Thoughts on the crisis in Ukraine

It is hard these days not to think about what is going on in the Ukraine and the Crimea. It seems the idea of a land grab has been something we read about in history books, in what is usually in a very negative light.  Most notably the second World War and its aftermath the cold war.  However what is going on in the Ukraine has been something that has been building for the last century.  It places a leader steeped in the history of the Soviet Union, Vladamir Putin against the global onslaught of the digital democracy.  A country wanting to appear strong, to argue on the side of Russian history, but in the eyes of the world to look, quite simply, outdated. With the recent referendum vote it seems almost comical and yet tragic that Russia looks set to get its way, not just in Crimea but eastern Ukraine as well.   However I think that though Putin may be a good student of Russian history he is a bit lost when it comes to current history.

Ukraine has often been called one of the bread baskets of Europe.  The agricultural fertility of the Ukraine is well-known.  It is also the pace where during the early days of collectivization by the Soviets  it led to one of the great genocides of the 20th century.  A genocide that is well  documented by Miron Dolot’s, devastating account in his book “Execution by Hunger”.  As collectivization took hold, people s farms were taken and then as people were indoctrinated with communist philosophy and no possessions they simply starved.  During the era people were removed from Ukraine and sent elsewhere, like the Crimean Tartar’s, many who were told to get on a train and were sent to Uzbekistan.  This happened in nearly every Soviet Republic.  Ukranian’s, Russian’s, Uzbek’s etc..One thing the Soviets understood is if you want to minimize social unrest remove people from their historical roots and distribute the people across Russia’s vast expanses and that way they cannot congregate in mass.  Nor will they inhabit lands they call home.  It was cruel but effective.

President Obama was dumped with an out of the blue global crisis.  It was Harry Truman who was once asked, “What’s the most difficult thing about being President?”  He replied in one word, “Events”. I guess it seemed on the surface that Russia was having its Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics moment at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.  It was a Russian moment of, “We are here, and part of the modern world”.  But even leading up the Olympics when Russian experts like David Remnick were being interviewed there seemed to be some dark undertones when commenting about today’s Russia.  A sense of wanting not just to be at the table but to be at the head of the table. President Obama now is at the forefront of these events, taking him away from domestic policy, but that seems in line with all two term Presidents.  Congress does not listen as they are in re-election mode.  I think increasingly President Obama will be reacting to global events like the Ukraine.

Since Ukraine declared its independence from the Soviet Union on August 24, 1991, Russia has worked to make sure that it retains a “sphere of influence” over the Republic of Ukraine (and other former Soviet states).  Trying to foster tight relations with its neighbor.  often holding the Ukraine hostage over energy resources.   We saw this take place in the Orange revolution in 2004.  In what appeared to be a victory by Victor Yanukovych over Victor Yushchenko, was found to be a corrupt and rigged election.  This after his supporter, Vladimir Putin had already sent his congratulations to Mr. Yanukovych.  Yushenko won in the run off however this did not lead to brighter days in the Ukraine.  Consequently several years later Yanukovych would return to power .  the problem all along the way has not been if the left or the right is in power, but empty promises made in the face of wide-spread government corruption.  In the case of Yanukovych we discover a leader building himself a palatial place while average Ukrainians try to eek out a living.

If anything we as a country can learn something from this,  it is history is a powerful influence in many parts of the world, China, Japan, Europe, the Middle East etc.  It is something that we may claim to understand but we really do not.  We failed in Vietnam largely because we did not understand the link of Vietnam and China (Read former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s “In Retrospect:  the Tragedy’s and lessons of Vietnam”).  President Clinton failed to understand the depth of history and its emotion in his failed Middle East peace talks.  We are still a very young country with a lack of depth to our history.  I know 238 years may seem like a lot but when you consider my home state of Washington’s history just passed 100 years, holistically we do not have a lot of depth.

Putin came to power towards the end of the Clinton Administration.  He was a throwback to “old” Russia following the barrel of vodka man, Boris Yeltsin.  As we know Putin may be the last of the Russian leaders to have strong KGB ties.  He was 36 yrs old when the Soviet Union ceased to exist. Seemingly lacking in personality to the west but oozing with the strength of his nationalistic identity.   Following up on the previous paragraph Putin will play history to, what he feels is his advantage, but seemingly failing to realize that the current world history has global safeguards that did not exist before.  For now he is an immensely popular leader in Russia, but I feel there are clouds on his horizon

If there is a card to play it is the oldest and safest card we have which is economic sanctions.  Russia desperately wants respect but it cannot happen without financial means.  This is what fundamentally led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.  If Russia  is anyway shut off from participating in the free worlds global economics it will be hurt.  The only real card Russia has to play is the oil card, but with America’s growing domestic oil industry, the threat to the US is not as great as it used to be, however Europe may be different, as they are more dependant on foreign oil..  Along the lines of the Sochi Olympics, Russia is hosting the 2018 World Cup.  However FIFA is a heavily euro-centric governing body for soccer and it would not surprise me to them receive tremendous pressure to “cancel” Russia and replace with England, Spain or the United States.  This would be a last resort, but would have a crippling effect on Russia’s current and future domestic economy.  It would also be a significant blow to  Russia’s pride

As much as Putin wants to rely on Russia’s rich history to justify his end means, the last point is a powerful one.  It is not just the United States that controls this, but it is truly a global effort.  Russia has a strong economy, but it is the eight largest economy on the planet, behind the US and China and even behind Brazil.  The 7 countries ahead of Russia could easily shut out Russia and the global economy may face a blip, but the Russian economy would be devastated.  For all those dooms dayers, anti-Obama, anti-global integration, the US is getting weak etc..keep in mind the strongest hand to play still resides in the US Capitol, the group of 8 (soon to be 7) and the ability to control the monetary systems.  The ability to influence and build coalitions is still a very strong hand to play.  The combined GDP of the US and European Union is $32 trillion add in China’s $8 trillion and Japans $6 trillion, you have $45 trillion compared to Russia’s $2 trillion.  In the current world of global economics Putin can be as popular as he wants in the short-term, because in the long-term the Russian people will feel the economic impact  of global isolation.  The rest of the world will hardly notice that Russia is missing or choosing not to participate in the vast global wealth that is being created.

It is easy to get emotional in the heat of the moment.  But you need to know the cards you are playing and for all Putin’s desire to drive a wedge between the US and Europe, he keeps failing to realize that the wedge that unites Europe and the United States is Russia.  For all his talk of Russian history he does not seem a very good student of Russia’s history with Europe.  Russia is an outsider in these relations and in reality Putin is playing with cards he does not have.  In the short run he will appear strong but in the long run he will only hurt Russia and its people.  How that plays out is for the Russian people to decide, but then again if Putin understands Russian history we will just rule with an iron hand, which Russia seems to always to revert to throughout its storied history.


Good Night and Good Luck

Hans Henrik Hoffmann April 1, 2014


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