March 03, 2014
What To Do--And Not Do--About Ukraine
“Yet, Kievan Russia, like the golden days of childhood, was never dimmed in the memory of the Russian nation. In the pure fountain of her literary works anyone who wills can quench his religious thirst; in her venerable authors he can find his guide through the complexities of the modern world. Kievan Christianity has the same value for the Russian religious mind as Pushkin for the artistic sense: that of a standard, a golden measure, a royal way.”
“The problem of the origin of the first Russian state, that of Kiev, is exceedingly complex and controversial.”
“Without Ukraine, Russia can remain an empire, but it cannot remain Russia.”
--Title of a recent article in Russkoye Obozreniye, a Russian periodical.
Few could be unmoved by the revolutionary spectacle of Maidan Square these past weeks. The desire for national dignity was palpable, and the protestors courageous. Too many paid for this courage with their blood. And yet, revolutions are never orderly, nor the equities ever as simple as many might prefer. And, as we are witnessing with the Arab Spring, they often have painful, and unforeseen, denouements.
Related, one need not be a Putin apologist to recognize some salient facts: 1) the Maidan movement included ultra-nationalists and even neo-fascists, 2) the Yanukovych transition deal was crudely scuppered leaving the Russian side caught unawares and looking flat-footed (never appreciated by Vladimir Putin); and 3) this was followed by deeply provocative measures by the new Government in Kiev to move to extinguish Russian minority language rights. More assertiveness was surely on tap, as the mood was manifestly one of triumphalism.
This all occurred in the backdrop of a still painful chapter in post-Soviet history with Russia in continued secular decline, a former superpower having suffered deep humiliation through the post-Gorbachev era. In particular, NATO’s relentless Eastern expansion has been a deeply provocative, perennial leitmotif for Moscow. Additionally, Putin has felt double-crossed when he has recently cooperated with the West (see Libya), and now here again, when the Yankovych deal was ingloriously pulled: no European or North American chancelleries rose to defend the integrity of the deal, not deigning to restrain the hyper-nationalist mood one whit. From Moscow, it felt like a coup d’etat engineered to deny Russia any meaningful role in post-revolutionary Ukraine, including areas of deeply legitimate interest such as Eastern Ukraine and Crimea.
Given this backdrop, as well as the massive import Ukraine holds in Russian national, religious, and cultural narratives—as the above quotes I hope help illustrate—I was increasingly queasy in the past days that Putin was going to await the end of the Sochi Olympics and look to protect Russia’s interests in Ukraine militarily (as I tweeted at the time). So he did. For the time being, one might hope having created ‘facts on the ground’ in Crimea, he will simply stop there and use this reality as leverage to force a more conciliatory posture from Kiev regarding Russia’s other interests in Ukraine. However, I am highly concerned that Putin may calculate he needs to enter Eastern Ukraine as well, which will then materially enhance the (already high) chances of sparking a horrific civil war.
Amidst this inflammatory cauldron, a chorus has arisen among the Washington DC cottage industry of bien pensants that something be done. No less a foreign policy authority than Marco Rubio has regaled us with eight steps to Ukraine policy glory, of which at least six are either deeply flawed or will have no impact or most often, both. In more high-brow quarters, personages such as Ivo Daalder and Nicholas Burns pound the mantle about NATO coming to the rescue (just solidarity-wise mind you, not sending in the cavalry per se), which will only aggravate matters further vis-à-vis Moscow.
Indeed, the incredible cacophony that Obama faces (throw the bum out of the G-8, freeze assets, restrict travel, apply harsh sanctions, even, train and equip the Ukrainian Army, send in flotillas to the Black Sea, or hell, cut off the Dardanelles!) is almost comical in its desperate desire to do something, anything, to not look like wimps, preserve ‘credibility’ and/or avoid another Sudetenland ‘Munich moment’, and so on. But amidst all this sturm und drang that we be mightily Churchillian, we must grapple with some basic realities: 1) The West has no real appetite for a military slugfest with Russia over Ukraine (and while Ukraine could go it alone, perhaps even valiantly, they will not ultimately prevail in any military contest); 2) the U.S. and EU do not always see eye-to-eye on matters Ukraine (putting it nicely, remember the charming bon mot from our Assistant Secretary of State for Europe, Victoria ‘fuck the EU’ Nuland?); and most fundamentally 3) Ukraine matters to Moscow exponentially more than it does to any Western power.
None of these factors advantage the West in the looming showdown over Ukraine, quite the contrary, they all run to the benefit of Putin. And if we play pretend we’re tough—and double down with sanctions and eviction from the G-8 and freezing transit and accounts and all the rest of it—you can be assured the chances of Putin calling our bluff and invading Eastern Ukraine full-bore will increase materially. Putin after all is not a donkey, and the brandishing of ‘sticks’ will not cow him, but rather in my view further embolden him, even if in a fit of pique and indignation that could involve miscalculation. Put differently, Putin is not an inconsequential figure, he must be engaged with, not wholly ostracized.
So, what is to be done, sit back, pass the popcorn, and see Vladimir do whatever he damn well pleases? No, of course not, but—and I cannot stress this enough—most policymaking should now be focused not on hectoring and ‘punishing Putin’ (all escalatory, generally mindlessly so) but rather moves aimed at showing we respect Russia’s legitimate interests with a view towards de-escalating the situation.
In this, Germany has a special role to play as go-between given her historical relationships with key regional powers like Ukraine, Poland and, of course, Russia. In coordinated fashion, key capitals like Berlin need to ensure Ukraine ratchets down the rhetoric with Moscow, of course no small feat given the emotion unleashed by the Crimean incursion (today’s comments from Kiev that it will “never give up” Crimea are not helpful). Indeed, further aid to Ukraine should likely be made conditional on ensuring minority rights in Eastern and Southern Ukraine are better respected, and critically, that no preemptive military activity by Kiev in those areas take place.
Beyond this regarding more Moscow-facing policy, we cannot breezily assume OSCE monitors or the like will prove a speedy panacea allowing for Putin to vacate Crimea (reportedly one idea making the rounds). This is a deeply unrealistic goal, as Putin understandably is suspicious organizations like the OSCE are beholden to their (majority) political masters in Western capitals, and thus overly in cahoots with the new regime in Kiev. For now, the focus must be--as with Kiev from the other side--to pursue productive diplomatic channels that help persuade Putin to stand-back from the precipice regarding a military option in Eastern/Southern Ukraine.
In short, by moving to soften the tone and policy in Kiev, better respecting Russia’s historic interests (please let us retire talk of NATO Membership Action Plans and such), offering honest broker type conflict resolution channels (not bidding up an East-West show-down in Pavlovian fashion as if inevitable) the following goals could possibly be accomplished in the short-term: 1) delaying or ideally preventing formal annexation of Crimea; 2) restraining Putin from invading Eastern Ukraine and 3) most important, helping defuse the specter of a horrible civil war in the heart of Europe’s eastern flank.
This is a time for sobriety and respect for one’s opponent and—dare I say—even a bit of gravitas—not think-tank ‘menus’ of punitive action to take in a huff, mostly as feel good nostrums. Yes too, I cannot help mentioning these are the bitter, dangerous fruits of locker-room 6th Floor Foggy Bottom talk of Yats and Klitsch, the bovine and myopic view of Ukraine through a zero-sum prism of winners and losers (Obama has been recently quoted saying he doesn’t “really even need George Kennan right now,” perhaps he should re-appraise this sentiment given the caliber of most of his policymakers ex Deputy Secretary Bill Burns). Putin shoulders huge blame too, of course, trying to thuggishly strong-arm Ukraine as a client, but we cannot pretend we have avoided all culpability given our own ineptitudes.
The broad middle of the Ukrainian people yearn for neither the dangerous hyper-nationalism of some in the Maidan movement nor being subjected to a revivified neo-Soviet yoke. To help deliver such a middle way, less bluster and more humility are in order, as well far more historical perspective than, say, the tidy supposed certitudes of the ’94 Budapest Memorandum. Ultimately if the current crisis can be defused—and more bloodshed averted—discussions around de-centralization (parts of Eastern and Southern Ukraine) and possibly autonomous arrangements (Crimea) can be constructively explored to all the parties’ ultimate benefit.
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About Belgravia Dispatch
Gregory Djerejian comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.
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