As if things in Europe aren’t complicated enough, the situation in Ukraine is getting more troubling by the day. The turmoil there is having vast geopolitical impacts that are keeping the investing world as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. Here’s the quick, errrrhhh, fair enough, as quick as a verbose Irish lass can get, version of how we got to today.
In late 2013, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich was expected to sign some agreements that could eventually integrate Ukraine with the European Union economically. Ultimately, he refused to sign the agreements, a decision thousands of his countrymen immediately protested. Demonstrations eventually broke out with protesters calling for political change. When Yanukovich resisted their calls, they demanded new elections. Eventually the protestors won, Yanukovich was forced to flee the country and now we have a nation in flux.
So why does anyone outside of Ukraine, population 44.6m and with 233k square miles, care? Ukraine is central to Russian defenses, sharing a long border with the former Soviet Union and more importantly, Moscow sits all of 300 flat and easily traversed miles from Ukraine. Therefore, from a Russian perspective a tighter Ukrainian-EU integration represents a threat to Russian national security. Putin appears to be disinterested in actually governing Ukraine, but rather his goal seems to be to effectively have negative control, the ability to prevent Ukraine from doing anything Russia dislikes. With that in mind, it appears that even the very idea of further EU integration was provocation enough for Putin. The European Union’s and the Germans’ public support for opponents of Yanukovich crossed his red line.
From a European perspective, Ukraine isn’t quite as interesting. Economically the Eurozone wasn’t enamored with having the nation join the EU, it just liked the possibility of such. Adding a country as weak and disheveled as Ukraine to an already strained union didn’t make much sense, but the idea of the possibility someday is attractive. The talk about joining was really more about inviting Ukraine to make a cultural shift towards Europeanism, with a constitutional democracy and a more liberalized economy. Germany found itself between the proverbial rock and a hard place as it continues to work with Russia on its mutual energy and investment interests while trying to manage coalitions within the European Union, particularly attempting to appease the Baltic States and Poland who would like to see Ukraine closer to them and further from the Russian camp, giving them an additional buffer.
The U.S. strongly supported the Orange (anti-Yanukovich) Revolution, siding with the Germans and the Eurozone, which was no doubt going to get under Putin’s skin; but then the U.S. owed him one after the Snowden situation. Throughout history, many of the global conflicts, and for that matter noteworthy familial brawls, have been catalyzed by the little things.
The situation has evolved into a tense standoff between the G7 nations and Russia. On March 12th, the U.S. Department of Energy announced that it would draw down from the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve in what it claimed was a “test sale to check the operational capabilities of system infrastructure.” In reality, this was a warning shot fired at Putin. Later that same day Bloomberg reported that the U.S. has escalated the situation even further, with General Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, claiming that “in the case of an escalation of unrest in Crimea, the U.S. Army is ready to back up Ukraine and its allies in Europe with military action.” The G7 has threatened sanctions against Russia if it continues, with the U.S. Congress passing a resolution on March 11th to work with European allies and others to “impose visa, financial, trade and other sanctions” against key Russian officials, banks, businesses and state agencies. In a quick tit-for-tat, Russia responded on March 13th that it is prepared to retaliate with sanctions of its own against the west. Germany responded to this by announced that Angela Merkel is prepared to cancel a summit with Russia if Moscow does not help to defuse the situation.
To add a little extra flame to the fire, Iranian Oil Minister arrived in Moscow late March 13th to meet with Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak and Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov, IRNA reported. Namdar-Zanganeh will discuss ways to deepen economic cooperation between the countries, because there weren’t nearly enough strained relationships!
Militarily things are also nail-biter as around midnight on March 5th the Russian navy used tugboats to maneuver a 9,000-ton hulk of a mothballed anti-submarine cruiser into the inlet to Crimea’s Donuzlav Lake, effectively blocking access to the sea from Ukraine’s primary naval installation on the peninsula. Reportedly seven of the Ukrainian’s twenty five ships are trapped, picture at left.
According to the Ukrainian Defense Ministry, on Saturday March 15th, Ukrainian forces repelled an attempt by Russian troops to land in the southern Ukrainian region of Kherson Oblast. The landing reportedly occurred on Arbatskaya Strelka, a long spit of land running parallel to the east of Crimea. Earlier, it was reported that four Russian military helicopters deployed around 60 Russian troops near the town of Strilkove, forcing around 20 Ukrainian border guards and servicemen to retreat from their positions. Later in the day Ukrainian and Russian defense ministries announced a truce in Crimea until March 21st. Anyone else feel like renting Red Dawn (the original of course)?
On Sunday March 16th, the people in the Crimean region reportedly voted to have Russia annex Crimea by an overwhelming majority of some 95%+. On Monday the EU announced that it would impose travel bans and asset freezes on 21 Russian and Ukrainian officials that are considered central to Crimea’s move to separate from the Ukraine. The U.S. issued sanctions as well, via an executive order signed by the President, to freeze the assets of and ban visas for seven Russian officials and four Ukrainians.
Tuesday the Kremlin announced that it had officially annexed Crimea, which could be the most dangerous geopolitical event of the post-Cold World era. The two most likely outcomes are:
Russia will quickly prevail, gaining the power to redraw its borders and set the precedent for exercising veto powers over the governments of its neighbors or,
Western-backed Ukrainian government will push back and the second-largest country by area in Europe will descend into a Yugoslav-style civil war that will likely pull into its turmoil, Poland, NATO and eventually the U.S.
An alternative outcome is unlikely as Putin cannot at this point give up Crimea. It would mean a publicly shaming on a global level that could destroy his presidency.
Bottom Line: This situation has the potential to rock the markets, which are for now keeping a wary eye. Europe desperately needs Russian fuel. London and much of Europe is greatly beholden to the nouveau riche Russians for their highly demonstrative consumption of luxury goods and services, which only adds more pressure. There’s even a reality TV show called “Meet the Russians” which follows the lives of some ultra-bling Russians who are buying up Britain and “setting a new benchmark for extravagant living.” Europe can’t afford to push too hard back against Russia, but they also cannot ignore a precedent for unfettered Russian aggression. It is impossible to predict exactly how this will play out, but close attention is warranted.