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Suspending the Rules of Engagement

Suspending the Rules of Engagement

We all hopefully know the Ten Commandments. You are not supposed to do this, that and the other thing. These essentially good survival rules were handed down in ancient times, many millenniums ago.

The 11th Commandment was agreed upon as recently as 1648 at the Peace of Westphalia, ending the horrific German 30 years war.

Thou shalt not interfere in the internal affairs of another sovereign country. If all sovereigns obeyed this rule, one important cause for war would fall away.

This rule was often observed in the breach when empire building. The French did it 200 years ago, the Germans 75 years ago and the Russians have been doing it ever since Ivan the Terrible 500 years ago.

That last bit is important for our modern day realities. The last time the Russians marched in anywhere on a grand scale was 1980 in Afghanistan. Before that there was the Prague Spring of 1968 and before that the Hungarian uprising of 1956. They used to do these things in 12 year cycles, until going out of business in 1992, becoming a Democratic country abiding by 1648 conventions.

Until Georgia in 2008 and now Crimea in 2014. Old habits die hard?

Except Crimea, like Georgia before it, doesn't fall into any of these categories.

In the case of Crimea today, its takeover is a contravention of the 1648 Rule, as Ukraine "owned" Crimea, except it was in turn "given" Crimea in 1954 by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. The area (Khanate) was originally "peacefully" annexed (1783) by Potemkin on behalf of the Russian Empress Catherine the Great.

So Ukraine's claims don't go back that much in time, Russia has the older claim, although the real modern claim belongs to the Tatars (Cossacks). But they are a small minority today, no thanks to Stalin's ruthlessness for making them so, following his "final solution" for unruly populations in the region during the terrible 1930s.

Still, by far the greater majority of today's Crimean population is Russian, and when weighing up what has been playing in the Ukrainian borderlands these past 25 years, they consider rejoining Russia by far the lesser evil.

At a time when minorities are stirring everywhere in Europe (in the UK, Spain, Italy, Belgium, and that old bone of contention, Kosovo), who are the Europeans to tell the Crimeans what to do? No less a figure then Gorbachev has opted in favour of the Russian option for Crimea, focussing on the will of the majority now living there.

This is no military invasion against the will of a majority of local people. It isn't even supposed to be a throwback to what Hitler did when reincorporating lands with many ethic Germans in them. 

Ukrainians may want to put as much distance between themselves and impoverishing Russia as possible, do so with as much territory as possible, and rejoin the prosperous West (part of their history being a throwback to old Polish times).

But before finally leaving, the Russian bear wants to keep the pieces it sees as part of its inheritance. That also calls into question the eastern part of Ukraine around Donetsk, although strategically not critical, an important point in the way all this will be resolved in the end. Putin claims to have no interest to go beyond Crimea, and some are prepared to believe him.

Others merely see Crimea as a curtain raiser. Brzezinski certainly thinks so. And he should know, having been in that business for decades.

In time, the local populations may come to repent at leisure what they have now decided in haste with all their flag waving. Future prosperity will decide what was the clever thing to do.

Ukraine has known the Russian embrace long enough, much longer than Eastern Europe did post-1945, for it to want to leave, and join rich Western Europe, like the Baltic States have already done (and they also still living in dread of an early sudden Russian recall, with so many Russians still in their midst).

Partitioning. India did it its horrific way in 1947, when millions had to move house to fit in with Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan. Yugoslavia did it in the 1980s and 1990s with even more horrific people cleansing. And so back into history.

What is happening now in southern Russia has remained relatively peaceful. It remains to be seen whether this Russian diaspora is going to be better off inside the Motherland, or whether Russia will be the impoverishing option for them.

Russia appears to have the economic whip hand over Ukraine in terms of gas supply and other realities, but will that count longer term, when Russia will count the economic cost of defying the Western Rules of 1648, as compared to Ukraine and the Baltics (and a few other bits, like Belarus still to come?) opting for Western (German) prosperity?

Distant America and its 1776 Rules would like to lay down the law here, as elsewhere, but it is 1648 that really applies. It was a Central European thing, and the Russians are so far not re-invading, merely realigning borders to take account of population concentrations democratically opting for what they want, and serving their ancient strategic interest (southern seaport for its navy, something Peter the Great already recognized in the early 18th century).

That last bit is really the only crucial aspect that drives this whole thing. And the Russian sense of the West historically ganging up on them, not imagined and something Toynbee (and countless others since) already wrote about three generations ago

The West is pretty helpless in the short term, unable to prevent any of this, not wanting to go to war, which locally it would lose. Longer term, Russia may find it has picked the wrong fight, for economically Europe may wean itself off Russian energy supplies (preferring US dependency?), although German industrialists have already integrated Russia into their global supply chains, and therefore are proving most unwilling to give this up.

It is all very complicated, and perhaps seen through overheated spectacles, as global markets seem to be judging this much more cooler, and levelheaded. In their self-interested dispassionate view, Putin wasn't wrong to realign borders as long as he keeps it democratic. America is too far distant to make a difference. And Europe will be a net beneficiary longer term by getting back ancient Polish lands in the form of Ukraine, shrinking the Russian footprint while lessening population strains (by everyone deciding where they want to live), keep the German industrial trade, reduce the dependency on Russian gas by balancing it with greater American supplies, even if not giving up entirely on the Russian energy riches.

And Russia will increasingly be itself population-wise while gradually turning ever more into a European dependency economically, bartering its commodity riches for European technological know-how and modernity, while fulfilling its manifest destiny - being a European buffer state to Asiatic competitors, some of which (China) hold the world's largest land claim (Siberia).

Russia may not see it that way, wanting to resurrect its superpower greatness, and restrain the West from its ancient impulses where Russia is concerned, going by Putin's Crimea acceptance speech this week, but that is just one of those things.

In so many ways, Russia's real problems are only about to begin, in the distant East, even if the USSR breakup created a plethora of its own buffer states in the far south-east. This though may not have been enough to safeguard it entirely. A few minor border realignments in the south and west getting its own people back into the home fold is in so many ways historically insignificant.

The bigger part of this modern adventure still lies ahead, and more probably in the East and far South (bordering Islamic lands with their own historic claims) rather than the West (even if Brzezinski thinks different).

What implications does all this hold for South Africa?

No undue Emerging Market volatility. Don't incorporate empirical-thinking Russia into our future nuclear plans. Focus on Yellen and China as our main rogues (and hopefully mostly dormant even while transiting momentous change). Oh, yeah, and don't ignore the revolutionary elements among our own organised labour ideologues and wild populists.