Cross-posted from Dispatches From The Edge
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 crises, 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 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.