Armed servicemen wait in Russian army vehicles in the Crimean town of Balaclava, March 1, 2014. (Reuters/Baz Ratner)The escalating crisis in Ukraine has set off reckless missile-rattling in this country. As Kennedy School Professor Stephen Walt tweeted on March 2: “Public discourse on #Ukraine situation hitting new hghts in hyperbole. (‘New Cold War, WW III,’ etc.) Rhetorical overkill not helpful.” He may have been thinking of neocon Charles Krauthammer, who in his Washington Post column called for the United States to ante up $15 billion for Ukraine and send a naval armada to the Black Sea. The same paper headlined that the crisis “tests Obama’s focus on diplomacy over force,” quoting Andrew Kuchins of the Center for Strategic and International Studies decrying President Obama for “taking the stick option off the table.”
The Obama administration has responded to the crisis by flexing its own rhetorical muscles. When Russian President Vladimir Putin ignored Obama’s warning that a “price would be paid” if Russia sent troops into Crimea, Secretary of State John Kerry denounced the “brazen act of aggression,” vowing that “Russia is going to lose, the Russian people are going to lose,” and suggesting “asset freezes, isolation with respect to trade, investment…the ruble going down,” while promising economic assistance of a “major sort” for whatever government emerges in Kiev. Cooler heads included Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to Russia Jack Matlock, who described the Obama administration’s warnings to Putin as “ill-advised” and argued that “whatever slim hope that Moscow might avoid overt military intervention in Ukraine disappeared when Obama in effect threw down the gauntlet and challenged him. This was not just a mistake of political judgment—it was a failure to understand human psychology—unless, of course, he actually wanted a Russian intervention, which is hard for me to believe.”
We should take a deep breath—and a sober look—before committing treasure and prestige to a still unsettled new leadership in a country on Russia’s border—one that has had a fragile independent existence for barely two decades. Some history would also serve us well if we’re to understand fast-moving developments. With Russia moving troops into Crimea, we are now reaping the bitter fruit of a deeply flawed post–Cold War settlement that looks more like Versailles than Bretton Woods, a settlement inflamed by the short-sighted American decision to expand NATO eastward and pursue other policies aimed at isolating Russia and ignoring Russian interests.
Russia’s dispatch of military forces to Crimea is a clear violation of international law, as the Obama administration has stated. Putin justifies the invasion as necessary to protect Russian citizens and allies, but this is an unacceptable fig leaf. The administration is right to condemn it, as should the world community, although much of the world will grimace at the irony of Secretary Kerry denouncing an invasion of a sovereign country as unacceptable in the twenty-first century, when the United States is only now winding down its “war of choice” against Iraq, which is thousands of miles away from the United States. Crimea, of course, not only borders on Russia but houses its Black Sea fleet, which, by treaty agreement between Ukraine and Russia, is set to remain there until at least 2042. Crimea historically was part of Russia until 1954, when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred it to Ukraine in what many viewed as a gesture of goodwill.
Viktor Yanukovych was unpopular, corrupt and compromised, but he was the democratically elected president of Ukraine. He had been steering the country toward an “Association Agreement” with the European Union last fall when he reversed course after Russia offered $15 billion in financial aid to the all-but bankrupt country. That led to street demonstrations, spurred in part by the EU and the United States, which eventually sent Yanukovych packing.
Ukraine is deeply divided. As David Speedie, director of US Global Engagement at the Carnegie Council of Ethics in International Affairs, says, “In simple terms, half of the people in Ukraine look to Russia and the other half look to the West.” As Nicolai Petro demonstrates in his March 3 report at TheNation.com, the new leaders in Kiev include right-wing ultra-nationalists who, in one of their first acts, repealed the 2012 law allowing Russian and other minority languages to be used locally. (That measure was reversed, but not before arousing deep mistrust and fear in semi-autonomous Crimea and many other parts of eastern and southern Ukraine, which is populated largely by Russian speakers.) It is also worth noting that a key ally of the new government, holding central leadership positions in Parliament and law enforcement, is the Svoboda Party, which the European Parliament has condemned for its “racist, anti-Semitic and xenophobic views.” Even further to the right is the neo-fascist Right Sector, which dominates the Maidan, or Independence Square, the heart of the rebellion, which has refused to disband and exerts significant influence over the new regime’s decisions.
Yanukovych’s decision to postpone the EU’s Association Agreement was not irrational. It would have forced Ukraine to decide between Russia and the EU, flatly rejecting Putin’s offer of a tripartite arrangement that would allow Ukraine to sustain its ties with Russia. Quite apart from Putin’s December offer of financial rescue, Ukraine is heavily dependent on Russia economically, which supplies and subsidizes its energy (at the cost of an estimated $4 billion a quarter) and accounts for 60 percent of its trade. The EU and the United States, for all their bluster, are not about to replace that deep connection with Western aid and trade. Americans across the political spectrum will not be enthusiastic about sending billions to a country on the other side of the world while we are cutting back on vital investments at home. The EU, dominated by Germany, has inflicted brutal austerity on its own troubled members like Greece, Spain and Portugal. There’s no reason to think the EU, with or without the IMF, would not exact an equally harsh regime on Ukraine as the price for financial aid. Any responsible government in Kiev should examine very carefully the level of support offered by these Western institutions, as well as the conditions attached to it.
In a Western-media passion play that largely disdains or distorts context and history, Putin is the designated villain. But Ukraine is central to Russian security, and Russian fears arising from instability in its next-door neighbor are far less about economic relations with the EU (Russia itself is a major source of energy for the Europeans) than the further extension of NATO to its borders. A hostile Ukraine might displace Russian bases on the Black Sea, harbor the American fleet and provide a home to NATO bases. This isn’t an irrational fear. Despite promises by George H.W. Bush not to extend the West’s Cold War military alliance when Germany was united, nine former Warsaw Pact nations and three former Soviet republics have now been incorporated into NATO, with the US-NATO even setting up a military outpost in Georgia. And the EU Association Agreement, advertised as offering free trade, in fact included military clauses that called for integrating Ukraine into the EU military structure, including cooperation on “civilian and military crisis management operations” and “relevant exercises” concerning them. No one should be surprised that Putin reacted negatively to such a prospect. It’s difficult to imagine any US administration accepting a decision by Mexico to join a military alliance with Russia.
The pundit class needs a strong dose of realism and common sense. It’s absurd to scold Obama for “taking the stick option off the table”—the unavoidable fact is that he has no stick in relation to Ukraine. Americans have no desire and no reason to go to war with Russia over Crimea, and the EU and the United States are not about to supplant Russia’s economic influence in Ukraine. Washington is not going to provide the aid, the trade or the subsidized energy that Ukraine needs, and the EU—which is still mired in a deep economic crisis of its own—doesn’t have the means to offer Ukraine much beyond painful austerity. An unpopular Ukrainian leader has been unseated, but the new government is not elected, not legitimate and not at all settled. The international community should be pushing hard for compromise, before this fragile and bitterly divided country breaks apart.
Frustrated cold warriors filling armchairs in the outdated “strategic” think tanks that litter Washington will continue to howl at the moon, but American policy should be run by the sober. The president should work with the EU and Russia to preserve Ukraine’s territorial unity, support free elections and allow Ukraine to be part of both the EU and the Russian customs union, while pledging that NATO will not extend itself into Ukraine. It is time to reduce tensions and create possibility, not draw lines, flex rhetorical muscles and fan the flames of folly.