NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

April 30, 2014

What's happening in Ukraine matters

As I See It
Richard Ross

---- — What Russia is doing in and to Ukraine is very dangerous. The political posturing, bickering and absurdities in Washington that accompany almost every story or event that is national or international in character often dulls our interest in world events. But the situation in Ukraine, a country of 44 million people in the heart of Europe, is compelling and demands our attention.

Russia’s justification for seizing and annexing Ukraine’s Crimea region was that most of the people in Crimea were Russian in origin and culture and they wanted to leave Ukraine and become part of Russia. It also expressed concern that the new government of Ukraine was a threat to the safety of those of Russian origin or language living in Ukraine. And it has used that same rationale to explain its build-up of troops and related military assets on Ukraine’s eastern border.

However, even casual students of history will recall the similarity of these words to those of Adolph Hitler when he explained Nazi Germany’s seizure of neighboring Austria before the start of WWII. Europe’s history is replete with comparable incidents that reflect hundreds of years of ethnic conflict and uncertain territorial borders, and the wars that followed killed millions.

Russia is a very large, militarily strong country with a strong sense of nationalism, whose identity and world standing changed dramatically 25 years ago with the breakup of the Soviet Union. Not unlike Germany, whose humiliating defeat after WWI fueled the nationalism that brought Hitler to power, Russia wants to restore its position as a world power, and President Putin has successfully played that card to gather domestic political support for his aggressive acts.

While we do not know Putin’s long-term intentions, we do know he is threatened by a Ukraine that looks West rather than East for economic opportunity, military cooperation and financial aid. And since Ukraine’s citizens are divided over whether to look West or East, as evidenced by its recent political upheaval resulting in the overthrow of its pro-Russian president, Russia sees an opportunity to create and encourage civil unrest among Ukraine’s ethnic Russians and push the country to the East, and maybe even annex larger sections of eastern Ukraine into Russia.

Although it is not likely that all of this will lead to WWIII, here are a few reasons why we should all be concerned:

1. Look at a map of Europe. Among the countries that share a border with Ukraine are Poland, Romania and Slovakia, all of whom, like Ukraine, are former satellites of the Soviet Union. These countries have turned to the West since their liberation and are members of NATO, whose membership also includes the U.S. and its European Allies. NATO’s core task is its commitment to the collective defense of its members and their territory. That means if Russia, emboldened by its success in Ukraine, threatens any NATO member bordering Ukraine, the U.S., as NATO’s most powerful and influential member, will get drawn into the fray. And if that happens, there will be significant human and financial costs to the U.S. Remember the war in Yugoslavia 20 years ago?

2. Russia is Western Europe’s largest supplier of natural gas and its actions in Ukraine have demonstrated the vulnerability of Western Europe’s energy supply. In addition, most of the energy that it buys from Russia is delivered via pipelines that go directly through Ukraine. The U.S. has enormous natural gas resources and regardless of what happens in Ukraine now, Western Europe, for strategic and market reasons, will increasingly look to the U.S. for natural gas. That is potentially great news for many U.S. companies, but likely bad news for U.S. consumers, as the price of natural gas will rise. Corporate profits and the laws of supply and demand will see to that. Another likely consequence will be increased pressure to limit government regulation of fracking, an environmentally risky method of extracting natural gas from our subsurface.

3. As the 2014 mid-term elections approach, we can expect a lot of hyperbole about how timid and ineffective President Obama has been in response to Putin’s actions. And a vigorous defense of Obama will follow. This is an issue we should all be informed about so we can ferret out the truth from the bluster. We have to be able to look beyond Fox News’ Putin vs. Obama “fight” posters showing a macho, shirtless Putin on a motorcycle and a nerdy looking Obama cycling on the Vineyard with a helmet.

4. The Cold War with Russia originated from Russia’s post-WWII domination of Eastern Europe. It shaped our geopolitical landscape for a generation, and was the driving force behind the nuclear arms race, McCarthyism and our engagement in the Korean and Vietnam wars. Will we be traveling down that road again, and if so, at what human and financial cost?

It is not my nature or intention to be an alarmist. However, it behooves all of us to pay close attention to what is happening in Ukraine.

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Richard Ross lives in Amesbury.