Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Is Obama's hesitancy endangering the world? Part 2: The Ukraine story

Ukraine is a country really only in the modern understanding of cartography. It, more than most, houses people-groups who do not live inside neatly divided borders and who do not recognise those lines of control even during peacetime.

Simplifying the current dynamics, there are people in the western Ukraine who are more attuned to the trajectory of Europe, while those further east look to Moscow for affinity.

So a cartoonish description of today’s Ukraine conflict understands it as a centuries’-old struggle between the right of Russia to be secure from the West, the equal right of the Ukrainians to direct their fate - even if that means a partition - and the right of Western powers to get involved.

From Russia’s perspective it can point to many invasions from the west, all of them destructive and all coming through Ukraine. Russia and Ukraine are deeply connected, the very name of Ukraine means “borderlands”. The first amalgamation of Russia was in a place known then as Kievan-Rus.

Russia knows losing control of Ukraine would undermine its geopolitical strategy and it cannot let this happen. In an ideal world Moscow would have a puppet leader in Kiev, but if not, will try to keep Ukraine’s eastern sections in flux. European powers do not plan invasion on Russia today, but wise men in Moscow know how quickly philosophies and capabilities change. They are also more than a little suspicious as to why the Americans seem to be so eager to control Kiev.

Moscow’s goal is to ensure their right to never be subjected to invasion again. Kiev understands that fear, but doesn’t think they should sacrifice parts of their country to achieve this. The West is split between fostering democracy wherever it appears and letting Ukraine decide its future in whatever capacity that ultimately looks like.

Yet it really doesn’t matter who’s right. The Russians live in their homes and need something, as do the Ukrainians. And the West doesn’t really have a dog in this fight. Nevertheless, the international community is being asked to intervene in eastern Ukraine. However, no American troops have yet arrived in Ukraine and it is unclear whether covert forces are in the country, although it can probably be assumed they are.

Instead Washington focused on Poland delivering a few hundred troops and increasing its air-defence presence in the country. The Baltic countries also received a few more US fighter jets, but Ukraine got no US troops at all.

United States President Barack Obama instead stuck to politically supporting the new pro-Western Ukrainian leader. He has followed a typically Obama-esque hands-off approach and the conflict still smoulders. So, in the light of the recent civilian airliner crash, has Mr Obama’s approach been detrimental to US interests in Eastern Europe and beyond?

A democratic uprising sparked the current unrest, but this did not change the fact that Ukraine has never been a strategically important country for the Americans. Ukraine is a “nice-to-have” country in a very turbulent, far away region. The Americans maintain that if Eastern Europe is pro-Western, then it is by default not pro-Russian and therefore not a threat to either Europe or the US. That’s a good outcome, but achieving this across the region isn’t a critical goal.

In Eastern Europe the pivot state is actually Poland. That country sits strategically on the North European Plain squished between Germany and Russia. Poland - or its vague geographic outline - has always been the target of first aggression in European military scuffles. If the Russians are frightened of invasion sitting a thousand kilometers away in Moscow, imagine how Warsaw must feel in such a vulnerable location. But Washington’s goal is bigger than just Poland or Ukraine.

It must not let a large anti-EU, anti-western power control Poland. That would put all of central Europe in danger and bring the power closer to achieving hegemony over the European peninsula. This is a strategic imperative of the United States: that it must not let any power grow to a point where it can challenge control of strategic trade routes or deny American transit.

Poland is the pivot because there is still no telling what Germany or Russia will do. Current politics may look benign, but they can quickly change for the worse. This is especially true in Europe. The US understands this reality, leveraging Poland’s fear of being caught between Germany and Russia. So Washington will strengthen Poland to keep the US and Brussels safe - not necessarily Warsaw.

However, should the fighting in Ukraine spread westwards towards the capital Kiev, Washington may have to reconsider its position. And at some point, if it gets really bad, the US may ask NATO to intervene to protect Kiev.

But Russian President Vladimir Putin knows Mr Obama will not push very hard to incorporate Ukraine into NATO nor will they permanently base Marines near Kiev. He predicts the US will attempt only haphazard restoration of Crimea to Ukrainian control. Mr Obama’s rhetoric about Russia’s “adventurism” endangering the world is more about warning it not to overstep his bounds. Which, of course, implies the last few months did not constitute overstepping in Mr Obama’s eyes.

In understanding the US grand strategy, Mr Obama’s refusal to send troops to Ukraine was not such a horrible foreign policy after all. He gambled that Russia’s control over Ukraine would only bring status quo back to the region, not a fanciful new “era of Russian predominance” in Europe. That Russia only nominally now controls a small percentage of eastern Ukraine, rather than the entire country, as it did earlier this year, is actually a foreign policy victory for the Obama administration.

Pushing Russia back was achieved simply by supporting protesters and pro-EU politicians and did not require a single US armed forces company. Mr Obama’s refusal to use force in the early part of this year was derided as weak, but it has avoided the pitfalls of incomplete intelligence and flawed forecasts. He also spotted the geographical split between west and east Ukraine, gambling that the two sides would largely avoid each other. This is essentially what has happened.

Now that pro-Russian separatists have shot down a civilian airliner in eastern Ukraine, the US strategic position will strengthen as Mr Putin’s control diminishes further, at least for the time being. Kiev will eventually quell the pro-Russian groups the east of the country and Ukraine will simmer down. Some will find affinity with Moscow and call themselves Russian and Kiev can live with that. But the borders are unlikely to change because they don’t really matter on the ground.

The analysis is that Mr Obama’s low-level covert action and political support for pro-western Ukrainian groups has had a neutral or slightly beneficial result for US interests and world security. Should Russia advance into the Caucasus or the Baltics Mr Obama’s strategic calculation of non-intervention may need reassessing. But currently, the eastern Ukraine is containable without the use of American or NATO troops.

The tragedy of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 shootdown aside, the international community is not directly under threat either. Crimea and eastern Ukraine already were essentially Russian and Mr Putin does not look like taking its adventure further into the Former Soviet Union or deeper into Europe - yet.

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