The Unintended Consequences of Meddling

On May 22, Ukranian President Oleksander Turchynov announced that 13 Ukranian soldiers were killed during an attack on a Russian sympathizers base in Slovyansk and nearby Kramatorsk in eastern Ukraine in the latest spat of violence in the region. Prior to that, 40 people died in the city of Odessa, most of them caught in a building set on fire by what appeared to be Ukrainian government supporters during running battles in the city.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said that the US hopes Russia will play a “constructive” role in the upcoming May 25 Ukrainian presidential election, followed by warnings that if Russia or its backers in Ukraine disrupt the voting “the US and the EU will impose heavier economic sanctions” aimed at the vulnerabilities in Russia’s business, banking, mining, energy, defense and other sectors. Ignoring the warnings, pro-Russia militants held a referendum in 2 eastern Ukraine regions and based on the results declared both regions “independent” on May 10; of course, Kiev dismissed the referendum as a “sham”.

The underlying message conveyed to Moscow by both the the US and the EU is one of “not meddling” in Ukrainian affairs; unfortunately, it has the hollow sound of a counterfeit coin, considering the heavy handed western meddling that took place and that actually served to trigger the unrest plaguing the region. The EU encouraged the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych, the elected Ukrainian president, because he declined to advance the European Union’s interests when he turned down an assistance package that included drastic economic austerity programs, which would have resulted in higher natural gas prices, a move sure to be highly unpopular; added to that, legislative reforms that infringed upon Ukraine’s sovereignty. Little wonder that when Putin stepped in with a slightly better assistance package, one that did not include the EU’s conditions, Yanukovych accepted. The riots and unrest that ensued, centered in Kiev and the western Ukraine, drove Yanukovych from power, something that could have been accomplished in the May 25 Presidential elections and would have resulted in an orderly transfer of governments; instead, the transfer came about as a result of a coup.

The US had a very visible part in the coup. In December 2013, US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland visited Independence Square in Kiev, talked to the demonstrators assembled there and even helped distribute food to the protesters, which included Ukrainian ultra nationalists, neo-Nazis and virulent anti Semites.

The result of all this meddling has been to deepen the existing divide between Western and Eastern Ukraine and lead to serious confrontations between the newly elected pro western government and the pro Russian Eastern Ukraine and between the Ukrainian and Russian armed forces; such confrontations can easily get out of hand and lead to a Russian-Ukrainian war, one which Ukraine has no chance of winning. Neither the EU or NATO are in position to aid Ukraine, not when confronted by a nuclear armed Russia.

Vladimir Putin has managed to drive a wedge between the US and its EU allies over sanctions to Russia. Germany and France have stayed away from sanctions, which is not surprising, considering Western Europe’s dependence on Russian natural gas. Putin maintains amicable relations with Chancellor Merkel and France announced that she is going ahead with a $1.2 billion contract to sell warships to Russia.

In a recent letter to European leaders, Vladimir Putin stated that since Ukraine’s debt to Russia for natural gas supplies has reached $3.5 billion and because of the former’s refusal to pay Moscow, Russia will switch to pre paid gas deliveries starting June 1. Europe is Russia’s largest trading partner and it does have sway over the Russian economy, but on the other hand European nations are very reluctant to stymie their economies by endangering their Russian energy supplies.

This impasse came to an end on May 21, 2014, when Russia and China signed a $400 billion 30 year deal for Russia to deliver some 1.3 trillion cubic feet of natural gas to China, which could replace her primitive, highly polluting coal energy generators. The deal is in its first stages and might present difficulties of its own, but one eventual result could be the blunting of Western Europe’s economic influence in Russia. The deal could also include gas deliveries to South Korea and to energy deficient Japan. It can also result in the economic marginalization of the US, who continues to erect obstacles to the exploitation of its native energy sources, oil, gas and coal. The most ominous part of the deal is that payments will be made in currencies other than dollars.

Policies have consequences. We have meddled in regions in which we have no business meddling, implementing decisions instigated by incompetent individuals, short on knowledge and long in arrogance, who have succeeded only in putting us in untenable positions. Should there be a Russo-Ukrainian war -and it’s a possibility if things get out of control- are we going to intervene? Really? Against a nuclear Russia, in a region in which we have no strategic interests? The Ukrainian army is no match for the Russian army and a Ukrainian defeat would mean the absorption of most of Eastern Ukraine into Russia, the way it was way before the Bolsheviks. And then, what are we going to do? We would emerge weaker, with a damaged economy. Do not forget that Russia holds billions of dollars; what would happen if those dollars are released into the market?

Again, Putin has out maneuvered us. The price of short term policies that ignore the long term consequences have come full term to bite us in the rear end. Again, this is the difference between a former KGB operative and a community organizer.

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