Monday, March 3, 2014

"Russia's Most Powerful Weapon"

Under a headline, “Russia's Most Powerful Weapon Isn't What You'd Expect” Huffington post informs us that Russia’s most powerful weapon is natural gas.

Here’s an excerpt:

Given the agreement on Russian gas supplies to Ukraine, the two companies are bound to sign a new contract each quarter. When diplomatic relations between Ukraine and Russia are good, so are prices.
The last agreement, signed in December, set the rate at $268.5 for 1,000 meters cubed. This was a competitive price, given the market rate at the time of negotiations was $400.

As of today, Ukraine owes about $4 billion to Russia. The country also needs to find $35 billion to pay its debts over the next two years. These are reasons to fear a third “gas war”.


So basically Russia’s “most powerful weapon” in Ukraine is the fact that Russia has been subsidizing Ukraine’s economy to the tune of billions of dollars. Not only in below market gas prices but also in allowing Ukraine to delay payment for that gas (a de facto interest-free loan) AND the 15 billion Russia agreed to give Ukraine in exchange for scrapping the trade pact with Europe, the cancellation of which sparked this revolution. With the new government, Ukraine is unlikely to see all 15 billion but –from what I understand- around two billion has already been paid.

Neither the European Union nor Washington have come close to offering anything close to that as of yet. The latest offer of help from America amounted to one billion. Of course, if Russia decides to sell gas to the new, freedom-loving Ukraine at market prices it would be accused of waging a “gas war.”

The first act of the new, revolutionary government in Ukraine was for the parliament to cancel the law that made Russian Ukraine’s second official language, basically sending a big “Fuck You” to all Russian speaking parts of the country and the evil motherland (aka natural gas Santa Claus) as well. The new president then said that he will veto the law but the cat was already out of the bag.

The current protesters still occupying the streets of Kiev have set conditions the government must meet before they disband. These include changing the constitution to include the right to bare arms, tax reform, arrest of the former president, and lustration.

Lustration refers to purging all state offices of all people who were closely associated with the previous regime. Since the last president has been democratically elected with his base of support in the Russian-friendly east and south, lustration –if enacted- would basically end up transferring all the state power into the hands of Western Ukrainians and their supporters in the central parts of the country.

The Kremlin has been eager to portray the whole of the protest movement as Russia-hating brown shirts. This is hyperbolic propaganda. But it is true that far-right groups have played a central role in this conflict, especially after it turned violent. Today Kiev is patrolled by members of the “right sector” many of whom openly wear Nazi era insignia and a member of which told a BBC reporter that he admires National Socialism and says that the society he wants to built is a clean one “not like Hitler but a little bit like that.” One of the popular marching slogans for the right wing parties in Western Ukraine is a ditty that goes, “Death to the Ruskies, Death to the Kikes.”

The far-right party that gained a few seats in the current government is called Svoboda though back in 2004 it went by Social-National Party. They openly celebrate the Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera. But it’s all good, they’re not National Socialists they are… Socialist Nationalists? Whatever. Maybe they should be banned from the new government on account of their lack of originality. And so what if their spiritual leader dabbled in the Holocaust and fought alongside German troops for a while and they continue to make anti-Semitic statements to this day- since they are against Russia- it is all good.

The Soviet Union lost over 20 million people in the Second World War and that victor holds a religious significance to people in Russia, Eastern Ukraine and other former parts of the Soviet Union. I’m sure most American WW2 veterans and their families would be fine with being ruled by an unelected government with parties in it that celebrate a man who fought against them in a genocidal war… as long as it was in the name of democracy.

One of the party platforms of the Social-National Party… I mean Svoboda… was to strip Crimea of its autonomous status in the country and to work on getting the Russian fleet stationed there to leave. Basically to divorce a Russian-majority region from Russia completely; hence the Russian military intervention.

There is a lot of talk about the ambiguity of Crimean ownership, how it was a contested territory between various empires. Fact is that the Russian Empire absorbed it in 1783, a territory held continuously by Russians longer than then the period much of territory that today composes the Unites States was held by the American government.

If Nikita Khrushchev didn’t impulsively decided to transfer Crimea to Ukraine 50 years ago would any Western power clamor for that peninsula to be transferred to Ukraine? How much is the West willing to sacrifice to maintain borders drawn by the impulsive hand of a Soviet leader who was famous for banging his shoe on the table during a United Nation’s assembly, screaming “We will bury you!” to the pro-Western speaker?


The near-bankrupt Ukrainian government has said that it will impose harsh austerity measures to qualify for Western assistance, they openly said that they are ready for unpopular “kamikaze” measures.

So here is how this whole revolt may end up looking to many –if not most- Ukrainians. The pro-western forces have overthrown a corrupt democratically-elected president. Economic misery follows, along with horrible relations with Russia, collapse of law and order with right-wing militias patrolling the capital, devaluation of the currency and a crowd in the center of Kiev as the supreme governing authority.

Unless the West is willing to subsidize Ukraine to the tune of tens of billions of dollars (with uncertain outcomes) it is likely that this revolution could result in vast Russian gains in Ukraine.

I am not a Putin supporter or fan but there has been a clear pattern in the West to completely disregard the pro-Russian populations in former Soviet republics. The reason Putin can capitalize on the current unrest -his source of leverage- stems from the fact that around a half of the population has strong Russian sympathies.

It is acceptable for the Western powers to talk about placing Ukraine into the western sphere of influence yet Russians saying the very same thing is forcefully condemned as sinister imperialism. But when the two forces meet in Ukraine, Russia has much more at stake and is willing to shell out billions in subsidies and even initiate military action.

I don’t know what the real opinions of Ukrainians are but I know that they have been stuck in loop where being in the middle of East and West has led to economic stagnation followed by repeated cycles of revolution.

If people in the East genuinely want to join Russia they should have that option; they have a total right not to be governed by people with an alien value system and a radically different view of history. It will allow the western and central parts of Ukraine to proceed with European integration and end this tragic spectacle that the country has become.


  1. Sounds like Ukraine is in for civil war then, West/Central vs East. Perhaps a split is the best solution for everyone. Russia's $15billion deal appears pretty good. I'm curious as to why the Western Ukrainians did not like that deal.

    My wife spoke with a Russian friend today, and she had nothing but bad things to say about Putin, how he is a dictator, and that he wasn't even fairly elected. But last night on the news, they said Putin enjoys >60% approval ratings in Russia. So it sounds like he has pretty good support back home.

  2. Putin's support has been waning in Russia, according to Gallup it was at 54% before the crisis in Ukraine but it used to be 65% in 2011 and 28% in 2008.

    Though it might get a boost as a result of this situation.

    The Western Ukrainians didn't like the deal because it would place Ukraine closer to Russia and prop up a regime in Kiev that they hated from the very beginning. Yanukovich was first elected president of Ukraine in 2004 in an election that many believed was fraudulent. It started the first round of revolution in Ukraine when the constitutional court annulled the results and then the pro-western Yeshnko became the president. Four year later he left with an approval rating of four percent.

    Now Yanukovich was back in an election that was not contested. Until he was thrown out in this second pro-Western revolution.

    The very fact that a man against whom a part of the country staged a revolution in 2004 got elected again in a relatively free election shows the deep divisions in the county.

    Western Ukrainians are Catholics who speak Ukrainian as a first language and who were historically oppressed by the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union so they want to move as far from Russia as possible. Eastern Ukrainians speak Russian as their first language but aside from a distinctive regional accent in their Russian speech I am not entirely sure what makes them different from other Russians. Then again I am not an expert on Ukrainian history.

    The divide in Ukraine can also be viewed through a religious lens. The Ukrainian orthodox Christians used to be uniformly governed by the Russian church. Then after independence there was a split in the Orthodox church in Ukraine. There is a Kiev patriarchate which was deemed heretical and splittist by the Moscow based church and there is an autonomous Ukrainian Orthodox Church which remains under the Moscow patriarch.

    The Kiev patriarchate has been supporting the protesters and is strongest in Kiev.

    In my ideal scenario all the regions in Ukraine could have a vote as to their future. But that seems unlikely. The protesters in Kiev have a slogan "Glory to Ukraine!" and present a case where all of Ukraine is united against Russian influence, that's not the situation I see but I am not a Ukrainian so everyone should make their judgments about this crisis.

    1. "Putin's support has been waning in Russia, according to Gallup it was at 54% before the crisis in Ukraine but it used to be 65% in 2011 and 28% in 2008."

      Typo, meant to say 83% in 2008

  3. Well 54% is still enough to get reelected. Pretty impressive for a 'dictator'. Obama's approval rating is only 42%:

    But Americans are notorious for being critical of their politicians. Perhaps Russians are more forgiving. But they've had many years of Putin, and a majority still support him.

    What confuses me is that the Western Ukrainians turned down a much better financial deal from Russia because... of religion? I understand ideals, but money usually wipes those aside. So why aren't these folks happy to be paid off by by Putin? I must be missing something here.

    Regardless, I pray America refrains from drawing or protecting any red lines here. This appears to have nothing to do with US national interests.

  4. There is a link on one of the NYT stories where a Ukranian who read a story about pro-Russian coverage and points to a link purporting to show a pro-government demonstration in the same city. I went there and found this picture.

    It says "the motherland calls"

    This is a widespread view of Russia in Western Ukraine so they want nothing to do with it.

    As for the American response, I understand that the West dislikes the Russian military intervention in this situation. I myself am somewhat uneasy about it, especially if it spreads into Eastern Ukraine. But the current level of hyperbole that condemnation can just polarize the situation in Ukraine further.

  5. Great article summarizing the general dumbassery of the pundits criticizing Obama's "inaction" over this crisis:

    "You don’t have to listen to the “do something” crowd. These are the same people who brought you the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, among other greatest hits. These are armchair “experts” convinced that every international problem is a vital interest of the US; that the maintenance of “credibility” and “strength” is essential, and that any demonstration of “weakness” is a slippery slope to global anarchy and American obsolescence; and that being wrong and/or needlessly alarmist never loses one a seat at the table."

    So I am personally thankful that Obama is in office for this one.

  6. Yeah, pretty good article overall. There is a difference between reacting to world events and deluding yourself into believing that you can control world events. This reminds of republicans accusing Harry Truman of "losing China" when the communists won. The nationalists lost China. America remains the most powerful nation in a complicated world, trying to overextend that power will be detrimental.

  7. An even more powerful weapon is the South Stream pipeline, under construction, which will route gas delivery from Russia to the EU around Ukraine, without touching it. Then Ukraine would be left with a big empty pipeline network with nothing in it. That point is only about 2-3 years away. Some commenters on blogs suggest the EU should just forget about Russian gas, there is plenty of LNG available from your American friends. Yes, at a cost which is at least a third higher, unless the USA is prepared to ship and distribute it at a loss. That would be fine if it eventually destroyed Russia - at least from an American standpoint it would be - but that wouldn't happen because China would buy what the EU did not, also by pipeline.

    1. Thank you for the comment, Mark. Good points. The basic issue is that any sanctions against Russia would hurt Europe, the world economy and Ukraine most of all. I understand the western goal in not seeing the Russian military as the solution to the crisis in Ukraine (in a way I share it) but I don't think the current level of rhetorical hyperbole is helpful or likely to be backed up by actual willingness to act especially by the EU.

      Basically Russia decided to opportunistically gain control of a historically Russian peninsula -that became a part of Ukraine through an accident of history- with an ethnic Russian majority that has no loyalty toward Ukraine especially when that country is in a midst of an economic/political crisis.

      I understand and expect western disapproval but all the comparisons with Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan are trite and ridiculous.

      In my 27 years of life, I haven't met many Afghani Russians eager to be reunited with the motherland.

    2. All true; that notwithstanding, the current government in Kiev has no authority to be permitting or refusing requests for troop movements since it is illegitimate and illegal, Yanukovych never having been impeached properly in accordance with the Ukrainian constitution. The USA and EU are perfectly well aware that they rushed to recognize an illegal government which came to power through a violent coup in which the heavy lifting was done by Socialist anti-Semites, although it would never in a million years sit quietly by if Russia had done such a thing.

      Your English is extremely good, colloquial and natural, and you get the humour, which is the hardest to understand in any language. Nice work; I'll see you around.

    3. Thanks, Mark. Haha, hopefully after living in America since the tender age of twelve my English would be up to par. Though the protestant work ethic is extremely lacking.

      I really enjoyed all the writing on your blog, it seems to be a network and a sanctuary for that rarest of birds- the passionately pro-Russian westerner. Hope to hear more from you in the future. Take care.

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