January 28, 2015
Arming Ukraine Would Be Folly
Ivo Daalder’s Financial Times op-ed yesterday (Arm Ukraine to show Russia conflict has a cost) constitutes one of the most ill-advised foreign policy recommendations I can recall in many years, and this during an era which has seen many. With European unity already at a delicate juncture given Syriza’s victory in Greece—and material cohesion risks looming across both the EU’s economic and foreign policies--now is not the time to throw more kindling on the fire. Mr. Daalder couches arming Ukraine—as good-hearted, liberal interventionists are wont to do--as only “enhancing Ukraine’s defensive capabilities.” Yet provision of anti-armour missiles to Kiev (or, eventually, collaborative paramilitaries) would be viewed as a virtual act of war towards Russian-affiliated proxies in the Donbass. This will be sure to earn the ire of The Kremlin precipitating not de-escalation, but precisely the opposite.
How did we get here? A Hitler-like madman on the loose, in the ribald telling of too many in the West, fueling a revanchist Russia that may show up at the gates of Prague before too long? Or through Russia’s steady humiliation (real or perceived) after the Cold War, whether via the relentless drum-beat of NATO expansion, EU enlargement or, relatedly, myriad ‘civil society promotion’ initiatives? Sentient, historically-cognizant voices would better recognize the latter as major contributory cause(s). When these forces coalesced in Ukraine--as they did in Georgia before it--they conspired so that the Russian side concluded red-lines had been crossed and essentially declared: ‘no more’. Or, as Putin memorably put in a major address last year after the Crimean incursion: “(if) you compress the spring all the way to its limit, it will snap back hard. You must always remember this.”
The most casual perusal of Russian history explains why Ukraine is of such immense import to Moscow. Historic Kievan Rus is the spiritual fountainhead of Russia’s very origins. As Georgy Fedotov once commented: “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.” Later, her wide plains led direct to the soft underbelly of the Russian heartland and saw Napoleon and Hitler’s (the real one) armies hold perilous, probing sway. Ukraine is thus something of a cordon sanitaire in the Russian worldview. More recently, there are also the legitimate grievances of Eastern Ukrainians whom felt deeply disenfranchised amidst the sturm und drang of Maidan, many of whom feel genuine ties of kinship to Mother Russia.
There is a conceit in some capitals like Washington DC that an age of unfettered, rules-based liberal internationalism is nigh, and that such interests are relics of a more primitive age of our remote ancestors. As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry commented after the Crimean events (without a trace of self-knowing irony given the Iraq misadventure): “(y)ou just don’t in the 21st Century behave in 19th Century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped –up pretext.” But states retain key geopolitical strategic interests and are still quite galvanized to protect core ones. While Vladimir Putin is not desirous of a long war and costly occupation, he is a formidable strategist infrequently disposed to buckling under. Pressured more, he will call the West’s bluff, in the process causing more havoc for Ukraine.
What to do? The outlines of a deal are clear. First, most critically, Putin must be given face and room for a climb-down. A summit should be held with not only Chancellor Angela Merkel, but also President Barack Obama. Ukraine must agree to never join NATO. Federalization schemes and Russian-minority language rights must be brokered for Ukraine’s East. Sanctions must be reversed. In return, Putin must withdraw all military support from the Donbass, and exert robust political pressure on the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics to accept Kiev’s broad writ. While EU Membership need not be wholly taken off the table as like NATO, it is high time for the airy proselytization and cookie dispensations reminiscent of the ‘color revolutions’ to cease. (Crimea may contemplate an internationally-supervised referendum on its status a decade or so hence, but must be wholly ‘separate-tracked.’ In any event, and to the vast majority of Russians--including many resident in Crimea itself--Khrushchev’s gifting of it to the Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine smacks more of historical accident, with the recent re-incorporation of Crimea akin more to a ‘de-annexation’ in this view).
We may not like such realpolitik-style deal-making, with the hard-headed trade-offs it entails. Many in Kiev will grumble, but major economic aid from all the key protagonists should figure in any peace deal and help mollify sentiment. Regardless, such a resolution ultimately is preferable to a Novorossiya linked up to Trans-Dniester, say, with a land-bridge to Crimea and Odessa en passant in Russian hands. Beyond the risks of such greater Ukrainian dismemberment—or simply the pains of a long, drawn-out ‘partisan’ war--the alternative is likely a new Cold War II, and with it an increasingly fractured Europe. Mr. Daalder’s prescriptions badly fail on any serious measure tethered to the realities of the situation. Arming Ukraine would be a dangerous folly that none of us can afford. As a wise former American diplomat George Ball once commented about Vietnam: “(o)nce on the tiger’s back, we cannot be sure of picking the place to dismount.”
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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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