Conversation: Ukraine's Effect on Russian National Security
Robert D. Kaplan: I'm Robert D. Kaplan, chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, and with me today is George Friedman, the chairman and founder of Stratfor. Obviously, you all know that Ukraine has dominated the headlines the past few weeks and very lately, the media has been asking, can this descend into all out civil war? They've been using the Bosnia comparison, saying that the 1990s were the Balkans — this decade that we're in will be Ukraine. But are they overblowing things? Is this an exaggeration? What do you think, George?
George Friedman: This is less about a civil war in Ukraine than about Russian national security and the Western attempt to draw Ukraine into the Western alliance system. For Russia, Ukraine is a foundation of its national security. The path from Ukraine to Moscow is easy, it's a few, less than a hundred miles away from Stalingrad — Volgograd. The Russians can't live with a pro-Western Ukraine. And people will say, well there's no reason not to live with it, it's really, you know, no one wants to attack Russia, NATO isn't that strong. But the Russians have lived in a world in which Nazi Germany was extraordinarily weak — in 1932 it wasn't even Nazi Germany, but by 1938 it was enormously powerful and malignant. So they don't trust intentions, and they don't trust capabilities. They want a neutral or a pro-Russian Ukraine. They'll apply pressure. It doesn't turn into a civil war because ultimately, in Kiev, the decision will be made, and Kiev's inability (I suspect) to form an effective government of Ukraine will turn it into a buffer zone.
Robert: I would take it even further. I would the Russians in their historical memory know that not only did Napoleon and Hitler invade Russia, but so did Swedes, Lithuanians and Poles. So that any Russian leader, not only Putin, would probably want some sort of a buffer zone in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as in the Caucasus. But looking around Ukraine, George, I see limited fighting in eastern cities. I see an incident, a fire incident in Odessa. I see the Russians cautious about sending large-scale troops into eastern Ukraine because that crosses a line and that entails big military and diplomatic risks. But at the same time, the Kiev government seems pathetic. It seems unable to do all that much. And the West, for its part, has more or less signaled that it's not going to send in ground troops. So every side seems constrained; what's screaming at me are the constraints.
George: And what comes out of massive constraints is a general misery, which Ukraine certainly has ample amounts of, without a breakdown into any massive violence. When I look at the violence in the east, it's hardly on the level of military forces clashing. The fire in Odessa, tragic as it was, did not turn into any major conflict. I think they way you've put it is — the Kiev government is pathetic, and from the Russian point of view a pathetic Kiev government is quite satisfactory. The United States is certainly not sending troops, and the Germans are not going to have much more to do with sanctions. So what we have is a situation ultimately that favors the Russians, only in the sense that Ukraine will, against its best intentions, become a buffer.
Robert: Yes, and I will say also that unlike Bosnia where you had well-defined ethnic groups often living in specific neighborhoods, the ethnic makeup of Ukraine is far more ambiguous and lends itself much less to ethnic cleansing or massive atrocities of that sort. Also, the Germans are compromised by their economic links to Russia, which are based in turn on their natural gas/energy links. So the Germans are not going to apply sanctions very much. So that leaves just the United States, which is very limited in wanting to get involved. So can this thing just go on at a low level for months and even years? Just a weak pathetic government, a semi-failed state in Ukraine?
George: Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian government has vacillated from weak to totally ineffective. It's the natural condition. Because there are so many factions of it and so many different interests that are represented within it, that inevitably, it's going to be very hard to govern this country. The Russians have exercised degrees of influence, but never taken full responsibility for Ukraine. But you also have another problem, which is financially, the IMF loan to Ukraine is sufficient for them to pay their debts to Western banks and so on and institutions, but it's not sufficient to really boost the economy. The Russians in the meantime have increased the price of natural gas flowing in there. So when the Ukrainians really have to turn to somebody for money, and they're going to have to fairly soon, it's not going to be the West that's going to be very happy doing it because the Europeans are in a position where it's one thing to give moral support, but to give money to Ukraine while Greek unemployment is 26 percent, is going to be a little hard to do.
Robert: Well, to conclude, I'd say what's going to be very interesting is to see what the map of Ukraine looks like in coming months and years. Whether it's going to be a kind of indeterminate gray shape between a darkened east and a lighter west, or if it's going to be all these different shades within it. George, thank you very much. I'm Robert Kaplan for Stratfor, thank you.