Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Russia v NATO: Ukraine, Crimea and the new Cold War.

   Admit it, the second you saw that vid of Russian attack choppers pouring into Crimea, somewhere in the back of your brain you started thinking of nuclear winter, fallout, the best routes out of major population centers and how up-to-date the contents of your bug-out-bag are. Maybe you've got to be a '70s kid and have grown up under the threat of a Warsaw Pact air burst over your local mall to be really jarred by those images, but either way, I sure hit the popcorn pretty hard. Some deep repressed memories perked up when I saw those choppers. It's not often you get to see the Russian Army on the move and the resulting shit storm all over US and European media made for some pretty entertaining TV, especially if you enjoy your talking heads not connected to the reality of the situation in any meaningful way.

   Doesn't anyone on CNN read a history book? If there were truth in news reporting these days someone might admit that Russia pulled a 'smart' maneuver here just like the West did when they secured Iraqi oil, deposed Gaddafi or bombed the rebels in Mali. Russia just joined the club! With nukes in play nobody in the West is going to become embroiled in a Slavic civil war for Ukraine. Right? Let's face it, we just love our post modern self actualizing Twittery, i-Phoney, corporatocracy too damn much to risk our comfort for a bunch of cantankerous Steppe dwellers. 

   The Euros are locked into a co dependent, abusive relationship with Russian oil and gas and the US is way over extended for either to do anything significant about Crimea so Russia gets to keep its new real estate. When you look at it with the cold eyes of realpolitik, Putin pulled off a pretty shrewd maneuver here and the West, despite the outrage on your TV screen, is pissed not because they give a shit about democracy and territorial borders; but because they got outplayed here by Putin and their inability to apply pressure has begun to reveal some frays at the edges of 21st century Western hegemony.

   To see why Putin pulled this rather ballsy gambit into Crimea, all you have to do is consider Russia's strategic position. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian bear has watched NATO expand eastwards into its backyard bringing Poland, Latvia and Lithuania into the western fold. Worryingly for Moscow, Ukraine has seen its fair share of Western NGOs, (really just an acronym for foreign political action committees operating inside your border), and slowly pour $5 billion into the system with the aim of tilting the vast bread basket west. 

   You don't hear much about Russian motivation in Western media though.

   For instance, when Western media ran the Nuland leak tape they did so in a way so divorced from the reality on the tape that I had to check the mirror to make sure I was living in the same universe and it all wasn't an acid flashback to the '90s. Here we have two American diplomats, one of them the US ambassador in Kiev, the other the top US diplomat to the EU (and presumably voicing the strategy of Obama's tech nerds) basically plotting a coup d'état against the democratically elected leader of Ukraine. But all of this got ignored when the the story ran and somehow morphed instead into a titilating snippet about how an Obama official said 'fuck the EU'. Meanwhile, the 'news' stayed tightly focused on the armed "democratic protesters" chucking petrol bombs at the cops. Turns out a whole bunch of them are hardcore Nazis and they've already started bullying members of the Ukrainian parliament and people on the streets.

   But this is democracy, right?

   And let's face it, if Occupy Wall Street protesters started lobbing molotovs at the NYPD, they'd have been gunned down with M4s before their idealistic little fingers made it to their Zippo lighters while Fox News ran a donation drive to buy more ammo for the cops. Yet here we have a mass of armed protesters advancing on the Ukrainian equivalent of The White House and word out of Washington and Brussels was more cheering from the sidelines like they're witnessing freedom and democracy on the march. It reminded me of that time during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 when looters in Baghdad ran off with priceless Mesopotamian treasure from the national museum and Rumsfeld was pushed in front of the TV cameras to inform us that that's what 'free people do'.

   On both occasions, I nearly threw up in my beer.

   Am I saying Russia had justification for invading Crimea?

   Nope. I'm just saying it was a shrewd move. 

   When the West does it, it's sex, when Russia does it, it's rape. The Russians under Putin have been itching for a chance to rebuild some semblance of the Soviet Empire and bring as many energy rich states into a Eurasian Union to counterbalance the Euros. Seeing Ukraine join the EU and NATO would be far too risky for Putin. The Russians know from history that buffer states and winter are useful allies whenever foreign powers try diplomacy by other means and head for Moscow.

   That's why nabbing back Crimea was a natural play, correcting the 'mistake' Khruschev made in 1954 over vodka when he gave it to Ukraine. Of course, back then this was merely an administrative shuffle because in the heady days of Sputnik, no one ever thought the Soviet Union would collapse and Russia might find itself on the wrong end of the deal. When Russians think of Crimea today they think of cheap holidays in the sun and Sevastapol, home of the Black Sea Fleet. And that fleet is pretty critical to Russian geopolitical ambitions. The naval base there allows Moscow an ice free port to exert influence over the Eastern Mediterranean, the Balkans and the Middle East.

   Although full of aging vessels, the fleet has been earmarked for upgrades, including six new diesel Kilo class subs and some amphibious assault ships with which to press home diplomacy when a little hard pressure is required with uppity neighbors like Georgia. It's also only a few days sailing to Syria where NATO ambitions were stymied in 2013 not least because of Russian machinations.

   Putin grabbed it and let's face it, it's nothing the US wouldn't do. Watching Kerry remark on the Crimean situation last week was a further exercise in the absurd theater of reality. Who writes this shit?  The needle on the hypocrisy meter broke when it tried to push past max level.

   So what are the West going to do about all this?

   This is where it gets interesting. Realpolitik is back and the US is going to have to adjust. The instability in Ukraine exacerbated by a tanked economy allowed Putin to pull this deft move without firing a shot. A remarkable gain considering its two million population and powerful position in the Black Sea. The US initially responded with a call for across the board sanctions which Germany instantly rejected because their economy needs all that sweet Russian energy. The trouble is, unlike China, Russia exports raw materials and energy and advanced Eurozone economies mold that into machines. So for the EU at least, which does ten times more trade with Russia than the US, sanctions are a non starter.

   The new idea this week is 'travel bans' on Russian officials which is kind of funny. Looks like those guys will have to go holidaying to the beach resorts of Crimea this summer. Also, there's talk of asset freezes on all that sleazy Russian money holed up in Western banks. Of course, Russian dirty money in the 'City of London' is exempt from these asset freezes because of some bullshit reason David Cameron's bankers created out of thin air; but really because those in London's financial center need liquidity and cash is always king, dirty or clean.

   In geopolitics and war, you measure how much you care in blood and treasure.

   And by this metric, the West doesn't care that much. Ukraine is cheap and Crimea is part of the Russian Federation now and it will stay that way. The upcoming referendum is a foregone conclusion, I'm gonna guess a 75% vote for Russia. Of course it's all theater but the Russians have learned from the West how to make invasions look legit.

The older generation celebrates the good ole days after the Crimea vote

   The real question is what happens in Eastern Ukraine and this is what I'm saving the popcorn for. For one thing, Britain, the US and Russia signed the Budapest memorandum in 1994 which guaranteed Ukrainian borders in exchange for them giving up all the nukes left over from the Soviet Union. That sure looks like a shitty deal right now doesn't it? 

  The hard lesson here is... never give up your nukes. 

   Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the interim Ukrainian prime minister, said "If you do not uphold these guarantees which you gave in the Budapest memorandum, then explain how you will convince Iran and North Korea to give up their nuclear status." Note to Mr Yatsenyuk: North Korea has nukes, you don't, so tough shit on that analogy sir, you lost your nuke bargaining chip in the international casino 20 years ago. Also, Iran has the 4th largest oil deposits on the planet and gargantuan natural gas reserves where you have lots of empty fields for growing grass so I'm sorry to inform you sir, but nobody gives a shit. Wheat is cheap right now but oil is precious. Different rules apply.

   If Russia pulls a 'Sudetenland maneuver' and invades Eastern Ukraine to 'liberate' the Russian speakers from Ukrainian tyranny, it sure has the potential to enter the dreaded 'escalatory spiral' where we're talking  full on global confrontation. This is where I see nukes saving us. Like I've said before, nukes are the greatest peace keeping weapons ever invented because Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) is the only logic us upright apes truly understand. In this case, the threat of confrontation will force leaders on all sides to the brokering table. That sure will be a complex deal.

    If Russia pours troops into Eastern Ukraine, it will force the West's hand. Proper economic sanctions, Poland will get their missile defense system and Russia will face growing isolation. If a shooting war starts on the ground (awesome multi spectrum air and land battles on mottled rolling green terrain) I sure would hit popcorn overdose. 

   Still, it's hard to see the Ukrainian Forces putting up a real fight. Sure, the figures above look decent on paper but war is never as simple as how many tanks you've got. The Ukrainian military is suffering very low morale due to the political situation, a low state of readiness and a military that is split between ethnic Ukrainians and Russian speakers. The Ukrainian military is unable to offer a credible deterrent right now.  It's also hard to see the forces on both sides engaging in a savage shooting war. After all, Slav historical ties run deep with Kiev itself being, in most Russians minds, a Russian city. That doesn't mean it can't happen but would Putin be prepared to fight for Ukraine killing fellow Slavs... like the Wehrmacht did?

   And yet still, 220,000 Russian troops, 1800 tanks and 400 attack choppers are engaged in "exercises" on the Ukrainian border. Meanwhile, Crimea just handed over it's navy to the Russian Federation while more troops and equipment arrive daily from the motherland. If the Russians invade they'll try not to fire a shot and annex Eastern Ukraine where the Russian speakers live, draw a line on a map and seek to de escalate. They'll have their buffer zone, the EU can have the bread basket, Poland gets a missile shield and the border becomes a Berlin Wall running along the new border with massive build ups of military forces on both sides.

   It's Cold War Part Deux.

   The beginning lines drawn in a multi polar 21st century.

   All those neoliberal economic ties and global interdependence is supposed to make the 21st century a century where war is impossible outside of the odd Third World resource grab or minor proxy war. Major wars are not supposed to happen say the architects of the new century because we will all buy tonnes of shit from each other and our need for more toys will mean our greed will save us from war.

   I must admit I'm pretty curious to see how that theory works out.

   Russia v Ukraine is surely its first major test.