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US-Europe divide looms over Ukraine

2014-03-05Asia Times

BEIJING - Russia's quasi-military action in Ukraine is reawakening the ghosts of the old Cold War. Western plans to expel Moscow from the Group of Eight and to protect states bordering the new Russian empire threaten to throw up a new political and economic curtain around Russia and its leader, President Vladimir Putin.

This military intervention, following as it does the assault on Georgia in 2008, underlines that Russia is still the largest conventional military power that could turn against the West. Although Moscow does not post an immediate threat outside its self-defined sphere of influence, there should be a different understanding of the post-1989 reality. Western countries seem to think that Russia should be happy within its present borders, while Putin has made apparent he wants to keep a grasp of some of the country's former subjects.

Long and short-term considerations are needed in mulling a new cold war with Russia. The first begins with the question of whether Russia can become again a broad, global threat the way the USSR was. This may appear possible at first glance, but a closer look reveals that some of Russian development social and economic fundamentals seem flawed.

Some 80% of Russia's exports are energy and raw materials. The rest is largely outdated weaponry. It is a Saudi Arabia with nuclear weapons. It has great scientific capabilities, but they have not been translated in industrial and business realities. There is a question whether its development can be sustained, and it seems a huge stretch to believe that in the foreseeable future it could become an economic powerhouse to challenge the US or European Union in the way China and East Asia in general are doing now.

It would make no sense to focus on Russia and forget China. The latter is too rich, and developing too quickly to be upstaged as a long-term global challenger. But Russia or China (or both, or others with or without the two) could use a multiplication of targets to advance their agenda against the old status quo.

In a way we have already seen something similar in 2001. Then, America seemed set on a collision course with China just before 9/11 took place and all priorities changed.

China development was still unclear then, and the terrorist threat was squarely aimed at America. The US pledged to provoke a war of civilizations with the potential mobilization of over 1 billion Muslims - who were also sitting on the largest oil and gas production on the planet. This combination could have rapidly killed off the US and other Western economies.

In this crisis, Russia "only" wants to recover some form of control over some of its former spheres of influence, but its actions are putting the whole future of Europe at stake. There are very different visions for this future on both sides of the Atlantic.

Opposing visions for Europe
For Moscow, it is of huge strategic importance to ensure some form of control over Crimea, the peninsula dominating the Black Sea and affording power projection to the long-coveted Mediterranean Sea. In 1855, Russia fought for it in a war with the Turks, who were allied with the English and French, ancestors of the present American geopolitical position.

Then there is the question of the future of the Ukraine state. Just 22 years old, it was carved out of a historically Russian area but is in some parts very close to Poland. Any change in the delicate status quo is bound to heavily influence the future of the European Union and especially Germany, now the main driving force on the continent.

Many pundits believe that the root cause of financial instability in the euro area is the lack of a leading political player behind the unified currency. Political unity has been the taboo subject no one wants to tackle directly since the global financial crisis in 2009 kindled a deep economic emergency in EU member states.

Five years after the start of the continental problems, there is no clear political unity on the horizon. But the Frankfurt-based Central European Bank, coordinating its actions with the European Commission and some of the politically stronger and more financially virtuous members, has managed to impose a program for economic (and thus political) measures in some of the "delinquent" states.

This guidance has managed to improve accounts in Spain, Ireland, and Portugal. Despite huge popular opposition in many countries, no country has left the euro.

De facto, the objective forces drawing the euro area politically closer together have grown stronger. German Chancellor Angela Merkel stressed this in a recent speech at the parliament in London. According to the London-based agency Reuters, "the German chancellor disappointed British eurosceptics, who wanted her to tell the UK parliament that she wants less Europe. They should be flattered. Her robust endorsement of European political idealism was directly aimed at the threat they pose to the region's prosperity." [1]

Clearly, Britain has to decide if it is in or out of Europe. In either case, the course of European integration will be strengthened. The irony and footnote of it all is that Scotland could vote itself out of the UK. And then it is also possible that in the future, following the Irish example, Scotland could choose to join the euro zone, thus further isolating England and transforming the new smaller country into some kind of Switzerland, but on an island rather than in the mountains.

However, Ukraine now is far more significant than England. After the collapse of the Soviet Empire, the US and the rest of Western Europe allowed the reunification of Germany (de facto an expansion of West Germany into East Germany) in return for the enlargement of the European Union.

This watered down any possible drive for political unity in the EU. This was also a positive development for America, which was then suspicious of political unity in Europe and of a united Germany because a larger Europe could create risky ambitions challenging America's global role. However, within a generation, the political picture on the continent and in the world has dramatically changed.

Germany has formed a block of "chummy siblings" closely sharing its economic structure and philosophy. This new "German Bloc" dominates the euro area. The result is that the states that once had to contain Germany are now its closest allies and some extension of German power.

Moreover, the world has become larger than Europe. Some 25 years ago, it seemed that the main competition was on the two sides of the Atlantic. Now it is clear that the new political and economic forces of the future are in East Asia. America is also withdrawing from the Middle East and Central Asia, while China is tempted to step into the void. China is planning a railway line that would link Beijing to Berlin, stretching north through Russia, but also southward across Iran and Turkey.

Facing East Asia, with some 60% of the world's population, Germany or any European state alone is not enough. Europe must be more united if it wants to have a role there. Lastly, America perhaps can't manage China and Asia on its own. [2]

This could be a reason for the US to encourage European integration, but there are apparently also other concerns in the US. America is very alarmed by Putin's new, assertive Russia, still the only country with enough nuclear weapons to annihilate the US. The Russian expansion into Crimea brings Moscow closer to the Mediterranean Sea, where Russia has just one port, in Syria, a country split in two because of an uprising supported by America.

In this predicament, keeping Russia out of Crimea and weakening its hand in the Mediterranean is important for the US. And trying to push Ukraine into the EU further hems Russia in and slows the pace of European integration, something in line with the old post-1989 American way of thinking.

Conversely, Russia would like to break out of its post-1989 legacy and regain some of the lost Soviet territories. It has already swallowed up White Russia, actually never keen on independence from Moscow, and it taught a lesson to troublesome Georgia in 2008.

It has tried to check Ukraine for years, and certainly now it feels the country could come within its grip, or at least the eastern part could be severed and returned to Moscow. This partial or total reconquista of Ukraine could also be a new step in buttressing Moscow's foothold in western Syria.

Merkel, a former "Soviet subject", born and raised in communist East Germany, is a key player. She is perhaps not scared of Moscow and may feel the rest of Europe has to live with it. Russia will not just be wished away. She may feel that trying to hem in Russia could be dangerous as it could generate a risky backlash. Moreover, having Ukraine in the EU creates a host of new problems for the union. Perhaps the best solution would be to have Ukraine neutral, like a large buffer state between Poland and Russia, something that physically and politically could hold back a more direct confrontation with Moscow.

This, perhaps, may be also the most reasonable and least dangerous outcome. But this has been put at stake by recent developments that forced President Yanukovych to step down and thus prompted the Russian intervention. In many ways, this is also understandable. While many in Ukraine may dream of joining the EU as a shortcut to a better life, some others may be enticed by Moscow's promises of direct aid or coaxed into submission by the threat of military intervention. Plus, there is the ethnic divide reinforced by religion: in the east there are more Orthodox Russians and in the west there are more Catholic Ukrainians.

The problem is that all three international protagonists have different priorities, and it is difficult to mediate when popular sentiment is ablaze, as it is now.

China has been shocked by developments in Ukraine, and it has sided with Russia, fearful that similar revolutions could threaten Beijing and also that a defeat in Ukraine could irritate Russia. For Beijing, distancing itself from Moscow at this moment would also arouse suspicions that China may be interested in weakening Russia's hand in general, something that could help China in Central Asia and Siberia, where its economic might is growing and Moscow is scared for it.

Over all there are many elements spinning out of control.

1. See here (http://www.breakingviews.com/merkel-starts-to-take-british-eu-exit-seriously/21133878.article)

2. See An appeal for a new view from Europe , by Paolo Savona and Francesco Sisci, Asia Times Online, November 8, 2013. (http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Global_Economy/GECON-01-081113.html) (2014-03-05 Asia Times)


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