In an exclusive interview with Chartwell for our digital magazine – INSIGHT, General Sir Rupert Smith, former Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe for NATO, and Dr Ilana Bet-El, Brussels-based political analyst, gave their sought-after observations into the on-going Ukraine crisis.
Who’s got the better hand of cards: Obama or Putin?
It depends on the game. If it is political survival within national borders, it is Putin. If it is political leadership in a globalised world, it is Obama.
In the short term Putin appears to be holding a strong hand, largely because he took the initiative: by invading the Crimea, but without using force – no shots were fired – he showed he understood the utility of force in setting a political context. However, any further success depends on his game of putting out ‘pawns’ being played on his terms. It seems so far that at he has succeeded in the Crimea: his forces were not challenged militarily. This may induce him to put out further pawns, to attempt another incursion, such as into eastern or southern Ukraine, claiming once again protection of Russian ethnic minorities. If in this case the Ukrainian military responds with force – then he will react with force, asserting provocation. All his claims to any form of legitimacy, already spurious, will then crumble.
So far, in this crisis and in others, mainly Syria, Obama has shown he understands the limits of military force, but he is yet to show he understands its utility. However, it is not really about him: in the long term the West, rather than Obama, have the stronger hand – as long as the US and the EU act together, be it in presenting a joint legal line or in levying sanctions. The united economic and democratic power they represent is a true threat to Putin, since it offers an alternative to the Russian people. Putin’s propaganda machine is telling Russians otherwise, but if they suffer under economic sanctions, as well as ever greater erosion of their human rights, Putin would be under immense internal pressure.
What are the strategic implications of the crisis for the EU?
The EU is the primary counter party in this crisis – which evolved last November due to the last minute decision of the then President of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, to not sign an Association Agreement with the EU, and instead move closer to Russia. The ensuing three months of demonstrations, culminating in Yanukovich’s departure, were about the desire of the people of Ukraine to have a state that adhered to the principles and advantages of an EU state. The first strategic implication therefore is that even if the crisis is moving towards issues of hard power, at its core is the significance and allure of the soft power of the EU.
The second implication regards energy: the EU and Russia are in a situation of mutual dependence, since the EU needs to import gas from Russia, but Russia also needs to export its gas to the EU. If sanctions are applied by the EU on Russia, their effect would not be immediate, at least as regards the decision-making elites; however, if Russia retaliates, possibly by seizing Western assets, the pressure on EU decision makers would be immense. In the short term, therefore, the crisis could take unpredictable turns, depending on the ability of the sides to sustain the pain. In the medium to long term, if the EU remains resolved, it may be that the crisis drives it to finally create a coherent energy market in order to make energy resources amongst the member states more efficient. This would be a large step towards greater energy independence – or at least far less reliance on Russian energy.
What does Ukraine represent in terms of global risk?
At one level, this crisis is about interpretations of international law. Russia is saying it is within the law to invade another state while the West is saying it isn’t. Taking such a dispute more broadly, one risk is therefore that laws governing various aspects of international life can be thrown open to interpretation, possibly at random. If this happens, it could easily seep into areas of commerce, trade and finance – which would make our unruly globalized world ever more difficult to manage.
At another level, any form of drawn-out confrontation between the West and Russia would be seen as destabilizing, not least because it could begin to affect other geographic areas of dispute such as Syria.
Another area of risk would be energy supply and security, since Russia may cut off gas supplies to Ukraine and possibly the EU, which would seek to compensate by buying in more LNG and seeking energy from alternative sources. This in turn would have a strong effect on energy prices.
At a more pragmatic level, there is a clear risk that Ukraine, which is a significant wheat producer, will be immersed in conflict or else otherwise incapable of maintaining its production this year – which would have a very bad effect on food supplies and prices.
Is the crisis a flash in the pan, or are we witnessing a fundamental re-drawing of the geo-political map?
The crisis in Ukraine is unique, especially in the post Cold War era. While other events and crises have reflected clear differences between Russia and the West, mostly the EU and the US – none has brought the two into open confrontation with a danger of escalation.
We have arrived at this point partly due to mismanagement of the global system by the West, which is nominally still its leader, and partly due to the deep failings of this system. In effect, the post 1945 global settlement is breaking down – which is hardly surprising, given it is rooted in the post World War I ideas of the Versailles Treaty, which were then redressed but not fundamentally changed after World War II. Since there was no proper global agreement or new settlement at the end of the Cold War, we are still living with that one, which is nearly seventy years old and now anachronistic.
Look at it this way: any system that in 2014 has at its heart a Security Council with the US, Russia, the UK, France and China on equal footing is either anachronistic or irrelevant.
At base therefore, this crisis is about exposing all the failings of the global order. And its resolution will be part of setting the norms of the new world order.
For information on Rupert’s speaking availability, please contact our Managing Partner, Leo von Bülow-Quirk, at email@example.com or call +44 (0) 20 7792 8000
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