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Eastern European military officers say security, economic ties blunt Russia's war threat in Ukraine

| Saturday, March 8, 2014, 9:20 p.m.
Estonian air force Lt. Col. Mart Vendla outside the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, where he is an international fellow.
Polish army Col. Piotr Bieniek, an international fellow at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle.
Romanian army Col. Iulian Berdila, an international fellow at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle.

Invasions used to be bloodier than this.

Russia's incursion into the Ukrainian province of Crimea has not descended into a shooting war in large part because of the security and economic ties forged since the Cold War ended, Eastern European military officers told the Tribune-Review.

All three officers serve in countries that were occupied by Russian troops during the Soviet era — Poland, Romania and Estonia — and are international fellows at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle.

The way the Ukraine crisis has unfolded offers an example of how interdependence in the post-Cold War world mutes international conflict, they said.

Ukraine is among 12 former Soviet republics that joined the Partnership for Peace — a security arrangement with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization — after the Cold War. The security alliance, an early attempt to establish relationships with countries that had been on the other side of the Iron Curtain, extended NATO's reach into Russia's border states.

“Security arrangements today, even Partnership for Peace, have been instruments to tamp down violence,” said Romanian army Col. Iulian Berdila.

The uneasy standoff between Ukrainian forces and Russian soldiers occupying the Crimean peninsula likely will be tested on March 16, when Crimea's parliament scheduled a vote on whether the province should remain Ukrainian or break away and join Russia.

The referendum sounds all too familiar to Mart Vendla, a lieutenant colonel in the Estonian air force. In Estonia in 1940, Soviet occupiers organized a vote among Estonian politicians — many of whom were under the Soviets' influence — on whether to join the Soviet Union.

“They came in, they found the puppets, and they had a vote,” Vendla said.

Ukraine lies on the divide between eastern and western societies. In its eastern provinces, most people speak Russian, not Ukrainian. After European-friendly protesters in Kiev deposed Ukraine's Moscow-backed president, Viktor Yanukovych, counter-protesters in Ukraine's eastern cities stormed government buildings and raised Russian flags.

Those in the country's west started the Euromaidan protests after Yanukovych rejected a trade agreement with the European Union and instead pursued closer ties with Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Crimea, where a large Russian naval base is located, after the interim, pro-European government took over.

This struggle between east and west has simmered in Ukraine since the Soviet Union dissolved 22 years ago, said Craig Nation, director of Russian and Eurasian studies at the War College.

Putin never accepted the post-Cold War eastward expansion of NATO and the EU, said James MacDougall, chairman of the War College's Department of National Security and Strategy.

Among the starkest illustrations of this are NATO's 2008 Bucharest Summit Declaration and the Russian military doctrine of February 2010. The NATO declaration says Ukraine will become a member of NATO, while the Russian document says the movement of NATO's border closer to Russia is the country's main external threat.

But Russia's economic ties to Europe limit Putin's options, said Col. Piotr Bieniek of the Polish army. Russia depends on Europe to buy its natural gas, which flows from supplier to buyer through Ukraine's pipelines.

Putin “knows that if the economy is weak, he cannot implement the policies he wants,” Bieniek said.

The crisis occurs as the United States “rebalances” its foreign policy toward Asia and the Pacific, increasing pressure for a European-driven solution to the crisis, MacDougall said.

“This is, in part, a test to see whether Europe can take the lead,” MacDougall said.

Ukraine, in particular, needs to show it can solve a problem within its territory, Bieniek said.

“They need to find their own way,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Mike Wereschagin and Salena Zito are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Wereschagin can be reached at 412-320-7900 or mwereschagin@tribweb.com. Zito can be reached at szito@tribweb.com.

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