Monday, February 16, 2015

Reflections on Ukraine - Part 2: USA

Disclaimer: I´m abusing my wargaming blog for something non wargaming-related, but with my focus on modern wargaming and making miniatures for modern conflicts, I don´t think I´m leaving the primary topic of this blog.
 I usually do not involve myself in the open political discussion on the internet, knowing that this will usually produce flame wars and heavy disputes. So I´m doing it here, where I can moderate or end the inevitable discussion at my whim -  against better knowledge, I want to throw in my personal analysis on the situation in Ukraine as I am increasingly having the impression that many people don´t seem to understand what is going on – which results in absurd claims, demands and support for positions that are not helpful to resolve the situation!
I am hoping to shed some light onto the situation by providing some historical and strategic analysis. Many people don´t seem to understand strategic interests and motives of the different actors in the conflict and don´t think things through. That being said, you are free to disagree with my analysis, it is purely my personal, subjective impression on the situation – and I might be wrong!  
Another warning: This is a european perspective, so I might not conform to the American narrative.
I´m willing to discuss this topic with you in a polite and educated manner, but I will heavily moderate any comments that are not analytical and neutral in their wording and content. 
After dealing with Russias interest, we´re going to take a look at Americas role and interests in the conflict. Arguably, this is a little more difficult to identify because of the many actors involved in US foreign policy and the role of public pressure and media. Internal factions have different interests and it is not always obvious which actor has which agenda. This also holds true for Russia – there are factions with a lot more aggressive, neo-imperial agendas than Putin - groups who are pressuring the Kremlin and provoking or exploiting comments that suit them – but I feel like Russias interests are still more clear-cut and obvious to me. May be due to the different character of the respective political system and the difficulty to differentiate between smokescreens and real intentions, or just because I don´t share the grand vision of some US strategic mastermind while I can understand the basic Russian objectives…

Anyway, let´s start with some history again.
The US have been a democracy from the beginning of their existence, many people there stress freedom and liberalism as important foundations of their society. Their geographic position on the North American continent put them into a comfortable situation of having only two neighboring states with land borders, Mexico and Canada.
Despite the involvement in many wars since the Second World War, Americas homeland has never been devastated on a large scale since the American Civil War in the 1860s. American citizens have fallen in foreign lands, soldiers have been lost, but the only major destruction it suffered on American soil during the 20th and 21st century was Pearl Harbor, a military installation with very few civilian casualties. And the attack on the World Trade Center, if you want to count that.
The American perspective is thus fundamentally different from the Russian, who lost millions of civilians and soldiers, suffered the destruction of significant parts of their homeland (imagine the east coast up to the rocky mountains being invaded and burned down by some foreign invaders)- not only once, but several times in several conflicts. 
Maybe this is one of the reasons why America has a hard time to grasp why Russia is opposing a free and NATO-oriented Ukraine?

Economically, the USA have emerged as the dominant nation state during the 19th and 20th century, featuring the largest market economy on earth. Only the continental European bloc, combining the economic power of all the EU countries can dwarf the US economy. Lately, Chinas has become a significant contender. During the Cold War, the Soviet Bloc was the next big thing.

Militarily, the United States feature the largest surface fleet and the second largest military in active service personell (only the Peoples Republic of Chinas has more active personell). The difference in manpower is easily compensated by technology, as the US military probably has the most modern military in the world.  Military expenditure of the United States makes up 40% of total global defense spending and is by far the largest – its military budget is at least 4 times the size of the second place (China) and about 6 times the size of Russian expenditure.  

Without doubt, the USA can be described as the global hegemon that emerged after the end of the Cold War (if not earlier), just like Britain was during the 19th century. America can project its military and economic power almost anywhere on the globe, uses the existing international systems to its own advantage and has many stakes to protect in foreign countries due to its economic ties.

Similar to Britain, US national interest is the protection of this comfortable position of power against the rise of a potential contender. As building a fleet takes considerable time, a potential contender would be any strong continental bloc that could effectively deny the United States access to defend their offshore interests and effectively resist their economic, diplomatic and military power.
The number of potential candidates is very limited:  Only two, maybe three potential candidates (or combinations thereof) are in a position to become a serious contender:
-The EU

The EU is not a real candidate here, because it is a collection of nation states with many different interests and positions that are currently quite far away from becoming a real, unified global player. Many of those countries are also NATO-members and part of a transatlantic community that prefers to cooperate with the USA instead of confronting it. I´ll talk about EU-interests later, as they are another key player in Ukraine.
Russia on its own is not a real contender either, because it is to small and doesn´t have the economic power to challenge the US.  
Should any of these actors form an alliance though, they might form a sizeable factor in global politics.

Russia and China have seen a dramatic improvement in their relations after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and with recent confrontations with western influences in the Ukraine, this trend might be accelerated. Both countries are now part of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which could be described as a proto-alliance. Potential candidates for future admission into the SCO include India, Pakistan and possibly Iran.
The development of this organization into a real alliance would culminate in a counterbalance to NATO in central and eastern asia.

My first interpretation of the US involvement in Ukraine, seen in this light, is the intention to draw Ukraine out of the Russian sphere of influence in order to eliminate the buffer zone between NATO and Russia. The only rational and meaningful objective here is to threaten and weaken the Russians as long as the developments outlined above are still in flux and not completed. The reorientation of the Ukraine towards the West would create the springboard of future NATO activity towards Russia, strengthening their access to the Black Sea and enable deployment of NATO troops directly towards the Russian border. It also creates access to Ukrainian ressources and prevents any future ambitions of Russia towards reunification with Ukraine and resurgence of their Cold War power (as outlined in the first post, I do NOT think this Russias intention!).
It would create a pressure point that can be used to deter Russian cooperation with China… and even then, I do not see how such a pressure point could be used to advantage without risking a major confrontation. It might even accelerate the progress of creating or strengthening Anti-NATO alliances to counterbalance and itself deter the new potential security threat. 

Now considering this narrative, does it surprise you that Russia is feeling threatened by NATO expansion into Ukraine? It is the most plausible analysis I can come up with, except maybe, a second one:

The other interpretation is less kind to the US strategists. The theory outlined above suggests a real strategic plan - an aggressive one, but a plan at least. My only other interpretation would be the lack of any sort of strategic plan and the short-sightedness of some western decision makers. Past failures would suggest that this is not the first time of a bad plan going wrong. 

Look at Syria. Let´s support Rebels with weapons to oust Assad…  well, those rebels have started a radical islamist movement, but we still don´t like Assad and can´t openly support him… huh, Isis has started to behead westerners.. lets bomb them and support the kurds with more weapons to fight ISIS…  (potential future continuation: Oops, the Kurds are now trying to establish Kurdistan and have attacked Turkish troops! Let´s bomb them as well and support some other anti-kurdish group… maybe Shia? Well, they are pro-Iran, but for the moment we don´t care). Or Afghanistan – same story here, let´s support Islamists against Russia. Oops, those Islamist are fundamentally anti-western.. but we don´t care as long as they fight the soviets. What? They just launched a terror attack on America? Bomb them and support some corrupt Afghan ally of ours…
Sorry for that, but sometimes it´s just inconceivable. 

And who can guarantee that the same is not true for Ukraine?  We´re trying to oust the pro-Russian Ukrainian government by supporting a very shady, nationalist/fascist - but pro-western! - government. These shady figures are starting to repress Russians and other non-Ukrainians now… several incidents happen, people of non-ukrainian origin get killed. Russia intervenes on Crimea as this coincides with their strategic interest of securing their naval base there (another article is due on this subject…)  -  Russia is sanctioned for this action because the West did not foresee this reaction and have no other answer than to escalate in order to protect the very international law they broke repeatedly when it suited them.
The repressed Non-Ukrainians in other areas protest and finally rebel against their government and are promptly treated as terrorists in the most violent fashion possible. A civil war sparks.
And here we are, in the middle of the mess, with no plan and no strategic objective… just reacting on the very reactions  in a chain-reaction that we started.

You can decide for yourself which interpretation is more likely. Maybe there´s even a mix of both going on.

In my opinion, the by far superior option for the USA is to de-escalate in the Ukraine conflict and stabilize the status quo. The current world order does benefit the US hegemony by far and large. The international system has been largely shaped with US involvement and are thus set up to work in their favour. The set of national interests I would attribute to the US:
-Prevent the emergence of a large continental power that is able to challenge US supremacy (see Brzezinski)
-Maintain the status quo on international institutions
-Protect free access to international, foreign markets (especially ressources).
-Spread and protect American values - if possible and not conflicting with more important goals.

Considering this set of objectives, I would not get involved in the Ukraine at all. A neutral buffer zone between Russia and NATO has so far been beneficial to the relations between both countries. Destabilization and antagonizing Russia can only weaken the very international system we seek to maintain (UN with Russian veto is only one example). Spreading and protecting our values might sound nice, but considering that we are supporting a very shady nationalist government that is orchestrating a “anti terror operation” against its own people we would be much better of in not supporting, but criticizing such actions as we did in Syria with a dictator doing the same thing.
Free access to markets is threatened by an ongoing escalation, as trading opportunity with Russia are destroyed. Regaining the lost trust and reestablishing economic relations will not be that easy.
Preventing the emergence of a large continental power  - has been covered above and would be the only strategic narrative I would accept as being “rational”. 

Good Rebels, Bad Rebels: Maidan protesters fighting for democracy in Kiev vs. Pro-Russian Separatists/Terrorists in Eastern Ukraine - a provocative picture by a german satiric TV show critizising double standards in reporting about Ukraine.

My best guesses on why the US is still not interested in de-escalation are:
-They are not very involved in Russian trade and banking activities. The European partners are much more vulnerable. And despite being US allies, it´s only beneficial if two potential candidates for challenging US hegemony are pitted against each other, weakening each other instead of cooperating and becoming a threat. 
-They are interested in keeping the conflict on th agenda and accelerate the buildup of more military capabilities of their European NATO allies against Russia in order to cut back on their own defensive spending and focus their expenditures on China.
-They are driven by ideological reasons more than pragmatic reasons. Defending “our values” and “international law” has become an obsession and the people in power are not able to put the strategic objectives in the right order because they are driven by the media, public opinion and short-sighted decision making (see above).

As you can see, I am not entirely convinced what the ultimate explanation for the US actions are. The only conclusion I can draw is that, contrary to Russian interests, the US position is a lot less clear and subject to a lot more speculation and conspiracy theory than it should be. This is DANGEROUS!
If your opponent cannot anticipate your actions because he doesn’t understand your objectives, he has to be a lot more wary and suspicious of anything you do.
Worst case:  The US has no plan, no strategic objective and their government is driven by public opinion and shortsighted decision making -  and the Russians interpret their actions as increasingly aggressive behavior, which they must counteract to protect their vital security interests… which in turn forces the US decision makers to react with more shortsighted action. A dangerous escalation spiral is set in motion that follows NO strategic objective and we might find ourself in a war without a real reason!

That´s it for today.

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