A short primer on Ukraine and what Putin hopes to achieve


Well, it's been a stomach churning couple of days. All of a sudden, it seems as if the Cold War is back with fury. Russian troops are invading a former Soviet republic. The US is issuing dire warnings. NATO and the UNSC are in emergency meetings. For me, visions of the darkest days of the superpower face off have been filling my head.

So, it's time to step back, and take a more considered look.

Russia in 2014 is not the Soviet Union in 1986. (And, in many ways, it is, but more on that later.)

Russia has an economy which would make Saudi Arabia's look diversified. Its industry is ossified. It depends almost exclusively on on exporting energy and raw materials to survive. Vladimir Putin, for all his protestations of his love for his country, has done nothing to make the Russian economy more sustainable. The New Republic has a major piece on how Europe can put the screws to Russia, without firing a shot. Russia is, as it always has been, a Potemkin village, a veneer of affluence masking a roiling pot of poverty. If Russia loses its European markets, it falls apart. If Europe freezes the bank accounts of a couple of dozen oligarchs, Putin, for all his bravado, would find himself in an FSB dungeon.

So why this risk? Why this mad dash for a revanchist land grab? 

Remember, Putin has averred that the fall of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century. His project for a Eurasian Union is nothing more than a blatant attempt to recreate the Empire of All the Russias, with himself as "elected" Tsar. 

But, a Eurasian Union is a non-starter without the participation of Ukraine. Ukraine is not only the breadbasket of Europe and Russia, but it is the spiritual home of the Russian nation. Kievan Rus' gave birth to the idea of "Russia". The Grand Princes of Muscovy always had as a policy aim bringing Ukraine under their rule, and then never letting go.

However, policies which served a medieval state well may no longer work in an interconnected technological civilization. Land grabs in Europe usually don't end well. And, as I said, Russia in 2014 is not the Soviet Union in 1986. (More like Russia in 1905, when it thought it could deal easily with upstart Japan.)

Ukraine is not Georgia. It has the second largest military on the Continent, after Russia. It is a state of 48 million people. And Russia is barely able to mount enough force to squat Georgia or Chechnya. The prospects of it maintaining any campaign in Ukraine are dim.

Again, the question is why. Why would a state with such glaring deficiencies—a quasi-failed, kleptocratic, near-mafia state—roll the dice on such a dangerous game?

It all boils down to Putin's sense of his own destiny as a redeemer of Russian greatness. Sochi was a step in that direction. Now bringing Ukraine back within the Russian orbit would seal himself, in his mind, as the savior of the Motherland.

A megalomaniac with a nuclear arsenal is a dangerous man. We shouldn't look at these times as anything less than perilous.

But, Russia is not the Soviet Union. It doesn't have a bloc behind it, and willing allies all over the world. Russia can be easily isolated, as it's being now, by the US, Canada, the UK, and France pulling out of preparatory meetings for the G-8. China is at most an ally of convenience, and will desert Putin when its interests warrant. Although weak economically, the Soviets had a strong political position. Putin is strong neither economically nor politically. And, as the New Republic piece says, if the EU puts the economic screws to Putin's power base, it won't take long for Russia to scream.

Now, the question is: Will Putin not care? Will his sense of mission override all logical considerations? He must know that he's now in a fight for his own survival. Either he gets something from the Ukraine adventure, or he will be mortally wounded in the Kremlin. The long awaited Russian Spring might finally break out if his adventure ends in humiliation. A man pushed in a corner, with a WMD arsenal, is a dangerous man.

I'm not prescient enough to predict how this will turn out. But I do know that it's time to revive that old saw: US politics stop at the water's edge. If the country rallied around George W. Bush after 9/11, a much more dangerous moment warrants the same unity behind Barack Obama. Anything less, and our worst fears may in fact be realized.

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