Opinion

The Great Debate

Confederation: An off-ramp for the Ukrainian crisis

The United States has no good options with regard to Crimea.

The best outcome would be for Crimea to remain an integral part of Ukraine. This will not happen. The next best outcome would be to give Crimea even more autonomy within Ukraine than it now has, federalism on steroids. This is highly unlikely.

The next best outcome would be a confederal arrangement in which Crimea remains formally a part of Ukraine, but would have autonomy over elements of both its foreign and domestic affairs. This is possible but will require adroit diplomacy — not just threats and sanctions from the United States and the West.

The worst outcome would be for Crimea to be incorporated into Russia. On the current track, this may be where we end up.

For Russian President Vladimir Putin, not just Crimea, but Ukraine as a whole, is a core interest. Russia will not want to make its naval basing rights in the Crimea hostage to a Ukrainian state that is ever more tightly aligned with the West.

Putin will also want to satisfy the aspirations of his core constituents, who see Ukraine as closely aligned with, if not part of, Russia. Backing down at this point would undermine the tough image that Putin has so carefully cultivated.

from Ian Bremmer:

Who loses most in Ukraine?

 

As we march toward Sunday’s Crimean referendum, the result is predetermined. Crimea will vote Russia, and tensions will only escalate. At this juncture, it’s important to take a step back and ask who “lost” here. What could the United States have done differently? What about Russia? Was the outbreak of violence and explosive geopolitical confrontation inevitable? Where does it go from here?

If the United States’ primary goal has been to keep violence in Ukraine and tensions between outside powers to a minimum, it has made a series of significant missteps. The United States failed to offer real economic support to the Ukrainian government before events reached a crescendo. Former President Viktor Yanukovich didn't want to just work with the Russians; he was looking to strike a balance between Russia and the EU while skirting economic collapse. Europe pushed too hard, and the IMF wasn't going to step in in time. The lack of support from the West helped push Yanukovich far enough towards Russia that protests in Kiev reached a point of no return.

On February 21st, key Ukrainian opposition figures and President Yanukovich signed a deal along with a group of European foreign ministers, only for it to soon break down and Yanukovich to flee. The United States eagerly jumped ship with the new pro-West Kiev government. This was a mistake. Washington could have expressed its reservations and urged that the signed deal at least be respected as a factor in determining political processes moving forward. Showing public support for that position would have been an important acknowledgment to Russia that the United States respects Russia’s interests. In Syria six months ago, the United States was perfectly happy to pretend (as were the Russians) that the chemical weapons deal was a breakthrough that would address the underlying conflict, even though it was just a smokescreen for relieving Obama of his obligation to intervene militarily. The Americans could have offered the Russians a similar face-saving gesture here, but they chose not to.

Putin projects Russia’s unreal reality

In the summer of 1787, Catherine the Great of Russia set out to inspect the recent additions to her far-flung czardom, including the Crimean peninsula, annexed from the Ottoman Empire four years earlier.

Catherine’s lover, Prince Grigory Potemkin, the governor-general of these new southern provinces, knew shabby landscapes wouldn’t satisfy the German-born empress, who set high standards for order. So he lined her route with wooden boards painted with cheerful housing façades, to hide the squalor of the serfs’ lives. On her return to St. Petersburg, Catherine announced she was pleased with her new territory’s bucolic riches.

Thus the Potemkin village was born, giving definition to most of Russia’s actions. In today’s Crimean tug of war between Ukraine and Russia, Catherine’s level of delusion about her surroundings helps explain Russian President Vladimir Putin’s view of the world he lives in. In trying to create his own reality on the ground, Putin imagines life not as it is, but as he wants it to be.

from Lawrence Summers:

Ukraine: Don’t repeat past mistakes

The events in Ukraine have now made effective external support for successful economic and political reform there even more crucial. The world community is rising to the occasion, with concrete indications of aid coming not just from the International Monetary Fund and other international financial institutions but also the United States, the European Union and the G20.

At one level, the Ukraine situation is unique -- particularly the geopolitical aspects associated with Russia’s presence in Crimea and the issues raised by Ukraine’s strategically sensitive location between Russia and Europe.

At a broader level, the world community has seen many examples over the last generation where an illegitimate, or at least highly problematic, government was brought down and the world community sought to support economic reform and a new, presumably more democratic and legitimate one. Think of the transitions after the Berlin Wall fell or the Arab Spring.

Assessing corporate risk in Ukraine

As the crisis in Ukraine escalates, boardrooms and senior management teams worldwide are now likely talking about the problems of doing business in conflict zones. These regions test the boundaries of risk tolerance.

Any multinational corporation involved in and around Ukraine and Russia must be feeling the impact. Companies such as Italian group Eni and France’s EDF, which signed an offshore oil and gas production-sharing agreement with Ukraine in November, are likely to be monitoring developments. So, too, are Chevron and Royal Dutch Shell, which signed shale gas deals with Ukraine.

Many financial institutions also have exposure. Consider UniCredit, one of Ukraine’s top 10 lenders. International companies involved with Russian finances include Austria’s Raiffeisen, France’s Société Générale, and Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, and Goldman Sachs.

To blunt Russia, time for American natural gas diplomacy

The American natural gas revolution has boosted economic competitiveness, and helped reduce U.S. carbon emissions to their lowest levels in 20 years. The question is now whether the United States will leverage this energy bounty to advance its foreign policy goals during the most serious East-West crisis in a generation.

Russian’s intervention in Crimea and looming threats against eastern Ukraine underscore Europe’s energy vulnerability. Roughly 80 percent of Russian exported gas to the EU passes through pipelines in Ukraine, which Moscow has turned off twice in recent years.

A shale gas revolution in Europe could help to limit the EU’s energy vulnerability to Russia. But while there are great hopes for the safe and environmentally responsible development of unconventional gas in the UK, Poland, and elsewhere, a reliable source of shale gas in Europe may still be a decade away.

Putin’s gangland politics

Russian President Vladimir Putin calls them his “brothers” — this group of burly motorcyclists who see themselves as road warriors fighting for the greater glory of Mother Russia. They’re known as the Night Wolves, and Putin himself has ridden with them on that icon of American wanderlust, a Harley-Davidson.

Even as Russia was preparing to send troops to Crimea to reclaim the peninsula from Ukraine’s new government, the Night Wolves announced that they would ride to the troubled region to whip up support for their powerful brother and Harley devotee.

Clad in leather and sporting their best squint-eyed, make-my-day defiant stares, the Night Wolves had a message for Ukraine’s anti-Russian dissidents: Protest at risk of your health.

The power of sanctions against Putin on Ukraine

In a crisis moving extremely fast, it is dangerous to say this, but I’m at least somewhat less concerned about this upheaval in Ukraine than other people seem to be, for a couple of reasons.

One, to be blunt, is that Ukraine is not in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The United States is not militarily obliged to come to the defense of a country that is, in some degree, in peril. For Americans, that is some solace — for we have had more than enough of war in recent years. (I am, for similar reasons, against inviting Ukraine into NATO in the future — unless the basic character of the alliance changes and even Russia could be a part — which would clearly require some change in Russia as well.)

We do, of course, owe Ukrainians assistance. Not just for their 1990s decision to give up the nuclear weapons they inherited from the Soviet Union, but for their contributions to the war in Iraq and their commitment to democracy and to peaceful relations among states. So I am hardly suggesting that we ignore the high stakes here, or the Ukrainian people’s legitimate desires for self-determination and economic progress.

Putin’s anti-Olympic creed

The Putin era in Russia, now in its 15th year, has given birth to the ongoing diplomatic challenge of reading what’s going on behind the Kremlin leader’s steely eyes.

President George W. Bush famously perceived something trustworthy and sympathetic in President Vladimir Putin in 2001, while former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in his new memoir, recalls seeing “a stone-cold killer.” But there is no doubt what was preoccupying the Russian president during the closing ceremonies in Sochi on Sunday: the upheaval underway 250 miles to the west, the distance to the border between Russia and Ukraine — where Viktor Yanukovich’s government had just been toppled.

The grassroots revolution has yet to be color-coded, and its outcome is far from clear.  Thursday, Yanukovich announced from Moscow that he was still president of the country he had fled, and the Russian air force went to combat alert along the Ukrainian border. Early Friday, Ukrainian officials claimed that Russian soldiers had seized two airfields in Crimea and condemned Russia for committing an act of occupation.

Obama’s options for Syria

On Saturday the United Nations Security Council demanded that Syria’s government and its armed opponents end attacks on civilians, allow the delivery of humanitarian aid across borders and battle lines, and protect minorities. The Security Council also called for the lifting of sieges against civilians and said that it would take additional measures if the two parties did not comply.

Even if fully implemented, this welcome push on humanitarian issues will not end the violence in Syria, or resolve a conflict that has left over 120,000 people dead and one-third of the population displaced. More action is needed if a political solution is to be found and a serious peace process initiated. The American people won’t support deployment of U.S. troops. Russia will veto any new U.N. Security Council resolution with teeth. But Washington should consider other diplomatic, assistance, financial and military options.

Diplomatic options now include formally terminating the U.N. negotiating effort, which has so far failed to reach any kind of agreement, even on an agenda. The U.S., a prime mover behind the talks, could announce that it would reopen them only if President Assad agrees to discuss concrete steps towards a democratic transition, which he has so far failed to do.

  •