26 August 2014

Ukraine: It's all about money?

The leaders of Russia and Ukraine are meeting today at an awkward moment for Russia. The Ukrainians captured some Russian soldiers on Ukrainian soil hours earlier, and the best the Russians could do was say that a patrol had blundered across the border by accident. Happily, the incident hasn't disrupted the meeting, at which President Putin clarified Russia's position on the Ukraine and its economic ties to the rest of Europe. In short, Putin claims that the Russian economy will lose billions of rubles as Ukraine switches its orientation toward the European Union, and other countries in a Russocentric trade group will suffer as well. The Russians are also concerned that Ukraine will prove a gateway for European goods to compete with Russian products and Russian labor. In short, rather than waging some sort of war on freedom, Russia's motives are blatantly protectionist. Putin concedes Ukraine's political sovereignty but insists that its trade policies should not be made to the detriment of Russia or any other country. But that's competition, Vlad. If Ukraine is sovereign, Ukrainians can choose whom they'll trade with, and if an old trade partner suffers, that partner's a sore loser if he threatens retaliation. To be fair, however, the largely unspoken aspect of this crisis has been the extent to which the EU may have insisted on zero-sum conditions so that its gain is necessarily Russia's loss. This has a lot to do with Ukraine adopting new standards to join one group and abandoning the old group's standards, and it may be less a matter of malice toward Russia than an inevitable consequence of the politicization of international trade. Again, if Ukraine is sovereign it can tell Putin to bugger off, if it dares, but if Americans want their own politicians to be more conscious of the consequences for workers of its economic policies they ought to show some sympathy toward Putin's concern for Russian workers and businesses. Ideally, the remedy is not to subject Ukraine to political intimidation, but there seems to be no ideal economic option for Ukrainians and Russians right now. If Russia's complaints against the EU are valid, then free trade doesn't prevail in Ukraine any more than it might were the country a vassal of Russia. Whether free trade itself is the ideal state, if that means competition and its inevitable losers and suffering, is another question worth asking, though I doubt it will come up at the current summit.

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