Should we get involved in Ukraine?

Ukraine is a complicated question worldwide. It is a relatively large Eastern European economy – certainly the biggest, after Russia, among the former Soviet Republics. It is also a major natural gas conduit for sales of Russian natural gas from Russia to the European Union.

As such, it’s important to Russia, not just as a transit point for natural gas to its biggest customers in Europe, but also as a large economy that exports a lot of its agricultural products, its workers and its steel to Russia. Having an economy such as this in the Russian-led customs union would lend legitimacy to an organization the Russians have been trying to transform into a European Union-type economic alliance.

In this post I’m going to attempt to lay out some issues, as well as some possible outcomes and solutions.

First, let’s get something straight. There have been rumblings that the U.S. government has somehow been funding the protesters in Ukraine, hoping to topple the corrupt, pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych. This is a silly idea. Why would the United States work to create a power vacuum? Why would the United States want to facilitate the rise to power of Julia Timoshenko, who by many accounts is just as corrupt as Yanukovych AND has ties to organized crime? It doesn’t make sense.

The protests were peaceful until the Ukrainian parliament (the Rada) passed a law criminalizing protests and demonstrations, ostensibly because Yanukovych saw how unpopular his decision to turn away from an Association Agreement with the European Union (EU) was, and decided that it would be wise to shut the demonstrators up. Why would the U.S. want to complicate the situation by funding violence? The only nation with anything to gain from the violence would be Russia, because the violence would give Russians an excuse to intervene under the guise of protecting the large number of ethnic Russians living in Ukraine.

But let’s not speculate about who funded the violence. The only reason I mention this is because I’ve been reading Internet sites (run by people commonly described as “conspiritards”) who are spreading rumors about U.S. involvement in the protests – a party line commonly advanced by Russia itself, whose leadership don’t want to draw attention to their own behavior that led to the protests in the first place.

When Russia began putting massive economic pressure on Ukraine and promising loans and lower natural gas prices to the cash strapped country, while implementing trade barriers and pressuring Ukraine to pay its debts immediately to the Russian company Gazprom, this had to have been a major reason for Yanukovych’s sudden turn to Russia and rejection of the West – even though at least half the country wanted closer ties to the West – or at least a national referendum, rather than a unilateral decision forced by Russian pressure.

Now, the Russians have entered the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea – an autonomous republic in Ukraine under the pretext of protecting their military assets (the Russian Black Sea fleet is based there) and protecting the ethnic Russians in the area. The government of Crimea, which has already voted to secede, has also set a mid-March date for a popular referendum on separating from Ukraine and joining Russia. At the same time, the Crimean constitution defers to the Ukrainian constitution on matters that affect the territorial integrity of Ukraine, and the Crimean parliament has no right of legislative initiative.

So what does this all mean?

From what I see here, this is a Ukrainian national issue. This is an issue between Russia and Ukraine. This is an issue in which the United States has no right to directly interfere.

We have no right to involve ourselves in Ukraine’s constitutional matters. We should not interfere in any negotiations between Russia and Ukraine (although the Russians refuse to negotiate with the new interim government of Ukraine, claiming they are extreme right nationalists). And to those legislators in Congress demanding sanctions, I have to ask – against whom?

Last week’s Executive Order blocking property of persons contributing to the situation in Ukraine names no one, and “technically,” even though pro-Russian troops have entered Crimea, Russia can claim “pro-Russian” doesn’t mean “officially” Russian. All this at a time when the nation is war-weary, is cutting defense spending and has no appetite for another military action – especially one that does not involve it directly.

Military action is not and should not be an option right now. Economic and energy chess, however, is another story. Russia has threatened to cut off supplies of natural gas to Europe. Oil and natural gas exports comprise nearly 60 percent of Russia’s total export market.

Can the U.S. export enough natural gas to Europe to make Russia’s natural gas threat irrelevant there?

Probably not, because we don’t have the infrastructure quite yet.

We do, however, have a large petroleum strategic reserve, which we can open to sales on the global market, which would hit Russia where it hurts most. Granted, this doesn’t help the EU’s natural gas problem, but the economic pressure on Russia may force Putin to reconsider the natural gas threat.

It’s a thought. I’m not saying it’s the solution, but it’s certainly a more viable one than the impotent Congressional screeches for sanctions or the neocon demands for military mobilization.

Ultimately, though, we need to allow the people of Ukraine to solve their own issues, observe the trends closely and act accordingly, if needed.

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