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The Crimea problem

The Crimea Problem | GZERO Media

Ian Bremmer's Quick Take: Hi everybody. Ian Bremmer here. And a Quick Take to start off your week. Just back from Davos in New York City, rainy and cold, and Russia, Ukraine is once again in the headlines. It is closing in on a year since the invasion started on February 24th, or for those of you really keeping accurate score, closing in on a decade since the Russians illegally annexed Crimea and sent their little green men in Southeast Ukraine. The Russians and Ukrainians certainly feel like they've been fighting for a decade, but the West recognized it much more recently. Since February 24th, and certainly very clear to me over the last week, we have seen almost consistent escalation from all sides involved, from, of course, the Ukrainians in trying to throw everything they can at getting the Russians out of the territory, at the Russians, from bringing more troops into the field and attacking civilians and broadening their efforts to in inflict pain upon the Ukrainians as their land war has met with significant challenge.


And in terms of NATO and the level of support that they're prepared to provide the Ukrainian military, the big fight right now and over the weekend has been about heavy tanks. And will the German government in particular, remember the formerly kind of pacifist German government that now said they've had this turning point, the Zeitenwende, where they're going to spend much more on their own defense and willing to provide military support directly for Ukraine - a massive shift in the orientation of that country and how they think about national security. Will they provide heavy Leopard tanks to the Ukrainians? The Polish government, which has a lot of these German Leopards want to, but they need German approval. The United States says they want the Germans to give that approval. And have fights with the Germans about this issue over the course of the last week.

Germany says, only if the Americans provide their own Abrams tanks to the Ukrainians, which doesn't make a hell of a lot of sense. They run on jet fuel. They're far too heavy for a lot of Ukrainian bridges. They're very challenging to service. It would be hard to get them into the field, take more time. And for all of those reasons, the Leopards are the ones to send. And now just in the past hours, it looks like the German foreign minister, Baerbock, who comes from a different party of the Green Party than the social Democratic Chancellor Olaf Scholz, and is more hawkish both on Russia and more broadly on China issues, and the rest, is pushing to say that they won't get in the way of the Polish government in providing these leverage. So it looks like these heavy tanks are going to make their way to the Ukrainians in relatively short order, a major escalation in terms of offensive capabilities that Ukrainians will have to retake their territory.

Now, I have to say, I don't feel strongly about whether or not heavy tanks should go to Ukraine, or should I say I do feel strongly, but I feel strongly that we're not discussing the fact that this change in policy has happened without a lot of debate. And what I mean by that is over the course of the past six, eight weeks, we're seeing significant increases in the military capabilities that are going to be provided to Ukraine. Defensive capabilities like Patriot missiles, offensive capabilities like heavy tanks and heavy artillery. Even three months ago, the United States and NATO leadership were saying no to those systems that they were considered too dangerous and too, so you have to ask yourself the question, what's changed? And the answer is nothing strategically, more that time has passed and the Ukrainians keep fighting, and the alliance is completely strong together.

Many countries are pushing on for a more aggressive amount of support in addition to the Ukrainian government itself. Here, I'm thinking about Poland, all three BRIC states and all of the Nordics and the US wants NATO to stay together once the coalition stays together. And as time passes, increasingly is willing to say, well, okay, let's do the next little thing and okay, let's do the next little thing. Now that may well be a smart thing to do, but you'd like it to be based on a considered policy reasoning, A as to what's the best way to bring about the end of the war that would be acceptable to the Americans, the Europeans, nato, and minimize unnecessary risks as opposed to, well, it's just the next thing to do, even though you were opposed to it a few months ago. There's no question that it's good in the sense that all of this gives Ukraine a better shot at retaking the land that has been illegally stolen from them.

But I do worry that this policy process is not being well considered. And I, of course, that makes you wonder where all of this is going to end up. I will say, I mean, I met with the entire Ukraine delegation in Davos, a bunch of ministers, a bunch of mayors, a lot of MPs, deputy prime Minister, all that kind of thing. They were 100% aligned in their policy demands that they need to retake all of their land, including Crimea. And I get it, it is theirs. Russia recognized their territorial integrity over all of that territory. They illegally annex Crimea. They illegally invaded big swaths of the rest of Ukraine. But I also want to say that Crimea, where I've spent time personally, is majority ethnic Russian in that regard. It is different from every other part of Ukraine. Almost none of them want to live under Ukrainian rule.

And that was true before the warts. True. Now, there is a long-term pre existing military lease on Sevastopol, a base that the Russians had and occupied when Ukraine was independent. If Ukraine were to try to retake Crimea, they'd have massive fighting on the ground from the local population, and they'd be fighting against a Russian base that is very serious and well defended, in which the Russians previously had legal right to, again, that right, would've been abrogated after the Russians, illegal annex Crimea. But I'm just trying to talk about what I think is going to happen here. And also, Crimea had local rule, local Russian rule couldn't make their own foreign policy, but they had their own local elections, their own local parliament. They elected their own local MPs. Flying on top of the c Crimean parliament was a tricolor flag that looked like the Russian flag.

The stripes were different, but that was the orientation as opposed to a Ukrainian flag. My point is that Crimea is a serious matter. No one should recognize it as Russian territory, but it needs to be a matter for negotiation. It should not be, in my view, a matter of military reoccupation because the impact of that, the realistic impact of that in terms of escalation of the war, both of Russia on Ukraine as well as on NATO more broadly, would be very severe indeed. Now, I spent a fair amount of time in Davos talking to a lot of those more hawkish policy makers from the Baltics and the frontline states from Poland, the Polish president, others, about their position. And so my good friend, for example, and I'll say this because we had a VI video that went public with him, Alexander Stubb, who's the former Prime Minister Finland, incredibly smart, very outspoken on these issues.

And he said that, yeah, yeah, he absolutely believes that the Ukrainians should be able to retake Crimea militarily. But you could tell that that was a performative statement being made to align him with the other hawks and align him with the Ukrainian government, which he believes is the correct moral position to have, but that he doesn't think it's actually going to happen. And you're not really sure if he thinks it's actually a good idea. I think that the position, and you increasingly see this in the United States is that, well, Ukraine probably can't take Crimea. And given that, what's the harm in providing support and cover for the morally right position in the war? And then you can always negotiate away from it when both sides end up frozen in terms of their ability to continue the fighting. And I get that. But as the Ukrainians continue to get far more military capabilities and support their ability to retake some of Crimea and or cut off Russian ability to resupply, Crimea goes up.

And with that, the likelihood that Russian escalation, God forbid the use of weapons of mass destruction against the Ukrainians or the likelihood of this proxy war that NATO is fighting against Russia. And that is how the Russians see it with all of these advanced weapons that are being set offensive weapons that the Ukrainians are of course using to defend themselves and retake the land against Russia, that the Russians are increasingly going to engage in asymmetric war against NATO. And you've seen increasingly a number of disturbing data points in that direction. For example, these divers that were found by Polish police that were checking out critical infrastructure, and for whatever reason the Polish government let them go when they had no business being there, the blowing up of a pipeline at border region between two of the Baltic states, Latvia and Lithuania, the intelligence on Russian operatives providing financial support to try to get hard write Spanish radicals to kill members of the Spanish government.

I mean, these are the signs of the beginning of a broader proxy war between Russia and NATO itself. And surely some of that is the Russians wanting to posture and send that message. But some of it is the reality that the war itself continues to escalate over the last year. And as that occurs, and as the Russians are losing in Ukraine, they're likely to take the war more broadly. Now, I'm not suggesting any of this means that the West shouldn't continue to provide support for Ukraine. Again, I see the Russian invasion of Ukraine as completely illegal. The war crimes being perpetrated against the Ukrainians every day, and I certainly understand why the Ukrainians are pushing for every bit of support they can possibly get. I simply think that given the implications, it is very important that the West is making these decisions in a thoughtful and considered way and not just doing it because it's the next thing to do, and that at least right now doesn't appear to be the case. So that's my view on where we are right now on the Russia Ukraine War. We're going to continue to be talking about this, monitoring it, and I'm sure living it over the course of the coming months. And indeed, probably years for me, I'll talk to y'all.

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