimea to Russia. There was simply no way that the Russians would risk losing control of something that they regarded as absolutely critical to their national interest. I suspect that that is an issue on which most Russians would unite. The vote in the Duma would suggest that.

Comparisons between the current situation in the Ukraine and Chamberlain at  Munich are already emerging. By implication, Putin must be stopped now. If Mr Obama does not respond or fails, then he is like Mr Chamberlain. This comparison fails on two counts. US strategic interests are not as involved as were Britain's, nor is Mr Putin an Adolph Hitler.

I am not saying that the West should not try to protect Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity, although we have to recognise the popular divisions in the Ukraine itself. I am saying that the West has to consider the price it (the EU and US) is prepared to pay if it really wants to affect events. If NATO is actually prepared to go to war, to use force against the Russian Federation, then we have one ball game, one that the Russians must respond too.

I don't think that this is the case. I see no appetite for war, although that is possible. In purely political terms, this is an EU problem, not a US problem. The US may support, but won't get involved.

What can the EU do? Probably not a lot. The most, I suspect, that it can hope for is an integrated Ukraine in the Russian Sphere of influence. Does this matter? Not a lot.

Russia is in structural decline. It is not the Soviet Union. It has an aging and declining population that it cannot easily address for nationalistic reasons. Move forward even twenty years, and Russia will have dropped many places down the international pecking order. Like Britain, it will have to adjust. The days of the Russian Empire are over; the effects will linger.

Against that longer term background, the question now is a simple one: what will most directly benefit the people of the Ukraine? I suspect that this comes back to the preservation of the Ukraine as an entity.  

In the meantime, Mr Abbott's warning that Russia should back-off has nothing to do with Australia beyond the chairmanship of the UN security council. Russia will do what circumstances dictate. If you want to change events, change the circumstances, That's all.


The Lowy Institute blog had a useful post on all this: Russia-Ukraine: What is Putin up to in Crimea?

Postscript 2

It seems the the rouble is down, Russian interest rates up.


Rod said...

Your musings have lead me to muse about the history of the Crimea. In 1957 (I think it was), Crimea was 'gifted' to the Ukraine. Historically, the Crimea has been independent of the Ukraine and more aligned with other nations even being occupied by the city state of Genoa for a long period of time.

Here is some interesting information from Wikipedia on the Mongol control of the region:

"The borderland area to the south-east was in a state of semi-permanent warfare until the 18th century. Some researchers estimate that altogether more than 3 million people, predominantly Ukrainians but also Circassians, Russians, Belarusians and Poles, were captured and enslaved during the time of the Crimean Khanate. A constant threat from Crimean Tatars supported the appearance of Cossackdom."

Anonymous said...

Stalin 'seeded' the Crimea with his people, making short work of the indigenous population. Putin is now merely 'protecting his people' by retaking that which has been considered Russian by rights for many years. I think he will go quiet with what he's gained until the onset of the northern winter, at which time NATO-Europe will be reliant once again upon the natural gas supplies flowing through that area, and you might see more strutting.

But 'strutting' is the wrong word, because Putin actually does what he says he will do; whereas Pres. Obama is dangerous because he says far more than he is willing or capable of (and anyway, has no intention of) doing - so many 'red lines' so many 'resets' with both Russia and the Arab States; I don't think much will change unless the US or someone does to Putin what was said to be attempted many times with Castro.

If I lived in Poland I think I'd be keeping a close watch on the exchange rate and money transfer restrictions over the next few months.

And for the same reason, but different enemy, I'd be more than worried if I were Korean or Japanese, in relying upon an umbrella made in the USA.


Jim Belshaw said...

1954, I think, Rod. Interesting on the Mongols.

kvd, as you know, the population shifts across Europe in the twentieth century as a result of war and aftermath were enormous. We are still living with the aftermath.

Will Mr Putin go quiet? Possibly.Interesting piece in the Lowy Institute blog that bears on this -

Western "foreign policy" strikes me as incredibly confused. I put foreign policy in inverted commas for obvious reasons.

Looking at Mr Putin, he seems to me to be playing a game itself marked by lack of subtlety in delivery. It's also a game built on somewhat flimsy foundations given Russia's aging population and resource base.

Jim Belshaw said...

On Poland, I had to think about your comment. All this could well put downward pressure on the zloty. However, so far the currency is holding up well -

The big problem with Poland is just how the current politics plays out in the lead up to next year's elections.

Anonymous said...

Russia with or without Putin is basically a sideshow now as far as I've thought about it; they are basically the same as us: an open-cut mine with no modern or next generation economy to speak of.

But it/he needs to be stepped on very hard and very swiftly, before the Chinese have it confirmed for them that the US is trending isolationist. The Europeans must know how this sort of creeping aggression ends up.

Obama will never do it, but what I think should happen is an immediate freeze on all international Russian funds; and then tell the gangsters who run/own that place they have three months to select a new puppet, otherwise all funds will be confiscated.

The Chinese might listen to that sort of strength, as opposed to smirking at the present weakness of the response from the West.

Abbott said the right thing - just as you yourself intimated: "In the mealtime..." i.e. entirely for private consumption.


Jim Belshaw said...

I have now changed l to n! I just didn't see it. Depressingly, I agree re the Chinese. However, Hugh White pointed out one plus. This might force Europe into developing a more coherent foreign policy position. Collectively, Europe far outweighs Russian power.

On Polish radio today the Polish PM was warning of the dangers to Poland. Oh dear, Poland again!

I am not a foreign policy expert. However, it seems to me that Mr Putin has grossly over-stepped in terms of his longer term objectives.

Anonymous said...


This take reinforces your own earlier commentary:

And also this one is worth a read - mainly because the writer seems to agree with my layman's assessment of Pres. Obama's rhetoric:


Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, kvd. Not sure about your second link, although I am inclined to agree with the opening quote. I can't remember how much the US spends on defence, something over 4% of GDP. I think some form of cut back was inevitable.