Ukraine Crisis: Time to Reach a Resolution

The civil war has gone on long enough. It's time all parties involved got real about a settlement. 

In his interview with Thomas Friedman published on August 8, President Obama gave a convincing explanation of why the United States could not create an effective government in Iraq: “We cannot do for them what they are unwilling to do for themselves,” he pointed out, and also explained, “Societies don’t work if political factions take maximalist positions. And the more diverse the country is, the less it can afford to take maximalist positions.”

The president has identified the central issue, not only in Iraq but also in many of the world’s hotspots. In particular, his perception should be applied to guide our policy toward Ukraine and its conflict with Russia. American policymakers also need to pay closer attention to regional power realities and perceived interests than they apparently have in the recent past.

Neither Russia nor the United States has any right, under what is generally accepted as international law, to be involved in selecting a government in Ukraine. Russia, however, has an infinitely greater stake in that government’s orientation than has the United States and a much greater ability to affect what happens on the ground. The United States has traditionally opposed foreign military alliances in its own backyard—normally defined as the entire Western hemisphere—and in practice reserves the right to take any action it considers necessary to ensure its safety if it perceives a potential threat. One has to have a blind spot to salient features of the real world to expect that any country would be restrained by abstract and frequently violated principles of “international law” if its government believed that it must prevent a hostile foreign power from taking effective control of a neighboring country.

It does not matter that the Russian fear of foreign designs on Ukraine is exaggerated or misplaced (it is certainly exaggerated but perhaps not totally misplaced) because it is the perception that counts, the perception that motivates, the perception that agitates the public. If the United States government wishes to discourage undue Russian economic and military pressure on Ukraine, or Russian support for separatist sentiment in parts of Ukraine, it should do its best to diminish the Russian suspicion that the United States and its European allies are scheming to detach Ukraine from Russia’s sphere of influence and turn that country into a link in a cordon sanitaire to “contain” and eventually subjugate Russia.

Instead, the actions of American officials and administration statements, particularly since the demonstrations on Kiev’s Maidan began, seem designed to intensify Russian suspicions rather than attenuate them. The American assistant secretary of state for European affairs discussed with our ambassador in Kiev, on an easily intercepted cell phone call, possible replacements of the Ukrainian prime minister in terms that suggested that she was making an appointment. (“Yats. He’s the man!”) And indeed, “Yats,” or Arseniy Yatsenyuk, became prime minister after an armed rebellion. His government, which replaced a corrupt but constitutionally elected regime, received instant recognition from the United States, invitations to Washington, and visits not only from American senators but also the American vice president (who, during his 2008 run for the presidency had boasted that he could best “stand up to Vladimir Putin”—whatever that meant), and, of all people, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Now, from my limited understanding of Ukrainian politics, Prime Minister Yatsenyuk is a capable politician free of some of the most glaring faults of his predecessors. Any friend of Ukraine will wish him and President Poroshenko well in their efforts to put that tortured country back together. Nevertheless, we should not ignore the fact that their government is unrepresentative of the country as a whole, and that, so long as extensive fighting continues in the eastern provinces, valid representation of Ukrainian citizens there will be virtually impossible.

Kiev’s Western friends cannot provide political representation from Ukraine’s eastern provinces and Kiev is unlikely to enlist it while fighting goes on in Donetsk and Luhansk. Those who feel that the Kiev government can unify the country by means of a military victory over the separatists are surely wrong. Even in the unlikely event that Russia would permit a complete military victory, the government in Kiev would face the challenge of dealing with festering cancers rather than healthy, functional organs in Ukraine’s body politic.

The Russian government has bolstered its case with its citizens by heavy use of propaganda filled with distorted interpretations, questionable and sometimes false analogies, and occasional fabrications. Coverage of events in Ukraine by prominent American and Western European media, while more accurate and balanced than that in the Russian government-controlled media, has nevertheless devoted little attention to the militant right-wing elements in Ukraine’s Maidan movement, or to Kiev’s use of unofficial armed militias with ties to countries in the West. Even if the Maidan militants in the current government embody the purest virtue (a standard no one can meet), one could hardly expect the Russian government and public to welcome their apparent control of key positions in Kiev’s military and security apparatus given their outspoken hostility to Russia. One need only recall the American reaction during the Cold War to revolutionary movements in Latin America suspected (correctly or not) of being under Communist influence.