Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Ukraine

Dear readers, please allow me a somewhat disjointed post, perhaps, in the interest of topicality:

I have had a vigorous conversation with members of my family on the Ukraine.  My brother-in-law Jim is very conservative, tends strongly toward the ideological and even the pontifical, but for all that is a very nice man, and one with whom I seek reasoned agreement.  Sometimes it’s possible.  There’s something to be said for conversations within family where you can maintain an emotional equilibrium and appreciation for seriousness of purpose.
Jim thinks the West has been weak, Obama terribly so, and that the Soviets – I mean the Russians – have been more or less invited to be aggressive.  I read The Obamians by James Mann two weeks ago, and I see that Obama has wanted to be fresh and non-postVietnamian, and to lead to an era where everyone understands win-win.  I also have read others who say, lots of luck with that!  See my friend Michael Nacht’s oped on that point of view: http://www.sfgate.com/default/article/Why-Putin-sees-little-risk-in-Ukraine-aggression-5318810.php.  Michael negotiated with the Russians on nuclear disarmament in the Clinton Administration and he just shakes his head with the memory.
On the third hand, I’m reading cold-warrior Bob Gates thoroughly engrossing and so-far inadequately reviewed (they just look for dirt to dish) new book “Duty,” and he says that in recent decades the United States has treated Russia with disrespect, insensitivity, and arrogance.  Wow, coming from Gates.  The “Ugly American” is an image that will not die.  (“Ugly American” as popularly conceived; actually, as drawn by Eugene Burdick, the Ugly American was actually a positive person who happened to be physically unattractive, I think, but his aggressive colleagues in the CIA and American business have garnered the stereotype.  I mention this only to show a modicum of erudition.)  In that sense we have goaded Putin to assert himself when the opportunity and perhaps necessity has arisen.
That all being said, what I said to Jim was, I still think we'll just have to see.  It's not all over in a fortnight.  The Crimea is historically Russian, and it is unrealistic to ask Russia to give up their warm water port.  Perhaps they have been paranoid and worried that it would go away when it wouldn't, but this move of theirs ensures that they will keep it, and Putin shows strength domestically in the way he is doing it.  But at the same time he will be losing abroad and be more isolated, but perhaps there is some splendor in that.

I actually doubt anything more will happen.  Over the longer and more important term, the major job will be to get a functioning democracy going in Ukraine, a formidable task given the Ukrainian kleptocracy that has put other kleptocracies to shame.  Yanukovich seems to have had palaces, for God’s sake; Yulia Tymoshenko was a thief, too, who probably actually did belong in jail, I figure.  Here’s the question: can the technocrats produce a government that allows the country to move forward?  That's the real challenge.
You remember the intercepted phone call of Victoria Nuland's when she said, "Fuck the EU."  A noble sentiment, that.  Attention focused on the expletive and her attitude toward an ally, but titillating as that was, the key was that she was talking about helping to get a real government going.  That's what Putin objected to, all the meddling of the US.  Her seeking good government was interpreted by Putin as meddling to achieve a Western ally.  Both were correct.  What Putin misses is that the US would have liked to have Russia as an ally as well – that’s the win-win perspective that has gone missing in the KGB perspective.

The biggest problem really is Putin's Russian economy.  It grows but doesn't reach modernity.  It remains a resource state, a petrostate, and typical of these states, doesn’t sufficiently develop human capital.  What is to be gained by grabbing more territory, if that territory is simply some glory and some rustbelt?  If people in the new territory continue to be impoverished compared to the people across the border, Putin will lose.  That's what has motivated the Ukrainians - they see the Poles across their border with good lives, and they themselves are stuck in the muck.  That's why a good government is essential.  (For an over-rated exposition of the centrality of good government in economic progress, see: Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty, by Acemoglu and Robinson.)

Not to be too Marxist, but the economy will tell the tale.  I think my brother-in-law Jim on the Right will join me in that assessment.  Right meets Left?

Budd Shenkin

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