Whither the West: Is Russia the Force That Broke the West?

As part of our spring symposia series, we’ve asked our scholars to weigh in on the challenges the West faces today in the former Soviet Union. This week, Rich Seibert and Matt Lina will discuss a revanchist, barely-chastened Russia’s impact on Ukraine and the Baltics, and their relationship with Europe and the United States. Next week, Erika Chen, Stefan Muller, and I will discuss Azerbaijan, Armenia, the -stans, and Russia’s rewriting of the Central Asian map. There’s more to come: Stay tuned.

We asked our scholars to weigh in on the changed situation in Ukraine, and the more geographically Western former Soviet Republics, over the last year and more. In a change of format, our experts discussed these matters by email and chat, with moderation. The transcripts follow — edited only to make sense of at-times overlapping conversations and to correct for spelling and shorthand errors.

DIRECTOR: Gentlemen, thank you for taking the time to engage in this talk. Our conversation today begins with a single question: Does the situation in Ukraine mean there is no longer a unified West? (I think that’s broad enough to start.)

MATTHEW LINA: No. It means there never was.

RICH SEIBERT: No. There’s one. It’s a West that is very unified in doing nothing. Whether it’s still unified on anything of substance is a different question.

LINA: That’s very charitable.

DIRECTOR: Matt, you have some personal experience here. You start.

LINA: Three years ago, it was pretty plain to see that Russia was unsure about how to handle Ukraine. Vlad Putin was pretty sure that Ukraine’s political class was no match for him — no surprise there, he thinks very few people are — but he also thought that the United States and Europe were stung enough by Georgia, and invested enough in Ukraine, that he couldn’t get away with more than an occasional gas war. (He knew he could get away with that from experience, and because Gazprom is where German politicians go to retire.) On top of that, [President Viktor] Yanukovych presented something of a conundrum for him: Donetsk boy, kinda classic Ukrainian-Russian handshaker, but internally positioned to keep the Russophile bloc quiet while not being so unpopular in Lviv to cause a riot.

But the real reason he was uncertain was because Poland was making a fairly strong play to bring Ukraine West, and through the [George W.] Bush and early [Barack] Obama administrations, America was too. More or less — just enough to keep Putin on his toes, but not so much as to push him into doing anything hasty.

Now, I have my own thoughts on the wisdom of removing Yanukovych, but there’s a narrative that’s formed that the West was united in wanting him gone. I’m sorry, I lived through that, and I lost a lot. I remember what happened. As Russia started applying the thumb-screws, everyone except Poland ignored what was happening; but despite that, in the end, they wanted him gone, where a lot of others were apathetic. The Poles worked to get him out, the Americans in their wishy-washy way of today kind of did, the Germans and French hoped this would all go away, and the Brits followed along with the Americans.

SEIBERT: Matt, I don’t know what you saw, media-wise, but it was largely presented as an organic uprising in the Baltics and Germany. In Russia, of course, it was a fascist rebellion underwritten by Washington. But that’s beside the point. There was relatively little talk of Western disunity, or even involvement, during the early days of the Maidan.

LINA: Well, they [the Russians] have a point, kinda. Svoboda are fascists, real, flesh-and-blood fascists; and without them, the violent aspects of the Maidan would never have happened. But, as you say that’s neither here nor there. But forget that for now. The real point here is that a unified West would have come to Ukraine’s aid after — swimming in debt, the economy ruined, Russia looming. If the Greeks were right and Germany was really Europe’s puppet-master, there would have been a concerted, unified response of some kind, probably with high interest rates.

Instead, Germany got dragged along, everyone got dragged along, by the events of the winter. And that gave Russia its opening — it was a West that it had assumed was led by Washington instead fall to squabbling and fracture.

SEIBERT: Well, we agree on this much — by the spring of 2014, any semblance of unity was lost. But as someone who spends a lot of time watching markets and the financial sector, I completely differ with you on what was happening and, to a certain degree, what is happening.

Ok, look. Everyone’s got this funny image of Germans as intense rule-sticklers — won’t cross the street without the light even at 2 a.m., etc. — and the Greeks just hate them for not opening the pocketbook early and often. A lot of folks think of the Germans as some of the world’s great industrialists, and there’s a lot to that. But what they really are is some of the world’s greatest bond watchers, because they understand that gentlemen prefer bonds. Stocks and money markets and commercial paper markets have fantastic and interesting uses, but bonds make the world go ’round. If your bond yields are in the right direction or trending there, it makes sense to invest in you. If not, you’re the Greeks.

If you look at everything from late 2012 on, it was pretty clear that Yanukovych was aiming to bring Ukraine as it existed then into Europe, and to try to extract some sort of financial assistance to ease the transition. Good idea or bad idea, he was trying to gently pull Ukraine into a better position in Europe without Moscow losing its collective [head].

Poland loved this, Washington only dimly understood it, but the Germans got it and the Germans knew that Kiev’s paper stinks. They knew that Greece was already, again, hat-in-hand and would be again soon, and the last thing they wanted was another Greece, but to the East. In geopolitical terms, Ukraine-as-part-of-Europe is a thousand-year coup, a political masterstroke no one could have imagined going back to the Mongol invasion and maybe the Great Schism. The long-term benefit of Ukraine to the EU would not have been small; even the medium term would have been a wash at worst. But in financial terms, where bonds are a proxy for a country’s fiscal health, as the Germans see it, it’s a sucker’s bet.

DIRECTOR: But they signed the Association Agreement.

SEIBERT: But only after their hand was forced. Ukraine after the Maidan and after Crimea and after the war in the Donbass started was a worse short-term bet than before. But by then, [Chancellor Angela] Merkel had not only cemented her power in Germany, she’d come down too solidly in favor of Ukraine to walk away.

Take a gander at what’s out there now. Russia is moving artillery and men and heavy cav[alry] into East. Everyone knows the latest ceasefire is just a pause. Western investment in Ukraine has not exactly skyrocketed, and Western defensive investment is a joke — who cares about night vision goggles if the Russians can atomize you from farther away than you can see? God bless [President Petro] Poroshenko, he’s trying, no one in the West cares.

DIRECTOR: Washington and Brussels would argue that their coordinated sanctions regime has brought Russia to heel.

LINA: Washington is pretending it hasn’t started a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. What they say is irrelevant. What Brussels says almost as much.

SEIBERT: I call them “targeted gentle suggestions.” And they’re coordinated only because the least common denominator of Western will is a shared floor.

LINA: Exactly. THERE IS NO UNIFIED RESPONSE. The sanctions are a joke. You want to break Russia? Sanction Gazprom. Like many simple things, it’s hard to do, but if you want to stop Russian aggression, if you want to make Putin’s position uncertain, you have to break his piggy bank.

But that isn’t going to happen while everyone is scared of a winter with more expensive gas, and certainly not while Germany’s political class sees Gazprom and all its subsidiaries as their gold watch. Washington has become absolutely awful at public and private diplomacy, the French are schizophrenic, God alone knows what [David] Cameron is thinking.

So we get lowest-common-denominator sanctions, travel restrictions and asset freezes on mostly symbolic and unimportant people.

The only real sanctions Russia has experienced have come from Saudi Arabia and the US and Canadian oil and natural gas fields. Everything else is the little drib and drab that a squabbling, broken West can agree on. And oil and gas are slowly rebounding.

DIRECTOR: So is this it for Ukraine, then? No unified West, a rising Russia?

SEIBERT: I think that’s both too much and not enough. Like I said, come the summer, the Russians are coming again. Putin has taken the measure of the West and cares less and less about hiding what he’s doing. Russia is moving advanced weaponry inside and outside of Ukraine. Their next step is to make an independent Donbass a reality on the ground.

But they almost certainly aren’t marching on Kiev any time soon. That’s still a bridge too far. Enough to cut out the industrial sector of Ukraine, enough to remind all of the former Republics who has steel in his spine and who doesn’t. And anyway, Russian military doctrine and material is better than during the Georgia invasion, but it’s hardly Western- or Korean- or Israeli-class. Could they conquer Ukraine? Possibly. Digest it? No. Even now, the squabbling West would take things a great deal more seriously if the Baltics or Poland, actual NATO members, were threatened.

Anyway, as you of all people would say, Russia can only rise so far. Demography isn’t destiny, but if you have no kids, you have no future. Russia has no kids and they die young. They’re not rising all that much.

LINA: Of course, Ukraine isn’t much better on the babies front.

DIRECTOR: But can the West ever be unified again, facing a Russia that believes it has the upper hand at last?

LINA: No.

SEIBERT: Absent an invasion of Kiev or farther West, no.

LINA: Rich, you spend more time in the Baltics than I do. My sense is that there’s some fear that the West can’t be counted on, NATO can’t be counted on, they’re increasingly likely to be on their own. Is that right?

SEIBERT: I think they’re less panicked than they were a year or even six months ago, when Russia was running military exercises off their coasts and grabbing Estonian intelligence officers. They’re wary, they’re nervous about NATO despite assurances from Obama, but they’re more on-edge than panicky.

As a note on that, I think the Baltics are the canaries in the coal mine for the European Union and for NATO. They’re not just in line to take the brunt end of a Russian attack or territory grab (and remember, they all host large Russian populations); they’re committed members of the West with long memories of Soviet domination who no longer trust the West to protect them. That’s a very bad state for any alliance.

LINA: My concern is that they decide to develop extra-NATO defense capabilities, and the entire nature of the defensive alliance shatters. You can’t have a defensive alliance if each member is worried the guy next to him is about to drop his shield.

DIRECTOR: On that note, we’ll conclude. Thank you for your time and thoughts, gentlemen. It’s been a pleasure.

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