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The Hand We Have Been Dealt And Now Have To Play

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As east and west square off against each other over the Ukraine we take a look at how we arrived at this pivotal position in relations with Russia

As soon as a western leaning government was set up in Ukraine the writing was on the wall for Crimea and its warm water ports. Russia wasn’t going to let its controlling influence over such a tactically important area slip away, under any circumstances, ever, and if they couldn’t guarantee sway over the leaders of Ukraine, Crimea had to stop being part of Ukraine. The fact this was achieved in an almost bloodless manner was testament to forward planning, military restraint and Vladimir Putin’s willingness to roll the dice and see if they came up victory or a bloody PR disaster.

The international community, of course, didn’t stand idly by and almost immediately threw up its hands in horror, hypocritically accused Russia of compromising the sovereignty of another country, and put in place some very obvious “slap-on-the-wrist” sanctions. Beyond this the West ™ had no real response. There were no military options, the media were having a hard time making the Russians out to be the baddies and, in the end, much of the west, especially those bits in Europe, need Russian energy supplies.

The world would, if left to its own devices, have moved on. Unfortunately the cabal of former intelligence officers that run Russia and know how to use the media but not how the media actually works, had already planned to help this process along. Their cynical use of the separatists in the east of Ukraine, rightly gambling news outlets would shift attention onto it, was shortsighted, misconceived and belied an arrogance that might yet get us all killed.

Spiraling Out Of Control

Russia Vs The West

• Putin’s inner circle under pressure
• Sanctions may get worse and more broad
• Some gambling news will get better

It probably wasn’t until the first reports concerning flight MH17 started appearing on television that they had any inkling it was all spiraling out of control. The sponsorship of low grade civil wars across the Caucasus hadn’t thrown up this situation, it simply wasn’t in the destabilization script, and as result the Russian reaction was bullish to say the least. As John Kerry led the charge to point fingers at Russia the somewhat silly response was to point fingers back, and thus the sideshow became the circus.

As the western media painted a picture of Vladimir Putin sitting in an SA-11 surface to air missile launcher vehicle rubbing his hands together with evil glee there must have been a sense amongst those in the Kremlin that they had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. What began as a simple discrediting of Ukrainian sovereignty had blown up into a face off between east and west, the one thing they’d been trying to avoid all along.

Now it would be nice to think that they’d studiously avoided this sort of conflict for fear of turning the world into a series of irradiated holes, but alas the truth is far more frightening. Both sides are well practiced at not nuking each other, but when you have no military options what are you left with? How do these alternatives play out? What IS the end game if it isn’t shaped like a mushroom cloud? No one is really sure, and that’s got people nervous.

This is mainly due to the fact neither side is beginning in the strongest of positions. Russia’s economy is the weakest it has been since 2009, huge tracts of Europe are dependent on Russian energy supplies and the US is busy beating itself over the head with its own hypocrisy in light of Iraq and Afghanistan. Are the expanded sanctions a reaction to MH17 and a desire to get justice? Or just punishment for Putin making the west look stupid in Crimea? You be the judge.

Sanctions Directed Against Putin Loyalists

The west’s sanctions are very obviously directed at Mr. Putin himself, a targeting of his “inner circle” (which sounds like a proctology appointment), and of key industries and banking interests. The rich oligarchs it is aimed at are losing money, certainly, but by no means enough to pressure them into doing away with Putin who is ignoring the damnation of the internet gambling in Russia his public popularity will keep him secure for now.

Europe, meanwhile, is all too painfully aware that whilst it’s easy to shake your first at Russia during the summer months when winter rolls around it’s Russian gas that keeps them warm. Just how willing Putin will be to leave the taps open when the snow starts to fall is anyone’s guess, “technical failures” could lead to awfully cold nights and a re-examination of the sanctions policy. So does this mean Putin can sit back and play some really fun android games on his phone? Of course not.

With the rhetoric still flying hither and yon the Russian economy is faltering under the weight of uncertainty. The raising of interests rates by the Russian Central Bank in the last few days surprised everyone and, although only a half percent increase (bring it to 8%) in order to “ease inflationary pressure”, it has heightened concerns that the effects of the sanctions may yet have a more widespread effect than merely bruising the wallets of the hyper-rich.

Economic Warfare Has Disadvantages

One of the difficulties is that whilst during an actual war declaring a cease fire is a tactically recognized maneuver there really isn’t any precedent for doing so in an economic conflict. It’s very easy to put sanctions in place, but rolling them back any time soon is politically tricky unless there’s regime change, in the same way that you can arm the separatists next door but can’t really control who they shoot at, or indeed down.

And whilst wars are quite brief, nuclear wars particularly so, economic wars drag on for ages. Sanctions against South Africa took decades to have any effect at all and even now those effects are still being debated with some saying they ended an oppressive regime and others saying they did far more harm than good. There is every possibility that sanctions against Russia will be either just as harmful or just as long lived.

Regime change doesn’t always get you the regimes you want (cough Iran cough), some nations would prefer to freeze than be bullied (particularly around the Baltic), and in the end none of it will bring back the dead of MH17 or return Crimea to Ukrainian control. Whilst justice must be done it remains to be seen if the price of that justice is too high, or indeed, if it is justice at all. Sadly for the families of the MH17 dead we may never know the truth, but that has long since ceased to matter.

Read more about Putin’s gamble on the future and the future of gambling under Putin.

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