As Ambroise Bierce once put it, “War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.” [BQ] It needn’t be a full fledged conflict, in these days of cable media it can be a threat of armed conflict in a volatile region. Unfortunately, what we learn in the form of geographic knowledge we tend to subsume beneath a pile of pre-existing and often simplistic assumptions.
In the interest of complicating a complex situation further, perhaps it’s time to test a few assumptions.
1. “Vladimir Putin wants to rebuild the Russian Empire.” This conclusion has been drawn by former CIA Deputy Director Mike Morell. [CBS] Morell opines that the current problems between Russia and Ukraine stem from the ouster of the former Ukrainian prime minister who sought closer economic ties to Russia. Yes, Putin has decried the break up of the old Soviet Union, so this line of argument has a kernel of consistency. However, it also requires ignoring the instances in which Putin has observed that Ukraine is an independent nation. [NPR] The two notions are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but “nostalgia does not presupposed expansionism.” [IndUK] A little more thought may be in order before we leap to this conclusion.
2. “If Ukraine falls then Moldova, etc. are next.” Slow down. If Putin’s nostalgia isn’t a ‘plan’ for Russian expansion then the argument falls apart, no matter how many nations formerly affiliated with the old Soviet Union are added to the list.
3. “It’s just like Georgia.” Every analogy, or attempt to argue by analogy, eventually crumbles into absurdity, and this one falls apart more quickly than most. The European Union sponsored a three volume study on the 2008 conflict in Georgia and concluded the conflict was started by…the Georgians. [EU vol 1 pdf] Specifically, a “sustained Georgian artillery attack on the town of Tskhinvali.” Given the vast military superiority of Russian forces, had the Russians wanted re re-annex Georgia it would not have been an insurmountable task. They didn’t. The Russians didn’t even take the Georgian capital at Tbilisi. Georgia is still an independent entity, with a prime minister elected from a unicameral parliament. [CIA] That doesn’t mean there aren’t some hard feelings, “Russia’s military support and subsequent recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia independence in 2008 continue to sour relations with Georgia.” [CIA]
Abkhazia has a long history of association with Georgia, but not one without periodic conflicts. [BBC] The problems with South Ossetia are more profound. Their language is more closely related to Persian than Georgian, and Georgians account for less than 1/3rd of the South Ossetian population. [BBC] While the Russians have formally recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia only Nicaragua, Venezuela, Nauru, and Tuvalu followed suit. Abkhazia uses the ruble as its currency and about 50% of its total state budget is financed by the Russians. The economic situation in South Ossetia is a bit more dire, it has one major asset — the Roki Tunnel, which connects Russia to that portion of Georgia. Most of its economy is based on subsistence farming.
In short, it’s one thing to ‘declare’ a region independent and offer it recognition, but quite another to present the world with a fait accompli. And, we’d also be well advised to note the geographic and economic ties between Russia and the two portions of Georgia upon which it has bestowed recognition are more complicated than a superficial glance would evoke.
4. “We have to DO something.” That would be a good thing, had we major compelling interests in Ukraine. The major imports (in order) are (1) refined petroleum 13%, (2) crude petroleum, (3) semi finished iron, (4) hot rolled iron, and (5) railway freight cars. [OEC] 32.4% of the country’s imports come from Russia, 9.3% from China, 8% from Germany, 6% from Belarus, and 4.2% from Poland. [CIA] The amount of refined petroleum imported might suggest that U.S. companies might be able to Drill Baby Drill into relevance. This, of course, assumes that U.S. petroleum products sold on the international oil market would dominate the Ukrainian market. However, when a country has a neighbor with an abundance of natural gas and refined petroleum (Russia) readily available at lower cost, then both the cost and the convenience outweigh U.S. capacity to get more involved in that market. [WaPo] The arguments for the TransCanadian Keystone pipeline and fracking are essentially for our own domestic political consumption, and have little relevance for the petroleum (refined or otherwise) on global markets.
If we aren’t a major trade partner with Ukraine what vested interests are we to protect by involving ourselves in their political turmoil? The related question is: Are we the global police force? If we adopt this stance then we have to be ready to assume the costs associated with it. We are paying approximately $816 billion for our operations in Iraq, another $701 billion for operations in Afghanistan [GP] how much more are we prepared to pay for incursions into Ukraine…Syria…Libya…?
If we don’t adopt this stance then are we prepared to acknowledge that other nations, specifically members of the European Union, and even more specifically Germany, have greater interests involved in the stability of their relations with Ukraine and Russia? [CarnegieEurope] [New Yorker]
Might a better American policy on the current issues between Russia and Ukraine be to allow those with more immediate interests take the lead in defusing the situation? Or, in basketball parlance, should we be the player who makes other players on the court more effective?