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:
Face off between Ukraine base commander Col. Yuli Manchur and Russian officer at occupied Belbek airbase pic.twitter.com/6N10wuezef
— Simon Shuster (@shustry) March 4, 2014
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: