Life has taken a Cold War Turn, and I find myself almost missing Ronald Reagan and his willingness to stand up to the Russians. Ten years ago, Ukraine was the third most powerful nuclear power in the world. It dismantled its nuclear arsenal in exchange for the Budapest Memorandum “commitment” by Russia, Britain and the United States that its territorial integrity would be protected. So far, these words seem hollow.
Having bitten off Crimea, Russia is not so secretly crossing the eastern Ukrainian border and stirring pro-Russian dissent. Yesterday, according to the Kiev Post, the Ukrainian government launched an operation to clear out separatists in Slovyansk, and the Donestk People’s Republic announced the general mobilization of separatist forces. Fears of more Russian troops getting involved caused Kiev to pull back. But this is a nasty mess with worldwide implications. Putin is talking about increasing Russia’s missile “defense.” And today the Ukrainian prime minister says Russia wants to start World War III.
The United States was fine with taking Ukrainian help in Afghanistan and Iraq, but now we seem to imply we aren’t really obligated to do anything in Ukraine’s defense. That may be true legally. There was also the recent so-called Geneva agreement that articulated steps toward de-escalation (without any enforcement mechanism), and Joe Biden gave a nice speech in Kiev. But any financial and economic sanctions with bite will also require serious European support, and that seems unlikely. Self-interest trumps soaring rhetoric.
Russian kleptocrats are now bigger than ever in world markets. They have shipped their money into London and Manhattan real estate or off-shore tax havens, and we shouldn’t hold our breath till those assets are frozen. Are we really prepared to force banks to decide if they want to do business more with the West than with Russian interests? British Prime Minister David Cameron famously carried a briefing paper indicating that Britain wouldn’t support any sanctions that would hurt UK moneyed interests.
The European Union is unlikely to speak with one voice because of all the bilateral relationships each country has with Russia. Any sacrifices involved would not be equally shared.
Germany could play a decisive leadership role but doesn’t want to destabilize the European economy and disrupt the region’s energy needs. Its national economic needs are even more important. Germany is Russia’s biggest European natural gas customer. (It gets about 38 percent of its natural gas imports and 35 percent of its oil imports from Putin.) And key players in Germany’s export-driven economy fear that serious sanctions will cause them to lose market share and jobs. It’s estimated that more than 6000 German companies have invested nearly $28 billion in Russia, and still more strategic agreements are being negotiated. Despite rising tensions, the head of Siemens met with Putin late last month to advance a series of joint ventures.
Russia has obviously done much more than just thumb its nose at that decade-old “commitment” to respect the “independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine.” At least Germany has an excuse: it wasn’t a signatory. President Obama is supposedly reaching out today to Prime Minister David Cameron. But do they care enough to make good on the promise? If they do act, what will Russia do to retaliate? If they don’t, what are the implications for “commitments” they may make in trying to resolve crises in other areas, like Israel/Palestine, Iran and North Korea? What is our word worth?
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