March 11, 2014

Russia's slow roll into Ukraine: 5 lessons for Obama

News today that Russia has it's eyes on eastern Ukraine is indicative that the former Soviet approach to world hegemony is back in vogue with Russian leadership - if it ever really even went away.  The notion that communism could not conquer the world in a single fell swoop meant for Soviet leaders during the Cold War that they had to move communism forward at a creeping pace, or a slow roll.  Country after country fell to communism for decades, typically not through a violent overthrow as espoused by Marx and Engels, but rather through subterfuge, aligning "useful idiots", planting seeds of discontent around the world and the occasional invasion when the time seemed right.

In the West, aligning with the anti-nuclear movements of decades past granted Soviets an in with the left-leaning liberal crowd and gave them an opportunity to influence and re-direct that movement (and eventually others) in a way that suited Soviet goals.  Communists ruthlessly suppressed Rock and Roll at home in the East, while happily seeing musicians in the West who espoused progressive causes.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is not surprising then that those who believed in the communist doctrine would resurface and use that slow roll approach to re-establishing a communist hegemony in the former U.S.S.R. and eventually strive again for the entire world.  Putin is one such believer.  You don't join the KGB and then accept that you were on the wrong side of history simply because of some successful counter-revolutionaries.

Putin is a shrewd leader.  He knows a full blown invasion of a sovereign Ukraine would result in some sort of large scale reaction from the West - if not militarily at least with some strong sanctions that Russia cannot afford to endure.  So Crimea's Russian population requiring protection from 'radicals' mark an opportunity re-take some of the nation into the secretly-Soviet fold.  Putin originally thought economic diplomacy had done the trick.  That was before the demonstrations and eventual overthrow of Putin's puppet, former president Viktor Yanukovych.   Now Putin is making the best of the situation.  He's going to push the boundaries of Western weakness as far as he can until he meets resistance.  He doesn't know where that exactly is, but he knows he has to go until he reaches that point.  He will then back off in the interest of 'compromise' and allow the useful idiots in the West to be able to claim a victory for peace.  Meanwhile, he will expand Russian territory and influence as much as possible during the crisis.  He's not going to let this crisis go to waste.

The approach is reminiscent of the metaphorical frog in boiling pot of water.
The boiling frog story is a widespread anecdote describing a frog slowly being boiled alive. The premise is that if a frog is placed in boiling water, it will jump out, but if it is placed in cold water that is slowly heated, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death. The story is often used as a metaphor for the inability or unwillingness of people to react to significant changes that occur gradually.
All of this background to say that there are 5 lessons for Obama in Russia's slow roll into Ukraine.  The last point about the boiling frog, being the most obvious political one

(1)  Slow and steady wins the race. Obama's approach to everything he wants done (from Obamacare to his failed stimulus spending to his military cutbacks and more) have been made with all the subtlety of a bulldozer.  He has, since the inception of his presidency, rejected the slow roll towards progressive socialism in favor of a hard charge.  It caused an upheaval in the 2010 elections and may very well do so again in 2014.  As a conservative, I'm happy that this should work against Obama, but as far as it being a lesson for him, his agenda would benefit from him learning it.

(2) Putin is no new Russian leader.  His defenders have argued that he is a pragmatist and profoundly focused on Russian interests.  His detractors have often argued that he's the head of an oligarchy of criminals who are plundering Russia's wealth for personal gain.  None of either of those views is necessarily wrong, but they do not tell the whole story.  Putin was and is a KGB man.  He's still a believer is a Soviet hegemony and that is a prime influencer in his decision-making process.  Obama needs to approach this crisis, and all interactions with Russia with this in mind.

(3) Putin has an end game.  Obama needs an end game in the Ukrainian crisis.  Putin wants Crimea at a minimum. He knows that through a Crimean referendum or lack of European unity and American resolve,  it's his Best Alternative To Negotiated Agreement.  Negotiation may offer him even more.  If you don't know what your own BATNA is, how can you manage the negotiations, let alone steer through the crisis?

(4) Inaction will push this crisis further. Obama's dithering on Syria informed Putin that he has time to push forward slowly and carefully.  Putin will continue seeking more Ukrainian territory or perhaps even a return to power of Viktor Yanukovych, until some counter-action is taken.  Europe is considering moves but will not move forcefully unilaterally without a clearly defined American position.  Why not?  Because America is still a superpower and the voice of the West. More importantly in fact, because Europe relies on Russia for gas.  The United States has the ability to supplant that dependence by exporting gas to Europe, which the United States actually has in abundance if it has the resolve to actually extract it.

(5) Never let a crisis go to waste.  Granted, we all thought Obama knew this one, but it might turn out that only Rahm Emmanuel understood that notion, and he's no longer there.  Putin is clearly working under that notion.  Ukraine is clearly undergoing a crisis.  The Obama reaction has been vacation time and showing up on a comedy web video Between Two Ferns on Funny Or Die to plug Obamacare with the target audience of that show. No joke.  Of course, what he would choose to do by not letting the crisis go to waste is up for speculation. But there's an opportunity not just to do the right thing, but to move towards an energy surplus, deepen ties with Europe, and re-establish a missile defense shield that is deeply desired in some Eastern European countries.  Those are just items on the surface that could be moved forward during this crisis.

The mounting impression surrounding this crisis in the Ukraine is that Putin has a thorough understanding and a specific game plan he's following.  Not so president Obama.  American seat-of-the-pants counter-measures are definitely not going to lead to a good result in the Crimea or the rest of the Ukraine.  Frankly, they won't cut it.

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