With Obama at the helm, this time the outcome may be different.
In a striking example of Cold War redux, the Ukraine has emerged as the latest geopolitical flashpoint between Russia and the United States, with Western Europe playing a secondary role. Ukrainians are caught in a tug of war, with Ukrainians in the eastern portion of Ukraine more aligned with Russia, and Ukrainians in the western portion of the country wanting to move closer to the democratic model of Western Europe and the United States. Protesters against the repressive government of Ukraine’s President Viktor F. Yanukovych are fighting for more freedoms within the structure of a pluralistic democracy, including checks on presidential powers. With the likely tacit blessing of autocratic Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is no stranger to using force to put down dissent, Yanukovych’s government has pushed back with increasingly repressive measures. These measures now include empowering the military to search, detain and shoot protesting Ukrainian freedom fighters as part of what the government is calling a nationwide anti-terrorism operation.
Protests in Ukraine began last November when Ukraine’s President Viktor F. Yanukovych decided to reject offers of a closer relationship and trade deal with the European Union, tilting towards Russia instead. Russia offered Ukraine an economic lifeline in the form of $15 billion dollars’ worth of credit, and put pressure on Yanukovych to rebuff Western Europe’s offers. After suspending its credit line briefly after the resignation under pressure of pro-Russian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov in January, Russia has now resumed its extension of credit with the purchase of $2 billion in Ukrainian government bonds. Russia took this action shortly after Yanukovych had met with Putin in Sochi on the sidelines of the Winter Olympics opening ceremonies, and just one day before this week’s bloodiest clashes yet broke out in the capital city of Kiev.
In the worst outbreak of violence so far in the stand-off between protesters and Ukraine President Yanukovych’s government, at least two dozen people have been reported killed and hundreds injured during clashes that began on Tuesday February 18th. Fires set by protesters raged in Kiev as the protesters tried to stave off police assaults, which had begun when police officers in two armored personnel carriers attempted to ram through barriers set up by the protesters. The protesters pushed back, resulting in the vehicles bursting into flames. Riot police then came out in force, prompting protesters to burn tires and whatever else they could to create a fiery barricade around their principal encampment on Independence Square. The police continued their assaults into the morning hours of February 19th. The protesters, though badly battered, are not giving up just yet. Lawmakers in one region declared independence from Yanukovych’s government, in support of the protesters.
Only a few days ago, there was optimism that peace would be restored as a result of an agreement by representatives of the opposition to have protesters abandon their occupation of government buildings in return for amnesty from prosecution. Putin’s response to this prospect of more concessions by Yanukovych, and to a meeting this past Monday of protest leaders with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to request assistance, was his decision to resume providing credit to Ukraine. The pro-Moscow government supporters in Ukraine’s Parliament followed up Putin’s action with actions of their own favorable to Russia’s interests. They blocked attempts by opposition leaders to reform Ukraine’s constitution towards a more Western style model with reduced presidential powers. That is when all hell broke loose. The result was the “pyre of violent chaos,” as the New York Times described this week’s bloody clashes.
The New York Times front page article on February 19th linked Yanukovych’s meeting with Putin in Sochi with Yanukovych’s apparent reversal of his earlier pledges not to use force to disband the protesters. After all, Putin’s own hold on power is a clear demonstration of how force and repression are more reliable tools in the hands of an autocrat than giving in to the demands of freedom fighters.
Russia wasted no time accusing the United States of interfering in the internal affairs of its neighbor and fomenting discord. Washington is trying to tell "the authorities of a sovereign state what they should do next and how they should do it," declared a Russian state-owned news agency. The Foreign Ministry in Moscow blamed the escalation of violence on Western politicians’ “policy of connivance.” Only a few days ago, before the latest outbreak, a leading Russian Foreign Ministry official had said that the United States was displaying an attitude of “puppeteering” by trying to impose a “Western vector of development” on Ukraine.
These charges took on extra urgency in Russian circles as a result of the leak (most likely by Russia itself, obtained from its surveillance) of the infamous audio recording of a phone conversation between Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt. While Nuland’s expletive denunciation of the European Union revealed the Obama administration’s impatience with the European Union’s failure to deal adequately with the crisis in Ukraine brewing in Western Europe’s own backyard, the recording also revealed discussions between Nuland and Pyatt regarding whom should and should not serve in a new government. Russia has used this conversation as proof that its suspicions of U.S. meddling in the internal affairs of Ukraine are well-founded.
Russia has a significant stake in what happens to Ukraine. It shares a border with Ukraine, which heightens Russia’s national security concerns if Ukraine were to integrate economically and militarily with the West rather than turn towards Russia for support. Ukraine is also of commercial significance to Russia, both in terms of providing pipeline transit for energy Russia sells to Europe and providing access to the sea for its maritime export trade.
During several centuries up to the dismantling of the Soviet Union, Russia has been able to exercise control at various times over at least some portions of Ukraine. Putin, who admires Stalin as a leader, is trying to re-build a mini version of Russia’s former empire at least in what has been called the "near abroad" of former neighboring Soviet satellites. This would bring Ukraine back squarely into Russia’s sphere of influence.
Western European countries have expressed support for the opposition in Ukraine, while calling for restraint. They have also threatened sanctions against government officials responsible for the crackdown, but have not followed through, at least up until now. A concrete financial aid package for Ukraine outbidding Russia’s extension of credit has also not yet been forthcoming. Some of this might change as a result of the latest bloody clashes and Yanukovych’s evident determination to suppress the protests with a major display of force. However, as the recorded conversation of Assistant Secretary of State Nuland with Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt made clear, the Obama administration is not willing to let the European Union take the lead even though Germany in particular has more energy and economic interests at stake than the United States does.
The United States’ interest in Ukraine has little to do with energy or trade, in my opinion. Concern for the human rights of protesters fighting for greater freedoms may be part of what is driving some members of the Obama administration to seek greater involvement in the crisis. However, there may well be a more realpolitik strategy at work as well.
The Obama administration may be trying to resurrect a Cold War strategy to counter the Soviet Union championed by Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor whom has served as a senior adviser to President Obama on matters of national security and foreign policy. Brzezinski believed in exploiting the soft underbelly of the Soviet Union in the lead-up to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan during the Carter years, by which he meant at the time to stir up opposition within and nearby the Soviet Union among the Muslim population to weaken the Soviet state through implosion. In Afghanistan, which had a pro-Soviet government at the time, Brzezinski’s idea was to funnel U.S. aid to the Muslim opposition in order to suck the Soviet Union into a costly war in Afghanistan that he believed would help demoralize the Soviet Union and lead to its break-up.
The following is an exchange between Brzezinski and an interviewer for Le Nouvel Observateur in 1998, as published by the Information Clearing House:
“Question: The former director of the CIA, Robert Gates, stated in his memoirs [From the Shadows], that American intelligence services began to aid the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan six months before the Soviet intervention. In this period you were the national security adviser to President Carter. You therefore played a role in this affair. Is that correct?
Brzezinski: Yes. According to the official version of history, CIA aid to the Mujahadeen began during 1980, that is to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan, 24 Dec 1979. But the reality, closely guarded until now, is completely otherwise: Indeed, it was July 3, 1979 that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention.
Question: Despite this risk, you were an advocate of this covert action. But perhaps you yourself desired this Soviet entry into war and looked to provoke it?
Brzezinski: It isn't quite that. We didn't push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would.”
Fast forward to today, when Vladimir Putin is flexing his muscles in areas of strategic concern to the United States, such as the Middle East. He outflanked Obama on dealing with the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons stockpiles, buying more time for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to remain in power. Putin is also making sure that Assad is armed with sophisticated weapons, prompting Secretary of State John Kerry this week to lamely complain that Russia is “enabling Assad to double down, which is creating an enormous problem.”
Putin is also being courted by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States, the Palestinians and Iran, who sense the diminishing of U.S. influence in the region and are looking to go with a winner.
A mini Cold War is returning under Obama’s watch as Russian autocrat Putin seeks to widen Russia’s sphere of influence in a bid to return to at least a modest version of the Soviet Union’s glory days.
The one card that the Obama administration may be playing is to dust off a modified version of Brzezinski’s underbelly strategy and put Russia on defense. The purpose would not be to induce a Russian invasion this time, which would unhinge Western Europe and potentially set off other unintended consequences. Rather, the Obama administration may be hoping to divert Putin’s attention away from the Middle East and cause him to redirect money and resources closer to home, in order to prop up Russia’s allies in Ukraine and prevent it from being pried away by the West from Russia’s sphere of influence. Covert support to the protesters may be part of this strategy. So far, however, Putin appears to be winning with little cost and no discernible effect on his involvement in the Middle East or power at home.
The fate of the freedom fighters protesting the Putin-style model of repression in Ukraine remains to be seen.
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