Ukraine, the West and Russia: An analysis

Stuart Sterzel says a difficult situation has been exacerbated by some highly inept diplomacy


LONDON (March 7 2014)- The recent events in Ukraine provide a text-book case study on how to snatch (political and diplomatic) defeat from the jaws of victory.

The history of Ukraine is not the subject of this article, as information on these historical issues can be obtained easily from a Google search. As such, the basic point is that Ukraine is not a homogenous country. Very roughly-speaking, its population is primarily ethnically Ukrainian and Catholic in the West, and primarily ethnically Russian and Orthodox in the East. Crimea - which only became part of Ukraine less than 60 years ago (prior to that it was a part of Russia) - is a semi-autonomous region within Ukraine, where the population is approximately 60% ethnically Russian.

For historical reasons, there is a degree of antipathy between ethnic Ukrainians and ethnic Russians in Ukraine; and there is a degree of resentment among ethnic Ukrainians about the amount of influence that Russia has historically exerted over Ukraine. Conversely, ethnic Russians in Ukraine look to Russia for security and want close Russian involvement.

Ukraine's economy is not stable or robust. It is approximately US$ 150 Billion in debt - US$ 15 Billion of which is owed to Western financial institutions, and if it defaults on the debt, it will cause a crisis in Western financial circles. Russia had previously offered Ukraine a financial guarantee to cover the US$ 15 Billion of debt to Western institutions. These debts aside, Ukraine gets all of its gas supplies (without which perhaps a third of its population may die in winter, and its fragile economy will implode) from Russia at subsidised rates, and it is further subsidised by Russia with various other commodities (including food and substantial debt-forgiveness). Ukraine's 30% discount on the natural gas that it buys from Russia every year is in fact the rent Russia pays for the use of the Crimea for its Black Sea Fleet, but Ukraine nevertheless also defaults on payments of approximately US$ 2.5 Billion of natural gas from Russia every year. These, by the way, are the very stark realities of what is - which trump sentimentalities and views of what should be in an ideal world.

It is commonly accepted that Ukraine's recently-deposed President (who is still, according to international law, the President), was corrupt - as was his administration - and not necessarily fit to hold that office. It is also commonly accepted that his sentiments were predominantly pro-Russian, and that neither he nor his administration were widely accepted by ethnic Ukrainians; but were widely accepted by ethnically-Russian Ukrainians. It is also commonly accepted that he was democratically elected.

During recent civic unrest in Ukraine - sparked by the President's/ex-President's refusal to ratify a treaty with the European Union, which unrest ultimately resulted in loss of life - primarily ethnic Ukrainians (the "opposition") succeeded in bringing about his agreement to reduce his powers, implement a national unity government with the opposition, and hold early elections at the end of the year.

This represented an unqualified victory for the opposition, as holding course on these terms would almost certainly have brought about that which they desired (being closer ties to the European Union) without further conflict, without endangering their financial guarantees from Russia, and most importantly, in a stable manner.

And then it all went very, and very avoidably, wrong.

After these terms had been agreed to, and in a rapid turn of events, elements among the opposition suddenly declared that they did not accept the agreement, and would storm the Presidential Palace the next morning if the President did not immediately step down. Consequently, he fled to Russia. Within the space of 72 hours, a new (unelected) government was sworn in, which declared him a fugitive.

Thereafter, in short order, the new government in Kiev's first law immediately revoked foreign language (read Russian) rights in Ukraine (this would be like immediately banning the use of French in Canada or Flemish in Belgium). Other than this, the newly appointed Head of the Ukrainian government's Security and National Defense Committee (a virulently and publicly anti-Russian person) publicly called on the Chechen separatist leader (who is on the USA's list as the regional leader of Al-Qaeda) to act with Ukraine and attack Russia.

Naturally none of these acts made Ukrainian citizens who are ethnically Russian feel particularly secure. The EU's Foreign Minister then publicly hugged members of the new government on TV, and the USA's representative to the region had publicly gone to give cookies to the opposition who were now in the new government - also on TV. The ethnic Russian Ukrainian citizens therefore looked to Russia for help; which they got (Russia basing its acts on a very loose interpretation of an agreement which allows it to see to the security of its Black Sea Fleet in Crimea).

To step away from Ukraine, a comparative situation would be for a pro-Mexican President in the USA to be deposed by force, for the new unelected government to immediately ban the use of Spanish (read Mexican) language rights in the USA, to appoint a virulently and publicly anti-Mexican person as the Head of Homeland Security, and for him to call on Al-Qaeda to attack Mexico. It would not make Mexican-Americans (or Mexico) feel particularly secure or satisfied. It is also unlikely that Mexican-Americans or Mexico would be further reassured if the EU's Foreign Minister then came and publicly hugged members of that new American government on TV, or the Russian representative to America went to publicly give them cookies on TV (as the USA's representative did in Kiev).  This comparison is inverted in respect of Ukraine/Russia in that in this example the USA is the dominant country - however it serves its purpose to illustrate the potential effect that crude diplomatic actions can have in exacerbating the fears of a (sizeable) minority in any country.

In any event, after these precipitous and unnecessary actions, Russian troops entered the Crimea.  These events have now created an international geopolitical flashpoint, in which postures reminiscent of the Cold War are being struck, with certain Western governments and the Russian government being at loggerheads, and inflammatory rhetoric being stepped up on an almost daily basis.

In this stand-off, Western political figures and the Western media are painting Russia in general and President Vladimir Putin in particular as the aggressor against Ukraine and as invading Crimea - which is according to them an indication of a Russian attempt to expand its "empire". Conversely, Russian and CIS political figures and media are painting the West as being hypocritical for supporting what they term an "illegal" government in Ukraine, and Russia's posture is that it is merely protecting Russian civilians in Crimea according to a bilateral agreement with Ukraine.

Other than it being worth noting that no military fighting or bloodshed has occurred in Crimea - yet, it should also be remembered that the ethnic Russians that make up 60% of the population of Crimea (and form the majority of the democratically-elected Crimean Parliament that has now voted to secede from Ukraine as a result of these incidents) are also Ukrainians by citizenship.

As such, various diplomats' and political leaders' statements that Ukrainians must be allowed to make their own decisions without external interference should also apply to them - unless race-based politics are to be invoked. This is why it is always best for diplomats and politicians to think carefully about the potential unintended consequences of their statements before making them in public.

In the current situation, neither the Russian/ethnic-Russian Ukrainians' position nor the Western/ethnic-Ukrainian Ukrainians' positions is either completely correct or completely incorrect. There are elements of truth in both sides' arguments, and also elements of falsity or posturing. In general, it is now very messy. This situation was precipitated primarily by hasty and unthinking actions and statements from (politically) unsophisticated and inexperienced people, who assumed positions of authority. However, and more seriously, the continuation and escalation of this incident primarily represents the complete failure of experienced politicians and diplomats - who should know better - to manage this process professionally and diplomatically, and to seek resolution instead of promoting tension.

Regrettably, so poor has this diplomatic performance been that in conversations which I have held over the past week with friends and former colleagues of mine in both Ukraine and Russia - who have been in government service in both of those countries - we have all agreed that had this type of impulsive behaviour been exhibited by diplomats and political leaders during the Cold War, we would have come close to nuclear war erupting.

A further cautionary note is that it serves no purpose to demonise President Putin as an individual. He is an elected President of a government. Many ministers in his government (and Parliament) favour, in comparison to him, a much harder line. He currently enjoys a 68% approval rating within Russia for his actions in Ukraine, but if he had taken a harder line, his approval rating in Russia would have been even higher.

This article is, by the way, not a defence of either the Russian or Western positions. The current situation is one of the occasions where it can be said that there are no "clean" sides or arguments, and fault can be found on all sides. This article is, however, a criticism of the failures and ineptitude in geopolitical stewardship by diplomats and political leaders, who have failed to exercise even the most basic and (supposedly) unbreakable rules of geopolitical statecraft, which are:

1. Never say anything in public that will stoke passions unless you want to start a conflict (verbal, diplomatic, trade, economic or military), and even then, only do so if you are certain that you will win any such conflict to come.

2. Never say anything in public that will stoke the (negative) passions of the population of a potentially opposing country, as you will then limit the options that the Head of State of that country has, as he or she cannot oppose the will (passions) of their own people once they are inflamed.

3. Never allow a situation to continue to escalate without trying your utmost to defuse passions as soon as possible, as the longer a standoff continues the more likely it becomes that the Laws of Unintended Consequences will be invoked, over which you will have absolutely no control.

The inflammatory statements of many political leaders and diplomats - whose job is in fact to ensure global stability not promote global instability - sound in some cases like the histrionic comments to be found in mock debates between first-year political science students; rather than reflecting sophisticated and mature diplomatic stewardship, focussed towards responsible de-escalation of tensions at a geopolitical flashpoint.

Other than this, let us examine a few geopolitical, economic and military realities related to the current situation:

The world is united against Russia:

Well, actually, it is not. The combined population of Russia and the CIS countries which support the Russian / ethnic-Russian Ukrainians' position - and the qualified support of China for Russia - means that the number of persons supporting the Russian position is exponentially larger than the combined population of the USA and Western Europe. As such, there is, in fact, a majority of support for Russia if one wants to crudely try to use numbers as a benchmark for legitimacy. Moreover, in most of Asia (excluding China), Latin America, and Africa, the majority of people - including those who even know where to find Ukraine on a map - generally couldn't care less either way (except as to how it will affect their economies), as they have their own regional issues to attend to.

The United Nations Option:

Seeing as the Russian Federation is a permanent Member of the UN Security Council, and has a veto on the Council, it is a statistical possibility of zero that any effective action could or would be achieved through the United Nations.

The Sanctions Option:

Western Europe gets approximately 50% of its natural gas supplies (absolutely essential for heating in winter and for industry) from the Russia. Russia has alternative markets, and can turn off the supply without shattering its own economy. Western Europe does not have an alternative supply (the infrastructure for receipt and distribution of sufficient natural gas from other locations does not exist). The results of the closing off of the gas supply to Western Europe would be extraordinarily serious for Western Europe and the EU's economy, and in comparison not nearly as serious for Russia.

Other than this, the US$ 120 Billion per annum worth of trade between Russia and Western Europe benefits primarily Western Europe - not Russia. Russia is self-sufficient in food production, and is a net exporter -for which it is paid in foreign currency. As such, pressure on the Russian Rouble will, in fact, benefit Russia, as in Rouble terms the exports will be more valuable for Russia, being paid for in foreign currency as they are.

Moreover, other than having some of the largest deposits of oil, diamonds, and multiple minerals and metals, Russia also has some of the largest deposits of Strategic Minerals - which the rest of the world cannot do without. As such, continuation of Russian exports is assured, and if the West did not buy these product (many of which they have to) then China will buy them.

Finally, Russia has the fourth largest foreign currency reserves in the world, has hardly any debt, and its economy is sound. Western European countries and the USA on the other hand have highly indebted economies - some of which are teetering towards bankruptcy, and others of which are in the grips of severe austerity measures.

No points for guessing who will lose the most with sanctions.

The Military Option:

Various intemperate analysts and political advisers have been stridently advocating that American and/or NATO military assistance be provided to Ukraine. Well, let us see. In Strategic Warfare terms, the Russian Federation has 2 500 Strategic Nuclear Missiles and over 6 000 Tactical Nuclear Weapons - more than the combined nuclear arsenal of the USA and every other NATO country combined. In Conventional Warfare terms, Russia has an army of 770 000 men with a further 2 500 000 reserves, 15 000 tanks, 28 000 Armoured Fighting vehicles, 8 000 artillery pieces and mobile rocket launchers, a 21st century air-defence system, 3 000 aircraft and 900 helicopters - again, more than the armies of the USA and all NATO members combined. The Russian Armed Forces' home country (and abundant logistical resupply) is also right next to Ukraine, while Crimea is home to the entire (large) Black Sea Fleet of the Russian navy. Therefore, unless the Japanese code of Bushido - which advocates Hara-Kiri (ritual suicide) and/or Kamikaze activities - has recently become the ideology of Western leaders; it is safe to assume it most unlikely that any military assistance could or would be provided to Ukraine by any Western Armed forces.

The Diplomatic Option:

This is, frankly, the only option available. However, given the extraordinarily impulsive and belligerent way that it has been handled to date (in public, instead of in private), one hopes that the political leaders and diplomats that have been breaking the most basic rules of statecraft by making inflammatory public statements will rather (as they seem not to know the basics of their own profession) buy and read a copy of Henry Kissinger's book "Diplomacy", and then start to act in a manner that actually befits their high political or diplomatic office. Currently, they are, in fact, behaving worse than speculators who irresponsibly play with Other People's Money - as they are, through engaging in irresponsible and inflammatory public rhetoric, actually playing with Other People's Lives.

I remember that some years ago, when I was a guest of members of both the Ukrainian Federal Government and the Government of the Autonomous Region of the Crimea; I held discussions with them at a Crimean city on the Black Sea coast called Yevpatoria - which had been, in Soviet times, a holiday city.  The government guest house that I was put up in had formerly been the USSR's special government house where Yuri Gagarin and other Soviet Cosmonauts were put up prior to their Space Missions, and it was filled with Cosmonaut memorabilia. It also had a "Russian Pyramid" billiard table with its outsized billiard balls. Over a few games of billiards and some drinks after our discussions, we had time to chat informally, and I was introduced to a number of Ukrainian proverbs, two of which strike me as being apt for the current situation.

Given the inflammatory rhetoric being used by diplomats and political leaders, the only possible result of such rhetoric can be to continually stoke the fires of potential conflict instead of pouring oil on troubled waters. Bearing in mind that it is the Ukrainians, and no-one else, who will bear the brunt of any escalation of conflict, the first relevant Ukrainian proverb would be this: "The obliging fool is worse than an enemy". Perhaps it would be best for the Ukrainians themselves to take control of their own fate and enter into direct (discreet) negotiations with each other and with Russia and/or Western countries; and not to place their fate in the hands of those who would oblige them with populist words, but then disappoint them in respect of concrete actions if the populist rhetoric escalated the situation.

One only has to look at the assurances given to Poland by third parties in 1939 - and then review what happened to Poland between 1939 and 1945, but most especially after 1945, to see what can happen to a country that places the control of its fate into the hands of third party countries - instead of remaining in control of its own destiny.

The second Ukrainian proverb - given that the situation as it currently stands in Ukraine is still infinitely soluble in comparison to what it could most definitely still degenerate into if not checked through skilful statecraft - is this: "Only when you have eaten a lemon do you appreciate what sugar is".

The taste of the lemon that could yet be eaten if this situation deteriorates further would be very bitter for all parties involved, and it would take decades, if not longer, to remove its bitter taste and legacy if consumed.

For all parties, it would be better at this time to rather go in search of sugar.

The writer is an international businessman who previously provided Strategic Geopolitical Consulting services to governments of Eastern and Western European countries, governments of countries within the Commonwealth of Independent States (former USSR) - including the Russian Federation and Ukraine - and to Europe-based International Organisations.

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