As the Ukraine Crisis plays out, it has become apparent that a number of factors have been encouraging Russia’s bold position and actions to a degree. The motions of a crisis are akin to those of a chess match in a number of ways: flexible planning, move and countermove, execution of a plan, ability to respond effectively to a changing situation and, exploit the mistakes, and weaknesses of your opponent. Russia’s opponent has not made a monumental mistake thus far in the crisis. The Ukraine has, however, been hampered by a number of handicaps and disadvantages. In this post we will review three of the more significant factors that are impeding the Ukrainian government and allowing Russia to keep hold of the initiative.
Ukrainian Domestic Fragmentations
The Ukraine’s domestic political geography presents the picture of a nation divided. The east and south regions contain significant numbers of ethnic Russians. They speak Russian, support closer ties between their country and Russia and as we have seen of late their allegiance appears to be to Moscow instead of Kiev. The central and western regions of the Ukraine are areas populated mainly by ethnic Ukrainian. Not by chance, this where the strongest pro-West feelings are anchored.
The linguistic, cultural and economic differences between the eastern and western regions has translated into political gridlock for the Ukraine since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Even though the Ukraine is now a sovereign nation state it is a young one that has yet to find its identity or embrace its statehood. There has been a dependency on Russia and simultaneously, a desire to break away from it. Reaching a political consensus has been very difficult. Recent events have made this very evident.
Russia is exploiting the domestic divisions to their advantage. The increasing dissatisfaction with Kiev among Ukrainians in the east and south helped Russia consolidate its gains in Crimea and now in the eastern Ukraine.
Disunity In The EU
Forging a cohesive foreign policy from a body made up of twenty eight nation states has been nearly impossible for the European Union. The crisis in the Ukraine has highlighted the flaws and imperfections that exist when it comes to EU attempts at diplomacy and crisis management. The EU, and perhaps Europe as a whole, has a historic aversion to proactive diplomatic or military actions. Involvement is a viable option only when the chances of a favorable outcome are all but guaranteed.
The situation in the Ukraine holds a great deal of uncertainty for a number of EU members. Energy dependence is an issue which knots the stomach of leaders in many European capitals. A healthy portion of the continent is dependent on Russia for natural gas. There is fear that Russia could use this as a weapon should the EU come out in full support of the Ukraine. Truth be told, the dependence is a two way street. 70% of Russia’s natural gas exports go to Europe. For the time being, Moscow is as reliant on Europe’s demand as the continent is for Russia’s natural gas supply. In the future, once the gas pipeline between Russia and China is completed, the story could be different.
The dangers posed by Russia controlling the Ukraine are not entirely accepted by Europe as a whole. Central and Eastern European nations have recently emerged from an era when they were essentially controlled by Moscow. The memories of what life was like as a Soviet satellite remain vivid from Prague to Riga to Sofia. Western Europe does not share the same history. As a result, Paris and Berlin do not view the recent Russian actions with the same amount of genuine alarm.
Lack Of Effective Leadership and Engagement By The United States
As much as Barack Obama would like to portray the United States as a nation among nations, nothing could be further from the truth. The US remains the leader of the free world. When a crisis like the current one erupts, the world looks to the US to respond.
That has not happened with regards to the Ukraine. Washington’s answer to Russia has been ham-fisted and inconsistent to say the very least. Our European allies have not been reassured by minimal economic sanctions and the deployment of a token number of US troops and aircraft to Poland. Worse, Europe is following the US lead with weak sanctions and half-hearted attempts to bring the warring parties to the negotiating table.
Obama’s rudderless foreign policy has been a disaster during his second term. Whether it is by accident or design, the US is retreating from its commitments around the world. It may not seem so now, but the consequences of this withdrawal are beginning to show. Without US involvement, Russia will continue towards forcing a partition of the Ukraine. If Russia is successful, the value of American commitments and promises will lessen greatly. The credibility of our defense treaties in other parts of the world will be questioned. In the worst case scenario, a potential aggressor such as North Korea or People’s Republic of China will begin probing to determine if US commitments in its Pacific allies are solid or shaky.
The PRC may well have begun to probe already. Look at what’s happening in the South China Sea right now.