Observations of an Expat: Ukraine and Geopolitics

Ukraine is now firmly on the East-West, US-Russian agenda. This is a victory for Vladimir Putin. He has proven that even though Russia’s GDP is $400 billion less than chaotic Italy it is still a Great Power who can flex its muscles and demand concessions from Super Power America.

But what are those concessions? Well the big one is, the US will not come to Ukraine’s aid with troops, missiles or drones if Russia attacks Ukraine.

That does not mean, however that President Joe Biden is giving Putin the green light to attack. No, he is threatening sanctions. And this time they appear to be more than the usual slap on the wrist.

The main threat is banning Russia from the Belgian-based SWIFT banking system which manages payments across international borders. This same sanction against Iran has resulted in a drop of 50 percent in their oil exports and 30 percent in their foreign trade.

Next on the list is scrapping—or at least postponing—the opening of the Nordstream2 gas pipeline between Russia and Germany. A ban on investment in Russian companies is on the list along with additional troop deployments in Poland, Romania and the Baltic States.

But will these threats work? For a start, Biden needs the support of his European allies. Before talking with Biden he spoke with the British, French, German and Italian leaders to secure their backing. When he spoke with Putin he had it. But will he still have it when the energy crisis hits a cold Euro winter?

Russia supplies Europe with 30-50 percent of its natural gas. Nordstream2 was set to substantially increase that dependency. Poland and Ukraine rely on transit repayments for Russian pipelines through their territory. Moscow has repeatedly shown that it is prepared to weaponise its energy resources and divert them to China and elsewhere. Can the NATO wall stand up to Russian energy blackmail?

Then there is the question of when is an attack an attack? Would a cyber attack on Ukraine’s industries be enough to trigger the NATO response outlined by Biden? What if ten thousand more “green men” were infiltrated into eastern Ukraine? Is that enough to warrant a response? How about turning off the gas taps—again? Putin does not necessarily have to trigger a full-scale invasion. He might think he can achieve his aims by chipping away in such a way that the West thinks he might invade. The problem is that so far, Biden has not laid down any clear red lines.

But what does Putin want? Respect, a seat at the top table and a return to the Soviet Cold War boundaries, or at least as close as possible to the lines drawn at Yalta. He can’t come right out and say this and so Putin talks about preventing the “Eastward expansion of NATO” and demands a “legal treaty” which prevents it.

This is clearly unacceptable to Biden and he told Putin just that. Such a deal would almost certainly mean Western guarantors of the acceptance of the status quo and then some. The US would be expected to recognise the 2014 annexation of Crimea (something Trump wanted to do) and that of eastern Ukraine. Georgia and Moldova would also be expected to fall completely into the Russian sphere of influence. Finnish neutrality would probably be on the table. Possibly even that of the, Baltic States and Poland as Putin has said he is opposed to NATO forces deployed in any countries bordering Russian territory. Belarus has become a Russian satellite, but Moscow would want assurances that West European countries would stop undermining his friend Alexander Lukashenko. Putin would also want some sort of agreement on naval deployments in the Black Sea which would turn it into a Russian lake.

None of this was specifically mentioned by the Russian leader. But he has never kept his aims a secret and so it was clearly implied and so he was able to put them firmly on the table even if they were just as implicitly rejected by Biden.

In the meantime, Putin is maintaining the military and diplomatic pressure. Since speaking with Biden he has moved more forces to the Ukrainian border including medical personnel and military hospitals. He has also closed the Kerch Strait which links the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea and engineered the collapse of the latest ceasefire talks with Ukraine.

* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and the author of “The Encyclopedia of the Cold War” and the recently published “America Made in Britain” that has sold out in the US after six weeks but is still available in the UK.

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  • Brad Barrows 11th Dec '21 - 9:57am

    I do find it concerning that an ugly Ukrainian nationalism trying to squeeze out the Russian language within Ukraine is the context for many of the events we see unfolding before our eyes. There are now restrictions on Russian language newspapers and TV channel, and even restrictions on schools and universities teaching through Russian. For Russian speakers in majority Russian speaking areas in the South and East of Ukraine, this is stoking a sense of alienation from the central Ukrainian Government – providing a recruiting ground for those who argue that they would be better off being part of a greater Russia. If Russia does invade, some parts of the Ukrainian population will feel liberated rather than conquered.

  • Steve Trevethan 11th Dec '21 - 1:51pm

    Might the domination of the principle international banking systems by the U S A have been forecast, warned and worked against by Maynard Keynes at Bretton Woods?
    Might the current set up contradict “free trade”?
    Might we work for a politically neutral and bully proof international banking system?

  • John Marriott 11th Dec '21 - 3:29pm

    Brad Barrows might well be right in his observations about the Ukraine. The possibility of our going to war via NATO if Putin ‘invades’ reminds me of a situation involving a similar ostensibly ‘democratic’ country over which we went to war some 82 years ago. I refer, of course, to Poland, whose democratic credentials back then were flimsy indeed. Yet, a year earlier, we had allowed that ‘far off country’ Czechoslovakia, a real democracy by our terms, to go to the wall.

    Now, if Putin were to threaten the Baltic States, that would be a different matter.

  • Language and religion are the two traditional repositories of national identity. The problem many governments face in a world of shifting borders and increasing migration is how to prevent the perceived threat to national identity morph into a dangerously xenophobic populist nationalism. It is not easy. I think one country that has almost managed it is bilingual Canada, but it started in the second half of the 18th century and every now and then French-speaking Canada expresses its dissatisfaction.

  • Brad Barrows 11th Dec '21 - 6:00pm

    @Tom Arms
    Yes, but there are plenty example of countries that can be very united despite different languages and religious traditions, with perhaps Switzerland being the best example. At the same time, sharing a common language does not necessary create a sense of national identity

  • Steve Trevethan 11th Dec '21 - 6:23pm

    Why does the U S A and its allies keep on trying to pick rows with China, Russia and Iran?
    Might we have enough to do with the climate crisis, viral plagues and increasing starvation?

  • Nonconformistradical 11th Dec '21 - 6:50pm

    @Brad Barrows
    Re your post at 6pm 11 Dec – you refer to there being plenty of examples of countries which can be united despite different languages and religious traditions – and then you provide only one example. Could you provide some more please.

  • John Marriott 11th Dec '21 - 6:52pm

    I spent three years teaching high school in Alberta, Canada in the early 1970s, where there was a significant Ukrainian community. In fact, Ukrainian was one of the foreign languages offered in most High Schools. We had a lot of students whose surname ended in ‘chuck’ and Ukrainian jokes replaced Irish jokes in the comedians’ repertoire. However, many second and third generation Ukrainians were in high positions not only in the education system but also in provincial government as well as in the business community.

    The question had to be why so many got out of Tsarist Russia at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. I guess there was no love lost between the Ukrainian people and their Russian oppressors even back then. Clearly, things haven’t changed that much in over one hundred years for those who were left behind.

  • John Marriott 12th Dec '21 - 12:15pm

    As regards the Baltic States, I again write from personal experience. I grew up in Leicester, which had a large community of poles and refugees from the Baltic states. One of my best friends at secondary school had parents who had escaped from Estonia when the Russians moved in as part of the pact signed by Ribbentrop and Molotov. We also have a smattering of students whose parents originated from Latvia and Lithuania.

    When I started teaching in Newark, Notts in 1966 one of my students was a young man whose surname was Ozolins. His uncle was still the Ambassador of the pre war Latvian state, living in the London embassy, which we had allowed his government in exile to retain as, quite rightly, we had never recognised the Soviet takeover of his country.

    So, am I that bothered about ‘people of Russian origin’ feeling disadvantaged in the Baltic states? Not really. As has been said, with the Ukraine, whose language is so close to Russian, and whose Greek Orthodox customs largely mirror the Russian ( back in Canada, when it comes to Christmas and New Year celebrations, Ukrainian families still follow the Julian calendar), it’s a bit more tricky.

    Let’s be honest, like many ex communists, Putin never accepted the breakup of the old Soviet Union and is clearly doing his best to recreate it as far as possible. After all, he appears to be pulling most of the strings in Belarus, which is giving every sign of becoming a vassal state.

  • @Steve Trevethan– The United States keeps “picking” on Iran, China and Russia because those countries publicly attack and threaten America’s vital strategic and national interests.

  • Nonconformistradical 12th Dec '21 - 1:21pm

    @John Marriott
    “The question had to be why so many got out of Tsarist Russia at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century.”

    At least partly down to Jewish emigration?



    There was a TV documentary about Fiddler on the Roof a while back which covered some of this.

  • John Marriott 12th Dec '21 - 5:39pm

    None of the descendants I met of those who emigrated from the Ukraine to the Canadian Prairies around the turn of the last century was Jewish. They tended to be Greek Orthodox if they were religious at all. Perhaps they were just ‘economic migrants’. Let’s not go down the antisemitic path and try to beat ourselves up!

    My point in these posts is to draw a distinction between how we might view the Baltic States and the Ukraine in the event of conflict in either region. That said, I do have some sympathy, if that’s the right word, with Russia. I realise it’s stretching credibility a bit; but imagine how we in England might have felt during the Cold War if Wales or Scotland gained their independence and then suddenly joined the Warsaw Pact. As Tim Farron famously said regarding the Baltic States, the missile launchers on their territory that, for over forty years, had been pointing west were now suddenly pointing east.

  • Peter Hirst 14th Dec '21 - 2:29pm

    The last thing we want is any sort of military activity on the Ukraine – Russia border. We probably will have to wait until Russia has a new leader for meaningful changes in this area. Until then diplomacy, detente and peaceful co-existence is the best we can hope for.

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