Eastern Europe Great Power Politics: Does Ukraine Have Any Hope?

Yes, though it might not be from what you expect.

The classic sources of Western security are looking absent.

The structural disadvantages inherent with relying on the EU are doubly problematic at present because, when it comes to Ukraine specifically:

The West is divided. Scarily so.

For starters, a lot of Europe is on the fence about how hard to pushback against Russian brinkmanship and blackmail.

The biggest culprit is likely Germany. Europe's strategic linchpin has decided they will not supply Ukraine with weapons and, incredibly, has even forbidden arms supplies from crossing its airspace. This is quite a position for a country that exported over $10 billion in arms last year including to such leading democratic lights as Egypt.

The US may not be much better. The Biden administration has promised "massive consequences" if Russia invades Ukraine but also ruled out direct military defense of the country. They then further muddied the waters when President Biden stated bizarrely that a "minor incursion" might not trigger a united Western response.

It is hard not to feel sympathy for Ukraine. Western Europe would seemingly do anything but offer real aid and assistance for their flawed but struggling democracy.

As Henry Kissinger supposedly asked nearly 50 years ago, "Who do I call if I want to talk to Europe?" These days you might paraphrase that to: "Who should Ukraine call if they want to stay democratic free?"

If the Russian tanks roll and a conflict begins, what will we do? Issue a press release? Recall ambassadors?

The difficulty in answering that question tells you a lot.

Lastly and most depressingly, Western options for deterrence are pretty weak.

We are entering slightly into the "armchair general zone" here so we are treading very carefully but we do not think that this claim requires to big a leap of imagination.

First off, is the basic geographic fact that Ukraine is not in the US sphere of interest.

And yes, it is very much in Europe's sphere of influence and semi-desperately trying to remain as such but we have already covered the reasons for Europe's reluctance to defend its eastern border.

In reality, Ukraine is squarely within the Russian geopolitical backyard and one of the core issues here is Putin's (and Russian) determination to reassert control over "its" sphere, no matter how unwelcome.

Additionally, our past track record of deterring Russia isn't inspiring.

Here is a succinct 21st century recap:

  • The US (or Europe) was unable to halt (let alone reverse) the previous 2014 invasion of Eastern Ukraine and occupation of Crimea.

  • Nor were we able to do anything about Russia's war with Georgia in 2008

  • or its support for Belarus' strongman leader in the summer of 2020

  • or its current assistance to Kazakhstan's authoritarian leader.

Both of the latter moves helped quash nascent democratic movements in those ex-Soviet satellites.

Notice a theme here?

America frequently talks tough but has struggled to follow through on its talk for some time.

Afghanistan was only the most recent disappointment. The debacle of a disengagement was hardly confidence inspiring about US strategic or military prowess. It is hardly shocking that, geopolitically, there are consequences for looking ineffectual, chaotic and erratic.

Finally, invariably no matter what happens, the West threatens Putin and Russia with sanctions. That is our big "stick."

But their track record of their effectiveness is incredibly weak and, once again, it isn't clear that the West is unified or has the stomach for particularly severe measures (speculative?!).

Can a continent that relies on Russian gas to heat their homes and power their industries truly afford to inflict pain on the Russian financial system?

The evidence is mixed, at best.

Anyway, if you were prepared to invade and occupy another country and start a serious conflict, are sanctions really sufficient deterrence?!

What about the positives? Are there any?!

Actually there are a few!

And maybe this is what might be missed in the breathless coverage and endless armchair generalship on TV and Wall Street.

One subject that seems to go un-discussed is what China thinks of all this.

It is entirely likely that they are enjoying the Western disunion and strategic fumbling greatly. They also care deeply about the question of just how willing the West is to actually defend their allies.

But they are also hosting an Olympics in February as well as a critical National People's Congress in March. No matter how much the CCP and Politburo are enjoying our bumbling, they will not want a war distracting from their sporting triumph.

Though Putin would never admit it, Russia is increasingly dependent on China. For energy sales, for commodity revenue of all types, for cooperation on non Western payment systems and digital infrastructure and even, a nascent and uneven strategic alliance.

Another positive is it is both difficult and costly - and not just financially - to keep 100,000 troops and tanks and armored vehicles in the frozen mud of the Donbas.

It is cold. Military planning is a difficult logistics exercise. You need to feed and house and entertain that very large force. It equipment must also be kept in good working order. A threatening gesture it may be but it isn't costless for Russia either.

The reinforces once again the idea that this military adventurism may have to be rather short lived.

And finally, what about Vladimir Putin's domestic standing? Two years into a global pandemic could this not be a large distraction from Russia's many domestic failures, not least on Covid-19?

The current tension may be less about Russia's determination to actually invade, conquer and absorb Ukraine. Rather it may be more about giving Vladimir Putin a "win" domestically as he struggles to keep control over a country increasingly apathetic or even disillusioned with his rule and suffering greatly from the pandemic.

Following what President Biden is doing may make sense then:

  • Giving Russia a seat at the table in direct negotiations US and, most importantly, excluding Europe to make it just the two big players.

  • Respect Russia as a serious geopolitical power with serious interests in Eastern Europe - continue to withhold NATO membership from Ukraine.

  • And perhaps most importantly, bestowing on Putin the standing he craves so he can claim that only he can lead Russia to 21st century greatness.

The key is to treat Russia as a major power and equal in standing to the US and finding, through negotiation, the means to de-escalate and give Putin the "win" he needs for his domestic audience.

That combination may work but, as with so many other 21st century problems, Ukraine's Russia problem will only move to the back burner without either being resolved or even improved.

The complexities and challenges will only deepen and become more entrenched.

The final takeaway?:

Europe is still in trouble.

Either they will approve the Nordstream 2 pipeline and be more dependent on Russian energy in the year ahead or they will show that their values and interest don't really extend to ex-Soviet states.

Either way European consumers will suffer and Eastern Europeans will wonder who their real friends are?

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