No one, including the Ukrainians, seems to know exactly what is happening in Ukraine. You can’t tell one side from the other, even if you have a scorecard. All we really know is that people with guns and armored vehicles are menacing each other, but not really fighting. This sort of thing might be comical in other circumstances. Unfortunately, Ukraine has become a pawn in an East-West geopolitical standoff. Thousands of innocent people are potentially in the crossfire — and others around the world could pay the economic price.
Vladimir Putin looks like one of the winners. He’s already pulled Crimea back into Russia’s arms with barely a shot. Ethnically Russian areas in Eastern Ukraine are next on his list.
The experts I’ve read still think an outright Russian invasion is unlikely. They believe Putin can get what he wants through pressure and intimidation. His real goal is to bully the new Kiev government into giving some kind of autonomy to the regions bordering Russia.
They also doubt Putin will carry out threats to cut off Ukraine’s natural gas supplies. He needs the cash flow and can’t easily sell the gas to anyone else.
So why is everyone shouting and arguing? I asked my ace researcher Patrick Watson, who has studied the Russians and has a background in military intelligence. Here is what he said.
Brad, I think press reports probably overstate the threat of violence, but it is still a complicated situation. It isn’t just Ukraine vs. Russia. You have an interim government in Kiev whose stability is questionable, with little or no control over entire regions. You have extremists on both sides who insist all of Ukraine be either European or Russian. You have folks in the middle who simply want to live in peace, but who will defend their homes if necessary.
All these groups have armed forces of varying strength. They’re capturing each other’s weapons and vehicles. They’re flying false flags to confuse opponents. They may or may not have good communications with their own people. Then you almost certainly have covert operators from both Russia and the U.S. trying to redirect the locals for entirely different purposes.
On a tactical level, this is at least as confusing as anything we’ve seen in the Middle East recently. The risk that somebody will make a mistake and escalate to another level is very high.
I hope we can avoid any such escalation. What Patrick says about media reporting is good advice. Pay close attention to the sources cited in news stories. Did a Western reporter actually see events personally, or are they just repeating someone else? Their sources may have hidden agendas.
NATO Secretary General Anders Rasmussen is talking tough. Here is what he said today, according to the New York Times.
Mr. Rasmussen said the decision on Wednesday meant that aircraft will fly more sorties over the Baltic region and that allied ships will deploy to the Baltic Sea, the eastern Mediterranean and elsewhere, as required.
In addition, military personnel will deploy “to enhance our preparedness, training and exercises,” he said. “We will have more planes in the air, more ships on the water, and more readiness on the land,” he said.
The Baltic region Mr. Rasmussen mentions does not include Ukraine. NATO is very intent on defending its own members — but Ukraine isn’t one of them.
I still stand by what I said Monday: the U.S. and Western Europe will stay out of Ukraine. As sad as it may be for Ukrainians, it is probably good news for financial markets. It’s also good news for the contractors who supply the planes and ships Mr. Rasmussen says he will deploy.
What do you think will happen to Ukraine? Will Putin gain full control of the border area? Will NATO get involved? Who are those masked men?