US flounders. Gas industry response. Laser changes. Rudd’s long-term plan. By Hamish McDonald.

US protesters urge Obama to act on Ukraine

A protester against Russia’s aggression in Ukraine waves an American flag in Lafayette Square, Washington, DC, last week.
A protester against Russia’s aggression in Ukraine waves an American flag in Lafayette Square, Washington, DC, last week.
 Across the United States, conservative politicians and think-tankers are having a field day berating President Barack Obama for his alleged weakness in not “standing up” to Russia’s Vladimir Putin over his Ukraine intervention. Belligerence is in inverse ratio to the distance from executive office. 

Take Senator John McCain, the Republican whom Obama beat in 2008: the Obama administration had been “near delusional in thinking that the Cold War was over”. 

Er, wasn’t that the point when George Bush snr, a Republican, took the US nuclear force off hair-trigger alert in 1990? Even before that, when the Cold War was on, no US administration seriously contemplated taking on the Russians in a land war in Eastern Europe, as East Germans, Poles, Hungarians and Czechs discovered. 

Put on the spot by MSNBC interviewer Andrea Mitchell as to whether Washington had any military options, McCain had to admit:  “I wish that there were … I do not see a military option and it’s tragic.” 

Condoleezza Rice was secretary of state for George Bush jnr when Putin invaded Georgia in 2008. She claims to have successfully deterred Putin from overthrowing Georgia’s elected government. However, Russia still occupies two of Georgia’s Russian-populating regions, which may have been Putin’s minimal objective all along.

Now Rice says Putin must be taught “Ukraine’s territorial integrity is sacrosanct”, but is advocating the same mix of “targeted sanctions” against Russian officials and oligarchs as everyone else. 

Even that won’t last long: London’s financial sector, French and Italian luxury shops, the yacht and villa brokerages of the Mediterranean are awash with dubious Russian money.

Covering up her “reset” of US policy towards Russia when she became secretary of state in 2009, Hillary Clinton likened Putin’s seizure of Crimea to Hitler’s march into the Sudetenland. 

In recent times, invoking the Nazi comparison has signalled an argument going over the top. We should soon see: not only whether Putin uses tomorrow’s referendum in Crimea to carry out the annexation he forswore only 10 days ago, but also whether his warning about “chaos” in Ukraine’s east and south is start of a wider claim. 

For his part, Henry Kissinger has already intoned that Ukraine will always be middle ground, and its best tactic is “Finlandisation”, another Cold War word that conservatives choke on almost as much as “appeasement”. 

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2 . Gas industry eyes a new market

The partition of Ukraine might just prod the Europeans into reducing their 25 per cent dependency on Russia for natural gas supplies.

The alternatives are buying more, in the form of sea-transported liquefied natural gas, or stepping up domestic supplies by joining the contentious coal-seam fracking game. Poland and Ukraine have done the latter, with limited results so far, while the French and German governments have blocked fracking in the face of their environmentalist opposition, and Britain’s is wavering.

In the US , where it’s a fracking free-for-all, the Ukraine crisis is just what the oil and gas industry has been looking for. It wants the higher global prices for its gas, in Europe and Asia. Obama’s administration has given only a handful of permits to export gas. Domestic manufacturers and trade unions want the ban to stay, in the hope low energy costs make US factories competitive again. Now the gas industry export push is wrapped in noble strategic purpose.

“Even before Ukraine, the argument has been won for gas exports,” claimed BHP-Billiton chief Andrew Mackenzie on his recent profile-raising US trip. His company has put $20 billion into US oil and gas.

That Republicans such as Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner support the idea is unsurprising. Less so the editorial endorsement of  The New York Times. In any case, it would take years and billions for new LNG terminals to make a difference.

Dependence is a two-way thing, of course. Oil and gas contribute 70 per cent of Russia’s export earnings and yield 52 per cent of Moscow’s revenues. Western Europe buys 76 per cent of the natural gas exports. The customer is king, as they say, especially with the northern winter over.

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4 . Laser deployment changes focus

Asian governments are looking with alarm at the Ukrainian crisis, to see whether a weak US response sets an unfortunate example for China in its own region. Or so goes another strand of conservative commentary in Washington.

That ignores the fact China has already made border agreements with most of its 14 land neighbours (India the big exception), sometimes conceding territory. Its most worrying claims are in the maritime sphere, where the US Navy dominates. As if to add reassurance, the US fleet this year deploys its first laser weapon – fitted to the unfortunately named USS Ponce (it comes from a town in Puerto Rico, named for the island’s Spanish discoverer).

“We’re not scared,” says Rear-Admiral Zhang Zhaozhong of  the People’s Liberation Army Navy (another awkward name), who suggested last month that China’s thick smog cover would protect it against military lasers. Now Huang Chenguang, a professor specialising in high-energy lasers, says missiles and other targets could have highly reflective coatings that harmlessly dispersed the Ponce’s death rays or even reflected them back to destroy their source.  

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6 . Rudd’s long-term  plan for UN role

Bane of the Chinese communists Kevin Rudd is meanwhile perfectly poised to work on the next phase of his career.

First Australia, next the world. Rudd has just taken up a three-year fellowship with Harvard University, where he will lead “major research” into the evolving relationship between the US and China.

That roughly coincides with the remaining term of the United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, from South Korea, who steps down in December 2016. It will then be the turn of the Western European and Others Group, to which Australia belongs, to put one of their own in the UN’s top job.

We can expect Rudd to be a frequent shuttler from Boston down to UN headquarters in New York to schmooze delegations, about one-third of which are typically left to make their own decisions on such votes.

The family wealth built through wife Thérèse Rein should be ample for the hospitality and largesse involved.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 15, 2014 as "US flounders without any military option".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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