Monday, July 21, 2014

Ukraine: asking the right questions - or not

I don't have any particular insight on the Ukrainian situation.

As Joe Cirincione of the Ploughshares Fund put it in a panel at Netroots Nations this past Saturday, we - the US, NATO - do not have any vital security interest in Ukraine.

Therefore, going to war over Ukraine is highly unlikely. Of course, the bold Maverick McCain is warmongering over it. (Also, the sun rose in the east this morning.)

Still, Western miscalculations could cause big problems. And since the neocons are particularly interested in provoking a more belligerent US stance toward Russia, we all need to be concerned about bad actors on Our Side doing stupid and unnecessary things.

For pretty obvious reasons, no one seems to be taking credit for the shootdown of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17.

But there also doesn't seem to be any clear evidence of who was behind the shootdown or why. And as horrible as the incident is, it doesn't change the basic stakes for the US and Russia. And Russia clearly perceives itself has having a much greater security stake in Ukraine than the US has.

Investigative reporter Robert Perry and other writers at his Consortium News site have been asking questions that the mainstream press probably needs to be asking more urgently. And almost certainly won't. In What Did US Spy Satellites See in Ukraine? 07/20/2014, Perry observes:

The dog-not-barking question on the catastrophe over Ukraine is: what did the U.S. surveillance satellite imagery show? It’s hard to believe that – with the attention that U.S. intelligence has concentrated on eastern Ukraine for the past half year that the alleged trucking of several large Buk anti-aircraft missile systems from Russia to Ukraine and then back to Russia didn't show up somewhere.

Yes, there are limitations to what U.S. spy satellites can see. But the Buk missiles are about 16 feet long and they are usually mounted on trucks or tanks. Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 also went down during the afternoon, not at night, meaning the missile battery was not concealed by darkness.
With the Pentagon busily collecting bizillobytes of our personal communications data via the NSA, maybe they were too busy to be looking at missiles in Ukraine.

And our intelligence agencies have been known to miss important facts in the past. Hard to believe, I know. But they have surely corrected that problem by now!

More seriously, it's a legitimate question. If the intelligence agencies and the Pentagon claim super-competence, why should we not demand this kind of answers and consistent accountability on such things?

After the Vietnam and Iraq Wars and the almost-war with Syria - not to mention many other cautionary examples just from American history - skepticism about claims that may lead to war or to aggressive policies that heighten the risk of war unnecessarily is certainly in order. Although I doubt the bookers for the Sunday morning news shows see it that way.

I'm particularly interested in the European response to this latest escalation in the Ukraine crisis. It's hard to see how, with the eurozone economy badly crippled by Angela Merkel's austerity economics, the EU could mount a major set of sanctions, particularly with German so dependent on Russian natural gas.

Wolfgang Münchau addresses that dependence issue in MH17 und der Konflikt mit Russland: Die fatale Ostorientierung der deutschen Wirtschaftselite Spiegel Online 21.07.2014. He criticizes former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder for remaining on the board of Nord Stream Pipeline, 51% controlled by the Russian state-owned energy firm Gazprom. I've expressed my own cautions about taking Schröder's comments on the Ukraine crisis in the context of his business commitments.

But in today's world, Schröder's role as a post-office corporate ho' for a Russian-controlled firm doesn't make him an accomplice to every bad act of Russian foreign policy, if that's even what we're dealing with here. Münchau seems to think it does. Or at least, that what we know about the MH14 shootdown at this point somehow morally requires Schröder's resignation from Nord Stream Pipeline.

Münchau also seems to think that the EU will press forward with sanctions. But there are sanctions and there are sanctions. The eurozone economy on the edge of deflation can't afford to take much of an actual economic hit from sanctions against Russia. He thinks the Russian economy is particular vulnerable to economic sanctions from the US and the EU due to the predominance of the dollar, the British pound and the euro in global financial transactions. But he does note that traditional trade sanctions are unlikely to be particularly effective against Russia.

Münchau, somewhat paradoxically, would also welcome European sanctions against Russia in the form of reducing gas imports, because dependency on Russia for natural gas is the EU's "Achilles heel."

But that also means that Europe, and Germany in particular, would be subject to counter-sanctions by Russia to interrupt gas supplies or play all sorts of games to remain the EU how dependent they are.

Münchau calls more broadly for a change of "the fatal Eastern orientation of the German economic elite." But that really is a long-term project. And part of the value of deeper integration of the European and Russian economies is that it creates pressure on both sides to avoid war with each other. It would be easy to overstate that potential. After all, the various European participants in the First World War had a high degree of economic interdependence. But still, building a more peaceful world through greater integration of the international economy has been a key concept of the post-Cold War Western policies.

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