Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

02 May 2014

Eastern Ukraine: Chess by Von Clausewitz’ Rules


It’s easy for uninformed lovers of freedom to despair over what’s happening in Donetsk and Luhansk. Having taken over many government buildings, separatists are now moving on to police stations and lesser official establishments. Ukraine’s new government in Kiev is, seemingly, doing nothing.

Yesterday came the spectacle of violent separatists surrounding and taking a police station. They used bricks, heavy stones and Molotov cocktails to defeat, disarm, humiliate and disband a cordon of apparently Kiev-loyal police armed with shields, tear gas and a few stun grenades. Then they occupied the police station.

It was not a heartening sight for the government in Kiev, for Ukrainian patriots, or for their sympathizers everywhere, including here in increasingly isolationist Yankee Land. John McCain, as is his wont, went ballistic. But instead of pointing the finger at Putin or Ukrainian separatists, he pointed it at our President.

We Yanks must keep a low profile, as our President is properly doing, for two reasons. First, any obvious intervention by us feeds into Russian and Russian-leaning Ukrainian separatist propaganda. Second, our own domestic politics disables effective action, at least in public. Under the circumstances of present day-domestic politics, we Yanks simply can’t think straight, at least not collectively.

The old saw that domestic politics stops at the water’s edge—the proper way for any democracy to wage foreign policy—no longer holds. These days nothing is too important for a cheap political shot or transient domestic partisan advantage.

If McCain wants to help Ukraine, he shouldn’t be grandstanding. He should be working in secret to organize political support in Congress for stockpiling accurate weapons in Poland for use against Russia in any invasion. The fact of stockpiling (not its location!) should be mostly secret but leaked to Russia’s intelligence services, so it can serve as a deterrent to invasion.

Calling the President weak, in public, has exactly the opposite effect. It undercuts whatever deterrent messages may be going through diplomatic channels, encourages the separatist “street” in Eastern Ukraine, boosts Russian propaganda, and generally countervails anything close to rational Yankee policy. But McCain and his ilk never were big on strategy or logical consequences; he graduated in the bottom 1% of his class in Annapolis. In twenty-first century struggles under Von Clausewitz’ rules, brains, finesse and timing matter.

There is cause for concern about Eastern Ukraine, to be sure. But there is no cause for despair. Here’s why.

There is not going to be any World War III, at least not one that comes from street fighting in Ukraine. There is not even going to be a civil war in Ukraine, at least not if present trends continue.

This is not war. It is chess by Von Clausewitz’ rules: a continuation of politics by other means. Ukraine and the world are going to have to get used to it, at least for a short time, as messy and destabilizing as it seems.

Ukrainians of all stripes don’t want war. Why? Because they remember their history. On a per-capita basis, Russia suffered more than any other non-aggressor nation in World War II. But if you include the previous decade’s run-up to that horrible war, Ukraine suffered even more. Three generations have passed since then, but the memories are still hot.

So no rational person in Ukraine wants war. That’s why the violence in Eastern Ukraine today, as untidy as it seems, isn’t even a pale shadow of war. It’s more like the pitched battles between shield-clad police and youthful demonstrators in Japan and South Korea as they matured politically and developed their own democracies. It’s not pretty, but the vast majority of casualties are buildings and other property, which can be restored and rebuilt.

The biggest modern killing in Ukraine remains that by Yanukovych’s snipers on the Maidan. For that criminal blunder he lost his hold on power and (I hope) will some day be tried, convicted and sentenced to life in prison for bald political mass murder.

The second point to note is demographic. Eastern Ukraine is not Crimea. Ukrainian speakers and presumed Kiev leaners have a clear and decisive majority throughout Eastern Ukraine, including Donetsk and Luhansk.

Right now, this majority is silent and scared. The trick—and the goal of Kiev—is to embolden it and get it out to vote.

Is Putin behind the separatist violence? I’m increasingly skeptical. The assaulters chanted “Facists! Fascists! Fascists” before defeating the police with sticks, stones and Molotov cocktails. But who looked more like facists in fact? The demonstrators beating up the police, or the police cowering under their shields, at one point using them, without swords, to form a “turtle,” a defensive military formation invented in ancient Rome? In these conflicts, video matters far more than words, which is why journalists will be among the real heroes.

The crowds of separatist partisans are small. They are tiny compared to the huge peaceful protests on the Maidan. Yesterday’s demonstration reportedly had around two thousand participants, with only a thousand or so remaining for the violence that followed. This is not a popular revolution; it’s an extremist attempt at a putsch.

So what we have in Eastern Ukraine is a new kind of electoral campaign, one of which Von Clausewitz might approve. It’s untidy, fear-provoking and uncertain. But so is any election vital to a nation’s future. Remember 2008 and 2012 here?

When I was a Fulbright Fellow in Moscow in 1993, something surprised me. There was no such thing as a telephone book. Some private companies were just starting to offer them, mostly with phone numbers for businesses and government offices. But knowing every citizen’s phone number was something, apparently, that only the security services could manage.

That may be the reason why separatists are taking over government buildings and police stations. Not having a telephone directory makes it harder to wage retail politics and win elections. But Ukraine is a poor country, and poor countries often have a greater proportion of cell phones. Anyway, there are always the Internet and other means of electronic communication. That’s where the real battles will be fought.

What’s happening now in Ukraine is a battle for the hearts and minds of Donetsk’s and Luhansk’s silent majorities. The takeovers of buildings are a tactic in that battle, or a sideshow. Kiev’s task is to make sure that, when the elections come, every citizen of Eastern Ukraine is able and willing to vote, as free from duress and intimidation as possible.

Among other things, Kiev should allow citizens of these “hot” provinces to vote across provincial borders in neighboring provinces, where tensions and extremism are reduced. If Russian-leaning paramilitary groups block the roads, then Kiev should make sure these actions are widely reported. Kiev cannot control the situation completely, but it can make sure that all of Ukraine, and the world, know what is actually happening in the East, and whether the results of the elections are credible.

As for us Yanks, our President’s actions so far have been nearly picture perfect. We can’t be seen as intervening in the elections, lest we give a big boost to Russian and Russian-leaning propaganda. We Yanks are a big bugaboo in Russia’s “near abroad,” and we can’t be seen with our hands in the Ukrainian cookie jar. (This simple point is something that McCain and his ilk just never seem to get. Subtlety is not their forte.)

Yet we Yanks can and should do two things. First, we should encourage our allies, especially non-European ones, to assist Kiev massively as it organizes the elections. We can also provide technical equipment and assistance for the elections, and for campaigning, if we can do so discreetly. Otherwise, this assistance should come from neutral democracies with no axes to grind, such as India, Japan and Australia.

Second, we can and should ratchet up the deterrence, both economic and military. In a recent essay, I have highlighted the differences among the four goals of punishment: retribution, incapacitation, deterrence, and rehabilitation. Seeking to wreak retribution upon Germany after World War I helped bring on World War II; so retribution is hardly an effective goal of punishing a nation.

But deterrence is. Deterrent sanctions, so far, have kept Iran from building nuclear weapons. They may yet do so permanently. They are going to be the twenty-first century’s moral equivalent of war.

Now is the time to ratchet up economic sanctions against Russia and Russian leaders, with a clearly stated and scrupulously observed aim: making sure the upcoming Ukrainian elections are as fair and as free from duress and fraud as they can be. The goal should be deterring Russia and its Ukrainian partisans from using force, intimidation and fraud to sway the elections, or from starting a civil war by intent or miscalculation.

To the same end, we should be stockpiling shoulder-fired anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons in Poland, for rapid introduction into Ukraine in the event (unlikely in my view) of a Russian invasion. We should of course keep the location of these weapons strictly secret, but we should leak their presence as a deterrent to Russia and Russian-leaning Ukrainian separatists, and to reduce Russian intimidation of Eastern Ukraine’s voters.

So far, the President’s management of this crisis, as revealed in this interview, has been nearly picture perfect. Unlike in Syria, he has kept any “red lines” private, through diplomatic channels, and has made no idle threats. (The President is nothing if not a quick learner.) Sanctions are ratcheting up, as they should be.

As the separatist violence in Eastern Ukraine grows, so should the sanctions, step for step. Even if Putin is not directly responsible for the street violence, he at least can exert pressure to reduce it. His cronies in Ukraine and colleagues in the Russian and Ukrainian security services can do even more.

The only step that may be missing now is credible threats to arm Ukraine, in order to deter a Russian invasion. Perhaps those threats are being made in private, through diplomatic channels. I hope so.

But make no mistake about it. If Kiev starts a war, it will lose Donetsk and Luhansk, and the non-Russian majorities there will suffer Russian or Russian-separatist tyranny. So Kiev (and TV viewers worldwide) must suffer disorder and tension for at least another month yet, more if Kiev postpones the elections for logistical or strategic reasons. But Kiev—like our own government—must never take its eye off the ball: next month’s elections. They must be free, fair and trustworthy, or Russia’s heavy hand must be revealed for all to see.

The heroes in this struggle will be not be fighters, whether police, formal military or irregular paramilitary. They will be election organizers, poll workers, political strategists and journalists. Like the pilots in the Berlin Airlift, they will have to work under immense time pressure, risk and intimidation. Their job will not be to provide food and physical sustenance, but the hope that Eastern Ukraine’s silent majority can determine its own destiny, as every majority has a natural right to do.



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