Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Vladimir Putin, a bystander's unwanted opinion...

Everybody has an opinion on Vladimir Putin since the Crimea Incursion has begun. Some are very learned, others are very sensationalistic, others are complimentary and yet others are scathing. So, because everyone seems to have an opinion, here is mine, which is probably both none and some of the above.

I'm writing this in very simple language, so a translation program should be able to effectively convey what is being said.

The Summary of the article is this:

More than anything, the situation in Crimea is an experiment, and an opportunity for increasing understanding. The integrity of the Ukrainian state is important, and the recognition that this is a violation of that integrity is important, but this is much less some kind of wild overture to WWIII than it is a very calculated re-set of borders drawn in Soviet times, in this case by a Soviet leader who happened to be an ethnic Ukrainian.

As always, Oil. It's about oil and natural gas. Russia has a lot of oil, and it surrounds countries with a lot of oil. The Russian Federation is truly a federation, it encompasses a great many different ethnic groups with which Americans are not familiar because we've rarely had a chance to encounter them: how would we? Since the invention of the airplane to the early 1990's, they were under the control of the Soviet Union and even so would be too poor to travel here, and since the 1990's most of them are still too poor to travel. It is not out of the question to see a Yakut tourist at the grand canyon, but it is unlikely. At any rate, this large number of ethnic groups is what makes the Russian Federation a federation. So, while the "outward face" of Russia are these dour, pale gentlemen we see on the news, the Russian Federation consists of a wide assortment of ethnic groups, many of whom are the majority in their respective historical geographic regions.

It seems that the goal of the Russian government is first to ensure complete control of oil emanating from the areas inhabited historically by non-Russian ethnicities, as well as to control the oil emanating from other countries in Central Asia. Enormous pipelines have been built with the aid of multi-national oil corporations, and Russia needs to secure these pipelines. Some questions are how much Russia should profit from this oil, how much of that should really be under Russian control, given that a lot of this oil does not actually emanate from within Russian Federation territory. But there are not questions mostly of politics, or military strategy. These are questions of commercial ethics and international trade. Surely, the Russian Federation should get some compensation based on oil coming through pipelines on its territory: it bears the burden of securing and hosting these pipelines. The question of how much should be fairly negotiated.

Now, as a part of the "tide of history", the remnants of what was once the Soviet amalgam are being undone, this amalgam which included countries and ethnic groups forced into that regime's control, and this has resulted in a great deal of tension reduction.

But, in the eyes of the Russian Federation's leadership, there are some things that remain to be undone, and one of these is the national assignment of sovereignty over Crimea. Because the area has a particular strategic importance, the rather brutal method of invading this area is a huge tension generator. It is a clear breach of international law. But what is more important is what happens next, not what is happening now. It may be that an "all clear" is sounded, the Crimean populous votes overwhelmingly to remain Ukrainian and Russia withdraws once Ukraine is stable and the status quo continues. This seems unlikely, but it should be a possible outcome given a true respect for the will, rights and safety of the people in Crimea. It is important that the Russian leadership indicate that they would honor such an outcome.

In my opinion, which of course is based on some intensive internet reading, a potential grain of innate intelligence and a sense of past vs. future, the question of the national assignment of responsibility for Crimea should be left up to the people who inhabit that place. That the Russians forced the issue is maybe not a horrible thing, although it was maybe a horribly done thing.

But it should also be the case that Crimeans who want to live in Ukraine should be able to relocate there freely, and that there would be guarantees that they'd be compensated at fair market value for the property they leave behind. Various bases within the region would be abandoned or held depending on this decision, and the Ukrainian armed services people therein free to go if the decision went that way, taking any and all equipment. Strategic importance aside, it is a more temperate area, much of it having the value of sea front property, and moving to back Ukraine proper would be seen as something of a downgrade, live moving from Florida or Puerto Rico to Iowa or Pennsylvania.

So: Yes, it is an invasion, a breach of sovereign borders and an attempted "land grab". Yes, it is against international law. Yes, it is both the culmination of a long term plan and rabid opportunism on the Russian leadership's part. It was also a somewhat arbitrary assignment in the first place, which once the Soviet Union dissolved, an international border caused a more rigid formalization of that assignment. Even so, locally in Crimea, there is corruption, a sense that the Russians ran the place much more than the Ukraine, and also there is the reality of the people of Crimea being provided some economic opportunities by the Russian naval presence. At the same time, there is a long term record of Russian disregard for Ukrainian regulations in several aspects.

The West had some benefit from the arrangement of Crimea being a part of Ukraine, where there was some sense of Ukrainian control over the premiere base of the Russian Black Sea Fleet.  If Ukraine went to NATO, the Russians would be in the awkward position that the US is in with regards to Guantanamo, where that base's "landlord" is a hostile regime. However, Sevastopol is a much more substantial naval base, and having to rent that sort of facility from NATO would be a very odd conundrum for Russia.

This is key, then: Putin has gambled, but he has gambled based on a reasonable premise. That premise being that Ukraine will become more integrated with the EU, and that Ukraine will likely become a member of NATO. But in the meantime, there are some things to attend to, and some obvious realities to assert: Russia and Ukraine are economically, historically, culturally and linguistically linked. There are advantages to that for both countries.

In terms of the EU and US interests, they see the cards falling this way and that, but the larger trend is that Ukraine will be more aligned with the West than previously. At the same time, a shrewd and capable Ukrainian ruler would work both sides of the equation, to get the best of both worlds. Recently, this ruler has made some pointed and poignant observations about a possible hollowness in the promise held out by the west. This is all for the better, because acting with integrity is what is most important in this particular situation.

In addition, there is something interesting occurring not-so-behind the scenes. The notion of the BRICS bank (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) that would be established along the lines of the IMF, and which would loan money to regimes in developing countries in Africa and elsewhere as an alternative to IMF controlling that same loan and the conditions thereof (in reality, it is likely six of one, half a dozen of the other: there must be conditions to a loan. At the same time, competition is supposed to be good for the consumer).

For BRICS to be solid, Russia must consolidate control over the materiel running through the pipelines across it's territory, and be solidly regarded as equivalent to NATO in order to negotiate most successfully.

In addition, there are layers to this that run deeper, with regards to large religious concerns and the control they exert throughout their various regions of the world.

But, mostly, right now: it is an experiment, and an opportunity for better mutual understanding. Because change happens, it happens in a way we'd prefer it not to, but even so it can surprisingly turn out for the best

In Depth

We are well aware of the colonial European powers having drawn arbitrary borders throughout the world, in Asia, Africa, North and South America. There have been battles between peoples within these borders to retain or even extend them, mostly in the 17th-20th centuries, and in very many cases the matter is settled.

It is also the case that some borders that were more or less arbitrarily drawn by the Soviet regime between the various political units in Central Asia and what is now the Russian Federation.

Included in this set of semi-artificial borders was the assignment of Crimea to the Ukrainian SSR. This was done by an ethnic Ukrainian Soviet leader, Nikita Krushchev. True to form for a Soviet leader,he used his office to his personal advantage and to the advantage of his favored constituency. This can also said to hold true for any political leadership, and may be a measurable as a "matter of degrees" where at some point the needle on the gauge points into the "corrupt" zone, and in fact countries have been ranked based on the perceived level of corruption present.  This is not to condemn, but to illustrate the prevailing level of integrity throughout the world.

There is an interesting saying, and I don't recall where I saw it, but the saying is this:


This is a very first world notion, that somehow just by being good people we ensure our future. The idea is this: one must be objective, selfless and weigh everything against a true measure, otherwise one is lost. If many are subjective, selfish and do not weigh by a true measure, then all are lost.

This notion is abstract and has a lot of dependencies. If one is starving and scrabbling for food, being selfless is a difficult thing to achieve. If one is oppressed, and integrity can only be exerted under pain of punishment, then this is likewise difficult.

Conversely, if one has the potential for a great payoff, one that will set them up for life at the cost of their integrity, then it is also difficult.

With regards to Crimea, as horrified observers, we are at risk of losing objectivity, and we grapple for a sense of the true measure to apply.

The true measure that is held out to us is the democratic will of the people in Crimea. But of course there is a finger on the scale of that true measure:  the election is being constructed in a way that doesn't seem to impose any notion of a minimum vote, and the ballots are being constructed in a way that favors the "unity with Russia" choice, then after it occurs and we don't like the outcome, we are reduced to squabbling about the fairness of the construction of the election.
Like the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation, like apartheid South Africa, operates a great deal in terms of ethnic groups, ethnic "homelands". So, the picture of the Russian Federation is something like this:

In a way that picture is very similar to the United States, where the early colonies that became states are bunched together in the east, and then the "frontier region" states are much larger and sparsely populated. The difference is that, in the Russian Federation, the people who traditionally lived in those frontier regions still exist and are the majority in many of those political units.

In addition, during the Soviet era, there was both incentive-based and forced Russian settlement in historically non-Russian areas. The theory was to ensure an ethnic Russian presence in the frontiers that was loyal to the Moscow regime. Whether or not this played out in practice and continues to play out is unclear. But when looking at the colored blotches on the map, one should view each blotch as having a central city as it's capitol, and more as a network of city states connected by roads, railways and air routes, than a quilt of densely populated regions.

Now, Vladimir Putin is the President of this federation, this network, which is extremely large and complex. When something is this large and complex, it helps to have important areas well defined and controlled. This control, and the impression of having this control, has been something of an historical obsession with Russian rulers. There is a reason. In many places, the winters are very difficult, you have to have food stored in order to make it through. You have to heat buildings and houses You have to have sewage treatment, roads and railroads that operate in harsh winter conditions.

In a more temperate region where winters are mild and resources more abundant, there is naturally a sense that things will tend to go well more often than not. In a harsher region, there is a sense that things will go wrong more often than not. When this is the sense of how things go, you want to have more control, to avoid more things going wrong. This seems utterly natural, then: not only does the government want to exert more control, but the governed want to make sure that things are in place to get through the winter. If this means some hardship, then that is borne with varying degrees of acceptance.

So this is a disadvantage, that much of the far flung federation is sparsely populated. People do tend to cluster in cities, connected with some logistical network for supply, which makes it easier.

However, the Russian Federation does have a great advantage: it has a lot of oil under it, and it surrounds neighbors that have a lot of oil, in such a way that their oil has to go through Russia-- through Russian based pipelines-- to get to market. These pipelines are the easy route from point A to point B. The pipelines have been built in concert with multi-national oil corporations, whose economic power operates in a separate realm from that of public funded works. This oil and gas is a big advantage, and they are trying to maximize that advantage, to ensure they can always get through the winter. This is maybe overly naive/simplistic, but my reading supports this view.

Now, imagine that after all that oil or natural gas goes through Russia, it has to go through one last neighbor to the West in order to get to market, to be sold, in order to have what's needed to get through the winter. At that point, it is out of Russian control. 

That neighbor is, for the most part, Ukraine. That is the one neighbor you really want to be able to depend on.  However, just recently, that neighbor has become unstable, and it can't pay it's bills, which include some really big bills owed to Russia.

So, what would you want to do if you were President of the Russian Federation? You'd want to make sure that instability was no longer an issue, that control was in place, and you'd also want to be able to recoup any losses from those unpaid bills, by getting something tangible in hand. Like, real estate.

That's pretty much what he did.

Simply put, Russia is sitting on a great deal of oil, and also sitting around a great deal of oil. Oil, natural gas, a whole bunch of it. And they want to sell it at a good price to people who can afford to buy it. 

There is one thing, which is an important thing, and that is getting it to the market. They need pipelines. Huge, immensely long pipelines. But these can afford to be built, because after all they pay for themselves in months. However, they also need to go across some other countries before they can get to the "tail end" of the distribution system where the paying customers are.

That is where Ukraine is very important. Ukraine is important because a great many pipelines run through it. Natural gas, a lot of it, and pipelines, so many they could almost lose track of where the gas is going, because there is so much.

The customers are the western economies that need it and can afford it. Russia is in a very good position in this regard, because their customers are well established and generally prosperous. However, Ukraine, where the pipelines run through, is not. 

Why is it not? It has rich farmland, it has a frontage to the Black Sea where ships can offload, it borders several other countries, all of which are members of the EU with the exception of Belarus. Bordering EU members include Poland, the sixth most populous member of the EU.

The Ukrainian pipelines, come in straight from Russia on its eastern border and fan out like the tines on a leaf rake on its western border. Ukraine's culture is historically entwined with Russia's, where in the late 800s AD the seeds of what became the Russian Empire were planted by the rule of a few Vikings, with a strong ethical and legal code, and who ruled over a vigorous population of Slavs who tended to quarrel but were also situated in some very prosperous farmland. It seems that the original Viking population was rapidly and totally assimilated during and after setting things in order, which included conquering the city that became Kyiv. This wide flung, loose confederation of the Kievan Rus found itself situated favorably around a valuable pipeline of that time, the eastern trade route known as the Silk Road. 

Now, whether the Rus were Viking mostly or Slavs mostly, or some of both; or whether or not what is now Russia proper was once all "Bulgars", or whether it was once all "Khazaria" or some of both, is something that maybe only a few people care about. But the point is that the richness of the trade routes required that somebody guard it from raiders, and that fortified cities be built along those routes where goods could be traded and preparations could be made for the next leg of the trader's journey. By the late 800s AD, the Khazars who build Kyiv were conquered by the Rus, which became the Kievan Rus, all in that area that we now call Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.

What is more purely Russia, historically, is not the huge sprawling "bear atop the continent", but the area that extends east from the border of Ukraine, which is near the Don River, to the Urals in it's southernmost part, and east and from the borders of Belarus, Latvia and Estonia to the Urals in the northernmost part. 

I mention the Don River because it is considered somewhat a geographical boundary. To the west of the Don, there are some Turkic people, but mostly other peoples. To the east of the Urals, there are mostly nothing but Turkic peoples and Russians that were purposefully transplanted there in order to help cement the Soviet Union. Many of the subdivisions of the Russian Federation contain specific types of Turkic peoples, or Siberian peoples: ethnicities that few people in the US have ever even heard of. That is a generalization, but the current Russian Federation has 83 subdivisions ranging from single major cities to giant territories that span the federation from north to south, and there at least as many ethnic types encompassed by these subdivisions.

At any rate, speaking geographically, what is more purely Russia consists of a relatively small portion of the overall Federation, and it does not encompass the areas where the bulk of the oil is being found.

Now imagine that you're President of this place. Imagine you really, truly want this place to be the greatest it can be. You need to really know what all those ethnic types are, and you need to be able to help them out when they need it. This is important, because many of these places are very hard to reach, especially in winter.

Again, the winter can be very hard. Again, this kind of winter makes for a certain kind of thinking: you want to constantly maximize your advantages, and minimize your disadvantages, because a mistake can mean you don't have enough to get through the winter. So if you are a good governor, a ruler and a man of the people, you want to make sure all of your people can always make it through the winter at the very least. In a federation so large, just this is not simple.

Then, you want to trade. You need to compete with the rest of the world, because what some of the best advantages come from being able to operate in the global marketplace. You need good, desirable products at a good price, with high availability. But that which you can produce locally that brings high value internationally is good to have a lot of.

What better thing to have than oil? It will not last indefinitely, but that only makes having a lot of it a big advantage.

So, as the leader of the Russian Federation, you want to continually maximize and ensure that advantage. Vladimir Putin is doing this. There are civil rights, human rights problems that exist that the West doesn't agree with. He is popular some places, despised in others. Not too much different from any other world leader in that regard.

But to have laid in wait for Crimea to be picked like a plum, to have engineered the Georgian defeat and partitioning of its ethnic enclaves, this is very troubling to Western eyes.

Is it the further undoing, additional de-Sovietization? Setting things straight, tidying up? Of is it chess-board like skirmishing with Western interests. Or both? It manifests itself as being both irrespective of intent.

Imagining this through European eyes, you are troubled. You are dependent on this gas and oil from a neighbor that has proven to have a militaristic, intractable, greedy and opportunistic way of looking at things. You have some local production, but it is further away from many of the centers where gas is needed and it is not enough. You can bring it in on tankers from the US, which has an abundance of natural gas and which trades fairly, but this is costly and can be dangerous.

How can you ensure that this Russian trading partner always acts with integrity, and uses strength wisely? Mostly, you must negotiate from a position of power.

But this is a big question. It is a big question for Russia, it is important for Russia because it truly is in a place to be a long term, stable and valued trading partner that can truly be prosperous and peaceful, and it is a big question for the world. It must act with integrity. It must act with wisdom and as a predictable, peaceful presence.

So, again, more than anything, this is both an experiment, and an opportunity for better understanding.


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