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Reflections on an Unforgiving Day

Stratfor: Geopolitical Diary
Courtesy, Stratfor Global Intelligence

THURSDAY, JULY 17, 2014 – 21:17
 
We ate breakfast to the news that an airliner had crashed in Ukraine. We had lunch to the news that Israel had invaded Gaza. An airliner crashing is perhaps more impactful than an invasion. We have all wondered, when we hear of a crash, or even in quiet moments on board an aircraft ourselves, what living our final moments in a plane plunging to earth, knowing that we will die, would be like. An invasion is harder for some of us to empathize with. Most of us have never invaded a country nor been in a country while it was invaded. But it shares this much with a plane crash: Your life is in danger, and your fate is out of your hands.

We don’t even know for certain what happened to the plane or how far the invasion will go. But no reasonable person looking at today could argue that we are the masters of our fates. At one point in the afternoon, it was announced that the White House had been placed on lockdown, which meant that a significant security threat had been found. It turned out someone’s lost backpack caused the whole episode.

Our job is to find order in the apparent disorder, even if meaning is fleeting. There are two things we can point to. First — tragedy aside for the moment — the plane crash had to do with the struggle for Ukraine, between the right of Russia to be secure from the West, the right of the Ukrainians to determine their own fate, either as one country or two, and the right of Western powers to involve themselves in these affairs. Gaza is about the right of Israel to have a nation, the right of the Palestinians to have a nation and the right of Western countries to involve themselves in the matter.

Both issues are matters of competing national rights, not dissimilar from one and other. The Russians have historically experienced multiple invasions from the west, all of them devastating, some of them through Ukraine. Ukraine means “nation on the edge,” or what we could call a borderland. Usually under Russian domination, it is now independent. But for Russia, it is the buffer between the kind of armies that invaded Russia in 1941 when the Nazis came. The names of many of the cities that are spoken of now are the names of the cities in which the Soviet army fought. For the Russians, this is the borderland that can’t be given up. Yes, no one is planning to invade Russia now. But the Russians know how fast intentions and capabilities change, and they wonder why the Americans and others are so concerned with having a pro-Western government in Kiev.

For the Ukrainians, who have rarely experienced sovereignty, this is their opportunity to chart their own course. For them, the Russians’ need for a buffer is another way of saying Russian oppression of Ukraine. Of course, not all living in Ukraine see this as oppressive. They see the Ukrainian government as oppressing them, by tearing them away from their Russian roots. For western Ukrainians, these Russophiles are thugs trying to destroy the country. For the Russophiles, it is hypocrisy that Ukraine demands that its right to self-determination be honored, but it has no honor for the right to self-determination of the Russophiles.

It is a question of national self-determination, which is one of the foundations of modern Euro-American civilization and always becomes complex when competing nations all claim that right. Does Russia have the right to assure that it will never again have to live through an invasion? Does it have the right to do that at the expense of Ukrainian self-determination? To the extent that the West has involved itself, can it be said that Ukraine is truly free to determine its future?

And so an airliner was shot down and some 300 people died. It is hard to draw the connection between the abstract discussion of national rights and the debris and lives strewn around, but there is a connection. The plane would not have crashed if the question of national interest and national self-determination was not so important to so many people.

The same issue caused four children to be killed on a Gaza beach and a man to be blown apart by a mortar round in Israel. The Israeli Jews claimed a homeland in today’s Israel. They were occupiers, but there is not a single country in the world that wasn’t, in some way, founded by occupiers. Almost everywhere, there was someone there who was displaced or absorbed to make way for the current occupants. Every nation that exists was born out of some injustice. Consider the United States and Native Americans and slavery. Both were fundamental to America’s birth, but the right of the United States to remain intact is not questioned. Look at Europe and the way it was reshaped by armies. Perhaps that happened centuries ago, but is there an expiration date on injustice?

At the same time, there was someone there before Israel. They were not annihilated as in the case of some nations that disappeared with the arrival of newcomers. They are still there, in Israel, in the West Bank and certainly in Gaza. This is the borderland between Israel and the Arab world, and it is filled, particularly in Gaza, by people who are claiming their right to a state. Some who want the creation of that state to include the annihilation, expulsion or absorption of Israel.

There are others who want a two-state solution. They are not really as thoughtful and reasonable as they would like to believe. A state divided in half by Israel would be peculiar to say the least. Could Gaza, a small place packed with people, and a distant West Bank ever become economically viable? And could the Israelis ever trust the Palestinians not to open fire on Tel Aviv from the few miles that would separate it from a Palestinian state? The Arab state would be an economic impossibility. The Israeli state would be at risk. Westerners are filled with excellent advice as to what the Palestinians should do and what the Israelis should do. But as with Ukraine, the Westerners are playing with peripheral issues, things that don’t affect them personally and existentially. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is attempting to do good. But if he fails, his children won’t live with the consequences.

And therefore, an endless and pointless debate rages as to who is right and who started the war in an infinite regression that goes back to times before any living Jew or Palestinian. This is the same as in Ukraine. Ukraine’s history had been shaped by its relation to Russia. A debate can be held as to whether this was just. It really doesn’t matter. Russia is there and needs things, Ukraine is there and needs different things, and the West is there providing advice, which if it fails won’t directly affect it.

What ties Ukraine, Russia, Israel and Gaza together is that they are all fighting for their lives, or interests that are so fundamentally important to them that they cannot live without them. They are fighting for their nation and for that nation’s safety in a world where unspeakable things happen and where the only ones who will defend you are your family, friends and countrymen, and where all the well-wishers and advice-givers will quietly take their leave if dangers arise. There is nothing easier and cheaper than advising others to get along. These conflicts are rooted in fear, and fear is always a legitimate emotion.

Others would have approached today by saying that the Russians are evil or the Ukrainians really the oppressors, the Israelis killers or the Gazans monsters. We are sure we will hear from many condemning our moral equivalency, by which they will claim that the only truly moral position is theirs. But this is not a moral equivalency that argues that Ukrainians and Russians, Israelis and Palestinians should therefore sit down and recognize that they really haven’t got anything to fight over. This is a moral equivalency that says these people have a great deal to fight over, but that it is their fight, and that — as when the Romans began wiping out Europe’s Celts — it will be settled by steel and not by kindly advice or understanding. The problem between these people is not that they don’t understand each other. The problem is that they do.

And therefore an airline crashed and reportedly some 23 Americans, my countrymen, died. And yes, these are our countrymen and we grieve for them before others, much as Russians, Ukrainians, Israelis and Palestinians grieve for their own. We are no better. But we live in a stronger and safer country for which we are grateful. It allows us to give advice and means we don’t have to experience our misjudgments, even on a long sad day.
 
 
Reflections on an Unforgiving Day is republished with permission of Stratfor.”
 

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Stratfor: Ukraine Turns From Revolution to Recovery

By George Friedman
Stratfor Global Intelligence

The uprising in Kiev has apparently reached its conclusion. President Viktor Yanukovich and the opposition reached an agreement, negotiated by the Polish, German and French foreign ministers. The parliament is now effectively in charge, deciding who will be ministers and when elections will be held, whether to dismiss judges and so on. It isn’t clear whether the parliament can fire the sitting president without impeachment and trial, but all of this is now moot. What is interesting is that the Polish, French and German foreign ministers negotiated an outcome that, for practical purposes, ignored the Constitution of Ukraine. It sets an interesting precedent. But for Ukraine, the constitution didn’t have the patina of tradition that a true constitution requires, and few will miss Yanukovich.

The question now is whether all of this makes any real difference in Ukraine or the world. There is a new temporary leadership, although it is still factionalized and the leaders of the factions have not fully emerged. The effect of hostile gunfire will forge unity in Kiev for a while, but in due course, ideology, ambition and animosity will re-emerge. That will make governing Ukraine as difficult as in the past, particularly because the differences among the neo-Nazis, the liberals and groups in between — all of which manned the barricades — are profound. A government of national unity will be difficult to form.

Another issue is what will happen the next time crowds storm government buildings. The precedent has been set — or rather, it was set during the 2004 Orange Revolution — that governments and regimes can be changed by a legalistic sleight of hand. At some point a large crowd will gather and occupy buildings. If the government opens fire, it is run by monsters. I don’t mean that ironically; I mean it literally. But if the government allows itself to be paralyzed by demonstrators, then how can it carry out its constitutional responsibilities? I don’t mean that ironically either. The Ukrainian Constitution, new or old, is meaningless because Ukrainians will not endure the pain of following it — and because foreign powers will pressure them to deviate from constitutional democracy in order to create a new one.

There should be no mistake. The Yanukovich government was rotten to the core, and he will not be missed. But most governments of Ukraine will be rotten to the core, partly because there is no tradition of respect for the law and because of the way property was privatized. How could there be a tradition of law in a country that was reduced to a province of another state and that numbered among its rulers Josef Stalin? Privatization, following the fall of the Soviet Union, occurred suddenly with vague rules that gave the advantage to the fast and ruthless. These people now own Ukraine, and however much the crowd despises them, it can’t unseat them. The oligarchs, as rich people in the former Soviet Union are called, are free; they can eliminate their critics or bribe them into silence. The only thing that is more powerful than money is a gun. But guns cost money and lives.

The idea that what will follow the Ukrainian revolution will be the birth of a liberal democracy reminds me of the Arab Spring. In the West, there is a tradition of seeing a passionate crowd massed in a square as the voice of the people. Reporters interview demonstrators and hear that they want an end to a corrupt and evil regime and subliminally recall the storming of the Bastille, the founding myth of the revolutionary tradition. A large crowd and a building anger at government evil points to the millennium.

In the Arab Spring the hope was great and the results disappointing. There was genuine hope for change, and observers assumed that the change was for liberal democracy. Perhaps it will yet be. Sometimes it was a change to a very different type of regime. What is portrayed and seen in this situation are the corrupt leaders commanding brutal soldiers. If the regime and the soldiers are wicked, it follows by this storyboard logic of good and evil that then their victims must be virtuous. It is rarely that easy. It is not only that the crowd is usually divided into many factions and bound together only by anger at the regime and the passionate moment. It is also that unexpected consequences lead them far from what they intended.

How Long Will Unity Last?

The deepest symbolism of revolution, and the most problematic, is that the people in the square speak for the people as a whole. The assumption made by the three foreign ministers was that in the negotiation between the three leaders of the demonstrators and the president, the protests’ leaders were more faithful representatives of the people than the elected president. They may have been in this case, but it is not certain.

Parts of Ukraine are bitterly angry about the outcome in Kiev. A Russian flag was raised over the city hall of Sevastopol, located in Crimea in the south, over the weekend. Crimea has historically belonged to Russia. In 1954, Nikita Khrushchev took it away from Russia and gave it to Ukraine. The Russians in Crimea have never really liked being part of Ukraine and the demonstrators didn’t represent them. Nor did they represent all those who live in the eastern part of the country, where Russian is commonly spoken and where being close to Russia is both an economic and cultural desire.

Thus there are two questions. The first is whether there is enough unity in the Ukrainian parliament to do what they must now do: create a government. The excitement of the moment has hidden the factions, which will soon re-emerge along with new ones. Yanukovich was not without support, for good reasons or bad. His supporters are bitter at this outcome and they are biding their time. In addition, the oligarchs are weaving their webs, save that many of the lawmakers are already caught in their web, some happily and some not. The underlying constraints that created the Yanukovich government are still there and can create a new Yanukovich out of the most enlightened Ukrainian leader.

The second question is whether Ukraine can remain united. The distinctions between the region oriented toward the West and that oriented toward Russia have been there from the beginning. In the past, governments have tried to balance between these two camps. Our three foreign ministers and the leaders of the demonstration have signaled that the days of taking Crimea and the east into account are over. At the very least their interests weren’t represented at the talks. Those interests could be rebalanced in the parliament, or they could be dismissed. If the latter were to happen, will Ukraine split in two? And if it does, what will be the economic and social consequences? If parliament takes to accommodating the two sides and their respective oligarchs, then how does it avoid winding up with a more photogenic and sympathetic Yanukovich?

The Motives of Outsiders

What happened to Ukraine mattered deeply to the Germans, French, Poles and Americans, all of whom had a deep involvement and sympathy for the demonstrators and hostility toward Yanukovich. Certainly it matters to the Russians, for whom maintaining at least a neutral Ukraine is essential to the national interest. This entire crisis began when Yanukovich decided to reject closer ties to the European Union. It was that decision that triggered the demonstrations, which, after violent repression, evolved from desiring closer EU ties to desiring regime change and blood.

The Ukrainian government has $13 billion in debt, owed mostly to Western institutions. The Russian government has agreed to provide Ukraine with $15 billion in aid doled out in tranches to cover it, since Ukraine can’t. Russia is now withholding additional aid until it can be confident the emerging government in Kiev is one with which it can work. It has also given Ukraine discounted natural gas. Without this assistance Ukraine would be in an even worse situation.

In turning toward Europe, parliament has to address refinancing its debt and ensure that the Russians will continue to discount natural gas. The Europeans are in no position politically to underwrite the Ukrainian debt. Given the economic situation and austerity in many EU countries, there would be an uproar if Brussels diverted scarce resources to a non-member. And regardless of what might be believed, the idea that Ukraine will become a member of the European Union under current circumstances is dismal. The bloc has enough sick economies on its hands.

The Germans have suggested that the International Monetary Fund handle Ukraine’s economic problem. The IMF’s approach to such problems is best compared to surgery without anesthesia. The patient may survive and be better for it, but the agony will be intense. In return for any bailout, the IMF will demand a restructuring of Ukraine’s finances. Given Ukraine’s finances, that restructuring would be dramatic. And the consequences could well lead to yet another round of protests.

The Russians have agreed to this, likely chuckling. Either parliament will reject the IMF plan and ask Russia to assume the burden immediately, or it will turn to Russia after experiencing the pain. There is a reason the Russians have been so relaxed about events in Ukraine. They understand that between the debt, natural gas and tariffs on Ukrainian exports to Russia, Ukraine has extremely powerful constraints. Under the worst circumstances Ukraine would move into the Western camp an economic cripple. Under the best, Ukraine would recognize its fate and turn to Russia.

What the Europeans and Americans were doing in Ukraine is less clear. They had the triumphant moment and they have eliminated a corrupt leader. But they certainly are not ready to take on the burden of Ukraine’s economic problems. And with those economic problems, the ability to form a government that does not suffer from the ills of Yanukovich is slim. Good intentions notwithstanding, the Ukrainians will not like the IMF deal.

I will guess at two motives for European and American actions. One is to repay the Russians for their more aggressive stance in the world and to remind them of how vulnerable Russia is. The second is as a low-risk human rights intervention to satisfy internal political demand without risking much. The pure geopolitical explanation — that they did this in order to gain a platform from which to threaten Russia and increase its caution — is hard to believe. None of these powers were in a position to protect Ukraine from Russian economic or military retaliation. None of them have any appetite for threatening Russia’s fundamental interests.

As stated above, the question now is two fold. Will the Ukrainian parliament, once the adrenaline of revolution stops flowing, be able to govern, or will it fall into the factional gridlock that a presidential system was supposed to solve? Further, will the east and Crimea decide they don’t want to cast their lot with the new regime and proceed to secede, either becoming independent or joining Russia? In large part the second question will be determined by the first. If the parliament is gridlocked, or it adopts measures hostile to the east and Crimea, secession is possible. Of course, if it decides to accommodate these regions, it is not clear how the government will differ from Yanukovich’s.

Revolutions are much easier to make than to recover from. This was not such a vast uprising that it takes much recovery. But to the extent that Ukraine had a constitutional democracy, that is now broken by people who said their intention was to create one. The issue is whether good intentions align with reality. It is never a bad idea to be pessimistic about Ukraine. Perhaps this time will be different.
 
 
Ukraine Turns From Revolution to Recovery is republished with permission of Stratfor.”
 
 

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