Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Next Moves in Ukraine (Part II) - Putin's Press Conference, Annexation and Diplomatic Stalemate

March 4 - Putin's Press Conference

On March 4th, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave an extensive press conference from his country residence outside Moscow about the situation in Ukraine and the developments in Crimea. As examined in Part I, the democratic revolution-turned-coup in Kiev sparked an unexpectedly frightful reaction in Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine. The numbers on the streets on February 23 in Sevastopol could not be explained as a pre-planned Kremlin operation even by the most cynical of conspiracy theorists. 30-50,000 demonstrators out of a total population for the municipality of 380,000 could not be rallied to protest against their will within two days short of overwhelming pressure for which there was no evidence. Irrespective of activists subsequently moved in or the machinations, such as there were, around the secession referendum last weekend, these initial manifestations were largely genuine and there was no knowing exactly how Putin would enter the picture. Although this author was convinced that Crimean secession was in the cards almost from the outset, the pulse on the streets did not regard this as a foregone conclusion. 

When Putin appeared a week later for the press conference, his purpose was not to explain or foretell anything. Instead, the aim was to cement the reality on the ground and embed the inevitability of 1) Crimean secession and 2) Russia's long-term involvement (direct or indirect) in rump Ukraine's domestic affairs. By March 4th, Russian forces had secured all principal points on the peninsula, locals in Sevastopol and Simferopol installed new, pro-Russian authorities (Alexei Chalov as Mayor of Sevastopol having been unilaterally "chosen" by the February 23rd demonstrators) and Kiev had basically accepted it had no options to retake the peninsula as its local forces were confined to quarters. In short, there was nothing for Putin to update. Effectively, the press conference was meant as a demonstration of his having regained control of events and that Kiev, and its western backers, would now be reactive rather than proactive. 

Whereas February 21st seemed to deliver the Kremlin a major blow, the rebound was practically complete by March 4th. Just as Generals Kornilov and Denikin packed away to south Ukraine to raise a volunteer army to resist the Bolshevik takeover of Petrograd and Moscow in 1917 and early 1918, so too did the fulcrum of the anti-Kiev "resistance" emerge in Crimea. Proper metaphor or not, Crimea offered a clear path for Putin to exploit the vacuum left by Yanukovich's sudden departure and turn a seeming defeat into a tactical victory to reclaim the initiative. Had emotion not taken over on Maidan and the militant forces been muscled for even a few days, it is doubtful that events would have unfolded as they did.      

As with most everything related to Putin, the current situation in Russia and the trajectory the country has been headed since 1991, the western media narrative regarding his press conference was completely backwards. Instead of obtaining clues about Putins next steps, bemused readers were treated to articles like these. Apparently Putin was "paranoid", "cornered" and "delusional". Merkel, the only western leader Putin respected, had tried to talk sense into him and failed. The Obama Administration, NATO, Cameron and the EU commissioners were warning of serious consequences, sanctions and isolation if Putin did not send his forces to barracks, recognize the Kiev government and relent from further interference in Ukrainian affairs. Far from cornering Putin, this unhinged reaction by western leaders indicated that it was they who felt cornered. Putin had moved faster than they had anticipated, the Kiev government was chaotic and rejected by half the Ukrainian population and military intervention was never considered. The realization that Crimea was gone and nothing in the short-term could be done to shore up Kiev was apparent to everyone. The game of saving face had begun, which took more time away from what should have been sober diplomatic maneuvering.

Putin's press conference was significant for what it omitted rather than what it included. A precedent that immediately came to this author's mind was Joseph Stalin's speech to graduates of a military academy in 1935 where he declared that "cadres determine everything". Read between the lines and in the context of the purge to come two years later, this signaled that most of the audience was targeted for liquidation and would be replaced with new, neutered cadres loyal to Stalin. He pulled a similar maneuver during a meeting of the Central Committee in 1952 when he laid criticism on Molotov and Beria for various missteps and anti-party activities, which signaled to delegates that they were marked men. Putin's presser was laced with this type of multi-layered double-meaning. Framing any potential intervention in Crimea on humanitarian grounds against unleashed neo-nazis, nationalists and anti-semites and to "protect life", Putin signaled that any Russian intervention in Crimea (and Ukraine broadly) was legitimate whether or not anybody had asked or would ask for it. In other words, Russia had already intervened and would continue to intervene to prevent any permanent entrenchment of western interests and western-supported groups in Ukraine, and there was no need for any justification.  Putin then said that if the scheduled May elections in Ukraine would be carried out under a similar guise of "terror" as was on display in Kiev after the coup, then Russia would not recognize the result. In other words, irrespective of how the elections come out (presuming the current government, or possibly a more nationalist coalition, wins), Russia will not recognize the result and probably foment activity in the south and east to keep the new government at bay. So, as you can see, by negating Putin's affirmative statements and paying close attention to what was left out of his monologue, his strategy (pursued like clockwork over the past weeks) revealed itself during his tango with friendly reporters.

Crimea Annexation and Diplomatic Stalemate

The minutiae of the preparations for the Crimean referendum, its acceleration by a month and the predictable western reaction have by now been analyzed ad nauseum. The significant issue is not that a referendum took place, how it was conducted, how representative (if at all) the vote was or whether this will spill over into similar initiatives in Donetsk, Gorlovka or Kharkiv. The issue is that the Crimeans did not seek and Putin did not settle for the frozen conflict, South Ossetia route, but pushed ahead toward Crimea's formal accession. Why the different treatment for Georgia's regions when the situations are so similar (i.e., majority ethnic Russian communities, Russian passports spread around, thousands of Russian troops manning and building permanent defensive installations and a host country without the economic or military options to do anything). In Georgia, Putin was blessed with a president who made the first move. Kiev is too broke to have done the same. So why annex Crimea and do it so quickly?

The answer to the question of speed is easy as it flows from Putin's rapid engagement in Crimea in the first place: a vacuum does not remain unfilled for long. Had Putin waited another week, the EU may have unilaterally sent monitors to the peninsula or Kiev may have acted to shore up its minority, but resilient, support base. Putin understood that there is no one West just as there is no one East. Japan imposed minimal sanctions while China, seeing that it could not lose either way, largely tuned out and abstained from the symbolic UN Security Council vote on Crimea's future. The only western leader that has been paying attention is Merkel, and even she is under tremendous domestic pressure from German car and industrial manufacturers not to push Russia too far. She probably fears that Germany will be the primary source of Kiev's financial salvation, and having to deal with Russian energy cuts and business acrimony would turn a headache into a migraine. So Putin, resigned to ceding western Ukraine for the moment, boldly staked his countermeasure in Crimea and presented the West with a diplomatic fait accompli.    

This still, however, does not explain annexation. Here I believe it has as much to do with cutting the legs out from under Kiev and strengthening the hand of separatist factions in rump Ukraine as it does with playing toward the domestic audience. Putin's popularity has soared in the wake of the crisis, as admitted even by more independent polling agencies. As was discussed in "The Weimarization of Russia", the mantle of the gatherer of lost Russian territory is one worn by opportunistic Russian leaders with eagerness. Yeltsin went into Chechnya partly to shore up his collapsing approval ratings following the disbanding of the Supreme Soviet and continued economic chaos. Putin rose to power on his security credentials, and with Russian headlines declaring his reputation secured if he restored Crimea to the homeland, it may have been what pushed him to act. In this sense, Crimea is fundamentally more significant, culturally and historically, than either of Georgia's pseudo-statelets. The move could also have served as another signal to the West that Russia is willing and able to take the ultimate step in pursuit of its narrow interests without halfway measures. What is clear is that this will likely be a one-off performance, at least for the foreseeable future. If Putin's speech yesterday on Crimea's accession is any indication, Russia will most certainly not let Maidan Kiev fully control Ukrainian policy. Russia is watching and, if the West makes another bold move, is prepared to counter (see Putin's statement that the division of Ukraine is not in Russia's interest and, as always, read in reverse). 

Monday, March 17, 2014

Next Moves in Ukraine (Part I) - February 21, 2014 - Watershed

This first part of a two-part post examines the critical importance of February 21, 2014, and its immediate aftermath. This week, more than any other when the history of the unfolding developments in Ukraine becomes fully written, will probably be regarded as significant as the week in April 1917 when Lenin reappeared in Petrograd on a German-provided train to instigate the overthrow of the Kerensky government. 

As exit poll results give way to official numbers in the Crimea secession referendum, upwards of 95% of voters (with over 75% of ballots counted as of this writing) have thrown their fate with Russia. Simferopol and Sevastopol are awash with Russian flags and St. George ribbons. Soviet-era songs are playing from loudspeakers in homes and public squares. North of the peninsula, thousands rally in Donetsk and Kharkiv demanding a similar process in their districts. A crisis that began with a policy zigzag had claimed its second government as the drama continues.

                                          Maidan throws Official Opposition Overboard

February 21 was a turning point. Thousands lined Kiev's independence square that evening to hear (and make demands of) the leaders who brought them to victory over government forces. Western diplomats were probably too busy fine-tuning the compromise ostensibly reached with the Yanukovich government a day earlier to pay attention to the proceedings. The media was also largely plugged out of what was happening. Periodic snippets would appear on the wire services about this or that speaker, but nobody bothered to look into the specifics. But now, as Crimea settles into a diplomatic freeze and the West readies harsher sanctions against Moscow, it is worth revisiting what took place that fateful evening or, more precisely, whether everything that has happened up until now could have been directly foretold and acted upon based on what happened at the podiums then. 

To bring things into perspective, it is worth seeing February 21 as the day of "two speeches". Up until then, the West comforted itself with the belief that Maidan's street was fully behind the acceptable, official opposition personified by ex-boxing champion Vitality Klitschko. He was a known quantity and well-connected to established legislative forces which had battled Yanukovich for months. Extolling the crowd to not give in to government provocations and opt for unnecessary violence, Klitschko, flanked by Arseniy Petrovych Yatsenyuk and others who would form the core of the post-Yanukovich government, gave a rather bland speech about the deal worked out with the West over the previous 24-72 hours. To summarize the reaction his words received, think Mitch McConnell's faux Heston rifle pose at CPAC. Activists who had just come off pitched battles with Berkut that claimed over 100 lives and felt revolutionary fever akin to what deserting soldiers might have experienced in February 1917 did not want to be lectured about "provocations" and "negotiated compromises". The people wanted action and understood, as well as Klitschko, that he was losing control of the plot. The real power now lay elsewhere. 

This was likely the point that everyone in Washington and Brussels went to bed. Too bad they did not keep watching or skipped Klitschko's warm up act. Most intriguing was a speech made by one Dmytro Yarosh, head of something called Praviy Sektor (Right Sector), a group which, until February 21, noone in the West knew really anything about. Shedding business-ware for military fatigues, Yarosh gave a difficult to ignore display of force, flanked by fighters in full body armor. For those who do not understand Ukrainian in the linked video, Yarosh swore to continue fighting the "regime of internal occupation" and not give up his group's weapons until Yanukovich was removed from office. The crowd responded with loud roars and fist pumps.  Then came Volodymyr Parasiuk, who swept to the stage like a rock star with a clearly unamused Klitschko looking on and exclaimed that he, an unaffiliated activist with loyalties to no single organization, did not "believe in political processes or negotiations" and was giving the politicians an ultimatum — either Yanukovich is gone by 10 am the next morning or his fighters were going on the assault. December elections, unity governments and monitored restorations of unconstitutional authority were not on the table. Western. officialdom may have wanted Yanukovich removed and Russia weakened through a quiet transition, but the people with the guns (and the power) in Kiev had other ideas. There was no need for fiery demands, as Yanukovich fled Kiev by helicopter that night and left his estate and party offices to the care of his foes.

In the immediate aftermath of the seizure and its approval by a rump Rada, the West consoled itself with the front men the new government put forward to make what had happened the night before appear to be something it was not. Acceptable technocrats from the official right Fatherland party were given the presidency and prime ministerships, while behind the scenes, politely ignored by Western diplomats, Praviy Sektor and other anti-western ultranationalist factions staked out their claims. Yarosh and his group are eyeing the May presidential elections and next year's parliamentary elections to become leading drivers of Ukrainian politics. If Praviy Sektor's messaging is any indication, the official western line regarding a unified European-oriented Ukraine threatened by Russian neo-imperialism may have to be reevaluated. The group rails against "sellout, marginalized democracy" (video cuts to the Fatherland technocrats currently in office), EU expansion and collapse of traditional values. This would not be so depressing if only the western establishment were paying the slightest bit of attention to what is actually happening in Ukraine rather than the mirage, idealistic Ukraine manufactured by analysts in Washington and Brussels. It does not much matter at this point whether Yarosh and his group will or will not moderate or whether the technocrats (whose first order of business, at the behest of the nationalists, was to repeal a regional, Russian language law) will regain the support of the street. Revolution would now inevitably produce counter-revolution. Either noone had prepared for this or everyone knew, but chose to look the other way. Whatever the explanation, the cart had veered on the path that would lead to Crimean secession, Russian troops along Ukraine's eastern border and a nadir in relations among the great powers.

Crimea and the East Respond

Two days after Yanukovich's departure, on February 23, an estimated 20-40 thousand people poured onto the streets of Sevastopol in Crimea. This was not simply a political protest over policy gone wrong. Far from embracing Yanukovich, the crowd considered him a used-up has been (a "vegetable") who, at the moment of truth, failed to protect the nation from extremist forces. Repeatedly, some of the organizers shouted that, they begged Yanukovich to smash the "fascists" on the streets, but he played too close to the vest. Berkut fighters, reeling from their defeat in the capital, were welcomed on Crimea as heroes and those killed were honored in similar fashion as their Maidan opponents. The black ski mask fighters from Praviy Sektor were replaced by uniform-clad cossacks, who warned criminals of immediate death if they continued their activities while Sevastopol and Crimea remained in a "state of siege". The same rhetoric of occupation and armed resistance was on full display. Just as the fighters in Kiev warned the politicians of the consequences of their misbehavior, so did the Russians in Sevastopol form self-defense units and unilaterally elect their leaders over the heads of those then in power. In Kharkiv, when a Praviy Sektor detachment captured the regional administrative building and dug in, a crowd of over a thousand spontaneously stormed the facility and raised the Russian flag from the roof and windows. 

Events were moving at a pace that neither side could fully understand or control, but it was apparent weeks ago that what was once a fragile, but still somewhat unified country had been profoundly torn asunder. To speak of the "destiny of Ukraine being determined by the people of Ukraine" after February 21 was intellectually disingenuous. There was no longer one Ukraine whose destiny could be determined. Maidan had yielded a government unacceptable to half the population with power brokers probably unacceptable by many within the anti-Yanukovich camp itself.  

As will be analyzed in Part II of this post, how Moscow and the western powers reacted to what had happened in Ukraine during the pivotal week at the end of February would determine whether everyone lived in the real world or preferred the indulgence of fantasy. Would the West come to terms with the fact that February 21 profoundly changed the rules of the game and make a fully unified, EU-oriented Ukraine impossible? How would Moscow fill the vacuum and how far would it go? Was reconciliation between the East and West possible or were such considerations no longer relevant? In other words, would the West achieve an incomplete victory and expend capital to marginalize hostile forces to its values within a Kiev government thrust upon it or would it pretend as if nothing had gone wrong and continue along its preset course? 

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Weimarization of Russia

Defeat, not Humiliation

It is critically important to separate practical goals from emotional yearnings. Successful statesmen who advanced their countries' interests have understood that the outcome of conflicts or crises must not only be short-term, tangible gains, but also the amortization of those gains well beyond their time in power. An old rabbinic proverb notes that "he who is wise is he who can see tomorrow". When applied to foreign policy, this principle of far-sighted pragmatism yielded a particular approach: strive to defeat and weaken your enemy, but avoid humiliating him. 

Bismarck largely followed this principle of "defeat, not humiliation" in his and Prussia's ten year struggle to unite Germany. The broader goals of unification, military and popular pressure, and Bismarck's desire to minimize any pretense of doubt as to Germany's viability and long-term position in Europe led him to occasionally swerve toward unnecessary annexations (most notably Alsace-Lorraine along with a five billion franc war indemnity imposed on France after the latter's defeat in the Franco-Prussian War). Successive French parliaments draped the seats of the absent Alsace-Lorraine delegates in black as a sign of mourning and revanchist aspirations to reclaim the lost territories continued through World War One. Yet Bismarck did not force a new government on France, divide it, or regard it as a lesser European nation. He was convinced to the end of his days that France would despise and never forgive Germany for its defeat as well as remain its chief continental rival, but believed that crushing it completely would generate large and unnecessary problems. Therefore, while understanding its continuation as a leading power, Bismarck sought to isolate France by keeping warm relations with her potential allies and prevent a two-front conflict (aided by Britain) from destroying what he spent decades trying to create. As soon as Bismarck reached his narrow war aims, he shifted to preserving his gains and calming the waters. The only empire he cared about was the one in Europe, allegedly pointing at a map in anger when pressed about Germany's miserly colonial possessions. Germany was united, had rapidly surpassed Britain in industrial output and boasted the strongest army in Europe. What more could a country possibly need or want?

Richelieu and Metternich also followed a variant of "defeat, but not humiliation" in their tenures as dominant players in European politics. Richelieu hired a Swedish army to check Hapsburg expansion and put aside the duties of faith for the obligations of national interest. The Peace of Westphalia did not destroy the Hapsburg Empire or put it into a position where it would a) disintegrate or b) shift toward hyper-aggressive machinations that would upset peace and stability. Metternich achieved much the same with France during the Congress of Vienna, where allied territorial gains were balanced by a still viable, relatively strong and politically relevant France in the hands of a restored Bourbon monarch. Defeat in war means loss of prestige and territory, but does not have to mean irrelevance or unnecessary hostility.  

Lessons not Learned

Every grade school student learns what happens when "defeat, not humiliation" is not followed. History has shown two possible outcomes. The first sees the victors engulf or extinguish the losers through territorial absorption or forced disintegration (see Russia, Austria and Prussia in the case of Poland's disappearance in 1795 or Poland's rebirth in 1918 through dissolution of Austria and Russia and forced partition of Germany). The second involves keeping the loser largely in place, but imposing such demeaning sanctions as to make a near-term loss of influence appear permanent; this was most spectacularly on display with the treatment of Germany in the aftermath of World War One. Massive reparations. crippling military restrictions and a hallow government in the form of the Weimar Republic created a dynamic wherein normal post-war development was rendered almost impossible. Germany went from preeminent continental power to chaotic beggar seeking economic salvation from Washington and London. That ultranationalists, Stalinists, Leninists and anarchists thrived in this atmosphere like mosquitoes in a swamp should come as no surprise. The Treaty of Versailles was a humiliation not just because Germany had to accept near sole responsibility for instigating hostilities, but that its consequences rendered it a lesser, former power with no colonies, a capped army of 100,000 and a broken economy.

The country that emerged from the rubble was one of sporadic economic crises, a loss of hope among swaths of traditional citizens, boredom among others seeking faster changes and a new generation that saw Germany as one scene in a larger, international struggle. A nominally social-democratic government sprinkled with nationalist politicians and monarchist war veterans oversaw this madness. What was supposed to be a republic turned quickly into a de facto dictatorship of Friedrich Ebert and his nationalist allies against the more radical movements trying to govern by street protest. Then came Hindenburg, 1929 and this

Could the above, and the horrors which were to come just two decades later, have been prevented? John Maynard Keynes, the scion of interventionist economics, warned the British government against imposing crippling damages on Germany in 1919. But the allies at the time were burying their dead and staring at empty treasuries. Germany would be punished and taught a lesson by being partially partitioned and rendered a lesser power. Instead of pragmatic, sustained engagement to create a stable, peaceful and politically healthy Germany that would remain viable in a post-war environment, its foes left it to rot on the vine and went back to tending their gardens. Only emergency, discrete American-led cash infusions stopped Germany's economy, ravaged by hyperinflation, from imploding in the middle 1920s.

Wherefore Mr. Putin 

Yegor Gaidar, closet student of Adam Smith and editor of the Communist (a leading anti-soviet establishment newspaper), presented several proposals for economic reform to Yuri Andropov's Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party in the early 1980s which envisioned a steady process of price liberalization, elimination of trade barriers and restoration of, if not rights, at least privileges to property. The reformers believed the window on a Chinese or Hungarian option for the Soviet Union was not yet closed. 

In the style of relics who neither wanted to know or could not reconcile themselves to the realities of the situation, Andropov and his Politburo sent the academics back to their institutes and shelved their ideas. Ten years later, as the Soviet Union ceased to exist and a new, bankrupt Russia faced starvation and civil war, the reformers would out of necessity do in days what should have been done in years or even decades. The Soviet Union did not attend a conference or sign a treaty, nor was its army defeated in battle and cities razed. The country simply crumbled like a knight whose armor was kept together by a single bolt. Foreign credit was gone, oil prices had plummeted and the soviet army settled for blankets and boots from West Germany (in the form of humanitarian assistance) to keep warm. 

As the Russian economic liberals took emergency steps to keep food on the shelves, ordinary consumers saw prices increase twelve-fold. The same prices that stayed flat for decades now enveloped savings and basic incomes. Pensions, backed by nothing but political smoke, evaporated. The security and political establishment in the Russian Supreme Soviet demanded Gaidar's dismissal and the end of reforms. Nationalists started wandering the streets making Nazi salutes, a National Bolshevik party was founded and the Communists, eager to regain a toehold, fought to a majority in parliament and stood poised to remove President Boris Yeltsin and the reformers from power. 

And what was the West doing as the aforementioned was unfolding? In short, next to nothing. Gaidar and the liberals wanted strong American and European financial support for at least the first year of reform. At least, it was hoped Russia might receive some debt relief and not be held responsible as successor in interest to all of the Soviet Union's obligations. Noone seriously believed a Marshall Plan was in the offing, but western-oriented figures in Russia needed a clear signal that the country would not be left to fend for itself, would be accepted as a European state in a post-Cold War economic, security and diplomatic system and retain its respect as a leading international player. Instead, in an age of peace dividends, they received NATO expansion into Eastern Europe, a sustained bombing campaign of Serbia and forced relinquishment of Kosovo and arrangements to curb Russia's deterrent power. The United States and the anti-Soviet coalition went with euphoria in place of "defeat, not humiliation". Charles Krauthammer wrote about America's unipolar moment, President Clinton busied himself with removing barriers to global trade and Tony Blair urged western governments to use force to aid oppressed peoples as part of a new doctrine of humanitarian intervention. In the Post-Cold War world, there was no need to worry about stability, power politics and simmering resentments. 

Meanwhile, Boris Yeltsin was rapidly being perceived in Russia the way Paul Hindenberg was in Weimar Germany (old, disconnected from the people, a pawn in the hands of seemingly elusive domestic and foreign power-brokers and a symbol of what Russia would rather not be). The default of 1998 and Moscow bombings a year later effectively finished off the liberals. Yeltsin caved, brought reactionaries from the security services in and sent yesterday's rising stars home. As the decade closed, the Russian masses turned to a young, former KGB colonel who offered a simple program of safety, stability and renewed national vigor. Fourteen years later he is still there and the global powers continue to pretend like nothing happened or they are just spectators in a drama in which they played no part — it is too late. The Weimarization of Russia had taken its course.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Ukraine in 2014 is Bulgaria in 1878

The Historical Framework

When U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry attempted to cajole Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to have a chat with his Ukrainian counterpart in Paris last week, everyone involved should have realized that Berlin would have been a better location. And, when planning seating arrangements, it should have been made clear that Ukraine would not be invited to the discussions. This is because what is playing out in Ukraine right now before incredulous reporters, boggled western analysts and a bewildered local population is a rerun of what took place in the same region 140 years ago. Unlike today, however, the great powers of 19th century Europe spoke the same language, understood the difference between long-term objectives and short term Pyrrhic gains and recognized that events cannot long persist in a vacuum.

In 1876, the Bulgarians led an uprising against a flagging Ottoman Empire, which had been in near constant territorial and economic retreat since the turn of the century. Pan-Slavic idealism swept across Russia as western reporters telegraphed every form of atrocity committed by the Turks, mostly hired irregulars and criminals sent by Constantinople to crush the revolt as the Ottomans fended off rebellions elsewhere. Russia had been humiliated in 1856 when Sevastopol (as important to Russia's prestige then as it is today) fell after an eleven month siege by British, French, Turkish and Sardinian forces in the Crimean War. The Russians lost two of their greatest naval heroes in the defense of the port, an estimated 100,000 killed and wounded and the Black Sea Fleet (Supreme Russian Commander Count Menshikov ordered it sunk to prevent the allied navy from gaining access to the harbor). 

Alexander II was moving haphazardly forward with restructuring Russia's economy and rebuilding its international reputation in the wake of the Crimean defeat and his emancipation of the Russian serfs in 1861. He vowed to Prince Gorchakov, his foreign minister, that any intervention against the Ottomans to "rescue" Russia's "Bulgarian brothers" must not be a repeat of 1856. 

It wasn't. Through a series of brilliantly executed land campaigns and amphibious assaults, the Russian-Romanian-Bulgarian alliance won a decisive victory over the Turks and pressed on to Adrianopole (today Edirne); this placed Russian forces within striking distance of Constantinople and a full-scale invasion of the Ottoman heartland. General Mikhail Skobelev urged the powers in St. Petersburg to give him the order to press the attack and secure for Russia the redemption dreamed by every Slav nationalist since Ivan IV (i.e., Constantinople back in Christian hands and a clear path for Russia into the Mediterranean).

But instead of moving forward, Alexander halted his forces in their tracks and foisted upon the Ottomans the humiliating Treaty of San Stefano. Romania had already gained its independence and this treaty would carve out a massive new Bulgarian/Russian-client state, while effectively pushing Turkey out of the Balkans.

Why did the Russians, flushed with victory, suddenly bring their forces to heel? The answer lay in the realities of 19th century European power politics. The Turks were beaten, but the ever ominous western powers (Britain, France and now, after 1871, united Germany) stood poised to check any Russian advance which threatened their overseas possessions and a dangerous reconfiguration of the European balance of power. In short, the West stood aside to let Russia have its war (a "small victorious war" as some would later call such conflicts) with Turkey, but acquiescence was conditional on Russia's not overplaying its hand.

When the western powers saw the draft hammered out at San Stefano, they were apoplectic. German Chancellor Bismarck oriented his European policy to keeping France isolated and Britain and Russia pacified. For a united Germany, not even a decade old, to have to deal with a potential second Crimea between Britain and Russia was something he was not prepared to allow. And so, Bismarck convened the powers to Berlin for a congress in June, 1878. Bulgaria, which was not invited, would have maximal autonomy (but not independence) from the Ottoman Empire and would be shrunk to half the size desired by Russia at San Stefano. Britain obtained Cyprus, Austria received Bosnia and Russia got token lands in the Caucasus. Turkey was beaten, but not allowed to be completely crushed.

The matter with Ukraine 

While the faces of the players have changed, the similarity of the situation in which the powers find themselves today when compared with 1878 is palpable.  The U.S. has eclipsed Britain, but Angela Merkel's Germany has thrust itself, for better or worse, into the role of mediator and agent of de-escalation with Moscow. As in 1878, the powers are squabbling over a territory torn along lingual, religious and ethnic lines in a conflict stretching back centuries (think 1648 and not 1991, as the official narrative holds).

Poland was partitioned three times and ceased to exist for over a century, but the Poles had a long history of not only independence, but status as a European great power. The Ukrainians no sooner obtained their independence form Poland than they concluded an agreement with Russia, which pressed Sweden and Poland out to become the regional hegemon of Eastern Europe by the middle-18th century. Add the painful legacies of the Russian Civil War, when Ukraine and the Crimea were centers of counter-revolutionary activity, WWII and the Soviet period to economic chaos, corruption and strong-man rule by Leonid Kuchma during most of its twenty years of actual independence and you have a "country" suffering from near schizophrenic disarray. And this before Crimea even enters the equation. Donetsk and Lviv share the same borders, but not much else. The people have not come to terms with what being a Ukrainian means, much less how to go about properly handling past fissures that most countries would never be able to overcome (the Belgians could not form a proper government for over a year because of the enmity between the Flemish and Walloon populations, and that is without everything just mentioned).

And yet, all of the above is completely irrelevant to what is happening in Ukraine and how to handle the situation in a durable fashion as far as the great powers are concerned, if all of the great powers accept their roles and responsibilities. Barack Obama is no Benjamin Disraeli, as is repeatedly demonstrated with his esoteric pronouncements about violations of the Ukrainian constitution and international law. The issue is not American hypocrisy and failed overseas interventions or how none of what is happening in Ukraine as far as the U.S. is concerned has anything to do with peoples or constitutions. The issue is that when one power speaks Russian and the other speaks English without an interpreter, nobody understands each other. The language that must be spoken in Ukraine is that of narrow national interest and power politics. Bismarck could not predict how successful Russia would be against Turkey, but intervened just as things seemed to get out of hand to prevent events from spiraling out of control.

Why is the West so insistent on preserving a quasi-legitimate government in Kiev backed by only half the population while ratcheting up pressure for Russia to accept a volatile border state which may well be flooded with NATO installations and EU investment? Moreover, if the objective is to undermine Putin and the current Russian government, why back a nationalist Ukrainian government borne out of street battles whose first order of business was to shelve a regional Russian-language law and grant ultra-nationalist factions control over the interior ministry and security services? Instead of the attention remaining on the astronomical cost of the Olympics in the subtropics (as Russian opposition leader and former governor Boris Nemtsov calls the Sochi spectacle) and the 2-4 year prison sentences handed down to twenty year olds protesting Putin's inauguration, the West has allowed Putin to paint himself as a protector of Russian identity and a gatherer of historical Russian lands. Where Yeltsin failed in Chechnya in 1994, Putin might well succeed in Ukraine in 2014. As has been reported, the developing situation on Russia's borders has pushed the Moscow government's popularity to its highest level in two years. Not only has the West completely botched the media narrative it wanted, but it now has a broke, unstable government to care for in Kiev without any real plan for what to do next.

Back to Berlin

What should they do in Washington, London and Moscow? My recommendation would be an extended lunch with Angela in Berlin to hammer out concessions and preserve the balance of power in Eastern and Central Europe before any more foolish mistakes are made (read former Secretary Clinton's comparison of Putin to Hitler last week). How would the outcome look like and will it last? Here are my suggestions:

1. Russia retains control of Crimea and the March 16 referendum as to the peninsula's political status is accepted a priori; 
2. The Kiev government allows a vote on greater autonomy (not independence) for the eastern portions of Ukraine with a guarantee that Russia keeps its forces in check after consolidating its final re-acquisition of Crimea; and
3. Russia accedes to the current Kiev government remaining in place with a guarantee of its not ascending to NATO and a commitment by the West to pressure the new authorities to neutralize increasingly influential nationalist factions.

The U.S. of 2014 is the Britain of 1878. What kept Britain dominant throughout the 19th century was its pursuing a limited, balance of power approach to diplomacy between the European powers. The U.S. is not now in a position for a major international adventure and nor should it seek one. Disraeli's threat to get on a train back to London and ask for war if Bismarck did not accede to his demands in Berlin made the difference in 1878. Nobody is saying the Mr. Kerry or Mr. Obama should do the same with Mrs. Merkel and Mr. Putin because matters should not even be allowed to get to this point. The aim must be to give Russia a hallow victory while not upending the delicate balance which presently exists in Eastern Europe. Speak the language of power politics, change the narrative and make Moscow understand the offer which is on the table. As for the Ukrainians, it is the duty of great powers to avoid war and shun the battles of the past. As with the Bulgarians, who were not invited to Berlin in 1878 at Russia's insistence, I think we should be the first to tell Kiev that the task of crisis-resolution has completely fallen to others.