IMMEDIATE RELEASE 3 September 2014
Today’s Events in Historical Perspective
America’s Longest-Running Column, Founded 1932
By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift
WASHINGTON – Western leaders are gathering in Wales to consolidate NATO options as Russian forces secure their positions in Eastern Ukraine. It’s a showdown of sorts, and Russian President Putin has the upper hand. He’s offering a ceasefire in Ukraine even as he says Russia is not a party to the conflict, one of the many games he plays as he taunts the West.
Putin is clearly in charge of the ground game in Ukraine despite his denials. And now that he has effectively secured the two Eastern-most provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk, he’s ready to negotiate.
What terms will he demand? One, he wants autonomy for those two Eastern provinces where Russian speakers predominate, and where a sizeable portion of the population feels an affinity for the Russian Motherland. A greater measure of independence for Luhansk and Donetsk can be achieved with a rough federation, but Putin may have more in mind. He may intend to annex the provinces.
The larger and more problematic demand Putin is likely to put on the table is a prohibition against Ukraine joining NATO and/or the European Union or signing trade pacts with the EU. He wants Ukraine to be included in his Collective Security Treaty Organization along with a half dozen other former Soviet Republics. On the face of it, that could be a non-starter for Ukraine, whose newly elected president, Petro Poroshenko, is scheduled to visit the White House and meet with President Obama on September 18th.
Clearly, Poroshenko wants to cast his country’s lot with the West, but how much maneuvering room does he have? In a recent telephone conversation with a European Union leader, Putin boasted that his forces could take Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, in two weeks if he chose to do so. There’s no disputing the fact that the Russian Army is far superior to any forces Ukraine can muster, but Poroshenko may be betting that Putin really doesn’t want all of Ukraine. After all, the country is an economic basket case and would be a drain on Russia’s resources.
What Putin cannot tolerate is another country on Russia’s border tilting to the West, which is what he faces with the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. It’s worth remembering what set off this crisis. A series of protests in Ukraine’s dubbed Euromaidan called for the ouster of the pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych. Yanukovych fled to Russia, and Ukraine tilted to the West, seeking a trade pact with the European Union. Putin couldn’t stand it, and threatened to cut off energy supplies to Ukraine and Europe.
What followed was the Russian annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region and the attempted secession of Donetsk and Luhansk. But the rebellion faltered, and Russian troops and equipment poured in to tip the balance in the rebels’ favor.
Poroshenko has been pleading for help, but the U.S. and NATO are not going to engage Russia in a land war over Ukraine, and Putin knows it. Instead, the West has imposed a series of sanctions on Russia, so far to no avail. Putin is in the stronger position. First, the Ukrainian Army is no match for the Russian Army. Second, he has control over the natural gas that flows through pipelines in Ukraine that fuel Ukraine and much of Europe. He’s not likely to just shut it all off; after all he needs the revenue, but he can play off-and-on games with the supply.
He can cut off Ukraine for a couple weeks, or even a couple days, and sit back and watch the havoc. He can yank around European leaders to his heart’s delight. With winter approaching, the sheer uncertainty of knowing whether or not Russia will deliver the power they need creates hardship. In this scenario, Russian gas and the Russian Army are likely to trump Western sanctions.
© 2014 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.
Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.
END WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND