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Marching on Moscow

British Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery had three laws of war:

One, never march on Moscow;

Two, never get in a land war in Asia;

Three, never march on Moscow.

So why are the U.S., the European Union (EU), and NATO on the road to the Russian capital? And exactly what are they hoping to accomplish?

Like all battlefields on the Eastern front, this one is complicated.

For beginners, there are multiple armies marching eastward, and they are not exactly on the same page. In military parlance that is called divided command, and it generally ends in debacle. In addition, a lot of their weapons are of doubtful quality and might even end up backfiring. And lastly, like all great crisis, there is a sticker price on this one that is liable to give even fire breathers pause.

There are actual armies involved. NATO has deployed troops, aircraft and naval forces in the region, and the Russians have parked 40,000 troops on Ukraine’s eastern border. But with the exception of the horrendous deaths of over 40 demonstrators in Odessa, the crisis has been a remarkably calm affair. The Russians took over the Crimea virtually without a shot, and while there is a worrisome increase of violent incidents in the south and east, they are hardly up to the French and German invasions in 1812 and 1941, respectively.

Which doesn’t mean things couldn’t turn dangerous, a reason why it is important to know the agendas of the players involved.

For the Russians this is about national interest and security, and the broken promises and missed opportunities when Germany was reunified in 1990. At the time, the Western powers promised they would not drive NATO eastward. Instead, they vacuumed up members of the old Soviet Warsaw Pact and recruited former Soviet republics into a military alliance that was specifically created to confront Russia.

All talk of Putin recreating the old Soviet Empire is just silliness, which there is a lot of out there these days. A perfect example was the New York Times’ embarrassingly thin story about Putin’s personal wealth that rested on the fact he wore expensive watches.

There is some silliness on the Russian side as well. Yes, the overthrow of Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych was a coup—what else do you call an armed uprising that causes an elected president to flee? —but it wasn’t just ex-Nazis and fascists. There was genuine mass anger at the corruption of the Yanukovych government.

At the same time, two of the groups that spearheaded the coup—and who currently control seven ministries in the Western Ukraine government—celebrate those who fought with Waffen SS divisions during World War II. The Germans killed some 25 million Russians during that war, so if they are a bit cranky about people who hold celebrations honoring the vilest divisions of an evil army, one can hardly fault them.

The Americans and the Europeans have long had their eye on Ukraine, though their interests are not identical because their economic relations are different.

Russia supplies the EU with 30 percent of its energy needs; for countries like Finland and Slovakia, that reaches 100 percent. U.S. trade with Russia was a modest $26 billion in 2012, while for the EU that figure reached $370 billion. More than that, several large European energy giants, including BP, Austria’s OMV, ENI, Royal Dutch Shell, and Norway’s Statoil, are heavily invested in Russian gas and oil. If oil and gas are combined, Russia is the largest energy exporter in the world.

For Europe, Russia is also a growing consumer market of 144 million people, where retail spending has grown 20 percent a year between 2000 and 2012. . Any attempt to ratchet up sanctions will have to confront the fact that isolating Russia is not in the interests of some very powerful business interests in Europe—and even a few in the U.S., like Chevron, ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil.

Russia is the world’s eighth largest economy, and one that is well integrated into the world’s economy, particularly in Asia through the Shanghai Cooperation Council. The Council includes not only Russia and China, but also most of Central Asia’s countries, with observer status from Iran, Pakistan and India

The emerging BRICS countries—Brazil, India, China and South Africa (Russia makes up the “R”)—did not support the recent UN resolution condemning Moscow’s annexation of the Crimea and would certainly not join any sanctions regime. The Russians and Chinese inked a 30-year, $400 billion gas deal, and bilateral trade between the two countries is set to reach $100 billion by 2015 and $200 billion by 2020. Russia and Iran are reportedly negotiating a $10 billion energy deal as well.

So far, sanctions have targeted individuals, although Washington and the EU have threatened to up the ante and ban Russia from using the Swift system of international banking. That would make transferring money very difficult. It has certainly crippled Iran’s finances. But Swift, as Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times points out, is a double-edged sword. “Cutting Russia out of Swift would cause chaos in Moscow in the short term,” but in the long term “it might hasten the day when Russia, and more significantly, China, establish alternative systems for moving money between international banks.” According to Rachman, China and Russia have already discussed such a system.

The EU’s army is all for rhetorical condemnation of Russia, but when it comes to increasing sanctions, its command is divided. Those countries with significant investments in Russia—Italy, Germany, Spain, Austria and Greece— oppose cranking up the sanctions. German Chancellor Andrea Merkel must juggle her desire to support the U.S. with polls showing that the average German really doesn’t want to march east: been there, done that. The Swedes and the Poles are fire-breathers, but their stance is as much about trying to offset German power in the EU as for any concern over Ukrainians.

In short the EU looks like one of those combined armies of Austrian-Hungarians, Russians, and Prussians that Napoleon made his reputation beating up on.

For the Americans this is about expanding NATO and opening up a market of 46 million people in the heart of Eastern Europe. The key to that is getting the 28 members of the alliance to finally pull their own. The U.S. currently foots 75 percent of NATO’s bills, and is caught between a shrinking military budget at home and a strategy of expanding the U.S.’s military presence in Asia, the so-called “pivot.”

NATO members are supposed to spend 2 percent of their GDP on the military, but very few countries—Britain, Estonia and Greece—actually clear that bar. Nor is there any groundswell to do so in European economies still plagued with low growth and high unemployment. Yes, yes, get the Russkies, but not at our expense.

“Sanctions will not help anybody, they would not just hurt Russia, but also Germany and Europe as a whole,” says Rainer Seele, chair of Wintershell, and energy company owned by the German chemical giant BASF.

However, NATO is pushing hard. U.S. General and NATO commander Gen. Phillip Breedlove recently called for beefing up NATO forces on the Russian border. But for all the talk about a new Russian threat, NATO is not going to war over Ukraine, anymore than it did over Georgia in 2008. A few neo-conservatives and hawks, like U.S. Senator John McCain, might make noises about intervention, but it will be a very lonely venture if they try.

In the end the solution is diplomatic. It has to take into account Russia’s legitimate security interests and recognize that Ukraine is neither Russian nor Western European, but a country divided, dependent on both. The simplest way to deal with that is through a system of federal states. It is the height of hypocrisy for the U.S. to oppose such a power arrangement when its own system is based on the same formula (as are many other countries in Europe, including Germany).

Polls show that Ukrainians in the East and South do not trust the Kiev government, but they also show that a solid majority wants a united country. That could shift if the Kiev government decides to use force. Once bodies start piling up, negotiations and compromise tend to vanish, and the possibility of civil war becomes real.

Moscow made a proposal last summer that the EU, Russia, and the U.S. should jointly develop a plan to save the Ukrainian economy. The EU and the U.S. dismissed that proposal, and the current crisis is a direct result of that rejection. The parties need to return to that plan.

In spite of the tensions, events in Ukraine are trending toward a political resolution and the May 25 presidential elections may produce a candidate willing to compromise. The Russians are re-deploying those 40,000 troops, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made it clear that “We want Ukraine to be whole within its current borders, but whole with full respect for the regions.” Translation: no NATO.

The dangers are many here: that the Kiev government tries to settle the conflict by force of arms; that NATO does something seriously provocative; that the Russians lose their cool. As Carl von Clausewitz once noted: “Against stupidity, no amount of planning will prevail.”

But the ducks are lining up. The sanctions will not force Russia to compromise its security and may end up harming the EU and the U.S. The commanders of the armies facing Moscow are divided on measures and means. Neither side in the Ukraine is capable of defeating the other. It is time to stop the bombast and cut a deal, particularly since Washington will need Moscow’s help in Iran, Syria, and Afghanistan.

Oh, and marching on Moscow? Really? Monty wasn’t the quickest calf in the pasture but he had that one figured out as a bad idea.

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