Opinion

Ian Bremmer

What MH17 means for Russia-Ukraine

Ian Bremmer
Jul 18, 2014 20:52 UTC

Armed pro-Russian separatist stands on part of the wreckage of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane after it crashed near the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region

MH17 is an alarming escalation of the Ukraine conflict.

In the wake of a surface-to-air missile taking down a Malaysian airliner over Eastern Ukraine, everyone is pointing fingers. Kiev blames the pro-Russian “terrorists,” with Moscow responsible for providing them with intelligence and weapons. The separatists deny involvement and accuse Kiev of planning the attack, citing the Ukrainian military’s accidental shooting of a Siberian Airlines flight in 2001. Moscow blames the Ukrainian government for pushing the rebels into this violent situation — even if Russian President Vladimir Putin stopped short of pinning the airliner attack on Kiev. Despite the confusion, it’s clear what MH17 means: dramatic escalation and an even more combustible conflict.

Some analysts and pundits are viewing the downed flight as an opportunity to force Putin into tempering his support for the separatists. While clearer proof of pro-Russian separatist guilt does, in principle, provide the Russians with a reason to do so, it’s highly unlikely that Russia will seize the chance. The underlying fissures have not gone away — in fact, MH17 makes them even more pronounced.

Putin continues to view his country’s influence over Ukraine and the power to keep it from joining NATO as a national security interest of the highest order — the same way Israel wants to deter Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Recent events haven’t shifted Putin’s interests in the slightest. In fact, the three biggest changes coming out of the MH17 crash point to more escalation.

Armed pro-Russian separatist stands at a site of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash in the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk regionFirst, Putin’s statements blaming the Ukrainians will be exceedingly difficult to back away from. It’s not yet clear whether Russia will accept that separatists shot down the plane or instead deny, obfuscate and even refute the evidence. But either way, Moscow will maintain its claim that the Ukrainian government is responsible for driving the violence and destabilizing the region where the plane crashed. Moscow will leverage its state media to promote this message.

Second, with proof that pro-Russian separatists are to blame, we will see a material ramp-up in sanctions from both Europe and the United States — and on an accelerated schedule. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is out in front of the story, declaring early Friday that “Russia is responsible for what is happening in Ukraine at the moment.” Meanwhile, the United States would forge ahead, broadening financial, energy and possibly other sector sanctions against Russia. These increases will amount to an escalation, rather than a redirection, of the conflict. The sanctions would have a real impact on Russia’s economy and investor sentiment — existing sanctions already do — but it’s highly unlikely that they would shift Putin’s calculus in Ukraine.

Who loses most in Ukraine?

Ian Bremmer
Mar 13, 2014 21:38 UTC

 

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.

This is not Ukraine: Venezuela will erode, not explode

Ian Bremmer
Feb 28, 2014 17:13 UTC

Presidents beleaguered by mass protests seem to use the same phrasebook. After protests turned exceptionally violent in Ukraine, the security agency waged an “anti-terrorist operation” in retaliation. Within days, President Yanukovich’s support had crumbled, he had fled, and the “radical forces” he disparaged had seized power. In Venezuela, President Maduro has dubbed the billowing unrest a spree of “fascism” aiming to “eliminate” him; he urged the opposition to halt its acts of “terrorism.”

But Venezuela is no Ukraine, and it’s unlikely that Nicolas Maduro will soon suffer Yanukovich’s fate. Here’s why.

Things have not been going well for President Maduro, with massive protests stemming from a steady rise in economic turmoil, crime and inflation. A weak opposition initially made progress through electoral channels: former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles came within 1.5 percent of beating Maduro during last year’s semi-rigged election.

Ukrainian President Yanukovich has bad and worse options

Ian Bremmer
Dec 13, 2013 15:56 UTC

Since the Ukrainian government’s November 21 decision to suspend free trade talks with the European Union, the country has descended into crisis. Hundreds of thousands of protestors have taken to the streets, angry with President Viktor Yanukovich’s choice and its implications. Violent clashes between law enforcement and protestors have stoked tensions even more; most recently, the government’s failed attempt to forcibly clear protestors out of Independence Square — their nexus of operation — has made the chance for compromise even bleaker.

So how did we get here? Ukraine is the perfect case study for what I’ve referred to in the past as a “shadow state”: it cannot free itself from Russia’s overwhelming influence, nor is it beneficial or domestically popular for it to give in and integrate with Russia further. So while Ukraine cannot leave Russia’s orbit, in recent years, Yanukovich’s government has managed to juggle between the competing spheres of influence of Russia and the European Union.

However, this fragile status quo has fallen apart thanks to a worsening economic situation and more pressure from Russia. Ukraine faces a three-prong predicament, starting with a struggling economy that is forcing Yanukovich to look for aid — or risk full-fledged economic crisis or default.  Second, the EU and Russia, the two major powers that could provide this assistance, have serious quid pro quos attached to any economic relief they might offer. Third, the two powers’ demands have become mutually exclusive: the EU won’t accept Ukraine if it gravitates toward Russian President Putin’s geopolitical pet project, the Eurasian Union, while Putin won’t accept Ukraine if it moves toward EU partnership.

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