Gwen's Take: Five ways to understand Ukraine

Posted: Thu, 03/06/2014 - 4:47pm

As we watch yet another drama unfold half a world away -- this time in Ukraine -- certain predictable themes are beginning to emerge. Some are political. Some are geopolitical. And all contain inevitable baggage left over from the Cold War (the Russian bear is back!), Vietnam (the dangers of U.S. intervention), and the Arab Spring (revolutions are not all they’re cracked up to be.)

These historical echoes come with dangerous potholes. Hillary Clinton was reminded this week that, even with careful rhetorical couching, it’s never a good idea to invoke Hitler comparisons.

But, for the purposes of this conflict, there are a few things to keep an eye on as you try to sort out how in the world we got here.

1.    The Putin Problem

Russian President Vladimir Putin did not back down during a press conference outside Moscow. [Photo: CNN]

American leaders have often had problems figuring out Vladimir Putin. For a time, President George W. Bush famously bonded with the Russian leader, saying after a meeting in Slovenia in 2001, he got “a sense of his soul.”

Author Peter Baker offered an excellent reconstruction of the Bush-Putin relationship in Foreign Policy Magazine.

Rereading it made me wonder if the Obama foreign policy team ought not to have seen the current breach coming. The same pattern played out with Bush as with Obama -- the promise of a diplomatic and economic reset that eventually turned sour.

Republicans, by the way, prefer to harken back to Ronald Reagan than to George W. Bush on these matters. 

2.    The Anti-Obama Meme

The president’s enemies have been all too eager to point to the current fallout as proof of their favorite line of attack, that Mr. Obama is weak. The rationale: the economy is struggling; his health care plan is unsteady; and bullies abroad -- from Venezuela to Moscow -- feel free to push America around.

This is a handy criticism, because it can easily be applied to every failure, foreign or domestic. It also allows critics to ignore successes like a declining deficit and unemployment rate, or the end of a decade-long war in Afghanistan.

The chief champions of this meme during the Ukraine crisis have been Republican Senators John McCain, and Lindsey Graham, who traces the president’s problems to Benghazi. He tweeted this week: “It started with Benghazi. When you kill Americans and nobody pays a price, you invite this type of aggression. #Ukraine.”

Tellingly, there doesn’t seem to be a pro-Obama meme. If there is, Democrats are keeping it to themselves.

3.    Beware The Soap Opera

Cable networks love a running story. Heck, everyone in the news media does. If there are crowds at the ramparts, fires in the city square and tanks at the border, we cannot look away.

The up side is that this forces news consumers to follow international developments. But when the storyline turns to dusty negotiating tables in Paris and Geneva, interest flags. Worse, when the fallout from an uprising becomes a slog -- a flood of refugees, recurring conflict and un-telegenic trials -- cameras turn away. While we focus on Ukraine, the civil wars in Syria, Central African Republic and countless other places continue unabated. 

4.    Following the Money

European Union leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel gathered in Brussels Thursday to discuss economic sanctions over the ongoing situation in Ukraine. [Photo: CNN]

This is also not a very telegenic storyline, but it is an essential one. If there is to be a break in the troubling standoff with Russia, it is likely to turn on how much influence wealthy oligarchs wield over Putin, and how much economic punishment the U.S. and other nations are willing to inflict by cutting off access to trade and bank accounts.

Also; follow the oil and gas lines. How willing are Europeans to forego their dependence on the energy resources Ukraine provides? And how much can the booming gas supplies in the U.S. fill that gap?

5.    Shrinking Options

There are few attractive options available in Washington or Moscow, so it may all boil down to who has the most incentive to be stubborn. Russia possesses the back channels the West needs to influence truculent Middle Eastern leaders like Syria’s Bashar al Assad and Iran’s Hassan Rouhani. The U.S. has the economic leverage, and the ear of German Prime Minister Angela Merkel, who has become a critical go-between.

Eventually, someone has to blink. Or so one would think.