Putin’s Choice: Plague or Cholera

March 29, 2014 § Leave a comment

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If, by some miracle, Ukraine is not invaded by Russia, now or sometime in the near future, it is not because Putin is buckling under western sanctions but because the price of keeping Ukraine may be steeper than that of letting it go.

Vladimir Putin hates to see a former Soviet territory go bonkers with democracy. Not because he hates democracy, to the contrary, democracy is what has made him and his pals rich, but because democracy is only good when it stays at arms’ length from Russia. And a democratic Ukraine is too close to home.

There are of course plenty of other reasons why Putin prefers to keep Ukraine in a warm embrace, such as gas export gateway issues, Ukraine’s vitally strategic location, critical military-industrial factors and for embezzling purposes, but democracy and Putin’s loathe of same is at the heart of the conflict.

Now, let’s make a thought-experiment and play with the idea that Russia does invade Ukraine in the first weeks of April. Armoured columns supported by paratroopers and airlanding brigades race across the old stomping grounds of Chernihiv, Kharkiv, Kryvyi Rih and Kyiv, to end up frothing by the borders of Poland, Moldova, Hungary and Slovakia. The threadbare troopers of the Ukranian army are crushed in a last-ditch stand on the Russian borders, thousands of civilians and hastily assembled militias are swept aside on the streets of the capital, and millions of refugees swamp the roads in a frantic end-run to a life in exile.

At the close of the Russian blitzkrieg Ukraine lies gutted. Its factories thrashed and scorched to the earth, its gas pipelines shattered, its bountiful fields trampled and deserted, and its cities captive to troops and roving bands of vengeful ultras, Ukraine is a shambles that must be rebuilt from the ground up before it can yield any sort of return. And Ukraine, its economy systematically plundered by the ancien régime, was pretty much in ruins even before war began.

Rebuilding a war-torn Ukraine will cost hundreds of billions that Russia cannot easily part with, or even earn in the first place, in the face of a full-on blockade erected by the civilized world as response to bare-faced military aggression.

A Ukraine defeated does not cease to be belligerent. Ukraine has a long track record of popular and partisan resistance to any occupying nation, be it Russia, Germany or Poland. While a superficial military victory is likely, long term victory is far from assured in a country decked with woods, swamps and urban centres capable of hosting all kinds of organized resistance. The Chechen wars will look like kindergarten in comparison – and this in a piece of territory right on Europe’s doorstep, not in some remote Caucasian hellhole.

What of NATO? Well, in his keynote address to the EU on March 26, president Obama virtually handed Putin a carte blance to do as he pleases in Ukraine. He said, essentially, that NATO is concerned and the EU prepared to impose further and more severe sanctions should Russia stay its course, and that NATO stands firm in its pledge to its member states. Which, of course, Ukraine is not.

Thus, with a NATO constrained by presidential order to stand at arms along its member states’ borders but otherwise impotent to oppose Russian armed aggression, Russia can have its way albeit at a high cost in sanctions up to and including a western blockade. By his word, repeated more than once for emphasis, the US and NATO have relinquished its military hold on Russia and rendered the superlative capability of Abrams tanks, stealth bombers and drone-delivered munitions null and void. I’m sure Kremlin sabred a lot of Crimean champagne that evening, although the brew will prove to be more sour than heady.

Russia Caught Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Should Putin elect to conquer Ukraine, and a lot of factors are pointing in that direction, he will be saddled with a ruined land, a belligerent population, a debilitating blockade, billions of forfeited income and prospects of a besieged position from which there can be no escape. He cannot re-instal a fresh puppet regime for fear of a repetition of what has just transpired and must perforce keep his own heavy hand firmly in place, nor can he count on the NATO ever to back down from its defensive commitments. It may not lead to WWIII, but he will put Russia, and the world, right on the doorstep to just that. That is the plague.

While Russia may seem to have won the battle of Ukraine, it will not be long before the Russian population tire of living under warlike conditions, tire of having no access to western luxuries such as hamburgers, smartphones and internet, tire of attending funerals of sons lost to Ukranian rebels and tire of repression that makes North Korea look like a Sunday outing.

On the other hand, should Putin choose cholera and allow Ukraine to somehow muddle through its current plight and move toward a European-style democracy, with or without support from the EU and with or without Russian interference, he will have signalled his own complete impotence to the world, and more significantly, to the Russian population. Therefore the battle of Ukraine, however it is fought, is not a battle for or against Ukraine but a battle for Russia. And that is the one battle he must not lose.

Further reading. George Friedman: Ukraine on the Edge of Empires

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