The case for an intelligent response to the Crimean aftermath

March 20, 2014

This may not be the most appropriate place for this but its my blog so…

President Putin must be a really good chess player because he plays the global chess board so well. A chess player not only plays the chess board and the pieces on it but also the other chess player. What has gone on in the last few weeks may say more about how President Putin sees the other chess players and, frankly, the contempt he must hold them in. To continue the chess analogy President Putin saw his opposite players (US, EU, NATO) and the lack of clear thinking and clear objectives and saw a free pawn on the chess board (Crimea) that he could take without incurring any cost…and he took it.

Now unless anybody thinks that this is a good thing then let us remember that the Russian annexing of Crimea is a total and bare-faced violation of international law and the United Nations Charter, as well as, specific agreements signed between Russia, United States and United Kingdom over the sovereign integrity of Ukraine. It is a totally unacceptable breach of the international order by a major power showing contempt for the other international powers and small countries on its borders. So the question becomes how do we prevent something like this happening again? I suspect not by introducing sanctions on one of our major economic partners and this is the rub, we need to integrate Russia more into the international economic order to prevent future repeat violations not isolate it. If President Putin is the chess player then we need to change the balance of pieces on the board and ensure that there are no more free pawns to take.

David McWilliams (@davidmcw) commented earlier that the perception in Berlin is very different to that in Washington and he is correct. Chancellor Merkel is looking at Russia and seeing a country that has broken the rules but is also the supplier of 40% of German oil and gas supplies. An intelligent lady, she would also know that if there was a free and internationally overseen referendum in Crimea that a majority would still likely want to rejoin the Russian Federation. In the short term there is virtually nothing that Germany or the EU can do to overturn the annexing of Crimea. If President Putin has played the short game then Chancellor Merkel, as the de facto leader of Europe must play the medium to long game. She needs to change the Russian perspective of both the pieces on the board but also the intent of the player opposite them. What does this entail?

Let us start with the one weapon that the EU can use to get Russian attention, energy independence. I do not have a magic wand and I do not underestimate the work needed to achieve this but any political leader in the EU system that today does not understand that something like 55% of the total Russian Federal budget is made up of the taxes and duties on the gas and oil it sells and that gas and oil sales to the EU makes up the biggest part of that revenue, is in need of new political and economic advisors. The EU process may appear slow and cumbersome but that is because it is incredibly democratic. 28 countries have to agree to new laws and procedures and the result is that the process is very detailed and compromise normally requires time and discussion. This is a strength to the EU system; I personally want to live in a liberal democratic system where one person does not have the power to drag us all to the brink. However, back to energy independence; this will take some time to achieve but every step the EU takes is a step in the right direction. Today, the real concern is whether Russia turns off the flow of oil and gas. In a few years we need to ensure that the fear is what happens to the Russian economy if the EU turns off the taps. That is a deterrence that President Putin would start to pay attention to. Achieving energy independence must become a tier-one strategic objective for the EU resulting in a series of agreed common actions that counties start to implement immediately.

The next point is more controversial as I am not in any way war mongering but looking at how we can alter the perception of the global chess board from the Moscow perspective. It may also appear rich as I live in a country, the Republic of Ireland, which is militarily non-aligned. So with all the caveats in place may I suggest that NATO really needs to get its act together. The reality is that Russia is not looking for a shooting war (it went to great pains and showed very high levels of discipline to avoid a shoot out with the Ukraine military held up in Crimea) but it will take loose pawns if we offer them. I have no desire to see NATO get into a war mentality but NATO was set up as a defence mechanism and the stronger that the Russian perspective is of that defence mechanism the less likely it is to cross any lines. Now Ireland is not in the eye of the storm but if I were living in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Bulgaria, Poland and more presciently Ukraine and Moldova, I may have a real and substantive fear for my countries security today. Russia will not like this and will wail loudly but this may be the only real price that Russia will pay for gaining Crimea and they have most certainly built this into their cost-benefit analysis, including the deployment of the anti-ballistic defence system (which they may have calculated was going to get deployed anyway and at least this way they got Crimea and the Sevastopol naval base).

The world is a complicated place. On the same day we are talking about introducing further sanctions on Russia, the EU and US and working with Russia on the same side of the table on the Iranian negotiations. In the last few days Russia has used the old Soviet playbook to great success from their point of view but that does not mean that Russia is the old Soviet Union. Russia is an early-stage democracy, it is a major economic market and player, it is a UN Security Council member and we need to integrate Russia more into the world economic order. If we accept that President Putin is the chess player then our response must be intelligent. We need to rearrange our pieces so that our position in the middle of the board is very strong and that we have no free pawns and pieces undefended on the board. It then becomes in Russian interest to play the game by the same rules as the rest of us. Throwing the pieces in the air may be the emotive response but it is not the intelligent response.

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