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Russia can hardly allow Crimea to become militarily hostile

...and the same is probably true for the whole Ukraine...

Relatively to my expectations, Russia remained incredibly calm and peaceful in the wake of the new Ukrainian "revolution". Putin et al. may try to keep their Olympic-inspired image of the saints; or they are just too upset about Yanukovitch's inability to protect his country from chaos; or they know or believe that the more patience they will display, the better for them.

At any rate, in August 1968, Leonid Brezhnev didn't hesitate to invade Czechoslovakia where no violent and no major illegal events were taking place. In fact, even the new leaders were elected according to all the laws and regulations, including all the details. Czechoslovakia wasn't even planning to join the NATO imminently. It was just trying to switch to a more relaxed, diluted version of socialism, especially when it comes to purely internal affairs. Before the age of communism, Czechoslovakia has never belonged to the Russian military sphere of influence. There were virtually no Russians living in Czechoslovakia.

On the other hand, the events in Ukraine have been and still are violent. Ukraine has always been a part of the Russian military sphere of influence and dozens of percent of the Ukranian population are ethnic Russians. Russia itself is threatened. The bandite-controlled parliament in Kiev has already stripped Russian citizens from their previous right to use Russian as the 2nd official language in regions where their percentage is high enough. Putin and Medvedev are sitting calmly (update: were sitting calmly when I was writing this blog post). Can it continue?

Well, some military units are already moving near the Ukrainian border and around the port Sevastopol in Crimea, the largest Russian port in the Black Sea that nominally belongs to Ukraine and that Russia has rented for several decades. Some officials in Russia talk about a "smaller Russian contingent" that could help in "calming the situation". Except for Sevastopol, the only Russian-used port in the Black Sea is Novorossiysk that is used to export grains and whose depth is probably insufficient for the largest Russian naval vessels.

Nikita Khruschev who was half-Russian, half-Ukrainian "donated" Crimea including Sevastopol to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in the 1950s, to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the incorporation of (a big part of the present) Ukraine to the Russian Empire. It was a formality, of course, things were still decided in Moscow.

Such details began to matter in the early 1990s when Ukraine declared independence. It's been independent, indeed, and the enhanced degree of chaos and hostility in Ukraine may arguably be linked to this independence of any foreign moderating forces.

The sovereignty and independence of the Ukrainian territory is a matter of international law and treaties. However, there are different degrees of independence and different "layers" have a different status. Let me offer you an analogy.

You may possess a piece of land in Manhattan but being allowed to build a skyscraper over there may be a different thing – you may share the right to decide about these things with some external authorities. If you wanted to prevent airplanes from flying above your land and to shoot the violators down, you would need an even higher degree of sovereignty.

It's similar with the independence of smaller countries, too. Czechia became a kingdom about 1,000 years ago while the royal status of the leaders became hereditary in 1212 through the Golden Bull of Sicily. The document was signed by a greater geopolitical authority, in this case the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. The Czech crown often belonged to the Habsburgs or other "foreigners" but the autonomy or sovereignty in everyday life and even every-annual issues was real.

This didn't extend and couldn't extend to some issues that arise at longer timescales and longer length scales, using some physics jargon. I really mean geopolitical issues. When it came to threats for the "whole civilization", like the attempts of the Turks to conquer Europe, everyone in the Czech Kingdom was too small a lord. We just had to fight because more global, long-distance, long-term, civilization-related, geopolitical issues were at stake. The emperor said we had to fight against the Turks so we did fight. It wasn't up to us to decide.

My general perspective on the question of power is that laws that can't or won't be enforced are pretty much meaningless. Whoever is defending rules that can't work or laws that can't be enforced (because no one with a sufficient power has a sufficient interest to do so) are unrealistic believers in utopias. They are silly people living in a virtual world whose lack of realism may nevertheless endanger the real world. Even if the Czech or other folks decided to stand against "our civilization" in questions that are considered existential for the civilization, we would probably be shown the "right" direction in some way.

As you may expect, my point is that the geopolitical layer of Ukraine hasn't really become "independent" in 1991. The independence was only allowed because the new political arrangement was acceptable for the main powers. Geopolitically, Ukraine became a buffer zone between the NATO and Russia. That was an improvement for NATO so NATO agreed, of course. It was a partial loss for Russia but Russia was feeling weak at that time so it didn't have the self-confidence, aggressiveness, and strength to oppose the developments. Boris Yeltsin became the president in June 1991; in August 1991, Ukraine declared independence.

Everyday and local questions on the economy and other things would be decided in Kiev (or in more regional centers). But Ukraine's long-term layer remained in the possession of Russia. Ukraine remained a part of "military Russia" on the geopolitical maps in the Kremlin. Russian leaders had to accept that they won't be "permanently present" on the Ukrainian territory but the understanding has always been that "they may be present there" in a sufficiently critical situation. This is particularly the case of Crimea and the port in Sevastapol that is rather important for Russia.

Since the early 1990s, Moscow became used to the fact that economic and other policies of Ukraine are determined in Kiev – or across Ukraine (I mean the whole electorate) – not in Moscow or the whole Russia. But no one has been getting used to the fact that Ukraine should be recolored as a "hostile territory" on the Kremlin's geopolitical maps because it has never happened. And if there were any risk of that happening, of course that Russia would probably have to be interested – or concerned.

You may say 500 times that Ukraine has the "right" to recolor itself on the geopolitical maps. You may rationalize this opinion by some frameworks to define the international law or the morality. But what's more important is that regardless of all these justifications and rationalizations, the leaders of Russia were elected to care about such issues. And if they feel that some existential geopolitical interests of their country are at stake if there is no action, they will obviously act.

Look at the map at the top and think about a "raid on Moscow" led from the West. Right now, it's over 1,000 kilometers from the nearest large cities that belong to NATO. If you included Ukraine into NATO and allowed NATO military on the whole Ukrainian territory, the distance would drop to 500 km or so. Of course, if you think about raids on Rostov, Voronezh, or Volgograd (previously Stalingrad) that are close to the Ukrainian border, the changes will be even more extreme.

So you may say things like "the Ukrainian people have the right to vote (so far the vote only took place with the guns of a few thousand mostly fascist unemployed radicals in the street) to be a part of NATO". But a more important insight is that "if Russians feel existentially threatened, they may be reasonably expected to choose an intervention that has chances to minimize the losses".

Does Russia have the right for such interventions in Crimea – and perhaps the rest of Ukraine? (Just to be sure, think about an analogous question: Would the U.S. have the right to invade Mexico that would be planning to join the Iranian Islamic Republic?) According to the international law, it probably doesn't. But the international law is only respected if the price one pays for that is "tolerable" – essentially smaller than the price one would pay for violating it. Even though Russia mostly loves to respect the international law, if it finds out that the violation of the law will do less harm to the interests it finds more essential, it will probably violate the international law. It should be understandable.

There is no God who enforces the international law and the U.N. is largely toothless. (Laws really make sense at the national level only because the governments have sufficient, credible enforcement mechanisms.) Russia – and any other rational country (in the West or elsewhere) – views the international law as something else than a dogma. It is a collection of rules that shouldn't be violated but if one plans to violate some of them, one should still think what will happen after it, how strong the opposition or response will be. And if the expected response (which includes a certain loss of credibility or a damaged ethical profile) is much more acceptable than whatever we mitigate by violating the international law, we will probably violate the law.

Ironically, Barack Obama is Nobel Peace Prize winner. I think that his administration has done much more than any other U.S. administration since the fall of communism to revive the outdated thinking we used to know in the Cold War. (But I know it's not just him. Before I came to the U.S., I was sort of thinking that everyone agreed that the Cold War was over and Russia was essentially a democratic, free country, a country on the same side as the West. You may imagine how surprised I was when I began to experience the opinions of actual Americans.) And I think that the main cause behind this obsession is an ideological one. But this time, the ideologically blinded left-wingers are the Americans, not the Russians.

Obama and pals are trying to force Russia to accept the losses whatever they are. Russia will pay dearly if it intervenes, and so on. What does it mean? Will Obama really declare war to Russia? I doubt it (I doubt that even a full-fledged trade war would take place) – and I think that the leaders of Russia also doubt it which is (if my guess is right) a reason why the intervention in Ukraine may be more likely than they try to suggest now.

But if Obama will start a serious (world) war against Russia, will he be innocent? I don't think so. I think he would clearly be the main culprit. People like him significantly helped to ignite the mess in Ukraine, suggesting that the Ukrainians may even have the right to choose where they belong geopolitically. But Ukraine's color on the geopolitical maps isn't just up to the Ukrainian people. This color influences – and threatens the security – of others, in this case Russia. The politicians in the Kremlin (and not the voters in Lviv or the demonstrators in Kiev) are the main folks in the region who actually work with these maps because they mean something for them, they may do something with them. So of course that the provocation of the Ukrainian people by telling them (effectively) "you may choose to become enemies of Russia if you wish" was an intervention into the geopolitical aspects of Ukrainian affairs, aspects that are important for Russia. It is an implicit attack against Russia (and Russian people) – and I tend to agree with those who say that this has always been the main point of the Western folks' meddling in the Ukrainian affairs, anyway. Such an intervention, however "just verbal" or "just financial", may be making a Russian intervention likely. But such a Russian intervention would still be just an "internal affair" of the "Greater Geopolitical Russia" that Obama shouldn't react to. If he reacts by starting a war between "real global powers", it's his decision. If things go bad, it's his fault. If people start to die, it's his crime.

Quite generally, Obama – and much of the politically correct media-political complex of the contemporary West – is the kind of "peaceful" guy who loves to hurt his opponents by libels, media campaigns, attacks behind the scenes, intimidation of the type "you are not nice", and so on. Indeed, I wouldn't be able to hide how much I despise people who are doing things like that, people with this kind of "character". But these things are attacks, too. They are hurting the people, too. They are often annoying, humiliating, degrading, threatening, and harmful. It is absolutely normal if people react to such things physically. Just because these attacks look "unphysical" doesn't mean that they can't become the beginnings – and causes – of wars. If George Soros is behind the attempts to recolor Ukraine on the geopolitical maps, he may be using U.S. dollar banknotes instead of Kalashnikovs. But he is still fighting a geopolitical war.

So I urge the Obama administration to stop blackmailing Russia in this way because I find this talk scary at the global level – and this elevation of the problem to a global problem must be blamed on Obama and the West's anti-Russian propaganda machine. The rallies in Kiev were unpleasant but they were signs of a very local disorder in a poor, not too important country. If someone tries to promote these rallies to events that should dramatically shift the geopolitical balances (and such geopolitical shifts can rarely be done peacefully), it is him or her who should be considered responsible for the possible negative geopolitical consequences.

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snail feedback (26) :

reader BobSykes said...

Serbia, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria--all Russian allies--and now Ukraine--an historical part of the Russian heartland. Add in the breaking of the NATO/US/USSR accord that permitted the reunification of Germany, and Putin might perceive a pattern.

As an American, I am ashamed that the US has become one of the main sources of violence and instability in the world; that it is lawless will not be bound by any treaty or constitutional article; that it spies on just about everywhere, even in violation of explicit law and constitutional provisions; that it claims the right to murder an American citizen without any due process of law, and has done so, killing the victim's teenage son as well.

A revision of the history books is in order.

reader Luboš Motl said...

Huh? ;-) Neither Serbia, nor Iran, Iraq, Libya, or Syria have ever belonged to any "Russian heartland". Only Ukraine has - it is more a "heartland" than the current territory of the Russian federation.

reader BobSykes said...

Dear Lubos, you misread, I said allies not heartland, and they clearly were allies.

reader Anonymous said...

Hi Lubos. It was a pleasure to read this post, your opinion is rational view of big picture and there is no sign of ideological bias.

reader Luboš Motl said...

Oh, sorry, allies. I saw the heartland on the next line, thinking it belonged to all the countries.

reader nnot said...

Obama has to blackmail Russia because of the settlement from 1994, when Russia, USA, UK and France obligated themselves to protect Ukraine's borders.

reader Luboš Motl said...

But protecting Ukraine's borders is exactly what Russia will probably be trying to do, right? Of course that Russia is refusing the separatist proposals and defending Ukraine *exactly* because it wants the whole Ukraine to remained a unified buffer zone not accessible to any Russia's foes.

reader Luboš Motl said...

Just a comment. The topic of this blog post was current but the text is becoming outdated at a warp speed.

Putin and the upper chamber of the Parliament have already approved a bill to send Russian troops to *all* of Ukraine up to the "normalization" (a word we don't like in Czechoslovakia in the context of Russian occupation) of the situation. I obviously expected it.

reader Uncle Al said...

The Obama Administration today announced the existence of a 400 ton jet-powered (biofuel) Magic Marker designed to draw red lines across anything except sand. "Russia cannot prevail on red linesmanship" said Vice President Joe Biden through a White House bathroom door.

Rumors are rife about other color markers in Top Secret development including "sangre" and dayglow.

reader Giotis said...

The long term geopolitical goal of US is to isolate Russia
from the heart of Europe by taking advantage the known anti-Russian sentiments in many of these East-European countries. Close ties (economical and others) between Russia and Europe threaten US dominance and importance in the region as a security provider and protector. The message to the Europeans is: The cold war is not over; Russia still poses a big threat to you but don’t worry I’m here to protect you. In that respect a military intervention of Russia in Ukraine is exactly what US is praying for.

Putin is too clever to play this game of course and jeopardize
Russia's relations with Europe but on the other hand Ukraine is vital for Russia and cannot allow US shitting in Russia’s backyard. So I would say that right now he is in a difficult position.

It’s a game of chess basically…

reader BBould said...

I saw footage today of Helicopters invading the Ukraine on Live leak. At least 12 in one video but I'm not sure if the other video was of the same 12.

reader AJ said...

"Just to be sure, think about an analogous question: Would the U.S. have the right to invade Mexico that would be planning to join the Iranian Islamic Republic?"

What if Canada was planning on joining the EU?

reader Luboš Motl said...

Canada's joining the EU wouldn't be a problem for the Obama administration. After all, Obama himself would love to join the EU himself.

reader Eugene S said...

A very good article, I can't find anything with which to disagree.

I keep comIng back to last week. As I said earlier, the opposition should have settled in January for the compromises available, and prepared for the 2015 presidential election, which they were guaranteed to win in light of overwhelming public sentiment against Yanukovich.

I think Klitschko tried to convince the Maidan protesters on several occasion of a more moderate, realistic course but failed to get a majority behind him. It wasn't only the Right Sector and Swoboda party but apparently also Yatseniuk (errand boy of Timoshenko and her party) who opposed him.

Then on Thursday morning last week, the foreign ministers of Poland, Germany and France (called the "Weimar axis" for some reason) flew to Kiev to broker an agreement, which they managed to do on Friday. It has been reported that their deal with Yanukovich (early elections by December, etc.) was rejected "by the Maidan" but that is not technically true. In addition to the three opposition leaders Yatseniuk, Klitschko and Tiahnibok, the deal was put before the 35-member "Maidan council" and after heated discussion was adopted with 28 yes votes.

Unfortunately, it came a day too late. The day before, the commandants of the most reckless street fighters had ordered their men into a hail of bullets, cynically accepting more than 70 fatalities as the "price" for greater prestige and influence for themselves.

In addition, Yanukovich exceeded even the worst fears of the Russians about his incompetence. In the end, neither the regular police forces nor the military would support him, he had only several thousand Berkut men left and they were worn out by months of clashes.

So the deal struck between Yanukovich, the three foreign ministers, the three opposition leaders, and the "Maidan council" was worthless even before the ink had dried. Too bad, because now the violent thugs (who I don't believe made up the majority of the Maidan protesters), drunk on their sudden prominence and adulation as "heroes", bullied the spineless idiots in the parliament to repeal the language law that gave Russian-speaking communities in Ukraine the right to add Russian as an official language. Of all the boneheaded moves they could have made, this was probably the worst!

What the parliament should have done immediately was to shower their compatriots in the East and Southeast with love, offering them not less but more rights and autonomy, and assuring them that their interests would be safeguarded. No wonder that the people on the Krim have gone nuts. The changeover of political power in Kiev was a test of political maturity for the former opposition (now the new government). They failed it miserably.

reader Physics Junkie said...

I disagree with on the assessment of Obama. I am an American so I will give you what I think, but I won't claim that my generalizations are 100% true. It is my belief that most Americans are through with war and will not tolerated boots on the ground in any new conflict. We are exhausted financially and psychically from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and are leaving soon. Maybe things would have been different if Bush and thought all the way through the war till the endgame and rebuilding, and did not do things on the cheap (this is last sentence is my own opinion). Add to that our countries increasing financial situation, the military is under strong pressure to be cut.
That being the current realities as I see them. Here is what I think about the Eastern Block post the fall of the Berlin Wall. After many decades, and sometimes centuries, of oppression a wave of independence and freedom overcame all the countries from East Germany to Ukraine and beyond (Georgia for instance). The ability to make your own decisions is hard coded in the human psyche. I think Americans saw the Ukraine revolution as this. At the same time Russia was weak and couldn't and maybe didn't want to interfere. So the thinking in the west was Ukraine wanted to be part of it. Now Putin, and maybe more importantly oil comes to Russia, and with that thoughts of a stronger Russia with some economic power with it. Therefore, probably the naive view of some Western thinkers is that the majority of the Ukraine does not want to be a serb or Russia again.
Now that Russia is stronger and America weaker there is only so much America and Nato is willing to do.
I fall into the camp of Raegan and Teddy Roosevelt, speak softly and carry a big stick. Here is were a differ from the isolationist. Having been bullied as a child, the only things bullies respect is power. If America goes isolationist as it did after WWI the bullies will grow in power unchecked. And I do think America has an obligation to defend the oppressed as much as reasonably possible WITH THE HELP OF ITS ALLIES. But since America is the biggest, most powerful I think the majority of it falls on us.
So, what can be done in this case. There will no boots on the ground or hot war and if Russia is going to invade Ukraine, nobody will stop them. And I agree that they view as a matter of self interest as any country would with something on their border. Where I disagree is the isolationist point of view of Obama. He only helped out in Libya due to the influence of the Clintons. Clinton himself still feels great guilt about the genocide that occurred in Africa that he staid out of until a lot of damage was done and didn't want that to happen in Libya. The results of that effort can't be decided as successful or not yet. He could have gotten active in Syria before things got to the point they are now and here he really has his hands tied between the influence of Russia, Iran and Al queida. There is no good answer here.
So know we get to Ukraine. He can't do much, but what he could do is show a sign of strength. At least enough to put some doubt in Putin's sub-conscious. Put is no Hitler, he is a very smart man and knows how to read the Western World's group think pretty well. He brings his power up to the line and does not cross it. But Obama needs to draw a clearer line. I think we react to whatever he does and keep the line open for talks at all times. Right now the next move should be an exercise with are allies in the the Meditterean. Show off our naval strength through exercises just like he is doing in Russia now. If we don't he may go further in what he does. But that is about all he can do. I think the worst outcome would be what happened in Georgia, the annexation of the Russian speaking parts of the Ukraine.

reader Physics Junkie said...

I apologize for the typo's. I am in a hurry today.

reader Luboš Motl said...

Tx for your view, Physics Junkie, read it, partly agreed, I don't want to split the issues in detail.

reader Tomas said...

Not to mention recent Russian deployments to Cuba and Venezuela. It is tit for tat once again, and this article is right to point out that all eyes are on the US, not on Russia for doing what everybody knew they would do in such circumstances.

reader BMWA1 said...

Reports are now (unconfirmed) of RU APC's in Zaporizhia, enroute to Kirovograd (main UA Army reserve concentration), I have had no news from friends there (Kirov) that the UA Army is doing anything other than stand-down. If the Zaporizhia report is true, Russians could be taking down the Hitler posters (yes, that is true) within 48 hours.

reader Luboš Motl said...

I didn't realize there were U.S. reserves in Ukraine at all!

reader BMWA1 said...

Lubos-No, Ukrainian Army (UA).
The main reserve forces are in Kirovogard and this region was totally restricted in Soviet times, the news that the UA Army is doing NOTHING is highly significant. The Rogue Cabinet in Kiev does NOT control the Army, and I suspect Stavka also understands this.

reader Luboš Motl said...

Hi! In about 30 seconds, I realized that it was silly to read your UA as a typo for USA, and erased my silly reply but you caught it. ;-)

Are you in Czechia now?

Czechoslovakia didn't resist to the Warsaw Pact occupation back in 1968. Even official (pro-liberalization) sources, government radios etc. urged people not to resist etc. They were just rational.

Klitschko etc. wants mobilization etc. and they will surely be more combative but I still expect *some* rationality.

It's great to say that the Ukrainian army is pretty strong - but it's still appropriately strong to be viewed by the Russian army as an "adequate challenge", like an opponent in tennis whom you beat 6-2, 6-2, 6-2 rather than 6-0, 6-0, 6-0.

reader BMWA1 said...

I am in Malostranska at the moment, near the 12, 22, 20 tram stops. I was planning on going to Kirovograd in about a week on project business, might be a bit hard with Russian tanks in the way.

reader Luboš Motl said...

Are you a British archeologist in Prague? ;-)

Wow, good plans to go over there now.

I know the tram stop extremely well. My Alma Mater had and has a major building on the Malostranské Square, connected to the St Nicholas Church.

reader Lokalkosmopolit said...

I don't think it is possible to argue that Russia should have some special rights regarding Ukraine (''long-term layer remained in the possession of Russia'').any more than Austria or Germany should have with regard to Bohemia that was ruled by the House of Habsburg from 1526 until 1918.

reader Luboš Motl said...

It surely *is* possible.

Austria and Germany had to lose a bloody huge war - it was called the First World War if you have never heard about it - in which these German entities lost the geopolitical rights to the Czech lands and Slovakia.

In 1938, it's been 20 years since Czechoslovakia was cut off from these relationships, and for decades, the main foreign allied power of Czechoslovakia was a different nation, namely France.

In the case of Russia and Ukraine, Russia has never lost any war that Ukraine would co-win, and Russia is the main Ukraine's allowed power according to the latest legitimate arrangement in Ukraine. If you're ready to overlook this "detail", the First World War, then I am afraid that you're willing to overlook the Third World War, too. You don't seem to care.

This is really the essence of my comments and warnings. If someone wants to change something so dramatical, existential, and geopolitical as Ukraine's membership in the Russian military sphere of interest, it probably means that he wants to ignite a world war.

I emphasize that without the First World War in which Germany and Austria lost, Germany and Austria indeed *did* have special rights to geopolitical interests involving the Czech lands. It was really one of the points I explicitly emphasized. It was the status quo. It couldn't have been changed without a major military defeat of Germany or Austria.