Cavan Hogue. Stick versus Carrot in Ukraine?

Sep 1, 2014

A major problem with the situation in Ukraine is that you can’t believe anything anyone says because they all have their political agendas to push and don’t hesitate to lie.

Crimea, Odessa and the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine have Russian majorities who would produce a majority for being part of Russia in any free and fair plebiscite. So the issue is one of self-determination versus territorial integrity. There is also the question of Russian minorities elsewhere but only where they occupy a definable territorial area.

Russia wants friendly states around it and Putin has pushed a highly nationalistic line domestically which has been popular. He says he will protect Russians wherever they may be.  Domestic perceptions are vital to his continued success at home.. He is now in a position where he either bows publicly to Western pressure which will do him great harm domestically or continues to stand up to the wicked West which will be popular domestically..There is nothing unusual about Russians telling porkies about what they are doing. This is typical Russian behaviour and not unknown in the West.

It is increasingly clear that Russia has gone from arming and supporting the separatists (cf the US in Nicaragua and Chile) to the insertion of “volunteers” to actually fight (cf US and Australian advisers in Vietnam). It is highly unlikely that Russia would go beyond the Russian speaking areas because that would be a whole new ball game where the Russians would find themselves amidst a hostile population. However, they are unlikely to stop supporting the separatists and presumably the ultimate aim is separate Russian states well disposed towards Russia.

Putin’s reminder that Russia is a major nuclear power should be seen as simply tweaking the American nose because he knows that neither the US or the Europeans will commit troops. Kiev’s talk about full scale war is an obvious plea for stronger Western support which goes beyond threats of sanctions.

The problem for the West is that sanctions will only strengthen Putin’s resolve and any solution must involve some kind of face saving formula which the Ukrainians will not be interested in finding. The Europeans are also vulnerable to counter sanctions from Russia in a way the Americans are not. Ukrainian membership of NATO would probably be seen by Russia like the US saw Soviet missiles in Cuba and, in any case, the Europeans would not be interested in this. Pushing NATO right up to the border with Russia was not a smart move.

Australia’s hairy chested approach has lost our farmers export markets and achieved nothing else. We are not a serious player but are vulnerable if Russia wants to punish the monkey as a way of getting at the American organ grinder. Our approach has served to show our neighbours that, for all our talk about Asia, Europe is still our focus otherwise why would we be so strident about what is essentially a European problem? The Government’s aim is probably to appear tough domestically and to get our tummy tickled by Washington.

So, in summary, Putin shows no sign of backing down and the West shows no sign of going beyond ineffective sanctions. The only solution would seem to be some kind of autonomy for the Russian speaking area of Ukraine achieved through a negotiated political solution. Russia has been backed into a corner where bowing to sanctions would be an enormous loss of face and the strident rhetoric by the West makes it hard to back down without loss of face.Perhaps less stick all round and a bit more carrot?

Cavan Hogue was former Australian Ambassador to USSR and Russia.

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