Russia Masses Firepower, Next Ukraine Grab?

Reuters reports, “Russia masses heavy firepower on border with Ukraine”. Also from Reuters, “As Russia growls, EU goes cool on eastern promises”.

“Eastern Promises” is a pun on the title of an excellent movie. If you’re into indie film, it’s a must-watch.  It is a voyeur’s delight, a vision of the unique Russian contribution to criminal culture, the “thief in law.” The movie title is nonsensical, but it perfectly expresses the EU retreat from the promise of membership to former Soviet-bloc states. The reporting of the Latvia meeting provides a read of EU sentiment that is surprisingly hard to obtain by other methods. It offers the the open-sourcer an opportunity to compete, prognostically speaking, with the insiders. In this case, it suggests that the cost to Moscow of an additional grab is minimal, provided that it does not add fuel to the potential instability of right wing extremism. The assassination of Alexey Mozgovoy may have mitigated the immediate hazard.

Perhaps the difficulty of estimating  the size of the Russian bite  is because the Russians did not know themselves. This depended more on the EU response than perhaps the EU would care to admit.  Moscow “rattled the saber”, which in this case was nonsensical talk about nuclear war, and the press sang the song of fear. The softness of Western psychology was music to Moscow’s ears.

Ukraine actually had a terrific chance to join the West. After the Soviet breakup, and before the election of Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine predated itself with a level of political corruption that makes Russia look like an honest place.  Perhaps Russia’s decision to predate Ukraine, born in the minds of men, was not solely, coldly, based on strategic interests. Perhaps an element of disrespect also figures. None of this is an excuse for Russia.

The lynchpin of EU response is Angela Merkel. Of all the  individuals with an influence on the future existence of Ukraine, Merkel is, or was, paramount. In his 2001 book, Does America Need a Foreign Policy, Henry Kissinger wrote (page 41),

As Germany's relative role and power grow, and as Russia recovers, there will emerge temptations for a special Russo-German rapproachment based on the Bismarckian tradition that the two countries prospered when they were close and suffered when they were in conflict.

Kissinger’s remark was prescient. While the U.S. may have illusions of autonomy, Germany is a trading nation. Until a few years ago, it was the world’s largest exporter of finished industrial goods.

A German once said to me (paraphrasing), “If your country should have an economic disaster, and the economy should stop, eventually you would be able to get it started again. If the economy of Germany stopped, it might be impossible to restart it.”  He was thinking of post World War I Germany. Until recently, no German could forget it. Historically, the German family owned business has had a sense of responsibility to the worker.  Angela Merkel is burdened with a sense of responsibility to the German economy over and above considerations of foreign policy that are not at the core of the western alliance.

The invasion and annexation of Crimea was a planned action, motivated by the strategic need to secure the Black Sea naval base. But the subsequent invasion of Ukraine appears to have been provoked by the separatists, who accused Putin of abandonment. Some stories, relevant regardless of accuracy:

Russian nationalists dragged Putin in,  he found the water  warm,  it grew to a surfer’s delight, the Big One, and then a monster that worries him a bit. One could hopefully desire that the Russian armor concentration is just a warning to Ukrainian nationalists. But mind reading is beyond our ability, particularly as Putin’s thinking appears to have a dynamic element.

The stories suggest that the initial Russian incursion was ad hoc, which makes the idea of a Russian strategy absurd. They’ve been playing it by ear, but they do have an idea of costs and benefits. Some benefits:

  • Russia doesn’t have a decent shipyard. The Black Sea Shipyard, actually a complex of three yards, is located at  46°56’49.51″N,  31°58’9.66″E , lies 96 miles from Crimea, on the opposite, western side of the Dnieper. It is a modern industrial jewel that would energize rebuilding Russian naval power. The shipyards are located 328 miles from the present concentration of Russian armor at Matvev Kurgan.
  • The Dnieper River, a conventional barrier to land invasion, bisects Ukraine. To a modern strategist, it seems ludicrous, but the river figured prominently in World War II.
  • Food. Russia is a large grain exporter, but with a population of 90 million. The high export figures are due also to a trade with the EU for processed foods. The maximum population that Russia can support with theoretical self-sufficiency has historically been limited by the northern latitudes of grain belts, which makes them less productive than those of southern Ukraine.  Renovation of the Russian agricultural economy could increase the supportable population . As of 2015, it is still a limitation. Kherson Oblast, on the road to the Black Sea Shipyards, is highly productive land for winter wheat. See grain map.
  • Human. Eastern Ukraine has a skilled industrial labor force.

The costs are three:

  • Economic. The acquired territory should preferably be an economic asset. Western Ukraine is not such an asset.
  • Sanctions. Putin has said that the sanctions will be in place for a long time. The EU holds that the annexation of Crimea is illegal, which means the sanctions can abate only by gradual decay. The Cuban Embargo is analogous: 52 years without fundamental change in either Cuba or the U.S., abandoned by the assumption of new attitudes. 52 years of resolve is not likely with Ukraine. The degree of resolve depends upon whether the insult to EU sensibilities subsides by virtue of “no news”, or becomes in some way a permanent irritation.
  • Import of political instability, covered here. I have been wondering if Putin will freeze the conflict now, or make one more acquisition.

Several scenarios can now be graded for attractiveness:

  • An incursion far west into Ukraine would create a large number of displaced persons, the equivalent of Cuban exiles. This would be impossible for the EU to forget.
  • Acquisition of the Dnieper River as a border would add  a lot of mouths to feed, without any particularly productive land. The Soviet occupation of Austria, between 1948 and 1955, was abandoned in steps, influenced by the inability of the occupiers to run expropriated industries at a profit.
  • A sweep across southern Ukraine would acquire the Black Sea Shipyard, and provide a land bridge between Crimea and Russia. It would cut Ukraine off from a major part of their industrial base. And the Russians can grab a bite to eat along the way.

Among Kremlin strategists, there is likely a popular game. How many years of sanctions must they pay for each of these goals?


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