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Common Cents

Who is next? Russian military action in the Ukraine

Ralph Murphy

(3/3/2014) Spiraling violence and the threat of further Russian military action in the Ukraine was predictable and largely avoidable without decisive Western action. As it is, Moscow appears poised for a long term economic duel with its angry trade partners, while interjecting itself physically into a sphere of influence where they have strong ethnic and empire ties.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, it left behind up to 25 million of its citizens who occupied the satellite states that then became independent nations. Some of those countries, such as the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, jumped to the west and joined the debt-ridden European Union.

The 25 million Russian citizens were given an opportunity to return to Russia and start new lives. Many did, but for those who chose to stay in their adopted countries, their legal status varied. In some countries, the Russians who remained behind were a reminder of the horrors they had faced under Soviet rule.

Belarus is still pro-Russian, and at the time of the Soviet dissolution, accepted their imperial rulers with no change in their legal nationality. Baltic nations of Estonia and Latvia called them "non citizens" and encouraged them to leave.

The diaspora is varied with Kazakhstan harboring 4.5 million Russians, Belarus 1.2 million, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Latvia each with under a million. The largest group of Russian citizens who chose to stay in their adopted country is Ukraine that shelters 8 million ethnic Russians. That's where the trouble starts.

Ukraine isn't a simple patchwork of pro-Russian citizens or ethnically identified divisions of that nation. It has a strong independent identity, but remains " a state, but not yet a nation". There are differences between the pro Russian minority which comprise about 17.2% of the nation's 45.59 million people, but the ethnic Ukrainians are far from unified themselves which has made governing difficult. It also offered Moscow the opportunity to take advantage of the disarray to elevate a minority, but relatively cohesive political bloc.

The Ukraine nation is split into 27 regions, with 24 administratively coherent Oblasts, along with the autonomous region of the Crimea. 58% of the latter's 2 million member population is ethnic Russian and closely identifies with Moscow. 4 of 6 residents are ethnic Ukrainians and speak a common language. 1 in 6 are ethnic Ukrainians, but speak Russian and appear to shelter sympathies towards that nation. The remainder are unabashed pro-Moscow, Russian speakers.

The divisions do, of course, affect politics. Analyst Jack Mitton allowed that the nation "has not found a leader who can unite its citizens in a shared concept of Ukrainian identity". Throw in the political economic alliances with former President Viktor Yanukovych siding with close economic integration with Moscow. He ruled from 2010 to February, 2014 where he presided over steadily increasing street violence against his minority rule. The political structure collapsed and Yanukovych fled to his benefactor Moscow that currently seeks to reinstate him even before the 25 May elections which will attempt to get a viable government in that troubled nation.

Unfortunately the Russians have opted for violence which is the source of debate and concern by Western powers who are now considering economic sanctions- if little other overt response. Meanwhile Moscow has taken over the aforementioned Crimea, straying from its Naval Base in Sevastopol while seizing the Crimean Parliament last week, along with two airports. That, while the apparently Russian commandos cut off phone and internet links to the rest of the Ukraine.

It doesn't end with the strongly ethnic Russian regions. On 1 March, 2014 the Russian Parliament granted President Vladimir Putin the authority to use "military force" to exert control over their neighbor. The same day Ukrainian interim President Oleksandr Tuchnyov called Russian behavior "a direct aggression against the sovereignty of Ukraine" and called for help.

The Europeans did virtually nothing when Russia invaded Georgia following the Beijing Olympics in 2008. They are dependent on Russian oil and an EU study at the time actually found grounds for Georgian instigation in the "unjustified war". That the invasion by Russia to protect its ethnic nationals was "a mere continuation of a series of provocations". The study did allow the Russian action which created South Ossetia and Abkhazia had been "disproportionate".

Moscow got away with the Georgia action and even hosted the recent Winter Olympics in its shadow. Now they're poised to do much the same in another neighbor. A July, 2009 Moscow Defense Brief by a Russian independent "think tank" claimed protecting Russian nationals in Georgia was affordable "at any cost". That's the leadership mind set and what the Ukrainians are currently facing.

The Ukraine and Moscow share up to half of their foreign trade with each other. There have been flareups with oil cut offs, and sanctions, but Ukraine remains dependent on the Russians for its oil. While the economic dimension is important the current concern appears almost personal. Russia fears the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, having lost much of the former Eastern Bloc to NATO as well as the Baltic nations. They drew a "red line" in Ukraine with Putin asserting at a Russian summit in 2008 Russia would annex the Ukrainian East as well as Crimea if the nation were to join the defense alliance.

President Barrack Obama also drew a "red line" against Russian aggression in the Ukraine warning of "consequences" for belligerent action. Russia has now seized Crimea, and with over 150,000 troops massed on its Northern shared- border- appears ready to flood a weakened Ukrainian military and nation- to prop up a Russian-minority government. A government that has already proven it can't rule. Maybe with a standing Russian army in perpetuity they can control, but the west would support an ethnic-Ukrainian insurgency. BLOC nations such as Poland or the Czech Republic, understandably feel that they could be next.

If NATO forces aren't sent into that failed state, and Moscow honors its Parliament’s ticket for war- Ukraine will fall. It will be a long-term headache for the Russians with little economic reward. But, in this case- emotional bloodlines appear to mean more than economic disincentives. They got away with Georgia, who is next?

Ralph Murphy is a former member of the CIA Headquarters Staff in Langley, VA.

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