Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Awaiting Russia’s Next Move In Ukraine

PARIS, France -- Deadlines, like hangings, help concentrate the mind, which explains the frantic pace of recent diplomatic activity in Kiev, where a tag team of Western envoys has been trying to cobble together a financial and political package to pull Ukraine out of its crisis.

Vladimir Putin

The assumed deadline in this case is the end of the Sochi Winter Games, when President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia will no longer have to play the congenial Olympic host and can turn his attention to scoring a Russian “win” in Ukraine. 

Exactly what Russia will do when Mr. Putin takes off his hockey gloves is unknowable — since this, like so much that passes for Russian diplomacy in its “near-abroad,” is probably lurking somewhere inside Mr. Putin’s head.

In fact, the deadline was always a bit phony.

It seems Russia did not wait for the opening of the Games on Friday to work its mischief, with a leaked diplomatic telephone conversation — dated Jan. 25 — that had a top American official dismissing the European Union with a crude expletive.

The United States State Department openly hinted at Russian responsibility for the leak, which makes sense since it would require expert listeners to troll through three-week-old tapes to find the four-minute segment where an American official says rude things about the European Union.

Sowing discord among Western allies is a tactical maneuver, straight out of the Soviet playbook.

What worries Western diplomats is the possibility of more aggressive moves by Russia once the Sochi Games are over.

What might be Russia’s options?

Anders Aslund, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, lists four: a trade war, a gas war, covert actions, and threat of military force.

Most experts, Mr. Aslund included, dismiss the possibility of military force, which would involve a reversion to the Soviet-era Brezhnev doctrine.

Anyone tempted to follow that scenario would need psychiatric treatment for “trauma caused by loss of empire,” as the Russian newspaper Vedomosti put it recently.

Mr. Aslund says another gas war — a rerun of the 2005 and 2009 disputes that led to a cutoff of gas supplies to Europe — is also unlikely.

He argues that the Russian gas giant Gazprom, which has seen a decrease in its European exports, is in a much weaker position today than it was five years ago.

“A third time would be too much,” he said.

There is some evidence that the other two options are already in the works. According to The Kyiv Post, an English-language Ukrainian newspaper, two trade associations have complained that Ukrainian exports are once again facing delays at the Russian border, a repeat of the mini-trade war that preceded the decision by Ukraine last November to cancel a broad agreement with the European Union, which detonated the crisis.

As for covert activities, they are by definition impossible to prove but entirely possible.

So far, 36 protesters in Kiev have been reported missing, amid accusations of kidnapping and torture by mysteriously well-informed thugs.

Given the long history and the long border shared by Russia and Ukraine, there are other cards at Moscow’s disposal — including muffled separatist rumblings in Crimea, a Ukrainian region that is close to the Russian heart.

What is clear is that Russia will have a role in Ukraine, overt or covert, no matter what the West has to offer in terms of aid or advice.

Disregarding Russia’s interest in its neighbor’s future will only strengthen Mr. Putin’s view that the play for Ukraine is a zero-sum game.

All sides agree that the stakes are high in what is sounding more and more like an eerie replay of the Cold War.

A Russian official has accused the United States of “crudely interfering” in Ukrainian politics, while an American diplomat, in the taped conversation, warned that the Russians would surely “be working behind the scenes to torpedo” any agreement brokered in Kiev by the West.

When the Olympics end, the competition over the future of Ukraine will still be going on.

The question that will remain is how leaders in Russia and the West choose to play it out.

Source: The New York Times

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