Russian-America rivalry

What In The Hell Is Russia Doing? (Or, Mr. Putin Would Like a USSR, Please)

Okay, so they’re not 100% back to their “Let’s take over the world and put a statue of Lenin on the moon” ways.  But Russia is acting quite the bad boy recently; backing Bashar Assad in his murderous civil war, giving covering fire to Iran’s nuclear program, and now, seemingly grabbing up the Crimea and setting Ukraine down the path of secession and division.

Let’s begin where makes most sense – August 1991.

Mr. Gorbachev takes a holiday and ends up destroying the USSR

In August 1991, first and last president of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev was in the final stages of what might well have saved at least some of his country.  By that time in history, the USSR and communism were both discredited as terrible ideas; the former because it was too costly to maintain and the later because it was just a bad idea that didn’t take into account human greed.  So the upper echelons of Soviet leadership were trying to find a way to keep at least some of the bits of the USSR that helped them while ditching the parts that were a drag.

Back when Yelstein was just drunk enough to stand on tanks ordered to fire on crowds, but not so drunk that he’d fall off them.

The result was the New Union Treaty of 1991, which would have kept most of the USSR together as a loose federation of republics with a single defense and foreign policy but with otherwise autonomous states set free to sort the many problems of 70 years of communism.  This would have salvaged what remained of Russia’s empire that had been built to defend Moscow from invasion and conquest.  Under the circumstances, it was a pretty decent job.

But when Gorbachev went south for a holiday, Soviet hardliners launched a coup and fucked the Soviet Union. The coup failed because nobody but the Soviet Union’s most hardcore security men supported it; troops refused to open fire on crowds and eventually everyone had a good laugh at the expense of the KGB.  As they laughed, the death knell of the Soviet Union was heard; by December that year, all republics had gone their own ways and the hammer and sickle was no more.

But the dream did not die

Well, less of a dream than a necessity.  Russia needs wide buffers on various sides to secure itself.  It needs its Central Asian republics to absorb instability and chaos from the Middle East and Chinese adventurism; it needs its European buddies in Ukraine and Belarus to act as a barrier against invasion or encroachment from Europe.

The 1990s were a rough and horrible time for Russian power as civil wars erupted, presidents got super drunk, and kleptocracy took hold.  The low point was when NATO bombed Serbia in 1999, historically seen by Russia as a fellow Slav and Orthodox power under their protection.  That year, President Putin was elected for his first term.

Getting the band back together was not as simple as a few “I’m sorrys” and “I promise not to starve half your population again in pursuit of rapid industrialization”

For Russia, a ring of buffer states is essential to secure themselves against the encroachments of other world powers.  They have zero reason to assume the United States, European Union, or China won’t support the collapse of their state if push comes to shove amongst Russia’s many ethnic groups and competing political classes.  Moreover, having been invaded by Genghis Khan, Napoleon, and Hitler has made Russian generals justifiably concerned the world doesn’t have their interests at heart.

And so getting these buffer states back has been a delicate game of manipulation, opportunity seizing, and outright bullying.  In the 19th century, Russia was free to invade and conquer its way to security.  But by 2000, with the United States the undisputed champion of the world and with the international system no longer tolerating annexing or invading other countries, Russia under Putin had to find a slow but steady way to win back the frontiers without arousing a coalition under American command that would thwart it.

So Putin first put his own house in order, then got to making sure everyone worldwide understood how well ordered his house was

One of Putin’s first acts as president was to invade Chechnya, which Russia had lost control of in the chaotic 90s.  The first order of business was simple: get Russia itself to calm the fuck down.  All ethnic republics and civil disturbances had to be put to bed to reorganize Russia back into the type of state  it historically has always been – a country dominated by a tough government that would kick ass, take names, and build massive railways across nightmarish tundra.  

Once that was more or less accomplished, Russia could and did focus on rebuilding its foreign image.  The laughing stock of the 90s, Russia under Putin began a reversal of perception that culminated in Russia beating up Georgia in 2008 to remind the world it could.  Ignored in 2003 when Bush marched to Baghdad, by 2013 Moscow was nearly dictating the terms of a paltry chemical arms disarmament treaty in Syria.

That’s a pretty stunning achievement.  High score for foreign policy goes to Putin.

Thus the Eurasian Union of…Happy Republics?

Putin’s Eurasian Union is a pretty overt step towards getting that dead Union Treaty back to life.  Russia cannot and does not want to have a traditional empire; with population densities as high as they are worldwide, Russia cannot afford to police and control the teeming masses of Central Asia and Eastern Europe.  That’s part of what eventually killed the Soviet Union.  It’s therefore much better to have local strongmen in charge who work with Moscow to ensure no American pig-dog military base is set up within Russia’s sphere of influence.

Surrounded and outnumbered. Yeah, that’d piss me off, too. (Source: The Daily Telegraph)

The model to follow is Belarus, a state so backwards its forgiveable to mistake you’re still in the Soviet Union when wandering Minsk.  Under a powerful autocrat who’s happy to crack skulls, Belarus signs economic deals that favor Kremlin cronies and keeps American forces the fuck out.  But all the messy business of crushing rival political parties or managing what passes for a local economy is Minsk’s responsibility – and is a whole lot cheaper and less risky for Russia.

In Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Belarus, dictators keep the lid on local tensions just as local communist parties once did while taking their real orders from the Kremlin.  Ukraine was supposed to be in that category.  No more.

Building neo-empires is not going to make anyone popular

Russia’s war in Georgia in 2008 was hardly a flattering moment for Russia.  Neither is this push to start informally breaking up Ukraine.  Nor is the fact that, to remain credible, Russia will have to stand up for all sorts of nasty but reliable governments that still count Moscow as Friend and Ally.

Moreover, it goes directly against America’s global geopolitical rule: thou shoult not make another Soviet Union.

The situation, therefore, is both dangerous and fluid.  Russia must push outwards to grab what it can when it can.  America must push back to keep it from grabbing too much.  In between will be places like Ukraine.  The situation cannot be settled Once and For All because such a moment would involve nukes going both ways and humanity coming to an end.  Instead, the struggle must be by proxy, just like the Cold War, only this time with a weaker Russia against a stronger United States.

Putin better have fun while the fun still lasts

Because Russia is no rising power.  But it will act like one until it can’t pretend anymore.

Ukraine’s Burning Because A House Is Divided

(Refer to my previous article about the long term geopolitical history of Ukraine first in case you’re new).

In the past week, Ukraine’s government has gone nuts on its protest movement that just won’t take a hint.  The resulting bloodshed is pretty ugly and hardly the image people had of Ukraine, which prior to this mostly had to do with its stunning women.

Let’s go big and end small as we take a closer look at why the headlines are so nasty these days.

Ukraine, as a borderland, is a bit schizophrenic 

The more you go towards the west, the more European things start to feel – and are reflected accordingly in election results.  The further east, the more Russian – and the more Russian itself is spoken.  That’s geography in play.  From an economic perspective, it was cheaper for the western regions to trade with Central Europe and for the eastern regions to trade with Russia, creating links that are right now pulling the country in two directions.

A damned fine set of maps. Sexy maps that make you feel..different. Like no map has ever made you feel before in your life and makes you wonder how you ever ended up with that hag of a map you go home to every night. (Credit: Washington Post blog)

Under pre-modern circumstances (that is, when you’ve got no phone, no lights, no motorcar), culture takes a long time to shift because transport and communication is slow.  But today cultures change much faster.  The Soviet Union was able, for a while, to freeze Ukrainian culture in place because it restricted transport and communication (Papers please is a fine example of that).  But when the USSR fell, open communications and unrestricted trade links flooded Ukraine with modern European culture and mentalities. Naturally, because the western regions were closer, they were affected the most.

Thus the divide is between the European-leaning western provinces against the Russian-leaning eastern provinces. There’s also the linguistic divide – half of Ukraine speaks or uses only Ukrainian while the other half speaks or uses only Russian.  That, again, falls along an east/west line.

Ukraine is a deeply flawed democracy, and that hardly helps

The end of the Soviet Union was done as cleanly as such a thing was possible, but it’s important to remember Ukraine was one of the last republics to decide it was time to leave the Soviet Union.  Unlike other states where most or all of the elites were unified in wanting to get the hell out of the USSR, Ukraine had politicians right up until the very end who thought they might have been better off under the hammer and sickle.

These people caused the Soviet hangover of mismanagement and corruption that made economic growth in the 90s quite slow.  With GDP per capita less than $4,000 a year (that is, on average people earn less than $4,000 a year), Ukraine is not a middle class country.  Watching nearby former Soviet clients and states surpass it and get absorbed into NATO and the European Union caused those who were most dependent on European trade to get quite angry.  Eventually, this coalesced into the Orange Revolution of 2004, when the Russian-backed government fell and was replaced by a more European-leaning one.

In the years that followed growth took off.  But Ukrainian leaders were still stuck with a set of elites under them that had some really rotten apples.  Corruption remained rife.  Politicians played dirty with one another and it’s not likely many of them were above it.

Manly man President Putin was not thrilled with these developments

All of this scared the hell out of Russia’s Vladamir Putin, who, like the Ukrainian shit that had been tossed out of office, also ran a government that was notable for its corruption.    With NATO floating the idea of bringing Ukraine into its camp, Putin understood the gloves were coming off.  If Ukraine joined NATO, it would become increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for Russia to bully them into better trade and strategic deals.  And if NATO ever came under the sway of an anti-Russia faction, Russia itself could be fucked if they ever used Ukraine as a base.

Putin set about getting his kind of people back into power.  Meanwhile, within Ukraine, divisions between east and west were growing.  With the exception of Kiev, the east, near Russia, was getting rich and the west, near Europe, was getting poor.  Much of this had to do with the fact that the Russian-speaking east could do business more readily and more cheaply in Russia than the Ukrainian-speaking west because they both spoke the language and were closer (and the Soviets had also built up the east more than the west).  For westerners, cooperation with Russia had gotten them dick.  For easterners, it was the main path to success.

How the hell do you caption a photo like this? (Credit: The Atlantic)

Hence why the west was pissed their president decided to shut them out of the European Union

The initial argument wasn’t over joining the EU, but merely opening doors that would give the west the kind of trade links with Europe that the Russian-speaking eastern half of the country enjoys with Russia.  On the face of it, a Ukraine with doors open to both sides would be just about perfect for everyone – except, of course, the elites in Moscow, Kiev, Brussels, and Washington.

And that’s the problem.

The EU seeks another place to sell stuff, as the EU does, while America seeks to weaken Russia and the Russians hope to keep their happy-go-lucky corrupt business and defense partnerships going

Nobody – and I mean nobody – wants to go to war for Ukraine.  That’s fucking insane.  But everyone would like to see Ukraine in their camp.  It’s just too tempting not to try to grab.  The EU is not making a strategic play but an economic one.  From an EU perspective Russia’s touchiness is just about as backwards as one can imagine, but then again, the EU is not a traditional nation-state with all the hangups of having to worry about security and war.

For the U.S., pushing Ukraine towards Europe weakens Russia’s hand in Eastern Europe.  That’s fantastic news for the Americans.  But the U.S. won’t go to war or even play hard for Ukraine.  American leaders prefer to let democracy slowly work its way towards cooperation with its way of doing business.  That’s cheaper, more permanent, and way less risky than spy ops and other covert shit that tends to blow up in their big dumb faces.  So far, the only evidence of U.S. involvement has been faked.

Russian, meanwhile, wants to ensure no U.S. or NATO base is ever built in Ukraine and that when trade deals are penned, Russian interests come first.  That won’t happen if the door is opened to Europe – suddenly Russian companies would have to compete based on efficiency rather than cronyism or having a fuckton of natural gas.  That doesn’t sit well with the current elite in power in Moscow, who got there because they were corrupt assholes and not because they were particularly good at anything.

Why’s the government cracking heads now?  Because if they don’t, the government will fall

In 2004-5, the sitting Ukrainian government had tried to weather the protests and hoped everyone would just go home.  They didn’t and the government fell.  This time, President Viktor Yanukovych knows that if they hang out much longer, he’ll lose control.  The precedent of taking down the government by revolution is already in play and with no elections due until next year, there’s no way to get a president out unless you throw him out.

But he can’t crack too many skulls, lest he invite a civil war (and then open the door to a Russian or NATO invasion).  So he’s got to crack just enough while looking reasonable.  That’s a hard act when he’s such a dick and so are his allies in the Kremlin.

The space for cooperation is rapidly running out

With each escalation, violence becomes more likely on both sides, spiralling and spinning further and further along. Doomsday for Ukraine is a civil war, but there are many shades of evil in between, including Yanykovych following the tried-and-proven dictatorship tactics of nearby Belarus.  It’s hard to say, without being in a room with listening devices, to know what will happen next.  But bet on it not being pretty.