As the Obama administration and the rest of us ponder what might happen next in Ukraine, here are some suggested thinking points:
- The crisis is in Russia’s backyard. Russia has the upper hand in geopolitical terms, just as the US has in Latin America. We might not have a crisis today if, starting several years ago—in fact, going back to the second George W. Bush administration—the US and EU (with Germany in the lead) had been more sensitive to Russian security and economic concerns, and put those in service of an engagement strategy. Instead, the Western/NATO economic and military partnerships with the former Soviet satellites were extended right up to Russia’s borders. Then came the crisis over Georgia in 2008, and now over Ukraine. Ukraine’s rejection of Russian aid, after initially accepting it, and its turn to the IMF for help, may have been the last straw for Moscow. Loss of influence in its “near abroad” was becoming intolerable, so a number of observers believe. I would not be surprised if the Russian leadership didn’t recall the way the Marshall Plan was perceived by Stalin, as a provocative extension of capitalism to Russia’s doorstep rather than a humanitarian US attempt to save Europe.
Here’s Ray McGovern, former CIA official, speaking about US political activism in Ukraine prior to the crisis:
“. . . it’s very clear what’s happened to the Ukraine. It used to be the CIA doing these things. I know that for a fact. OK, now it’s the National Endowment for Democracy, a hundred million bucks, 62 projects in the Ukraine. So, again, you don’t have to be a paranoid Russian to suggest that, you know, they’re really trying to do what they—do in the Ukraine what they’ve done in the rest of Eastern Europe and elsewhere” (www.nationofchange.org/who-provoking-unrest-ukraine-debate-role-russia-us-regional-crisis-1393949447).
Recall also the taped conversation mentioned in my initial post on Ukraine—the bald-faced attempt by two US diplomats to engineer a favorable political outcome to the protests in Kiev. Surely the Russians, who probably taped it, saw the conversation as more American interference to achieve a pro-US government there. And in the end, though the State Department didn’t get everything it wanted, it did get the new leader (and perhaps next president), Arseniy Yatsenyuk, whom the two diplomats had specifically identified as their man.
2. But isn’t Russia carrying out a preventive intervention—precisely what the US did in Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein? (Sure it is.) At what point do the “legitimate interests” of a great power trump self-determination and respect for another country’s sovereignty? (It shouldn’t, unless a genuine threat to security exists, which Ukraine hardly represented.) Shouldn’t Russia be bound by the 1994 treaty it signed with the US and EU? Under that treaty, by which Ukraine gave up the nuclear weapons based there, the parties promised to respect Ukraine’s independence and Russia promised to keep its troops in their barracks in Crimea. (Absolutely.)
3.Russian justifications would seem to be little different from those of the US and other empires: Russia is an exceptional civilization, a shining example to others; it has vital interests in everything that happens around its borders; and Russia has the right and duty to intervene preemptively in its neighbors’ affairs when “instability” occurs. (Recall Condoleezza Rice writing that “great powers don’t just mind their own business.”) As Stephen Cohen, among the best Russia experts, has put it in explaining Putin’s actions:
“He’s been in power fourteen years, and his mission is, as he sees it, and many Russians see it, [to] restore Russia from the disaster of 1991, the collapse of the Russian state. Remember, that was the second time in the 20th century the Russian state had collapsed, the first time in 1917. So to recreate the stability, prosperity, greatness, whatever that means in Russia at home, and in the process, restore Russia’s traditional zones of national security on its borders; that means Ukraine as well. He did not create this Ukrainian crisis; it was imposed on him, and he had no choice but to react” (interview on CNN with Fareed Zakaria, www.breitbart.com/Big-Peace/2014/03/02/Princeton-Prof-Putin-Didn-t-Create-Crisis-Had-No-Choice-but-to-React).
- 4. The “good guys” who overthrew Viktor Yanukovych are in a chaotic state. Having overthrown the (elected) autocrat, Ukraine searches for a government acceptable to all, which includes two ultranationalist parties. This gives Russia the argument that what happened was a fascist coup, making the new government illegitimate. But did Putin have “no choice,” as Cohen insists?
5.Obama is caught between hawks who say nobody respects the US anymore and the use of force should be on the table; crows who say everything short of force should be utilized, economic sanctions in particular (the State Dept. view); and doves who say the main thing is to get Russia’s agreement to stop the violence and ensure the unity of the country.
6.Tough talk and empty threats from US officials, such as demanding that the Russians “stand down,” are guilty of aggression, and have blatantly violated the UN Charter, may score points in Washington but are very unlikely to make a difference to Putin. He’s in the driver’s seat and he knows it. Economic sanctions may hurt; but a Russian decision to turn off the energy spigot to Europe may hurt even more.
7. Short of military force, the options are political and economic: investment bans, visa bans, travel bans, international conference boycotts, break in relations, removal of Russia from the G-8. These are not as persuasive as they may seem.
8. A Russian Crimea may be unavoidable no matter what the US and EU do. Putin has suddenly become a promoter of self-determination, contending that if the people in Crimea vote for secession or association with Russia, that’s their right. (But he’s also turned against the UN Charter, arguing—contrary to what he said at the UN recently—that any action must be in accordance with the Charter and international law. But at that time he was arguing against US and EU involvement in Syria.)
9. So what are the likely scenarios for the immediate future?
Best Case: Putin has made his point. The US, Russia, EU, and Ukraine agree to new presidential elections (that is, to restoring the status quo ante), to a coordinated economic assistance plan for Ukraine, to agreement that Ukraine will not have a military association with NATO/US forces, and to reaffirmation of the 1994 pact respecting Ukraine’s independence.
Next Best Case: Putin gets greedy. Crimea becomes a separate entity, like Abkhazia, or a separate country, like Kosovo.
Worst Case: The Cold War returns. All of eastern Ukraine plus Crimea declare independence, essentially becoming absorbed into Russia’s orbit.
Last words: In this very complex situation, there are no innocent parties and no heroes. The Russians are right to point to the unacceptability of Western encroachment in their backyard and to the overthrow of a corrupt but legitimately elected leader. They are wrong to assert their interests in Ukraine by intervening with force. The US and the EU are right to condemn Russian intervention in Ukraine, but wrong to have meddled in Ukraine’s internal politics, further arousing Russian security anxieties. From a human-interest point of view, restoring a unified Ukraine with full rights guaranteed to all regions and peoples via free elections and constitutional changes—the “best case” scenario above—is the way to avert a deepening crisis.