The ongoing situation in Ukraine is becoming more
complicated each day. An original Ukrainian nationalist
uprising in the western part of this nation overthrew an
unpopular pro-Russian leader who fled to Russia. In the
Crimean province of Ukraine, mostly inhabited by Russian
speakers, an uprising then occurred, demanding that Crimea
be reunited with Russia. During the period of the Soviet
Union, Crimea had been given to Ukraine. A plebiscite then
overwhelmingly approved this, and Russian troops entered
the Black Sea peninsula while the Russian parliament
confirmed the reunification. Unrest by pro-Russian forces
in eastern Ukraine, where there are also many Russian
speakers. then also agitated for more autonomy and special
rights for Russian speakers. Mobs in various cities of eastern
Ukraine took over local government facilities, and the
Ukrainian army initially was unable to counter these actions.
When they did finally act to restore order, they met not only
further resistance, but new calls for a plebiscite in eastern
Ukraine to also either become an independent state or
re-unite with Russia. The new Ukrainian government so far
seems unable to stem the deteriorating circumstances in its
Russian President Vladimir Putin, upset by the revolution in
western Ukraine, has been seen to encourage the pro-Russian
nationalist movements in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, but
has, at the same time, been perceived by leaders in the U.S.
and the European Union as attempting to reassemble in some
form the old Soviet Union, especially after he made comments
about protecting the rights of Russian speakers int he Baltic
nation of Estonia, itself also a former Soviet province.
Western leaders, led by U.S. President Obama, have opposed
these Russian moves in eastern Europe, defended the
independence of Ukraine (which is not a member of NATO)
and Estonia (which is a member), and threatened economic
sanctions against Russia.
President Putin has dismissed these economic threats, and
perhaps sensing that the U.S. and the E.U. have neither the
ability nor the will to block him, has continued to issue dire
warnings about the unrest, all of which, it must be noted, is
taking place on its borders.
An agreement between Russia and the West was then
negotiated to calm matters down, but pro-Russian nationalist
forces in eastern Ukraine have paid no attention to this, and
Ukraine now appears to be at the edge of a full civil war.
Stepping back to view the economic circumstances in the
region at this time, the Russian economy appears to be
entering a period of recession. But its huge reserves of oil and
gas (which enabled it to recover from a disastrous period
following the break-up of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s)
still are major energy exports to and resources for Ukraine
and western Europe. The threat of discontinued sale of these
resources is a considerable Russian lever against the western
Ukrainian government in Kiev, and secondarily against E.U.
nations which depend on Russian oil and gas supplies. On the
other hand, without the income from these energy sales to
Europe, Russia, already in recession, risks major new internal
economic turmoil. Depending on the nature of threatened
Western sanctions, the Russian economy could also be further
The reacquisition of Crimea has also brought notable new
debt to the Russian economy, and in spite of eastern Ukraine
being the site of much of that nation’s industry, the
reoccupation of that region would only pile on to Russian
economic obligations at a time when it cannot afford to do so.
Further complicating matters, there is some evidence that
Russian control of nationalist forces in eastern Ukraine
might be becoming more and more limited, and there is the
danger, as suggested by a former British diplomat to Russia
(in an interview in the British newspaper, The Independent)
that Putin now could be drawn into a situation in eastern
Ukraine beyond his control and which is not in his interests.
Mr. Putin, operating in the long historical tradition of Russian
rulers going back to the czarist period and the Stalinist Soviet
period, does not apparently behave with the diplomatic
niceties expected in the West, and as the biggest shark in the
sea of eastern European politics, has moved with brute force,
intimidation, and masked military infiltration in this conflict.
But Mr. Putin’s Russia is no longer the immense Cold War
force the Soviet Union was. The USSR’s marxist-socialist
economy was eventually no match for Western capitalism, and
the new Russian market economy is still in its early stages.
Mr. Obama’s inept foreign policy, especially in relationship to
Russia, has perhaps led Mr. Putin to believe that the U.S. is no
longer a force to be contended with, but the American leader’s
naive go-along-get-along attitude, and clumsy attempts to
reset U.S. relationships in Europe and the Middle East, have
seemed to have run out their course. With the failure of
U.S.-promoted negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians,
the failure to bring a settlement in Syria, the continued nuclear
military program in Iran, and the disintegration of U.S.
expectations for the “Arab spring” in Egypt, Libya (including
the still-unexplained State Department role in Benghazi) and
elsewhere in the Middle East, as well as the break-down in
U.S.- Russian diplomacy, the retreat of the U.S. militarily
across the globe, the new challenges from China, the instability
of North Korea, and the recent damage in U.S. relationships
with its oldest allies, it would seem that President Obama is
obliged to rethink his original foreign policy assumptions in
a major way. With almost no lasting major foreign policy
accomplishments in his first six years in office (unless you
count his elimination of Bin Laden), and not a few blunders,
Mr. Putin might be presupposing that Mr. Obama and his
foreign policy team (or their successors) cannot now reassert
A key to restoring stability in central Europe might be
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany. The reunited German
republic is now an even more dominant partner in the
European Union. Relations between the U.S. and Germany
have been upset by revelations of U.S. spying on the
chancellor, and there is economic rivalry (as well as
interdependence) between the U.S. and the E.U., but the
long-term global interests of the two largest forces in the
West still are inherently linked. Germany is attempting to
handle its leading role in Europe today with understandable
and laudable sensitivity to its recent past (when it caused so
much destruction and suffering in two aggressive world wars).
This sensitivity explains much of Mrs. Merkel’s caution. The
question is, however, do the times require more caution or more
One possible solution to the Ukrainian crisis might be a
negotiated settlement, engineered by Mrs. Merkel, along the
lines one has previously emerged in Canada in regard to
Quebec, or Spain in regard to Catalonia, i.e., dual language
recognition and some autonomy.
U.S. retreat and attempts to change its worldwide relationships
has created an increasing global power vacuum. In the
continuing Ukrainian crisis, there are signs that Mr. Obama is
beginning to realize that there are limits to that retreat without
dire consequences, and there is a need for old friends that
cannot be replaced.
Copyright (c) 2014 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.