Ukraine: it’s a thing

This piece of Galrahn’s has a great title: US Soft Power in Ukraine is Missing Hard Power’s Escalation Control. It then wanders off into generic stuff about how Obama is lacking resolve and a succession of supposed military options, all of which would lead to war with Russia.

But if we were to stick with the title, we might learn something. “Soft power” – influence, the EU as a magnet, that stuff – is very hard to “calibrate” precisely because it deals in influence over people rather than physical force. People may not be impressed for years, but then change their minds and hugely over-deliver. The participation that makes it important also makes it very difficult to use as an instrument of policy. Classical theories of innovation diffusion tell us that “reinvention”, the degree to which users make innovations their own, is a critical factor in whether this or that idea reaches enough early adopters to hit the inflection point into mass adoption. As a result, not only does it work far better than anyone expects when it works, it also goes to new and unpredictable places nobody expects.

Fair enough. It is obviously true that US and European soft power played a role in Euromaidan. They called it Euromaidan, after all. But I have been writing so far in the voice of someone who imagines they controlled the situation, explaining why they failed to control it. Saying that soft power lacks escalation control is another way of saying that you underestimated the agency of Ukrainians. This theme runs through the whole story.

Vladimir Putin, famously, doesn’t believe it’s a nation and openly treats it as a colonial entity. The US imagines that some National Endowment for Democracy money and advice will solve everything in the way they would like it to be solved. The EU sees it as a fairly cynical bargaining process between Yanukovych and Yulia Tymoshenko and wouldn’t have minded Yanukovych sticking around even after all the shooting. Yanukovych, for his part, clearly didn’t think of Ukraine as a nation; he thought he owned it.

Operationally, this was meant to work like so. The conflict could be presented as a divide between (ex-Polish) western Ukrainians and (ex-Soviet) eastern ones. Experts differ. This would permit people to see it as not a proper nation, a conflict that had to be managed, or alternatively a Soviet survival that needed protecting from the IMF. At street level, this would show up as a pro-Yanuk movement big enough to be a potential political majority. But Yanuk was let down by the failure of the supposed “pro-Russian East” to show up. He was counting on it and he may have reassured Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s very influential PR expert, that it was coming when Surkov came to see him.

The problem was, though, that the “pro-Russian east” had already been a disappointment in 2004, and it was even weaker this time. Research on the ground suggests that the idea of a geographical split is misleading – the political divide is generational, and eastern Ukrainian identity does not signal support for Russia and still less for Yanuk. There is even some evidence that the linguistic picture has changed since 2004, with more people, especially young people, opting to speak Ukrainian and to adopt such an identity. This could be described as the transition from a post-Soviet to a pre-European identity. We might make a little leap of faith and argue that the EU missed this too, and the evidence is that Tymoshenko’s polls are horrible.

If the pro-Russian east didn’t show up, who did? There was a big surprise about Ukraine, and there was a big non-surprise. The surprise was the appeal of the European Union as an ideal – who expected that? – and the non-surprise was the emotional force of nationalism. This brings me to Tuesday’s standoff at Belbek airfield, Sevastopol, where Ukrainian Colonel Yuri Mamchuk led an unarmed march of the 204th Aviation Brigade’s ground crew to assert their right to access the runway and maintain the 40 or so MiG-29 aircraft there. You can watch the confrontation, with subtitles, below:

But I prefer this photo, which reminds me of Ilya Repin, perhaps a painting entitled Colonel Mamchuk Defies the Rascally Cossacks:

The imagery here is very important – the red banner is the colours of the Soviet unit whose traditions the 204th inherited, which had no fewer than six Heroes of the Soviet Union. The Ukrainians have both appropriated the Second World War heritage, and also posed the question as to who looks like the Germans here. It’s also crucial to note that the people Mamchuk led up to the Russian sentries will have been the cooks and clerks and avionics technicians you need to make an air force work, not some sort of commando elite. This is, I think, what nationhood looks like.

And as a piece of strategic nonviolence, it came close to scuppering the whole Russian plan or non-plan in the Crimea. If the Ukrainians got to use the airfield, they could resupply and indeed relieve their garrisons there. If they could fly their planes, they would evidently discredit any Russian claim to control the air. Starving them out would no longer be an option. Having both Russian and Ukrainian forces present would be very much like the Crimea pre-revolution, and therefore something close to the status quo. The degree to which Russian and Ukrainian forces coexisted there until this month is shown by the fact the 204th is a counter-air wing with the dogfighter variant of the MiG-29, and the Russian air wing up the road is a strike force with the Su-24 bomber. The Ukrainians essentially provided the Black Sea Fleet’s air defence. (SO AWKWARD.)

The upshot was a compromise – the Ukrainians didn’t get to reoccupy the airfield, but they did get to station people there. But this is progress towards the status quo. And today, this Daily Mirror piece mentions that the Ukrainian navy’s helicopters are active in Crimea and that the Mirror journalist saw one resupply the garrison he visited. If this is true, the Ukrainians can hold out a long time.

On Tuesday, both Putin’s odd self-contradictory statement and Kerry’s words in Kyiv were united in tone; they both seemed huffy, calling for OSCE monitors to check on the kids-on-lawn situation. Two old men who found they controlled the situation much less than they thought. It is worth pointing out that historically, Crimeans have usually demanded autonomy or even independence, not integration in Russia.

Sources I used beyond the ones linked in the text:

Those Ukraine speeches really knocked him out

As the expression has been put back in the news, here’s the text of what became known as the Chicken Kiev* speech of President George HW Bush (the elder) in 1991. The title speaks to the changed times: Remarks to the Supreme Soviet of the Republic of the Ukraine in Kiev, Soviet Union. The speech takes as a guiding frame that the USSR will continue in some form and is sceptical about the ongoing process of USSR disintegration, especially economic disintegration. The paragraph that caused Bush 41 trouble back home (a reaction that no doubt had some influence on Bush 43) was this one:

Yet freedom is not the same as independence. Americans will not support those who seek independence in order to replace a far-off tyranny with a local despotism. They will not aid those who promote a suicidal nationalism based upon ethnic hatred. 

For US domestic politics, too deferential to the Soviet status quo. But he did manage to avoid accusations that he was stirring things up and a few months later, Ukraine had voted for independence. Anyway, read the whole thing.

*The appellation is apparently due to William Safire.

untouchable tender mafias

A nice piece on the re-emergent Julia Tymoshenko which gives us a clue as to why Yanukyovich became unsupportable:

Vyacheslav Konovalov, a criminology researcher, explains that “the initial idea behind ‘Dear Friends’ was a transparent system for monitoring public finance in place of the Soviet model. To do so, a system of tenders and a tender chamber were set up. Specially “favored” people with Western degrees were appointed to control the system. Soon enough the initiative produced many thirty year old ministers and deputy ministers, dubbed at the time ‘Kinder Surprises.’” They are an “untouchable tender mafia” presiding over a system where brokers enjoy kickbacks of thirty, fifty, up to seventy percent.

The tenders made it easy for Yulia and her allies to enjoy luxurious lifestyles without actually owning anything on paper. According to court documents, by the end of her trial, the only property they could confiscate from Yulia was a modest apartment in Dnepropetrovsk. But Yulia, as many others political elites in Ukraine spent much of her time in police-protected, luxurious villas.

"Untouchable tender mafia" is such an excellent phrase, even if the sense is just 'contracts'. Amusingly, Y and his people couldnt get her on any of these things because they were too involved  themselves, so they had to semi-fabricate charges against her, which in turn helped the gas queen reinvent herself as a martyr. Anyway, Yanukyovich:

The Yanukovych family has gone even further on a larger, more grotesque scale. According to the PEP Watch anti-corruption center, the net-worth of Yanukovych’s son Oleksandr has gone from 7 to 510 million UAH since 2010. His dacha in Mezhyhirya, showed off to the public on February 22nd, was a rude awakening. Luxury cars, gilded toilets, a lakeside galleon, and a private zoo were found. Acres and acres of tasteless, overpriced junk that cost millions of dollars.

So under Yanukyovich, the system reverted in Mancur Olson style terms from stationary to mobile banditry. He stole with both hands and spent money which had actually passed through his own mucky paws on his absurd country retreat. Apparently he also robbed his own support base blind, which is why backing for him from that sector and from across the general apparatus of state seemed remarkeably soft. The downside of that is that it  allowed fascist street muscle to play an overly prominent part in his ouster. Still, at least the crowds at the Maidan seem to have caught on to Tymoshenko

The Growing Mess Which Will Be Left Behind By The Abenomics Experiment

According to wikipedia, “overdetermination is a phenomenon whereby a single observed effect is determined by multiple causes at once, any one of which alone might be enough to account for (“determine”) the effect.That is, there are more causes present than are necessary to generate the effect”.  In this strictly technical sense Japan’s deflation problem is overdetermined – there are multiple causes at work, any one of which could account for the observed phenomenon. Those who have been following the debate can simply choose their favourite – balance sheet recession, liquidity trap, fertility trap – each one, taken alone, could be sufficient as a cause. The problem this situation presents is simply epistemological – in a scientific environment the conundrum could be resolved by devising the requisite, consensually grounded, tests. Continue reading