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Putin, Ukraine and the Future of Europe


Written for teleSUR English, which will launch on July 24

As the military crisis in the Ukraine has intensified with the fall of key rebel cities, like Slavyansk and Kramatagorsk, and as new decisive conflicts for the capitols of Donetsk and Lugansk regions are about to take place, in the West some are beginning to ask why Putin has not more directly intervened on behalf of the rebels in the eastern breakaway regions?  After initially having mustered Russian forces on the eastern border of Ukraine late last winter, why has Putin pulled back and ordered them to ‘stand down’?

When the Ukraine crisis entered a new stage last February 2014, the question of the day five months ago was ‘would Putin and Russia’ directly intervene militarily’? Today the key question has become ‘why hasn’t Putin intervened’ and ‘why does it appear increasingly that he will not’?

Over the past decade, the USA built up its support among proto-fascist elements on the ground in the Ukraine, funding these forces to the tune of a US admitted $5 billion. It then elbowed aside EU negotiators and intervened directly last February, when it appeared the European Union was about to strike an economic deal that was not politically aggressive enough in the USA view.

The USA has clearly wanted political regime change all along, not just a favorable economic deal with Ukraine. The so-called ‘Orange Revolution’ initiated a decade ago had succeeded only in part in breaking the Ukraine from the Russian economic and political orbit. The Ukrainian crisis of 2013 offered a new opportunity to complete the unfinished political task of the Orange Revolution.  But the Europeans, mired in their own economic problems, were not interested in taking the lead.

In her publicly much quoted statement. ‘fuck the EU’, made last February on the eve of the coup by the USA’s leading diplomat on the ground at the time, Virginia Nuland,  the USA clearly assumed direct control of the Ukrainian intervention from the Europeans. The European Union, together with the European-led IMF, would henceforth be left to negotiate the economic bailout with the Ukraine. But the USA would now drive the political policy.

The dichotomy between the USA and the EU that erupted into full view with the February 2014 coup in Kiev, when the USA took charge ‘on the ground’ is still evident today: Since the May 2014 Ukrainian parliamentary elections the USA has continued to push for harsher economic sanctions against Russia while directing the new Ukrainian Poroshenko government to undertake more aggressive military action in the eastern regions of the Ukraine. In recent months, moreover, it has become further clear that USA military, CIA , and no doubt USA special forces advisors have been calling the shots on the ground militarily for the Poroshenko government.  USA advisors have been flowing steadily into the Ukraine since last May. And shifts concerning Ukrainian military tactics and strategy against the eastern regions in recent months have almost always coincided with high ranking US politicians and USA-NATO military personnel visits to the Ukraine.

In contrast, the EU governments have been trying to keep the economic sanctions against Russia limited to select individuals instead of entire economic sectors in Russia, as the USA has proposed, while calling for a ceasefire and immediate negotiations between the parties.

Given the aggressive USA political policy toward the Ukraine today, the question is: ‘ Why has Putin not responded more aggressively to the threat of the now potential severing of the Ukraine from Russian economic and political interests’?  Why has Russia not militarily intervened to date and appears, with every passing week, even less likely to do so?

The possible answers to Russia’s cautious, measured response to USA aggressive political and military policies in the Ukraine are several:

First, what’s at play here is not just a fight for the eastern regions of the Ukraine. It’s not even a fight for the Ukraine per se.  It is a broader geopolitical strategic struggle now emerging across the Eurasian continent as new global realignments begin to unfold.

The Ukrainian crisis has various levels of meaning. But at the geopolitical level it’s about whether Europe will continue to develop even deeper economic and political ties with Russia than it has to date; or whether the USA will take more aggressive steps to slow, reverse, and potentially sever, that growing Europe-Russia economic relationship.

This writer rejects the view that the USA intervention in the Ukraine is the outcome of a rogue foreign policy adventure that caught the Obama administration and its security apparatuses by surprise.  When viewed more globally and strategically, what appears as a USA political mis-adventure in the Ukraine, set in motion and led by a Neocon dominated US State Department since last winter, is really a planned intervention and response by USA interests.

Those interests viewed the emergence of a general crisis in the Ukraine in 2013 as an opportunity to further secure USA global economic hegemony by preventing what it perceives has been a dangerous drift by Europe toward more economic integration with a resurgent Russia.

Europe’s growing dependence on Russian gas and energy is well known. Europe has grown in the last decade to depend on at least a third of its gas from Russia.  And Eastern Europe EU economies are nearly totally dependent on Russian gas. But that energy dependency only the visible ‘tip of the economic iceberg’ of a growing mutual economic dependency between Russia and Europe.

German, Italian, and French export and import trade with Russia in various categories has grown significantly in the last decade, including production and exports of military equipment.  France’s development and export of two helicopter carriers to Russia is but one case in point. The USA’s recent $9 billion financial penalty levied on France largest bank, BNP, could be viewed, at least in part, as a USA response and threat to France’s delivering the carriers to Russia despite USA insistence to the contrary.  USA proposals to provide Europe with liquefied natural gas is another indicator of its attempt to wean Europe off of its growing Russian resource  and capital flows dependence.  The USA’s current proposals for a ‘Trans-Atlantic Free Trade’ agreement between it and Europe is no doubt another indication of a renewed USA ‘turn’ toward Europe.  With a combined economy roughly the size of the USA’s, Europe is too big and too important an economic prize to allow Russia to obtain too large a foothold. And the economic penetration of Russia has already gone too far, in the view of USA interests.

The USA’s direct intervention in the Ukraine—elbowing aside the Europeans last February 2014 to bring about the Ukrainian coup d’etat—should be viewed therefore in this context of the USA political response to potential long term strategic shifts in Europe. What better way to bring Europe fully ‘back into the USA economic fold’ than by precipitating a political crisis in the Ukraine that provokes Russia into a premature, direct military conflict with the west?.

But should Russia intervene military in the Ukraine in response to USA provocations, that intervention would provide an opportunity for the USA to push Europe in general, and Germany in particular, to retreat from the Europe-Russia economic relationships that have developed over the past decade.

Putin no doubt knows this and has been seeking a way around a direct fight on the ground with the USA and its NATO arm in the eastern Ukraine.  Putin and Russia are thus ‘between a rock and a hard place’, as the saying goes.  Intervene militarily in the Ukraine, and Russia gives impetus to the USA strategic objective of slowing and possibly even severing Europe in the long run from Russia economically.  On the other hand, by not intervening militarily Putin strengthens the hand of certain EU interests to continue to resist USA demands for broad sanctions against Russia and to continue to insist on a negotiated settlement in the Ukraine.

To recognize the larger geopolitical reasons for the USA’s direct political intervention in the Ukraine—and for Russia’s reluctance to respond with its own military intervention in the Ukraine—is not to deny other possible reasons for Russia’s hesitancy to intervene militarily despite the grave threat to its interests posed by the USA-engineered coup of last February.

A possible second reason why Putin appears reluctant to engage militarily directly in the eastern regions is that he recognizes the Russian military is still no match in a direct conflict with USA-NATO forces on the ground.  Russia’s military modernization is not yet completed. It is therefore premature for a decisive conflict on the ground there.  Having re-integrated the Crimea earlier, before the USA was able to handpick the Poroshenko government and reconstitute the Ukrainian military, Putin knows a similar development in the eastern regions is highly unlikely to prove as successful as the Crimea.

Thirdly, there’s the factor of Russia’s own economic oligarchs. They have little interest in a military conflict in the eastern Ukraine, and a good deal of interest in continuing their wealth economic & investment partnerships with western European bankers and industrial capitalists. Many also have large financial positions in the Russian giant company, Gazprom, which is owed $4.4 billion by the Ukrainian government in back gas payments. The only way Gazprom and the oligarchs will be paid is with the agreement of the IMF to ensure the IMF’s $18 billion current bail out of the Ukraine will in part include payments to Gazprom. Russia and Gazprom would like to conclude that payment deal first. However, Poroshenko and the USA keep the bait dangling, refusing to agree to final terms while military actions are underway.  Sensitive negotiations continue to this day between the parties with regard to how much the Ukraine and IMF will pay Gazprom for past gas deliveries. Poroshenko and USA advisors will no doubt refuse to agree until they have militarily pacified the eastern Ukraine.

Another possible interpretation of Putin’s reluctance to intervene militarily is that the reluctance reflects a strategy of allowing violence by the Ukrainian military and government to intensify in the east, and thereby deepen further popular internal disgust with, and opposition to, the Ukrainian government there.  There is also the possibility the military action now underway by the Poroshenko government will overextend itself and produce a popular backlash within the Ukraine itself.  Continued atrocities by the Ukrainian military against its own Russian-speaking citizens in the east would also build more support with the Russian populace in favor of intervention, which is now still split at best on the topic of military intervention in the Ukraine.  Putin may thus be awaiting events to further develop within the Ukraine and for public opinion—in both the Ukraine and Russia—to shift more in favor of direct military intervention.

Of the various reasons behind Putin’s apparent reluctance to intervene in the east Ukraine, the most compelling is the longer run geopolitical strategic contest over the future of Europe itself: will it be pulled back from growing relations with Russia?  Or will Europe in general, and Germany & France in particular, continue to maintain, and even grow, economic relations with Russia?  Russian military intervention at this point would clearly prevent the latter, and set in motion a reversal of Europe-Russia economic relations.

The conflict in the Ukraine is therefore about the future direction of Europe itself.  Will Europe become even more economically dependent upon the USA, more integrated with the USA economically, and politically and diplomatically even more an appendage of the USA?  Or will Europe embark on a more independent global economic course—with not only Russia but China as well?

Were there no USA-provoked Ukrainian coup and crisis, a more independent European economic policy would prove more likely, perhaps even inevitable.  But with the fact of the Ukraine crisis and the aggressive USA-led military action by the USA-friendly Poroshenko government, the future economic direction of Europe may thus  depend on whether or not Putin and Russia intervene military in the eastern Ukraine in response to the on-going USA provocation.

But don’t bet on it.  Our guess is Putin is not just a ‘master tactician’ but is no less focused on the broader geopolitical implications of a Russian military intervention.  He will more likely continue providing all the support he can to the rebels in Donetsk and Lughansk—short of direct military response.

Jack Rasmus is the author of ‘Epic Recession: Prelude to Global Depression’ (2010) and ‘Obama’s Economy: Recovery for the Few’(2012), by Pluto Press, London, UK, and the forthcoming ‘Transitions to Global Depression’(2015). He hosts the Alternative Visions radio show on the Progressive Radio Network, and serves as the ‘Shadow’ Federal Reserve Chair, in the Green Shadow Cabinet. His website is www.kyklosproductions.com. He blogs at jackrasmus.com, and tweets at @drjackrasmus.

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