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Who Will Seek the Off Ramp First in Ukraine -- Putin or Obama?

I am no admirer of Vladimir Putin. Having observed him at close range a number of times, I remember a small man with beady blue eyes who has the confidence, or the nerve, to think that if he turned them on you, you too could fall for his charms. He fancies himself as something of a psychologist, someone who knows how to turn the weaknesses he finds in people to his advantage.

A populist, he disdains the masses. They must certainly not be given access to real power. That is to be entrusted to an elite which ensures a degree of social distribution in return for unlimited personal wealth. Man is sinful and the Bolsheviks were fools to believe they could engineer human nature. Elections are little more than an act of public acclamation for a candidate chosen well in advance. That roughly is Putin's political credo.

Between the two of them, Yeltsin and Putin have set the cause of democracy in Russia back three decades. And at a time when Russia enjoyed record revenues from oil and gas, that is some achievement.

I say this because as things stand, it is Obama, not Putin, who will be in search of the "off ramp" over the Cold War confrontation building up in Ukraine. Before Obama considers isolating Putin internationally, he should reflect first on how many conflicts the US expects Russia to turn up for as an actor in the international arena.

Listing them in no particular order, there is the Northern Distribution Network, which allows US troops and materiel to use Russian airspace before landing in Manas airbase in Kyrgyzstan and then onto Afghanistan. The most commonly used is a rail link which starts in the Baltic port of Riga and ends in Termez on the Afghan border. Then there is Syria and Ban Ki Moon's attempts to achieve Geneva 3. Or how about the conference due to take part in Paris tomorrow in which John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov host a fund raising International Support Group for Lebanon? To the east of the Levant, there is the really difficult phase of the Iranian nuclear talks still to come, and to the West, Russia is emerging as a major arms supplier to the new military backed regime in Egypt ($2 billion) and to Algeria ($3 billion). Is all this of scant interest to Washington, which is still holding its head in his hands about the stateless mess Libya has become?

The tenets of Obama's foreign policy, his wish to disengage from the Bush era wars, and pivot toward the Pacific rim, are not just endangered. They are unravelling.

If Obama's foreign policy is vulnerable to Russia's in the Middle East, the US is even more exposed in Ukraine, a deeply deceptive terrain of which Obama has little experience and even less knowledge. Whether or not the military uniforms of the unidentified soldiers securing Crimea were acquired in a shop, as Putin claimed in his first press conference on the conflict today, he has Crimea under his control with minimum military effort. All he has to do now is to sit back and wait for the demonstrations and the social tension to mount in the Russian speaking cities of Eastern Ukraine -- Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk and Donetsk. In the latter, separatists have already attempted to proclaim a "people's government" rejecting Kiev's authority.

Kerry may have been moved by his visit today to the memorials of the protesters who were gunned down in the Maidan in Kiev. But of more concern to him will be the composition of the new guard running the government in Ukraine. This is a decidedly mixed bunch. There is the interim president Olexander Turchynov, the deputy leader of Fatherland who is close to the oligarch Yulia Tymoshenko. Wikileaks documents suggest that as head of the domestic security service, Turchynov destroyed documents allegedly implicating Tymoshenko as having links with organised crime, which she has always denied. There are human rights activists in the cabinet as well as their nadir, Oleksandr Sych a far right nationalist and anti-abortion activist.

Are any one of them capable of representing that one third of the country who will go to some lengths to maintain their Russian-speaking identity? We would be foolish to sweep the concerns of Eastern Ukraine under the carpet, or to dismiss millions of Ukrainians as Putin's retrograde shock troopers. Britain, of all countries, should understand the claims of the Russian speaking diaspora in the former Soviet Union, because successive British governments have gone to war to protect the sovereignty of people who claim British identity wherever they happen to be. What was the war in the Falklands about? Or the conflict in Northern Ireland? Why indeed do we still send warships to Gibraltar whenever there is a border dispute with that fellow member of the EU, Spain? When we do report the protest of Gibraltarians, do we describe them as British puppets or as people maintaining their identity as residents of one of 14 British Overseas Territories?

The uncomfortable truth about Ukraine is that whether or not someone like Putin existed, there would be a problem in the Crimea and some, but not all, parts of Eastern Ukraine with the crowd that has just taken over in Kiev. All Putin has to do is to sit back and wait for separatist voices to grow. What Kerry has to do is of a different order of complexity -- to make sure a clean election is held in all parts of the country. Why should the conflict tourists of the State Department succeed where successive governments in Kiev have failed since the Orange Revolution first imploded under the weight of internal rivalry?

If you think the separatist challenge in Ukraine is a minor one, just remember how bitter and long-lived the bush fire wars sparked by the collapse of the Soviet Union have proved to be. Do you remember these names: Nagorno Karabakh, Abkhazia, Trans-Dniestr? The embers of each conflict are still hot to the touch and, decades later, defy concerted international mediation. Another name has just been added to this list: Crimea. Welcome, Mr. Kerry, to the post-Soviet space. It is not one which you will enjoy staying around in.