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Stephen Blank Headshot

The Many Paradoxes of the Ukraine Crisis

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The most recent developments in Ukraine as of April 25 betray a mounting series of dangerous paradoxes. First, Russian officials from Putin down have consistently denied reports of Russian troops either in Crimea or now Eastern Ukraine. But Putin in his call-in show on April 17 admitted that they were present in Crimea and even linked that presence to the subsequent referendum though he claimed it was a fully democratic exercise where nobody was intimidated. Meanwhile, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Putin and his officials deny the presence of Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine.

Yet simultaneously and paradoxically Foreign Minister Lavrov threatened that if Ukraine harmed Russian citizens and interests in Ukraine this would likely mean Russian intervention. If there are no Russian troops there, who are these Russian citizens? And on what basis can Russia intervene on their behalf? In fact, Russian law now claims anyone whose grandparents spoke Russian as their native tongue and are themselves native speakers as Russian citizens and also grants the president the right to deploy forces abroad to preserve their "honor and dignity." Obviously, as in Nazi German policy that this resembles, Russia has placed a landmine under the sovereignty of states from Poland to Central Asia. Moreover, Moscow's announcement of new Russian military exercises where troops go up to 1 kilometer away from the Ukrainian border and their vehicles and in some cases uniforms are mounted with symbols of Russia's "peacemaking or peace creating forces suggests Moscow's preferred scenario, namely to incite so much unrest in the region that Russian citizens call Moscow in to "make peace." This scenario would not be far removed from Russia's previous amputations of Moldova's and Georgia's sovereignty.

These escalating provocations suggest, as President Obama has stated, that Putin has not yet seen Western sanctions as representing a sufficient deterrent to his campaign to destroy the foundations of Ukraine's sovereignty and integrity. Indeed, perhaps to provide an illusion of goodwill or possibly because Moscow has begun to feel the pressure of the existing sanctions, Lavrov offered a "peace plan" on April 24. Lavrov contended that the pro-Russian militias in Eastern Ukraine would lay down their arms if Ukraine dismantled the barricades in Maidan Square in Kyiv and implemented the Geneva accords. But for good reason both Western and Ukrainian audiences were skeptical. Here again we see unresolved paradoxes. Lavrov implicitly conceded here that Russia controls these "militants." Second he insists that Ukraine implement the Geneva agreement that Russia violated from the outset and which these militias refused to accept. Third, he demands again that Russia receive supervisory rights over Ukraine's internal policies. Thus this proposal is a non-starter for at least these three reasons.

Russia's motives, apart from a congenital desire to muddy the waters and exploit the propaganda benefits of seeming to offer peace, might be connected with the threats, strongly voiced by Secretary of State Kerry and President Obama, of new and tougher sanctions that would constitute an "escalation" on our part. Although the existing sanctions have apparently not deflected Putin from his belligerent course, their effect is now quite visible. Standard and Poor has lowered Russia's credit rating to just one level above junk due to massive capital flight. It estimated that capital flight as $51 Billion in the first quarter of 2014 but there are estimates of as much as $70 Billion in such flight. Russia's central bank has also unexpectedly raised its benchmark interest rate to 7.5 percent only six weeks after it raised that rate to 7percent. Here the sliding value of the ruble is the culprit. Russia's annual growth rate for 2014, an estimated 1.5 percent due to Ukraine, may actually fall into the realm of negative growth triggering an actual recession. And new, tighter sanctions can only compound these negative effects and could provoke a massive Russian economic crisis.

Yet those sanctions may clearly become necessary since it is clear that Putin has not been impressed to date by the previous sanctions. Indeed, with Western businessmen racing to continue big energy and railway deals with Moscow why should he be anxious? In his isolated mental fortress or what Nina Khrushcheva (Nikita Khrushchev's great-granddaughter) calls "the eternal gulag of the Russian mind he sees no reason to yield since the West is in any case out to destroy the foundations of Russian statehood and civilization as well as the sources of his and his associates' wealth and power.

Thus there is no off-ramp for Putin. He could, of course, and should wrap up these efforts to destroy Ukraine and even get out of Crimea. But by doing so he openly undermines his own positions at home and the ideological rationales of imperial circuses and less bread that he has substituted for domestic reform. Supporters here of his policies complain that we either have or at least should not box Russia in. But in fact Russia has boxed itself in.

And this situation, finally, leads to another paradox. If peace and security in Europe are to be restored Russia must retreat from Eastern Ukraine and Crimea. But if it does so it places its own political system at risk. Putin may think, like Shakespeare's Macbeth, that he is so far gone in imperial crimes that it would be as tiresome to go over as back. But in fact he has bet the farm on this adventure and given the West no choice but to insist that he take this risk. How he and we resolve this paradox will continue to make for interesting times.