Sunday, August 23, 2015

The horsemen cross the Steppes of Ukraine

Power is an aphrodisiac that few men and women are able to control, and Russia's President Vladimir Putin has been intimate with its allure since his early days with the KGB. Still, the West believes that democracy, or at least their style of democracy, can be forced onto the people of Eastern Europe. America leads this crusade not only in Eastern Europe but just as feverishly in the Middle East, all too often with disastrous results both in the loss of innocent lives and that of simple dollars and cents.

The current conflict between Russia and Ukraine is embedded as deeply in the history of the region as it is in the lust for domination by Russia over its surrounding neighbours. Vladimir Putin still believes in the same maniacal aspirations of Stalin and of the great Russian state, although unlike Stalin, he is an astute businessman with weaponry at his disposal that Stalin could never comprehend. This is not to say that Putin has completely abandoned the military might of Russia's army, with its tanks and well trained troops. There have been rumours of Russian soldiers fighting in the self-proclaimed People's Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. Russia has denied direct military involvement and claims to only protect Russian citizens and its border with Ukraine.

Today, the West is faced with a stand-off against Russia over the issue of Ukraine. Sanctions imposed by the US and its allies have had some effect on the Russian economy, with the ruble collapsing against the US dollar 50 to 1, though it is not all due to the sanctions, as Russia has suffered heavily with the massive drop in oil prices. Russia's economy heading into a recession, Putin knows how to keep the minds of average Russians diverted from such a mess. He has simply given the people an issue of protecting fellow Russians against threat and persecution.

Crimea was annexed by Russia in March of 2014 and the Ukrainian conflict found world headlines. Putin was simply able to point out that Nikita Khrushchev had made a grave error in 1954 when he transferred the Crimean Oblast to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Today, with its population being fifty percent Russian and the fact that Russia parks its mighty Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol, it was only natural that Crimea needed to return to the arms of Mother Russia.

In response to the annexation, the EU and the US raised the stakes with their sanctions against some of the powerful elite around Putin. Major oil firms Rosneft, Transneft and Gazprom Neft were targeted; Bank Rossiya, Gazprombank and Sberbank have found themselves on the EU and US blacklists, as well as some of Putin's inner circle. Yuri Kovalchuk and Nikolai Shamalov found themselves blacklisted, while Arkady Rotenberg, Sergei Chemezov and Vyacheslav Volodin all face travel bans and western asset freezes.

Among all the frenzy of threat and counter-threat regarding sanctions, it is still questionable who is hurting more, Russia or the EU. The EU's trade with Russia simply outweighs that of the US, and in 2012 was worth almost 270 billion euros. Although Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel appears to support the Obama-led ideology of sanctions as punishment, the German economy is facing serious problems with the loss of business with Russia, as German exports to Russia in 2013 totaled 38 billion euros – the highest of all EU members. With summer drawing to an end Germany has to consider the fact that more than thirty percent of its oil and gas is imported from Russia. Russia has retaliated with an embargo on food imports from the EU, US, Canada, and Australia.

Vladimir Putin is not simply an out of control thug who is trying to push some socialist ideology down the throats of his neighbours. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Putin, who had been stationed in East Germany, retired from the KGB with the rank of Colonel. Attaching himself to Anatoly Sobchak, then Mayor of Leningrad, Putin's political rise was nothing more than meteoric. In 1998 Putin moved to Moscow; this time he found himself as head of management under Boris Yeltsin's administration. Yeltsin dismissed his Prime Minister in August 1999, promoting Putin to the position, and in December that year Yeltsin resigned as President of Russia, appointing Vladimir Putin as acting President. From a retired Colonel in the KGB to President of Russia in eight years makes Putin an astute, calculating tactician and a very cunning opponent, whose motivations are always well disguised regardless of what is heard publicly.

In 2010, Russia set on a new international course with the formation of the BRICS group of prominent emerging economies, consisting of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. Now they have agreed on the formation of the New Development Bank, whose goal is to provide funds for infrastructure projects in member nations, and aside from this lofty ideal, it will be able to challenge both the IMF and World Bank with their influence on international politics. For decades the IMF and World Bank have been able to hold a mortgage on nations and therefore interfere with their domestic politics. The members of the BRICS group make up forty percent of the world's population and wield a combined economy of approximately $16 trillion. This figure will grow as each member nation launches further with development programs and economic growth. Each of the BRICS member nations have an equal share and voting power with no one nation given the power of veto. In addition to international finance, Vladimir Putin has been developing greater inroads into the EU and their need for Russian gas.

The Blue Stream is a major trans-Black Sea gas pipeline that carries natural gas from Russia to Turkey; gas began to flow in February 2003. Russia proposed to build another pipeline called the South Stream but the EU passed the Third Energy Package, which stated Russia could not own and control pipelines on EU territory. Putin's response was to cancel the project in December 2014 and file a lawsuit against the EU with the World Trade Organisation.

Now Russia has put into development a new pipeline from the Black Sea to Turkey called the Turkish Stream. The first line of pipe is expected to be completed by December 2016, providing gas to a relay station in Greece and massive economic potential for that country. At the same time, Greece has been given an invitation to join the BRICS nations and a possible pre-payment of $10 billion on future gas production. Such an injection of cash would allow Greece to revert back to the drachma, dropping the euro and providing the first substantial crack in European unity. Although Greece accepted an 86 billion euro bailout recently, it was Putin's attempt at manipulation that should not be taken lightly.

Putin understands world politics and understands that time is needed to achieve all his apparent goals. He has been able to hold on to power in Russia for some fourteen years and is not likely ready to relinquish it. The Russian people have supported Putin mainly because he brought a change to their lives with a growing economy, better jobs and better pay. Real opposition does not exist in Russia and treatment of any dissent is swift and harsh.

Putin's democracy puts up with public demonstrations only for the West to see, when in reality the government of Russia acts no differently than in Stalin's time. Alexei Navalny has been an outspoken critic of the Putin government and its massive corruption. He had led protests with tens of thousands marching in the streets of Moscow three years ago. Since then, Alexei Navalny has faced charges of embezzlement and was sentenced to house arrest. Navalny's popularity has not waned and only finds support growing with accusations against Putin's government that the charges were a farce only aimed to silence him. In December 2014, Oleg Navalny, the brother of Alexei, was sentenced to three and a half years in jail for the same embezzlement. European officials saw this ruling as a politically motivated act to suppress any real opposition. Alexei Navalny has openly stated that the decision to jail his brother Oleg was simply an act of terror aimed to silence him.

Regardless of the opinions of European or any Western officials, Putin's Russia will continue on its course. Domestic politics will never be affected by the weak pressures exerted by the West. Whether it is the Navalny brothers or Pussy Riot, dissent will be crushed in the traditional way.

As the West continues on its illusionary course of economic sanctions, the death toll in Ukraine has risen well over 7000. Ceasefire agreements do not appear to hold as both sides are willing to breach those agreements with little or no provocation. Rebels in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, who the West argues are armed and supplemented by Russian troops, are claiming to be fighting for heir to freedom from Ukrainian forces. Both of those regions have very large populations of Russians, with Russian being both their predominate language.

If the premise of democracy is the right to choose one's own government then the self-proclaimed People's Republic of Luhansk and Donetsk should be recognised. On the other hand can the Ukrainian government permit the splintering of their country through manipulation by another nation? These questions are not easy to answer when outside interference is thrown in the midst of all the rhetoric. The world, led by US President Obama, has decided to punish Putin's Russia over accusations of manipulation and interference. Yet it is the US who has interfered in domestic politics of nations since the '50s with the Bay of Pigs, and US-led coalitions have openly invaded countries under a guise equivalent to the Crusades. Defending democracy, and more recently, stamping out terrorism have been their catch cries and no one has objected.

Can anyone underestimate Vladimir Putin? The answer is a definite no. The world as a union has seen the result of inaction before, who can forget the British Prime Minister Chamberlain's comments after his meeting with Adolf Hitler, and his Peace for Our Time speech? In Ukraine it is hard to deny that Russia has armed the rebels and has provided manpower in this battle. At the same time the West claims justification in their economic stranglehold through sanctions, stating that it only wants Russia to remain neutral and maybe only cheer from the sidelines. Amongst all the posturing and accusations, the most disturbing aspect of this situation is how willing all the players are at sacrificing the pawns. Images of a woman in tears standing in front of her home, demolished by bombs in a struggle she doesn't fully comprehend tell the true story.

Since the struggle began more than 7000 innocent lives had been lost, while ceasefire violations continually provide obstacles to reaching a solution. In reality the West has no control over what is going to happen in Ukraine. Proposals to tighten sanctions only provide a greater opportunity for bullying. Both the Luhansk and Donetsk regions will eventually pull away from Ukraine, and if a supposed ceasefire holds it will only be temporary.

Democracy in Eastern Europe must find its own flavour and not be forced onto people who had only known struggle for centuries. The US acts like an arrogant child chastising its parents for not being 'tech-savvy,' forgetting how much the parents really know. Ukraine has had centuries of struggle and occupation to live through, from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth through to roving hoards of Tartars and even its own Cossacks. Eventually when Stalin's Russia occupied Ukraine, instead of peace its people had to survive the chlodomor, or the 'hunger-extermination', with estimates ranging from 2.5 to 7.5 million killed. During World War II many Ukrainians fought on the German side in fear of Russian occupation. Relative peace came during Khrushchev's time but now the horror of death and uncertainty has risen again.

Neither Russia nor the West has a right to interfere in Ukraine's domestic politics, yet it is clear both will do so. Vladimir Putin is a dangerous individual to underestimate. He is clever and cunning; the strong, decisive leader that average Russians want. Though it is the people of Ukraine who are caught in the middle of this international head-butting. It is time for them to decide the direction their country should travel in. Sanctions have hurt the EU as much, if not more, than they have hurt Russia, and the resolve to continue them will crumble in the end. At the same time no one will go to war over Ukraine, leaving only Ukrainians to decide what the answer to all of this may be.