Putin's army salutes a Nulandized Kiev
By Peter Lee
The coup in Kiev was a loss for Russian President Vladimir Putin, but doesn't look like much of a win for the US, Europe, or Ukraine. What we see in Ukraine today is the messy consequences of a clumsily executed regime change strategy.
Clumsy, because somehow it excluded pro-Russian forces in Ukraine that make up about half of the country. And clumsy because it blew out of the water an EU-brokered transition deal by which Viktor Yanyukovich and his party would have stayed in the government and Russia would have supplied US$12 billion to help Ukraine ride out its major economic difficulties.
With Russia excluded, Putin was welcome to imagine the worst,
including an attempt by the Ukraine government to install anti-Russian administrations in the eastern provinces and Crimea ... and the possibility that an anti-Russian government in Kiev, liberated from EU geopolitical and energy qualms, might give priority to a key Pentagon and US foreign-policy priority: evicting the Russian Black Sea Fleet from its base at Sebastopol.
Russia operates its Black Sea Fleet at Sebastopol under a lease that expires in 2042. That lease extension was negotiated by Yanyukovich two years ago in return for favorable gas pricing. By doing so, Yanyukovich overturned the policy of the previous administration (Viktor Yuschenko) which had stated its desire to eject Russia from Sebastopol.
With an anti-Russian revolutionary government in power in Kiev, it would not be unreasonable for Russia to expect that the new government might move against Russian interests in Crimea.
So, in my opinion, rather than wait for the Ukrainian government to stabilize itself in Kiev and think about adventures in the east, Putin acted first and forcefully in Crimea, which happens to be the most securely Russian part of Ukraine.
Crimea didn't become part of the Ukrainian SSR until 1954, when Krushchev decided to transfer it out of the Russian SSR. And in 1992, Crimeans voted in a referendum for independence, which the Ukrainian government refused to acknowledge. However, Crimea was allowed a very high degree of autonomy in its government. Russia operates in Crimea under a Status of Forces Agreement that allows it to position 11,000 troops there.
About half of the population in Crimea is still ethnic Russian, and pro-Russian politicians have, presumably in coordination with Moscow, secured most of the local government organs and national government military installations without bloodshed.
Russian soldiers have been assisting, but I think to paint the local seizure of power in Crimea as simply a Russian occupation is misrepresenting the situation.
It's a political initiative with significant local support that has gone smoothly because of the overwhelming military force Russia can bring to the assistance of pro-Russian Crimean politicians. The unkindest thing you can call it is a pro-Russian coup or putsch very similar to the anti-Russian coup or putsch recently implemented in Kiev, but one that's neater, better executed, and with a lower dingbat quotient.
As to where Crimea might go, the possibilities look like 1) autonomy 2) independence 3) annexation by Russia.
Independence or annexation appear unlikely to me. There is a sizable and politically well-organized population of Crimean Tatars who suffered horribly at the hands of Stalin both before and after World War II, and I doubt Russia wants to take the risk of trying to detach them from Ukraine.
I think the most likely Russian objective is for the government in Kiev to confirm a very high level of autonomy for the Crimean government, give up on trying to have any effective central government civil or military organs in the province, and abandon the idea that it can effect the expulsion of Russia from the Sebastopol base.
Beyond that, the Russians have stated repeatedly that they want the EU transitional accord implemented at the national level, but I have a feeling at this point this is merely a bargaining position. Bringing openly pro-Russian political figures back into the central government doesn't seem possible now.
The US did not play a particularly glorious role in this mess. It would be disingenuous for the Obama administration to claim that it has not intervened in Ukraine.
The full extent of US meddling is unclear, but US support for the pro-EU political movement, verbally, through the implementation of sanctions, and through the extensive network of US-affiliated regime-change NGOs such as CANVAS, was unambiguous.
The Obama administration apparently gave a free hand to Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs. Why Nuland occupies a position of influence in the Democratic Obama administration is something of a puzzle; prior to her elevation to assistant secretary she had served in a rather modest capacity as a State Department spokesperson. However, she is married to Robert Kagan, a well-known neo-conservative and co-founder of Project for the New American Century, whose writings President Obama professes to admire.
In any case, Nuland was on the ground in Ukraine during the upheaval, talking up the demonstrations and famously visiting the Maidan protesters in December to distribute bread and biscuits in a photo op. She also made the famous "F**k the EU" remark in a telephone strategy session with the US ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt.
The substance of that phone call was quickly pushed aside to celebrate Nuland's straight-talking feistiness. But what was most notable (and presumably the reason that Russian intelligence intercepted and released the phone call) was that Nuland was calling for the EU to be sidelined because it was not being sufficiently aggressive on the issue of threatening pro-Russian figures with sanctions. Also, Nuland wanted Arsenyi Yatsenyuk, not Vitalyi Klitschko, to serve as the main pro-Western figure in any new government setup.
In the phone call, she tells the US ambassador to Ukraine that the US is going to go through its man at the United Nations, Jeffrey Feltman, to get a Dutch diplomat, Robert Serry, appointed as a special emissary to Kiev. (Serry did go to Kiev, but his role was challenged after the appearance of the tape and another UN diplomat, Jan Eliasson, is apparently now in charge of UN outreach on Ukraine.)
Apparently, again, this was to remove the initiative in Ukraine negotiations out of the hands of Germany and the EU.
It was also reported that in December Nuland had threatened one of Yanyukovich's key supporters, the oligarch Rinat Akhmetov (who controlled 40 delegates in parliament), with sanctions against his Western interests if the Yanyukovich government used violence against protesters.
Remarkably, after a truce was declared, as AP reported, protesters led by hard-right shock troops asserted "the truce was a ruse", attacked police, and snipers opened fire, precipitating a political crisis. Although EU representatives supervised the negotiation of a power-sharing agreement the next day, the protesters rejected it, Yanyukovich's supporters abandoned him, and he fled.
As to why the US might be willing to blow up the EU deal, I - and perhaps V Putin - am inclined to speculate that Victoria Nuland, in allegiance to her neo-con roots, aggressively facilitated a government that was simultaneously pro-US, anti-Russian, and non-EU-oriented and would therefore see no problem with facilitating a cherished US objective - evicting the Russian Black Sea Fleet from Crimea.
This contingency might have affected Putin's decision to employ forceful methods to secure Crimea and pre-empt any inclination by the new Kiev government to fiddle with the status of the Russian base, even at the expense of a sizable diplomatic and security crisis.
Maybe there was no conspiracy to blow up the EU initiative, maybe the protesters attacked spontaneously, but the end result was the same. The explosion of violence compelled Yanyukovich's oligarch backers to withdraw their support in order to protect their precious overseas swag, the EU agreement was stillborn and pro-Russian forces disappeared from the Ukrainian parliament. Yatsenyuk became premier and Klitschko was left on the outside looking in, very much as the US and not the EU wanted it.
But Yanyukovich, instead of getting slowly sidelined during the transition, was impeached with enough haste and legal loose ends that he can plausibly assert that he was not properly removed from office and the Kiev government is illegitimate - a position that the Russians have happily endorsed and which provides ample justification for Russia to disregard the 1994 Budapest Agreement, which is supposed to mandate non-interference in Ukraine's domestic affairs.
To my mind, Ukraine politics is generic skullduggery by both sides, with the United States perhaps holding the edge.
Nevertheless, the United States seems to have underestimated the Russian response to inserting a viscerally anti-Russian government in Kiev, one that immediately passed a law (since revoked) outlawing the use of Russian as an official language, while its supporters went on a spree of Lenin statue-toppling to demonstrate their disdain for Russia. Remarkably, the US ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, resigned just at the time the Yanukovich government fell, and it would be expected that the US would want a steady hand on the diplomatic tiller.
What amazes me is the widespread desire to turn this rather sordid escapade into a "good vs evil", "US vs Russia" cage match. It began even before the Crimea crisis with disregard for the fact that the protesters, instead of standing up against tyranny, were simply trying to overturn an election whose results they didn't particularly like. It continued with the uncritical valorizing of the protesters in Maidan, who relied on some unsavory neo-Nazi extreme right Ukraine chauvinists to serve as shock troops in violent attacks upon the police.
Before the coup it was openly acknowledged that the purpose of the Euromaidan movement was to repudiate Yanyukovich's decision to reject an EU agreement and bring Ukraine into the Russia-led Customs Union - and the unrest was justified on grounds that, once Ukraine entered into the Customs Union, its pro-Russia/anti-EU orientation would be irrevocable.
But after the coup, despite the fact that the new government relies on a slate of fantastically rich oligarchs both at the national and local level to sustain its rule, Western commentators immediately spun the coup as a popular uprising against a kleptocratic regime.
I can only imagine that the purpose was to deny Russia a basis for claiming that its interests in a rather important bordering state had been trampled on by an anti-Russia putsch, and that it had a legitimate interest in interfering. But the proper riposte to corrupt officialdom is to vote the bastards out, not overthrow them.
What is, in reality, some thankfully bloodless local geopolitical jostling in Crimea is now spun by AP and Reuters as the biggest crisis since 9/11. And it seems a lot of people are thirsting for it, as if we don't have enough crises in the world. It seems America needs monsters to fight, and if they don't exist, we invent them.
The Russians aren't helping, either. In order to bolster their case for a rollback to the EU transition agreement, the Russian ambassador to the UN brandished a letter from Yanyukovich purportedly asking for Russia to intervene militarily. Presumably, this allows Russia to describe its Crimea intervention as legal and support the validity of the February 21 agreement as an alternative to the coup.
Nevertheless, I think moderation will prevail. The Germans have already inserted themselves in mediation between Russia and the West. Apparently, the UK is against meaningful sanctions. De facto, Kiev may have to resign itself to almost total loss of central government control in Crimea, but Crimea will probably remain autonomous and part of Ukraine.
Thanks to the crisis with Russia, Ukraine is enjoying the collateral benefit of being able to sideline the unruly and sometimes intimidatingly violent street protesters in the name of national unity against an outside threat. Russia will probably not egg on the pro-Russian demonstrators in the other eastern provinces, but will retain the right to intervene on their behalf.
I expect the US will affirm its global leadership by coordinating a campaign for the West to symbolically punish Russia by withdrawing from Group of Eight meeting in Sochi scheduled for June, and enjoy negotiating an onerous IMF agreement with its chosen instrument, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk (or, as Nuland familiarly calls him, "Yats.") The leaders of Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United States and the presidents of the European Council and European Commission, have already said they will stay away from Sochi until the G8 can return to "meaningful" dialogue.
And, if Russia cannot be prevailed upon to honor its commitments for delivering $12 billion to Ukraine and raises the price of gas sold to Ukraine to genuine market levels, the EU and US can play the blame game for the economic hardship that Ukraine will suffer under the IMF package currently under preparation.
Putin can console himself with the observation that he is not chained to Yanyukovich, apparently an ineffectual and unloved client, and Russia's obligation to pony up $12 billion for Ukraine's rescue can be honored "in the breach". And if Crimea becomes completely autonomous, Russia's $90 million or so in annual rent for the Sebastopol base will not be lining the pockets of Putin's enemies in Kiev.
In passing, I would like to address one of the hoariest canards of the Ukraine crisis: that Russian would recapitulate its actions of 2008, when it invaded Georgia. This assertion has been made by Reuters, AP, and I think quite a few others.
The facts - internationally recognized facts, I should say - was that Georgia used the occasion of the Beijing Olympics to launch a carefully planned invasion to recapture the breakaway province of South Ossetia - which was at the time autonomous under a truce agreement negotiated by Russia, Georgia, and the Ossetians in Sochi in 1993. The Georgians massed 12,000-plus troops against 1,000 Russian peacekeepers and a few hundred Ossetian militia. Georgia had apparently not anticipated a Russian intervention, and its forces were completely routed when the Russians indeed counterattacked.
Hopefully, the Georgia parallel will stand up in one regard: that the Russians promptly withdrew from Georgian territory after their objectives were met. And they did not annex South Ossetia; they allowed it to declare independence instead.
Peter Lee writes on East and South Asian affairs and their intersection with US foreign policy.