Funny things happen when you foment an uprising. After factions in Western Ukraine overthrew the Russian backed government, Russia has responded by invading parts of Eastern Ukraine, specifically the Crimea, which is dominated by Russian speakers and those friendly to Russian influence. The invasion sparked a rhetorical threat from President Obama that there would be “consequences” for Russia though he never made exactly clear what that meant as numerous observers questioned what Obama even could do.
There is no real constituency for war in Ukraine with Russia or even an appetite to send in peace keeping forces. Perennial Russian Leader Vladamir Putin told President George W. Bush in 2008 that Ukraine belonged to Russia., full stop. Bush took the hint and never pushed for Ukraine to join NATO which would obligate America and other European countries to fight back against Russia after this invasion.
Needless to say Putin is not concerned with Obama’s “consequences.”
Putin may face a bad month or so in the world media—perhaps face some sanctions and other troubles—for moving tanks, planes, and Russia’s own brutal brigade of riot police to quash protesters, overthrow parliament, and restore some version of the old regime. But in his mind, that’s nothing compared with the prospect of losing Ukraine.
Putin, after all, has lamented the breakup of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. He considers Ukraine to be a Russian “territory,” not an independent nation (and said so to President George W. Bush in 2008). And the Crimean peninsula, which Nikita Khrushchev ceded to Ukraine in 1954, is Ukrainian in name only, and even then just barely. (Khrushchev didn’t quite surrender the land but declared it an autonomous enclave.) The Russian Navy maintains an important fleet there; most of its people speak, and regard themselves as, Russian. In the ongoing crisis, Putin did send troops to seize Crimea—to the complaint of few locals.
It is worth looking at this episode in the larger context of the end of the Cold War, America and the EU has been eating their way towards Moscow for a generation and after snatching much of the old Soviet block have finally hit the wall in Ukraine. And unlike the wall in Berlin, this one is not constructed with concrete and ideology but ethnography and history. Nationalism may be poison but it’s a strong brew.
Yet even as American imperialists at home cry over Ukraine there is little evidence the American public is at all interested in a military confrontation with Russia. This is, to put it lightly, a matter of elite concern. And perhaps even more than concern, delight.
America’s vast defense and intelligence industries or military-industrial complex have been frantically searching for some force to justify their existence. Terrorism never really fit the $600 billion annual bill. Small groups who pose marginal threats and are quickly destroyed. Al Qaeda was obliterated six months into the war in Afghanistan and never recovered. But now Ukraine offers the MIC hope.
Even if there is no war, the Crimea crisis is likely to alter fundamentally relations between Russia and the west and lead to changes in the global power balance, with Russia now in open competition with the United States and the European Union in the new eastern Europe. If this happens, a second round of the cold war may ensue as a punishment for leaving many issues unsolved – such as Ukraine’s internal cohesion, the special position of Crimea, or the situation of Russian ethnics in the newly independent states; but, above all, leaving unresolved Russia’s integration within the Euro-Atlantic community. Russia will no doubt pay a high price for its apparent decision to “defend its own” and “put things right”, but others will have to pay their share, too.
So many factions within America’s defense and intelligence establishment are served by re-starting the Cold War it’s almost amazing this hasn’t happened sooner. So while it is unlikely Ukraine will become the war zone so many chickenhawks would like it to become, it does lay the foundation for another time of high tensions and high security spending.
In the battle between building a post-Cold War economy and the network of institutions that needed a massive foe to justify their existence Ukraine has given the Deep State a leg up. Cold War tensions are returning and a defense industry once under threat of sequester and irrelevance is poised for a comeback.
It’s almost like this is what some people wanted all along.