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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Obama’s gambit

PerryScope
By Perry Diaz
Russian President Vladimir Putin signs annexation of Crimea.
Russian President Vladimir Putin signs annexation of Crimea.
A series of events that led to Russia’s annexation of Crimea have made many to wonder: why didn’t the western powers do anything to stop Russia from grabbing Crimea? And when Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the law that formalized the annexation of Crimea, President Barack Obama stressed that there will be no “military excursion” into Ukraine. That was like telling Russia: “Go ahead, invade Ukraine. We will not intervene.”
It must have tickled Putin pink when Obama said that. Indeed, with thousands of Russian troops – and growing every day – massed along the border of Ukraine, all they’re waiting is for Putin to say, “Go!” And poor Ukraine, with her armed forces ill-prepared for war and her NATO partners still recovering from a state of shock, she would be left with no choice but to lay down her arms… and surrender.
Déjà vu
Adolf Hitler invades Czechoslovakia.
Adolf Hitler invades Czechoslovakia.
What happened to Crimea and what’s likely to happen next to Ukraine, reminds us of what happened to Europe in 1938 when Hitler demanded for a tiny slice of Czechoslovakia. To appease Hitler, the European powers signed an agreement that ceded Sudetenland in exchange for peace. It was a small price to pay to preserve peace in Europe. It became known as the “Munich Appeasement.”
Czechoslovakia was forced to abide by the agreement after Britain and France told her that she either give up Sudetenland or fight Germany… alone. Czechoslovakia chose to surrender Sudetenland. But Germany got more than what she bargained for: de facto control of the rest of Czechoslovakia for as long as Hitler kept his “solemn pledge” not to go any farther.
KGB Col. Vladimir Putin.
KGB Col. Vladimir Putin.
Britain and France didn’t realize that appeasing Hitler was like feeding a hungry viper with little mice – it would only increase the viper’s appetite for a much bigger meal. And to their horror, Hitler broke his “solemn pledge” and his tanks and troops rumbled into Prague on March 14, 1939. That’s when all hell broke loose and World War II began!
What’s happening today in Ukraine has an uncanny similarity to what happened 75 years ago in Czechoslovakia. Putin’s Putinism and Hitler’s Nazism, although they differ in ideology, have similarities in their expansionist goals; that is, to lord it over Europe. While Hitler surrounded himself with the notorious Schutzstaffel (SS), Putin surrounds himself with the “siloviki,” a group of former members of state security and intelligence agencies (e.g., KGB, GRU, FSB) who now occupy high-ranking positions in Putin’s government.
Step-by-step sanctions
U.S. President Barack Obama.
U.S. President Barack Obama.
While Obama had discounted the use of the military against Russian aggression, he is using economic sanctions that had been successfully tested with Iran. Last March 17, Obama signed an executive order freezing the assets of 11 Russians and four Ukrainians involved in Russia’s intervention in Crimea as well as visa bans and economic sanctions. The sanctioned individuals won’t have access to US financial institutions and would have difficulty doing business in dollars.
On March 20, Obama announced sanctions against Bank Rossiya and 20 officials and business tycoons who are close friends or associates of Putin. Bank Rossiya is the personal bank for senior officials of the Russian government, and many bank officials and shareholders are members of Putin’s inner circle. The sanctions prohibit US banks, firms or individuals from doing business with Bank Rossiya and likewise the bank is prohibited from conducting transactions in dollars. In addition, US-based MasterCard and Visa had stopped servicing Bank Rossiya.
Gas pipeline in Ukraine.
Gas pipeline in Ukraine.
Obama also announced that he signed a third executive order authorizing the Treasury Secretary to put sanctions on Russia’s financial services, energy, metals and mining, engineering, and defense industries. And this is where it would hurt Russia most, particularly energy. Oil and gas are Russia’s prime hard currency earners.
“These sanctions would not only have a significant impact on the Russian economy, but could also be disruptive to the global economy. However, Russia must know that further escalation will only isolate it further from the international community. The basic principles that govern relations between nations in Europe and around the world must be upheld in the 21st century,” Obama said.
These step-by-step sanctions are bound to compel Putin to reassess his vision of the rebirth of an empire with Mother Russia as the spoke that will hold together all of the former Soviet republics including the Soviet Union’s former client states, into a new world order, Pax Russica, which would put an end to American dominion or Pax Americana. However, he knows that his dream of restoring Russia’s former glory is beyond his reach for as long as the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) remain cohesive militarily, politically, and economically.
NATO reaction
NATO
NATO
Indeed, the Ukraine crisis has brought the 28-member NATO closer together. But one wonders how NATO would react should Russia invade Ukraine? Would NATO send her armed forces to defend Ukraine? If so, would Putin use Russia’s nuclear arsenal? And would NATO strike back with nuclear weapons? If that were the case, then it would lead to a nuclear holocaust and Putin knows that. But while Putin may be harboring delusions of grandeur, he is not crazy enough to press the “red button” that will lead to MAD; that is, Mutually Assured Destruction.
End game
However, Putin is aware that if he’d cross the border into Ukraine – just like what he did in Crimea – the US and NATO might not be able to deter Russia’s advancing mechanized divisions with conventional weapons because the US has withdrawn her Abrams battle tanks from Germany a year ago. That would leave Obama with limited options, none of which is military.
Ukraine's gas pipeline connections.
Ukraine’s gas pipeline connections.
His only viable option then are economic sanctions, which would cut off the flow of natural gas from pipelines that run through Ukraine to reach the European market, which, by the way, is dependent on Russia for 30% of her energy. The US, which is the world’s largest producer of natural gas, can then provide Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) to her European allies. And this is where Putin would face a dilemma. If he continues with his military incursion into Ukraine, his largest exportable commodity – natural gas – will be cut off; thus, plunging Russia into economic chaos. On the other hand, if he stops his military incursions, he will not fulfill his dream of Pax Russica.
At the end of the day, Obama’s gambit may have given him an opening to checkmate Putin.
(PerryDiaz@gmail.com)

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