Ukraine… a disaster waiting to happen?
There have already been millions of words written on this subject, but as the situation is so fluid and anything I say may well be out of date before this blog gets published, I will confine myself to a few personal observations. I for one am not surprised for one moment at what has transpired in the Ukraine, and there is no doubt that the naivety of the newly appointed Ukraine government’s decision to ban Russian as an official language was an error of monster proportions. This ban was subsequently rescinded but it was too late, the damage was already done.
It was just the excuse that Putin was looking for.
In February, 2012, I wrote the following in my blog:
… We get a very clear impression of Putin, watching him develop, from his somewhat nervous, self-effacing early days as prime minister designate under Yeltsin, to the powerful, confident, somewhat ruthless leader that he has become today. We watch this transition and we see the factors and events that changed him from being reasonably pro-democratic, into the authoritarian figure that he is today. Whatever he was and is, and whatever he may end up becoming, we can’t help admiring him – he is a very canny player, and whether we agree with him or not, we can see where he is coming from…
Much has happened since, February, 2012, and as the western leaders became weaker and more ineffective, so has Putin become stronger and more confident in what he can get away with in this deeply troubled world.
His long interview a few days ago was a master-class in the art of ‘double-speak’ and obfuscation. He looked so relaxed and comfortable, and every statement he made sounded utterly credible. If you weren’t fully conversant with the facts, you would have been convinced that everything that he had done was eminently reasonable and in accordance with international law.
He even did his best to convince us that there were no Russian troops in Crimea. ‘Anyone can go to surplus store and buy uniforms’ he told us, so why should you assume they were Russian? – they had no Russian insignia on them….’
Contrast that with Foreign Secretary Kerry’s spluttering, angry, occasionally incoherent outbursts in Kiev. He wasn’t used to dealing with people like KGB trained- Putin, to whom barefaced lies come so easily off the tongue.
I actually quite like Kerry – he is a million times more genuine and committed than Hilary Clinton ever was – but his hands are tied, and in any event, he is out of his depth in what is probably the 21st Century’s most serious international crisis to date.
Whether Putin has always been ‘playing the long game’ or whether it has just developed by accident, (the latter, I suspect), the fact remains that Putin has the upper hand. Russia is so strong by virtue of its oil and gas wealth, that it can virtually stick its finger up at any economic sanctions threatened by the west.
I may be wrong, but I strongly suspect that Putin will do whatever he wishes with eastern Ukraine, and the western threats will slowly dissipate or get watered down, as so many European nations, (including Germany), have as much to lose – if not more – than Russia, in any imposition of sanctions.
Sure, he may go through some diplomatic niceties – as he has done on frequent occasions (such as he has done with Syria) – but the die is cast and Eastern Ukraine will be his.
Let there be absolutely no doubt; Putin is a thug. He cares nothing for human rights, democracy or international conventions, treaties and law. He looks back nostalgically to the days of the Soviet empire, and will stop at nothing to try and regain Russia’s power and influence in an increasingly fractured and politically divided world.
What he doesn’t seem to appreciate – or maybe he just doesn’t care – is that the collapse of the Soviet ’empire’ was largely due to the fact that it went broke and the communist system simply couldn’t support itself. The reason the the old Soviets had to brutally repress uprisings in Hungry and Czechoslovakia,was because the people there were starving and at the end of their tether and the only way to keep them in line was at the end of a gun barrel.
I well remember Russia of the late nineties, when the rouble went through the floor and businesses were two a penny. I travelled frequently to Moscow and other Russian cities looking for corporate bargains to acquire for my then employer. There were plenty of companies to buy, but the country was too unstable and pretty much controlled by criminals and corruption was rife.
The only reason that Russia where it is today is because of their huge reserves of oil and gas. This in itself would not have been sufficient to propel them as a major power on the world stage if it wasn’t for the extremely high price of oil on the world markets. Any drop in these prices would have a major impact on Russia’s single track economy.
So Russia is wielding a two-edged sword when it threatens Ukraine with turning off their gas supplies, as while it might severely hurt Ukraine in the short term, in the long term, Ukraine and other European countries will look for alternative, more stable sources for their gas requirements.
There is only one meaningful thing the west can do now and that is to play Putin at his own, long game. America must hastily speed up the construction of the Keystone pipeline, open up the country for increased gas production through fracking activities, (as indeed Britain and Europe must also do), and the west must gradually reduce their dependence on Russia for the supply of oil and gas. This is do-able over a period of 5-10 years, but until this happens, Putin has the west by the proverbial balls.
Once the west increases its production of oil and gas reduces its dependency on Russian supplies, it will be a double whammy for our current day, Russian ‘Hitler’.
It will mean that the west will be in a much stronger position to impose meaningful economic sanctions, but more than this, by cranking up the world’s production of energy, the world oil price will steadily drop to the point where Russia’s new found wealth will start to disintegrate.
Until then, folks, you will continue to see Putin stick his finger up at the west and do just as he pleases.