Breaking the Silence

13 04 2014

Haven’t been around for a while. You may have noticed. No excuses. There’s been a lot of important things happening around the world, and I’ve had opinions about all of them, but a lot of what I intended to say was said by others- and usually done far better than I could. So, it became a habit to not write anything. This is a bad habit to get into, by the way.

At the urging of one of the Unusual Suspects, I’ve decided to resume hurling my mental feces into the ether. For better or for worse, I will now hold forth on various topics of interest to me. You’ve been warned.

Ukraine

I’ve been to Ukraine- mostly the areas around the Black Sea, including the Crimea. The people were all friendly, the countryside was lovely, and I generally enjoyed my visits- to Odessa in particular.

I was therefore very attentive to the political events in the country, starting with Yanukovich rising to power and including the recent revolution. Given the history of the area (Ukraine is historically getting alternately fucked over from east and west), I rather expected the revolution to end badly for the protesters. People like Yanukovich rarely go out quietly, and a situation much like that in Syria appeared to be the most probable outcome. I was quite pleased to be wrong, and looked forward to the next bit of political theater which usually ensues in the aftermath of a revolution: payback.

After a successful revolution- such as the American Revolution- there is normally a modest period of near-chaos, as the loudest voices suddenly discover themselves without an enemy to rally against. There are always disparate factions in any revolution, and they generally only work with each other out of necessity against a common enemy. Take away the common enemy, and they tend to fall out among themselves. In the US, there was a significant period where each state was its own little nation. The leaders of those “independent” states eventually realized that their “separate but equal” status was causing more problems than their original issues with Great Britain, so they worked out a new system of government with a new constitution.

In Ukraine, the western parts of the country have historically been far more European than Russian. Thanks to Soviet-era population management measures (such as Stalin transplanting hundreds of thousands of ethnic Russians to eastern Ukraine), eastern Ukraine has been a bit less focused on Europe, and more interested in Mother Russia. Geography plays a part, too. The Soviets were not fond of roads. The road network in the west is fairly extensive, but less so in the east. The roads east of the Dnieper river mostly run toward Russia. The roads west of the Dnieper mostly run to Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Rumania, and Byelorussia.

In a post-revolutionary society, such divisions are often amplified in the immediate aftermath of the revolution, but the cultural demands for separation can be worked out by compromise between the different groups. Despite the rhetoric, they all have more in common with each other than with anyone else- including the russophiles in eastern Ukraine. The common bonds between fellow countrymen will generally overcome feelings of separatism, given time.

Alas, Ukraine was not given that time. A greedy neighbor immediately set about taking advantage of tgeh post-revolutionary chaos period. Small numbers of well-financed agitators were inserted into Crimea to foment a “popular uprising”. Suspiciously well-equipped armed men with current-issue Russian equipment suddenly appeared to “protect” the “protesters” by taking over government buildings and dealing with undesirables- such as the minority Tartar population, which wants nothing whatsoever to do with Russia.

Since the Ukrainian government was still in transition, with the chain of command thoroughly shattered and widespread insecurity about who is in charge, they wisely decided against overt measures in response to fairly blatant Russian provocation. By itself, Ukraine cannot stand against Russia militarily. And so Crimea was lost. Russia appears to be trying to repeat this tactic in eastern Ukraine, despite the fact that everyone knows what is really happening. Russia is also trying to squeeze Ukraine by arbitrarily raising the prices of oil and gas.

Why is Russia doing this? All of these actions are demonstrably not in Russia’s best interest. Pissing off the whole world- especially those nations who actually have the wherewithal to punish Russia- is counterproductive. Russia cannot withdraw into a closed bubble, trading only within its borders and with client states seized by force. For good or ill, Russia is tied into the global economy. Without access to foreign trade, Russia will clunker along for a while before everything starts falling apart.

Russia is facing the same demographic bubble as the rest of the more-or-less developed world, but that bubble is revealing a dark secret: Russia is running out of Russians. The population in 1991 was reportedly about 148 million. Twenty years later, the population is about 143 million. The largest country on Earth has fewer people than Bangladesh, Pakistan, or Nigeria. Getting into a military contest with First World nations and alliances while dealing with a demographic crisis and increased economic isolation is not rational. Suicidal, even.

The end result of all this stupid maneuvering by Russia is to alarm all of its neighbors and drive them into the arms of the European Union. By playing the gas card, Russia has demonstrated its willingness to use raw economic force to achieve its goals, leaving everyone doing business with Russia to reconsider doing so. Military adventurism and posturing by Russia along the border with Ukraine has brought heavy NATO reinforcements to Poland and Rumania, and the Turks have closed the Bosporus to all Russian traffic. Note that none of those reinforcements are headed into Ukraine. Ukraine is not a member of NATO or the EU. We have no legal standing to contest Russia’s blatant land grab.

Maybe it’s just me. Perhaps I’m not privy to the Big Picture, and I’m not using the right type of political calculus. I concede the possibility, but I contend that Russia’s leadership isn’t using the right math, either.

Current status: Perplexed

Current music: I Want You To by Weezer

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