Blogs: Paul Pillar

Twists of History and Interests in Ukraine

Paul Pillar

Other considerations also should be kept in mind when answering the thought experiment's question. One is that the political histories of several of the non-Russian former Soviet republics can hardly be said to constitute victories for Western-style freedom and democracy. Thus neither, in this particular respect, was the break-up of the Soviet Union. A current reminder that is geographically close to the West is the strident authoritarianism of Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus. In several of the republics, independence meant that regional Communist Party bosses clung to power as presidents. Two of those bosses, Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan and Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan, are still in power today. Another one of them, the late Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan, created a cult of personality that rivaled those of Stalin and the Kim family of North Korea. Even some of these strongmen, including Lukashenko and Niyazov, opposed the break-up of the U.S.S.R. at the time.

All of this is relevant to how the United States should perceive its interests today regarding the crisis in Ukraine. If there now existed a Union of Sovereign States, Russians in Moscow would lead it and Ukraine would be a part of it. We in the United States would still be proud winners of the Cold War, happy to see Marxism-Leninism having been discredited and communists in that part of the world reduced to a political opposition. Living with that arrangement would not be a major issue for the vast majority of U.S. and Western observers.

Of course, actual events, rather than hypothetical alternative histories, affect interests and how they ought to be conceived as well as how they actually are conceived. In the Ukrainian situation, the interests chiefly involved concern upholding international norms, especially the norms of non-aggression and respect for state sovereignty. The events of 1991 did not change facts of geography and demography that, whether we like to think this way or not, mean Russia has substantially greater strategic interest in the distribution of power in and around Ukraine than the United States does.

We do not like to think that way, partly because the events of 1991 gave us a bonus to our Cold War victory in the form of the outright dissolution of the U.S.S.R. and a sudden, drastic contraction of Russian influence. Anything that is perceived as a loss for our side (as any reassertion of Russian influence in this area would be), whether what is lost started out as a bonus or not, is harder to take than not having won it in the first place. This is a good illustration of prospect theory, but it is not a good basis for defining national interests and making policy.

The best, and probably only feasible, resolution of the crisis over Ukraine remains a Finlandized Ukraine for which joining any military alliance is firmly ruled out and significant power has been devolved from the central government to the regions. Keeping in mind how the history of the U.S.S.R. could have taken another track will help to remind us of how good an arrangement that would be for our side, as well as for Ukrainians. It also will help us to achieve greater clarity—which is sorely lacking in much of the American debate over Ukraine—in defining our interests and objectives as we decide on the next moves in jousting with one of Boris Yeltsin's other major legacies: his hand-picked successor as president of Russia.