Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Is This The Decisve Week In The Ukraine Crisis?

The situation in Ukraine continues to deteriorate heading into what looks like a crucial week for the country.

The political unrest took an ugly turn over the weekend when more than 30 protesters were killed in a fire in Odessa after storming the city's trade union building.  As with many of the recent events in Ukraine, the exact details of what occurred are murky, though this series of first-person accounts from the BBC offers perhaps the best picture of events.  Competing pro-Kiev and pro-Russian rallies turned into a string of running street fights between the two groups that culminated in the pro-Russian side storming the trade union building.  Accounts on what happened next differ.  The building was set on fire by molotov cocktails, though it is unclear whether the petrol bombs were being thrown at the building or by those inside as well.  The pro-Russian group claims that the pro-Kiev protesters prevented the pro-Russians from fleeing the building, while the pro-Kiev demonstrators say that they tried to help rescue people from the fire.  Some 30 people are said to have died in the fire with several others dying as they jumped from the building to escape the burning building.  All sides though seem to agree that Odessa's police were ineffective, doing little to either stop the fighting or to control the scene around the burning trade union building and facilitate a rescue of those inside.

The situation in Odessa is shocking because the city is far removed from the Ukraine/Russia border region that has previously been the site of the pro-Russian unrest.  According to the BBC report, Odessa had been quiet up until this weekend's violence, with tourists – even Russian tourists – enjoying springtime on the streets of this city by the Black Sea.  Ukraine's government is once again blaming Russia for fomenting unrest in Odessa, claiming that Russian agitators snuck into the region from Moldova's pro-Russian breakaway region of Trans-Dniester, which is near to Odessa, to cause trouble in the city.  Both sides are seizing on the death toll from Odessa as proof of the brutality of the other, further ratcheting up tensions in the country and making the successful staging of the May 25th presidential election seem even more unlikely. 

In addition to Odessa, there are two other factors that could make this the decisive week in whether or not there will be a full-scale war in Ukraine.

This Friday, May 9, is Victory Day in Russia, a national holiday to commemorate Germany's surrender in what most of the world calls World War II, but what Russia still refers to as the “Great Patriotic War”.  While Victory Day serves the same purpose as Memorial Day does in the United States, it also traditionally is the most patriotic day on the Russian calendar, a time to celebrate Russia's armed forces and the date of a massive military parade in Moscow.  The key symbol of Victory Day – the black-and-gold St. George's ribbon (analogous to the Memorial Day poppy in the US and Great Britain) – has already been appropriated by Ukraine's pro-Russian separatists as a sign of their solidarity with Russia.    It is possible then that Russia could use this very patriotic holiday to launch their long-threatened military action to rescue the supposedly threatened Russian minority in Ukraine.

The second reason has to do with the make-up of the Russian military itself.  Russia still relies on conscription for the bulk of their armed forces, with men over the age of 18 (supposedly) required to serve at least one year in the military.  As Pavel Felgenhauer explains here in Foreign Policy, conscripts are typically taken into service in two cohorts per year and the hitch for one of those cohorts is reaching its end, meaning that these troops are, theoretically, at the peak of their military training.  Once their conscription period ends though, they will be replaced by a new batch of raw recruits who will have to go through the process of learning to be a soldier from scratch, greatly diminishing the effectiveness of the 40,000 or so Russian troops stationed along Ukraine's eastern border.  From a Russian military point of view, the time to strike is now.
Whether Russia will remains an open question.  By Pres. Vladimir Putin's benchmarks, with the deaths in Odessa and ongoing Ukrainian “anti-terrorist” operations being conducted in the pro-Russian separatist cities in eastern Ukraine, the causes belli exist.  Putin may also be emboldened by another round of relatively weak sanctions laid down by the United States and the European Union.  Plus, as discussed earlier, Putin's larger goal of destabilizing Ukraine would be set back if the country can stage a successful presidential election at the end of the month.  It is more likely than not then that Russia will conduct some type of direct military action against Ukraine in the coming days, though with Putin, nothing is ever quite what it seems.
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Friday, April 18, 2014

Why The Road To Genocide Can Be Distrubingly Short

The ongoing situation in Ukraine is, sadly, another illustration of how quickly conflicts can explode, even among people who previously had lived together as neighbors and friends.

This was illustrated by a video clip shown by the BBC on Monday, April 14.  It showed the aftermath of the seizure of a police station in eastern Ukraine by pro-Russian militias.  Two men, presumably Ukrainian police officers, were being assaulted by a mob at the foot of a staircase.  The makeup of the mob at first was typical – a group of young men in their late teens/early twenties, but then something unexpected happened: two older women, perhaps in their forties, who had been watching the attack, stepped forward and got their own licks in on one of the prone men.  According to the BBC, the man thankfully survived his beating.

The video serves as an illustration of a disturbing, yet fascinating, phenomenon: how quickly peaceful, multi-ethnic communities can devolve into open sectarian - and often brutal - war.  

Since the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine has been a nation with a large Russian minority population.  While there has been some occasional tension between the groups over issues like whether or not Russian should be recognized as an official language in Ukraine, the two ethnicities have basically lived together peacefully – there have been no reports of systematic violence between the two groups.  This is especially true in eastern Ukraine, where the bulk of Ukraine's Russian population is located.  There, the two ethnicities lived together and intermarried; it was not uncommon for families to be spread out between Russia and Ukraine and crossing the border of the two nations was usually given about as much thought as crossing the street.  Certainly there are no outward physical signs to distinguish a Russian from a Ukrainian.  Even just a few months ago such inter-ethnic violence in Ukraine would have been unthinkable.  Yet now, cities across eastern Ukraine are being roiled by just such attacks.  Ethnic Russians in Ukraine have been flooded by messages from Russian-based media outlets condemning the “Fascist putsch” that overthrew the government of President Viktor Yanukovych and ominous warnings that Fascist mobs were heading east from Kiev to brutalize the ethnic Russian population (a comprehensive United Nations report could find no evidence of these alleged attacks).  For their part, some ultra-nationalist groups that became involved with the Maidan protests in Kiev have talked openly about their desire for Ukraine to be “for Ukrainians” - meaning ethnic Ukrainians and not Russians who happen to also be citizens of Ukraine; though again, the anti-Russian, Ukrainian-nationalist mobs that the Russian media constantly warns about have not materialized.

The BBC video brings to mind another recent European conflict: the Yugoslavian Civil War in the 1990s.  Before the conflict – Europe's bloodiest since World War II – Yugoslavia had been a fairly prosperous multi-ethnic nation, of Serbians, Croatians and Bosniaks (Muslims from Bosnia), who peacefully co-existed.  Nowhere was this more apparent than in Sarajevo, a vibrant, multi-ethnic city that hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics.  A decade later, the city would lie largely in ruins, having borne witness to the worst acts of ethnic cleansing since the Holocaust.  The roots of the Yugoslavian Civil War can be traced back to then-Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, himself an ethnic Serb.  In an effort to bolster his regime, Milosevic filled the airwaves with Serbian nationalist rhetoric, some of it reviving ancient ethnic tensions that dated back to the Battle of Kosovo Polje in 1389 between the Serbs and the Muslim Ottoman Empire.  A conflict soon emerged with neighbors who had lived together, sometimes for decades, beating, killing and raping each other in a brutal inter-ethnic war.

The Ukrainian crisis also comes along at the 20th anniversary of one of the worst atrocities of the past century; the Rwandan Genocide of 1994.  Here again, two ethnicities – the Hutus and the Tutsi – who had lived side-by-side were soon embroiled in a genocide that would kill more than 800,000 people in the space of just three months.  The roots of that conflict can be traced back to Rwanda's time as a colony when the ruling Belgian empire used minor physiological characteristics to create a division between the two very similar Hutu and Tutsi peoples.  A century later, these differences would be exploited - again through a deliberate mass-media campaign - to sow division between the two groups that would eventually lead to the genocide.

In the United States even today tension exists between the Caucasian and African-American communities; occasionally the rhetoric employed around this tension can be ugly and hateful.  But with these two communities, there are outward signs of difference; a way for one to cite the “otherness” of the opposite community.  These outward differences are minor in the cases of the ethnicities involved in the Rwandan and Yugoslav conflicts and totally absent in Ukraine where the “Russian” and “Ukrainian” ethnicities are entirely social constructs with no basis in physiology.  Yet in each case it has been remarkably easy for some actors within one community to use the mass-media to portray the other ethnicity as something evil or dangerous, an existential threat to the welfare of the actor's ethnicity.  What is disturbing is how willingly people are to buy into the victimization narrative and turn on the others, even if they were their friends and neighbors.  During the heights of the Yugoslavia and Rwanda conflicts it was not uncommon for people to rape and murder the neighbors they had lived next to for many years just because they belonged to the other ethnicity.  

Ukraine has not sunk to that level of violence yet, but recent history has shown that it can sadly be a very short descent.
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Tuesday, April 1, 2014

John and Sergei in Paris: No Progress on Ukraine

Secretary of State John Kerry made a last-minute diversion on his flight home from the Mid-East Saturday night for an emergency meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov for crisis talks on Ukraine Sunday in Paris.  Judging from the after-meeting conference, he should have spared the trip. 

Russia remained set on their position that the annexation of Crimea was a fait accompli and brushed aside US demands that they pull back the tens of thousands of Russian troops massed along Ukraine's eastern border, saying the troops are merely participating in a routine military exercise and adding that Russia has “no plans” to invade Ukraine.  Kerry, meanwhile, turned down Russian demands that Ukraine adopt a “federal” form of government – where each of Ukraine's regions would be a de facto state, capable of making their own laws, collecting taxes and conducting foreign relations, while also maintaining broad autonomy for their ethnic minorities.  Kerry rejected the demand on the crazy notion that choosing Ukraine's form of government is a decision that the Ukrainians themselves should make.

The demand for a federalized form of government is emerging as the key to resolving the conflict from the Russian side.  Lavrov contended that a federal state was the only way that the rights and interests of ethnic Russians living in Ukraine could truly be protected.  Lavrov is continuing the idea pushed by the Putin government since the removal of President Viktor Yanukovych in February, that being a Russian living in Ukraine in 2014 is about the same as being a Jew living in Poland in 1940, while offering scant evidence to support the claim that the provisional government in Kiev is actually threatening the safety of Ukraine's Russian population.  This notion of an impending threat was the justification Russia used for its intervention in Crimea. 

The real reason behind Russia's push for the federalization of Ukraine though is to ensure that the country would be basically ungovernable from Kiev and to diminish Ukraine's prospects of having a prosperous future.  As explained in this earlier post, Putin's biggest fear over Ukraine is that the government that will take power after the upcoming elections in May will finally get their act together and put the country on the path to developing as a Western European-style market economy with an open and representative government.  To have a country so culturally tied to Russia successfully follow the post-Soviet path of development that has been seen in Poland and the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, would undercut the foundations of Putinism.  Russia, therefore, has a vested interest in making sure that Ukraine fails, the push for federalism is simply the latest attempt from Moscow to make this happen.  
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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Strange Sanity of Vladimir Putin

One side-effect of getting a Master's Degree in international affairs with a specific focus on Russia and the former Soviet Union is whenever something important happens in that part of the world, your friends all ask for your views on the event.  This has been happening recently with the ongoing situation in Ukraine.  Questions about the sanity of Vladimir Putin have been coming up a lot lately, along with the definitive statement that “Putin IS crazy” over his (and by extension Russia's) actions with Crimea.

But the thing is, Putin's not crazy. In fact, he's far from it.  He may be cold, calculating and cunning, but crazy?  No.  But he is very much playing by a different set of rules than the global community and is being driven by a different set of impulses.  One quote that has been brought up quite often in the commentary about the Ukraine is Putin's statement that the breakup of the Soviet Union was the “greatest geopolitical mistake of the 20th century”.  His seizure of the Crimean then is an attempt to rebuild the old Soviet Union, right?  Not exactly.  Rather Putin's Crimea gambit is not so much an attempt to restore the glory of the Soviet Union as it is trying to ensure that Ukraine continues to falter.

To better understand what's going on today, we need to take a very quick look at Putin and both Russia and Ukraine following the end of the Soviet Union in 1991.  Quite simply, Russia in the 1990s was a mess: a country rocked by economic turmoil, with a crumbling infrastructure and inept leadership in the form of the old, ailing and occasionally drunk Boris Yeltsin.  When Putin took over from Yeltsin in 1999, he had the unenviable task of rebuilding both the country and in reestablishing the role of government in the country.  Putin tackled this problem in two ways: the first was personal.  The images of Putin bare-chested in Siberian rivers, flying in fighter jets, throwing opponents on the judo mat, diving in submarines, and occasionally hugging a fuzzy puppy, have become a staple of late night comedy shows in the US.  But rather than expressions of odd personal vanity, these are carefully crafted images meant to portray Putin as a muzhik, a Russian term for a “real man” - a strong and virile leader, a counterpoise to the tottering Yeltsin.

Putin's second method was to strike a deal with the oligarchs – the class of businessmen who became fabulously wealthy and powerful in the chaos of the 1990s.  Putin agreed to let them have their business empires, so long as they didn't challenge his political authority.  The one oligarch who was seen as breaking this covenant – Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the head of the oil conglomerate Yukos and once Russia's richest man – was quickly jailed on dubious charges, his assets seized.  The rest of the oligarchs either fell in line or left the country; their media empires reinforced the image of Putin as a strong leader.  Of course Russia's citizens knew this was going on.  But under Putin the ruble stabilized, consumer goods became more available and affordable, life, for most, became more comfortable, so, for the most part, Russia's citizens went along with the deal.

Ukraine experienced a similar economic chaos after the end of the Soviet Union.  But for Ukraine, things didn't get better, the economy continued to falter, a small elite took advantage of corrupt leadership to become wildly wealthy.  In 2004 the people had enough; the mass public protests that came to be known as the Orange Revolution swept aside the existing government.  But the new government formed by the Orange Revolution's leaders Viktor Yushenko and Yulia Tymoshenko was consumed by infighting between their two rival factions.  The economy continued to falter, so much so that Ukrainians would eventually reelect President Viktor Yanukovich, the very man the Orange Revolution drove from power.  Yanukovich continued to rip off the state, while cozying up to to Putin and moving Ukraine closer to Moscow, which sparked off another round of public protests, the EuroMaidan, that again drove him from power.

Putin's fear now is that this time the new leaders of Ukraine might get it right – that they could set Ukraine on the path to development and prosperity.  It is not an idle fear.  While things are much better in Russia today than they were in the 1990s, the country still lags far behind most other European countries.  The average monthly salary in Russia is just $500 a month, far lower than in much of Europe, especially western Europe.  Again, Russians are aware of the disparity, many Russians have friends or family who live in the “West” (the United States, Great Britain, Canada, etc.), so they know that other countries have higher standards of living, less corruption, better infrastructure, and so on.  But these positives are balanced out by statements of the problems with these foreign societies: the Americans are too driven by careers; the British are too fussy.  When those stereotypes fail, the fall-back argument is while these societies may work fine for their native ethnicities, they would never work in Russia because they fail to understand the ever-mysterious “Russian Soul” (which contrary to Russian belief isn't all that mysterious); Russia as a nation may have its short-comings, but the society has “soul”.

But this argument would hall apart should Ukraine follow a path like Poland and transition to becoming an open and prosperous (relative to their position at the end of the Cold War) society.  Another frequently made point over these past few weeks is how the Russian and Ukrainian people are “brothers”.  The Russian identity started not in Moscow, but near Kiev, 1,000 years ago; Kiev, and Ukraine, still hold a mythic place in the Russian imagination.  Ukraine already has a much more open press and has staged far freer elections in recent years than Russia.  If this were paired with economic growth, should Ukraine's per capita income surpass that of Russia, then the theoretical underpinning of Putinism – that Russia is such a complex society it needs a “strong” leader – would be swept aside.  This is what keeps Putin awake at night, the thought that Ukraine might succeed in a way that Russia has not and that the Russian people would take notice.  This is why Putin is determined to undermine the provisional government in Kiev and the one that will take office following the scheduled May elections.  Ukraine cannot be given the chance to develop outside his shadow and in a way that may surpass his creation.

The situation in Ukraine will remain highly volatile.  While it is unlikely that Putin wants a war, he does benefit from the perception that a war could happen and the instability that brings to Ukraine.  Putin does not believe that the West, particularly the United States, will take any meaningful action to stop him, in large part because Russia faced no serious repercussions following their conflict with Georgia in 2008 and because Europe is dependent on energy supplies, particularly natural gas, from Russia.  This is a recipe though for miscalculation.  The longer that armed and angry men are kept faced off with each other, the chance for an accident that sparks off a conflict grows.  And if Ukraine is invaded or otherwise drawn into a conflict, the US and European Union will be compelled  to act in reply, whether they want to or not.      

So while Putin is not crazy, he is currently smug, arrogant and over-confident in the strength of his position, which is almost just as bad.
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