Archive for February, 2014

Originally published in the Valley News

Ukraine is in ferment. Roughly one-half of the population (largely the half that populates western Ukraine) is in favor of joining up with Western Europe and most of the rest of the world both politically and economically.


The other half, which populates the eastern side of Ukraine and contains most of Ukraine’s nearly 8 million ethnic Russians, favors joining Russia. Western Ukraine is largely Roman Catholic, where the east is Russian Orthodox.


Does that sound vaguely familiar? Well, it should, because it is really nothing much more than a replay of the Cold War. Vladimir Putin, the old KGB colonel, has never given up on the Soviet theme of hegemony in their “near abroad” — those countries that abut their borders.


With a population of almost 50 million, Ukraine is high on the list of countries he would like to see return to mother Russia. In fact, what is clearly a major initiative on the part of Russia in Ukraine can logically be expected, should Russia succeed, to refocus the same sort of attention on the other countries in Eastern Europe that slipped out from under the Soviet/Russian yoke with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.


It seems highly unlikely that Russia will interfere directly and overtly in the ongoing Ukrainian struggle. The events of 1991 probably ended Russia’s option for that kind of direct military intervention in its old Eastern European domain, and current realities in the West would make such a move fraught with danger for the Russians.


But then that’s not how the Russians like to operate. They are far more at home with covert, clandestine operations and provocations of the sort run so often by the old Soviet Union.


When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, the communist regime’s last-ditch effort made to keep control was to order the Soviet military into action against the demonstrations. It didn’t work because almost every soldier knew that he or she had friends and relatives among the demonstrators. In this context, it is fascinating that the only concrete warning given by President Obama on the Ukrainians was that they not commit their military establishment to the struggle. Additionally, there is little reason to believe that the Ukrainian government would be any more successful with military intervention than were the Soviets in 1991.


Masters that they are of provocation, it is likely that the Russians are doing everything they can to increase tension in Ukraine. It is worth noting that where the struggle started with rubber bullets, there were later live rounds in use. The demonstrators were reportedly using them against the Ukrainian authorities. But who were those demonstrators? Given what we know about Russia and its history in clandestine operations, it is perfectly reasonable to assume that there are Russian agents provocateurs on the streets firing live rounds at the Ukrainian authorities.


So, what is the United States to do? Clearly there is an element that feels we should get involved in any and all events where we somehow feel threatened. The real question is whether or not our involvement is in our own national interest.


To better judge that issue, we need to look at Russian motivation and goals. Putin would clearly like to reassemble the old Soviet East European Empire, and the best possible first step there would be to succeed in bringing Ukraine back into the Russian fold. If, for no other reason, that would encourage the Russians to think they could succeed with the rest of their reassembly project.


But that seems incredibly far-fetched. Ukraine is a European issue, and it seems unlikely that Western Europeans will be enthralled by the prospect of Russian success. The European Union has already entered the fray with sanctions against those Ukrainians believed to be involved in the Kiev carnage, coldly dismissing strident Russian criticism of their plans.


Given West European attitudes and the likely failure of Ukrainian military involvement against the demonstrators, Russian success in returning Ukraine to the fold seems highly unlikely. We can and certainly should give moral support to the European Union. Anything more that that would be crazy.



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