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.”

--Georgy Fedotov

“The problem of the origin of the first Russian state, that of Kiev, is exceedingly complex and controversial.”

--Nicholas Riasanovksy

“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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Posted by Gregory at March 3, 2014 09:41 AM | TrackBack (0)

I agree with most of this, but I am pessimistic, since so much depends on narcissists, who love the sound of their voices, being able to keep their damned mouths shut in public.

Posted by: Will Alen at March 3, 2014 01:47 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

But, Greg, why should I read a single word of yours, after you were so certain the US was to bomb Syria?

Posted by: Gold Star for Robot Boy at March 3, 2014 07:27 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Will: Tks. Btw, I owe you an apology for the deleted last post which took down your comment. Probably need to post this explanation in the 'main space' but beyond it being too lengthy and trying to cover too much ground, I think I need to demand of myself that if I am going to heavily criticize Obama's policies in Syria, Egypt, Afghanistan, and beyond (now perhaps UKR); I need to force myself to provide robust alternative policy recommendations. While part of the issue I believe is the caliber of some of the foreign policy practitioners in the mix, as well as the degrees of Presidential interest at play, nonetheless (and particularly in the case of Syria) the issue is maddeningly complex enough it is too easy (or cheap) to snipe from the sidelines without 'digging deep'. So again, apologies for taking down a post and thus losing your comment! best, gd

Gold Star: You are of course free to vote w/ your browser, but I think you intuit as well as I do how incredibly, perilously close we were to a Syria attack, which perhaps only an 11th and a half hour 45 minute walk-about w/ O's Chief of Staff staving off bombs away (given Susan, Samantha, John, etc). Regardless, however, and as per my above, the human tragedy of Syria is calamitous and the geopolitical risks still very real, so that a better policy still very much needs to be forged. if and until I have one to recommend (or at least productive thoughts to that end), I am lying low again on Syria commentary (ex-the CW deal and possibly now even more salient Russia-related angles). regards, gd

Posted by: greg djerejian at March 4, 2014 07:30 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

No worries, greg, and you are to be commended for not taking the typical path of punditry; that one of all critique, and no alternatives.

I wish our elected officials, and those that they hire, would begin with the worst case scenarios, and work back from there. In this matter, it seems to me, deaths, in the high six to low seven figure range, with a population less free and much more impoverished, is a very real possibility, with just some run of the mill bad decisions with a dollop of bad luck. Putin's a blinkered thug, albeit a shrewd one, but he is not the worst thing to hold power in that neck of the woods. The people of the United States, in all likelihood wisely, are not going to be willing to take huge risks in even treasure, to say nothing of blood, to try to make right what the blinkered thug makes wrong in Crimea/Ukraine.

No, that doesn't mean Putin should be encouraged to think he has free reign to do whatever he desires, and it may come down to inflicting costs on him that he will respond to by inflicting costs on us. But we aren't there yet, and if we can quietly show how the shots across the bow are ready to be fired, perhaps the worst case scenarios can be avoided, while giving us time and space to very efficiently (and figuratively, of course) slit the throats that need slitting over the next decade or so. Putin is still in a fundamentally weak position, and a ruthless, quiet, and patient approach to such an entity is what is needed.

Posted by: Will Allen at March 4, 2014 01:19 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

If we're going to get burnsed on this Ukraine thing, let's hope it's by Bill and not Nick. Always appreciate your thoughts, Greg.

Posted by: Adams at March 11, 2014 03:47 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

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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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