Ukraine, Russia Walk Back Economic War Over Crimea

Russian president Vladimir Putin meets with ministers in Moscow, December 9
Russian president Vladimir Putin meets with ministers in Moscow, December 9 (Presidential Press and Information Office)

Russia said on Wednesday it would resume coal supplies to Ukraine a day after power was restored to the Crimean Peninsula it annexed last year.

“In principle, these supplies are not really needed now,” Russia’s Vladimir Putin told his ministers in Moscow. “But our Ukrainian partners have resumed supply. So be it. In response, we need to resume our coal supplies to Ukraine.”

Ukrainian engineers reconnected power lines to the Crimea on Tuesday. Read more

Russia Escalates Tit for Tat with Ukraine, Blocks Gas

A road in Crimea, Ukraine, August 16, 2012
A road in Crimea, Ukraine, August 16, 2012 (Yuri Shornikov)

Russia on Wednesday stopped delivering natural gas to Ukraine days after nationalists and ethnic Crimean Tatars destroyed pylons carrying electricity to the Black Sea peninsula, leaving the Russian-annexed territory in the dark.

It is the fourth time since 2006 that Russia has cut off gas supplies to its former satellite state.

Gazprom, the Russian gas monopoly, blamed Ukraine, saying it had failed to pay for deliveries in advance.

But only two months ago, the two stuck a deal under European auspices that would have seen Gazprom supply two billion cubic meters of gas to Ukraine at a price of $500 million.

Around half the natural gas Russia sells to European Union member states is piped through Ukraine. Read more

East Asia Nervously Watching Events in Crimea

Presidents Xi Jinping of China and Vladimir Putin of Russia at the Kremlin in Moscow, March 22, 2013
Presidents Xi Jinping of China and Vladimir Putin of Russia at the Kremlin in Moscow, March 22, 2013 (Presidential Press and Information Office)

When the Crimea was voting to secede from Ukraine and join Russia, President Vladimir Putin was said to be on his proverbial hands and knees offering cheap gas and other inducements to China for its support. But China decided in no uncertain terms that it would stay out of this dispute when it abstained from a resolution condemning the Crimean vote in the United Nations Security Council. China is walking a diplomatic tightrope. It wants to avoid antagonizing a key ally in Russia without siding with the West and causing repercussions in East Asia.

What is certain is that East Asians are watching China’s actions closely for indications of its future policy in regards to the disputes it has in the East and South China Seas with its smaller neighbors.

While China is not joining the sanctions led by Europe, Japan and the United States against Putin’s cronies anytime soon, Sino-Russian relations were dealt a blow nonetheless when China abstained from a resolution that had been introduced in the Security Council by the Americans. Russia was left alone to block this condemnation of the Crimean referendum. The resolution received thirteen votes in favor.

On the one hand, China does not want to endorse the changing of international borders which could set a precedent for its restive regions of Tibet and Xinjiang. China has barred foreign journalists from the regions and deployed more security there in recent years to quell widening unrest and protests against the central government.

China shares a long border with Russia that has been unstable at times and which brought the two powers to the brink of war in the 1960s. With China’s military increasingly focused on its maritime disputes in the East and South China Sea, coupled with domestic unrest in its western provinces, it can ill afford to see a deterioration on its northern border.

But China also does not want to side with the West at the expense of Russia, a key ally which it relies on for energy imports. It is altogether an inopportune time to risk a rupture in trade relations with Russia because the Chinese economy is showing further evidence of slowing after the release of the purchasing manager’s index last week. Measuring China’s manufacturing industry, it showed weakness for the fifth month in a row. This follows economists at Wall Street banks cutting their forecast of economic growth for 2014 during the first quarter. China needs Russia as much as Russia needs China.

In a few months, Putin is expected in Beijing to sign a massive natural gas supply deal with the Chinese. The agreement has taken years to negotiate and it looks as though it is finally complete. But one could argue that just as negotiations are concluding, China has gained enormous leverage by the threat of deeper sanctions coming down on Russia from the West. There is no evidence as of yet that China is willing to use this leverage to push the Russians into making more concessions.

A deal with China at this time for Putin would certainly help forestall his growing isolation and bring in hard currency. If Russia invades other regions of Ukraine, however, President Barack Obama had promised an expansion of sanctions and held out the possibility of targeting Russian oil and gas industries.

The stakes are high in Ukraine. China is carefully watching the West’s reaction to Russia’s annexation of the Crimea. Its increasingly aggressive moves in the East and South China Seas over disputed islands with its neighbors offer an arena where China could follow Russia should the West fail to respond strongly. Taiwan, for one, would be gravely concerned. So would Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam.

In Europe last week, Chinese president Xi Jinping called on the International Monetary Fund to extend financial support to Ukraine. Previously, China had proposed setting up an international mechanism to find a political solution. It seems that China is willing to look past Russia’s actions in the Crimea and go about business as usual.

Former Defense Chief Calls for Tougher Action Against Russia

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates speaks to United States Marines deployed in Afghanistan, March 9, 2010
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates speaks to United States Marines deployed in Afghanistan, March 9, 2010 (DoD/Cherie Cullen)

It has been nearly a month since Russian president Vladimir Putin, in response to the overthrow of Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovich, ordered thousands of Russian soldiers into the Crimean. Seemingly caught off guard by Putin’s moves, which came despite American intelligence assessments that he would not enter into Ukraine by force, the Obama Administration has been forced to react to the situation largely on the fly.

Republican lawmakers in Washington DC have attempted to use the crisis in Ukraine to bolster their narrative of Barack Obama as a president who is unable to anticipate events or demonstrate strong leadership during times of crisis and unwilling to send a visible message to America’s adversaries that bad behavior will be met with stern consequences. The government, assisted by Democratic Party allies, has fought back against such accusations. And, despite poor approval ratings and concern in Democratic circles that Republicans could pick up more seats in the congressional elections this fall, President Obama has brushed aside criticisms as partisan and contrary to the facts.

But when a former cabinet official starts to question the president’s policy, the criticism seems less partisan and more substantive.

Robert Gates, one of America’s most seasoned intelligence professionals and the secretary of defense during Obama’s first term, took a swipe at the administration’s response to Putin’s invasion and subsequent annexation of the Crimea in The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday. Unfortunately for President Obama, many of his complaints are roughly in line with what congressional Republicans have been saying for the past month: that his administration needs to be far more aggressive on the sanctions front, more supportive of its Eastern European allies militarily and less Western-centric when it tries to determine what Putin will do next.

“The only way to counter Mr Putin’s aspirations on Russia’s periphery is for the West also to play a strategic long game,” Gates argues. “That means to take actions that unambiguously demonstrate to Russians that [Putin’s] worldview and goals — and his means of achieving them — over time will dramatically weaken and isolate Russia.”

Rather than simply sanctioning Russian officials who may have had direct or indirect involvement in their country’s annexation of the Crimea, Gates urges the United States and its European partners to ramp up the pressure through a package of penalties that would hit at the heart of Russia;s economy. “Europe’s reliance on Russian oil and gas must be reduced,” he counsels, “and truly meaningful economic sanctions must be imposed, knowing there may be costs to the West as well.”

In addition to diplomatic isolation and sanctions, the United States and NATO must reassure allies along Russia’s periphery that they are protected from any encroachment on their own territory, Gates adds. What the west is currently doing is too lax and, in his words, “anemic.” Putin will not pay attention if the consequences can be brushed aside.

The Obama Administration has prepared the groundwork for much of what Gates is calling for. The president’s most recent executive order, for example, allow the United States to sanction Russia’s defense, energy and financial sectors in the event that Putin decides to mimic his Crimea operation in eastern Ukraine. Although those sanctions have not been executed to full effect, the administration is using them as a trump card, hoping to convince Russia that more military moves inside Ukraine will further isolate it.

For seasoned professionals like Robert Gates, however, simply waiting is an invitation for an even greater regional crisis.

Russia’s Crimea Seizure Underscores NATO’s Traditional Role

Ukrainian prime minister Arseniy Yatseniuk listens as Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen of NATO answers questions from reporters in Brussels, March 6
Ukrainian prime minister Arseniy Yatseniuk listens as Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen of NATO answers questions from reporters in Brussels, March 6 (NATO)

Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea should be a reminder that NATO is still most relevant for what it set out to do in the first place — keep the Russians out of Europe.

Navel gazing about NATO’s future has been the favorite pastime of Atlanticists for more than twenty years. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 seemingly robbed the alliance of its raison d’être. “Out of theater” operations on the scale of Afghanistan — where NATO commanded more than 100,000 soldiers — are unlikely to be repeated. Many European allies have decreased their troop numbers there ahead of a 2014 deadline or pulled out altogether, prompting familiar complaints from Americans that the Europeans aren’t doing their fair share.

Former American secretary of state Hillary Clinton warned that the alliance might “slide into military irrelevance.” Robert Gates, the former defense secretary, warned that Americans’ “emotional and historical attachment” to NATO, strong during the Cold War when the West was united against the Soviet threat, was aging out. Future leaders, he predicted, “may not consider the return on America’s investment in NATO worth the cost.” Foreign Policy‘s David Bosco fretted that that NATO could end up “a strategic backstop that exists just in case.”

Certainly the Europeans have shown limited commitment to the alliance. Only six European NATO members spend the required 2 percent of their gross domestic products on defense or more: Bulgaria, Estonia, France, Greece, Turkey and the United Kingdom.

America’s share of total NATO spending, by contrast, has risen since the end of the Cold War, from roughly 50 percent before the Soviet Union collapsed to more than 75 percent today.

Repeated European defense reductions are in part to blame but so is increased American defense spending in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The military’s budget grew from $291 billion that year to an $880 billion high in 2010, including financing of the war effort in Afghanistan. The Europeans could not, and had less reason to, keep up.

The United States also used NATO as a means to cloak their foreign policy in multilateralism which put an unreasonable burden on the European allies. NATO is less a tool of military adventurism for them than a guarantor of security in Europe, especially for the former communist states in Eastern Europe that regard warily Russian interference in the region. These states have altogether been more enthusiastic to support NATO operations afar because they need something in return. Western Europe faces no immediate security challenges. If there is a waning “emotional attachment” to the alliance, it must be there.

If America expected NATO to morph into a global police force, Russia’s seizure of the Crimea should definitively put such ambitions to rest. Rather the alliance is fulfilling its traditional goal of reassuring allies on Russia’s border and deterring Russia from making more territorial demands in Europe.

If the Americans don’t see why they should disproportionately contribute to this effort, it is only because Russia’s strategic ambitions are no longer global but confined to Eurasia. And if it means NATO exists “just in case” — well, isn’t that the very point of a defensive alliance?

Russia Formally Annexes Crimea, Transnistria Requests Same

Russian president Vladimir Putin and Sergei Ivanov, his chief of staff, watch a military parade in Moscow, June 22, 2012
Russian president Vladimir Putin and Sergei Ivanov, his chief of staff, watch a military parade in Moscow, June 22, 2012 (The Presidential Press and Information Office)

President Vladimir Putin formalized his country’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea on Tuesday when he signed a treaty that returned the peninsula to Russia.

A day earlier, lawmakers in the Moldovan breakaway region of Transnistria requested similar admission into the Russian Federation.

Putin announced the annexation in an address to a joint session of parliament in Moscow’s Kremlin, days after an overwhelming majority of the Crimea’s population had voted in favor of joining Russia.

Denounced by Ukraine’s government and Western nations as illegitimate, the referendum saw almost 97 percent of Crimeans voting to become Russian with turnout at 83 percent.

The majority of the peninsula’s residents are ethnic Russians but 12 percent are Tatars, the native population that was deported en masse to Central Asia by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in 1944 on suspicion of collaborating with the Nazis. They have been returning since the Soviet regime collapsed in 1991 and many boycotted the plebiscite that gave them no choice of remaining part of Ukraine with a high degree of autonomy.

The city of Sevastopol, which headquarters Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, is likely to be admitted into the Russian Federation as a separate entity with a status similar to Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Russian lawmakers are expected to ratify the treaty later this week.

Russian troops entered the Crimea in late February after Ukraine’s elected president, Viktor Yanukovich, was deposed following months of protests against his decision to pull out of an associated agreement with the European Union in favor of deeper ties with his country’s former Soviet master, Russia. Putin has denied sending troops but vowed to protect Russian speakers and Russian interests in a region that was part of the Russian Empire for almost two centuries before Soviet leaders transferred it to Ukraine in 1954, then a Soviet satellite state.

Russia’s annexation of the Crimea appeared to have rekindled separatist sentiments in another former Soviet republic, Moldova. Some 200,000 of its citizens living in the eastern region of Transnistria broke away from the country in 1990. While Russia has not formally recognized its independence, it has some 2,000 troops stationed there and many Transnistrians also hold Russian citizenship.

In 2006, 97 percent of Transnistrians voted to join Russia in a referendum.

Moldova, which did sign an association agreement with the European Union late last year, warned Russia on Tuesday that annexing Transnistria would be a “mistake.”

Don’t Confuse Russia’s Motives in Crimea for Justification

Russian president Vladimir Putin and his defense minister, General Sergei Shoygu, arrive in Anapa on the Black Sea to observe military exercises, March 29, 2013
Russian president Vladimir Putin and his defense minister, General Sergei Shoygu, arrive in Anapa on the Black Sea to observe military exercises, March 29, 2013 (Presidential Press and Information Office)

Commentators who try to explain Russia’s invasion of the Crimea are right to point out the former superpower’s many grievances. But those should be not mistaken for a justification of its actions.

Russia moved troops into the Crimean Peninsula, which headquarters its Black Sea Fleet, late last month, when the country’s relatively pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovich, was deposed after months of protests against his decision to pull out of an associated agreement with the European Union in favor of deeper ties with Russia.

The move — which Western leaders have rightly condemned as a breach of Ukrainian sovereignty and Russia’s own treaty obligation to it — follows two decades of perceived Russian humiliation by the West. As Russia saw it, Ukraine was but the latest of former satellite states the West tried to snatch from under its nose.

Writing in The New York Times, John Mearsheimer, a political scientist, explains, “The taproot of the current crisis is NATO expansion and Washington’s commitment to move Ukraine out of Moscow’s orbit and integrate it into the West.” Whereas Russia — grudgingly — tolerated NATO’s expansion into its former Soviet sphere after the end of the Cold War in 1991, he believes it drew a line in the sand when the alliance considered admitting Georgia and Ukraine in 2008.

Drawing on Mearsheimer’s analysis, Tom Switzer, who is a research associate at the United States Studies Center at the University of Sydney, argues that the West “provoked” Russia by leaving open the possibility of Georgia and Ukraine joining NATO and that its response to alleged Western meddling in Ukraine is both rational and “understandable.”

Pat Buchanan, a former Republican Party presidential candidate and conservative commentator, is even more sympathetic to Russia’s motives. He predicts at his blog that future historians “will as surely point to the Bushes and Clintons who shoved NATO into Moscow’s face” if there is to be a second Cold War. (The first NATO expansion following the Soviet Union’s collapse came with Germany’s reunification when George H.W. Bush was president; the second under Bill Clinton; the third under George W. Bush.)

What the West should do, according to Mearsheimer, is not oppose Russia’s blatant invasion of a neighboring country, and what appears an attempt to annex part of it, but “emphasize that Georgia and Ukraine will not become NATO members. It should make clear that America will not interfere in future Ukrainian elections or be sympathetic to a virulently anti-Russian government in Kiev.”

There is truth in what Buchanan, Mearsheimer, Switzer and others — including Stephen F. Cohen writing in The Nation, The New York Times‘s Thomas Friedman and the Daily Mail‘s Peter Hitchens — have argued. Russia does mistrust the West’s motives and sees the gradual eastward expansion of the European Union and NATO as a threat to its security. But this does not justify Russia’s behavior.

For one thing, Cathy Young writes in Time magazine, the West also made efforts to comfort Russia. It provided $55 billion in aid for its economic reconstruction between 1992 and 1997 alone. Russia was invited to the club of top industrialized nations, which became the G8. It was included in NATO’s Partnership for Peace program and a NATO-Russia Council was founded in 2002 to facilitate security cooperation.

NATO did expand but so what? If Russia ever expected an attack from the West once the Cold War had ended, this was surely paranoia. Russia’s “humiliation” had far more to do with its own misguided experiment in communism than the liberation of Central and Eastern European nations from communism’s embrace.

Sadly, this paranoia is real and many, if not most, Russians have yet to come to terms with their loss of empire, evidenced in their continued admiration for tyrannical leaders from the past and willingness to believe that whatever ails their country is the result of foreign plots.

Western leaders would be wise to take this, far from rational, Russian mindset into account when dealing with the country. But that is not to say they should attempt appeasement.

Lilia Shevtsova, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, argues in The American Interest against letting Vladimir Putin get away with annexing the Crimea. Western inaction in Ukraine would follow Western inaction in 2008 when Russia virtually annexed Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia — which, like the Crimea, are home to ethnic Russian majorities — and not only validate the recreation of a Russian sphere of influence but the reintroduced of a “doctrine of interference” under the pretext of protecting Russian compatriots. She warns, “Since Russian speakers live in most of the newly independent states, this ‘doctrine’ threatens the stability of the entire post-Soviet space.”

Whatever Russia’s grievances, real or imagined, they are no justification for a return to an international order in which big states invade and carve up smaller ones simply because they can. In this sense, American secretary of state John Kerry’s exasperation — “You just don’t in the twenty-first century behave in nineteenth century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext,” he said on CBS News’ Face the Nation last week — was perfectly appropriate.

Now the United States and its allies just need to come up with a more powerful response.