The West's Illusions About Ukraine

March 11, 2014 Topic: MediaSociety Region: Ukraine

The West's Illusions About Ukraine

Western ignorance is leaving Ukraine's problems—and paths to a solution—overlooked.

Mobocracy on the Maidan

Even if we put to one side the reservations about the composition of the new Ukrainian government, there was much to condemn in manner of its birth. It’s okay to have one revolution, but two in ten years is not an auspicious development. Victoria Nuland recently let slip that the United States had invested $5 billion in building democratic institutions in Ukraine over the past two decades; one would suppose that part of our civics instruction included the lesson that in modern democracies, governments are changed via elections, not through street demonstrations. But perhaps not. She ought to be pressed to give an accounting of how those funds were spent and what lessons were inculcated to our eager pupils with respect to proper democratic procedures. Jefferson taught “absolute acquiescence in the decisions of the majority, the vital principle of republics, from which is no appeal but to force, the vital principle and immediate parent of despotism.” Of course, the State Department fully adheres to that doctrine—except when it doesn’t, as in the instant case.

To be legitimate, democracy must be constitutional. The timid as well as the brave get to have a say, the old as well as the young. The system is not perfect, just better than all the alternatives. The transfer of power through free and fair elections is its most sacred ritual. The revolution in Ukraine did not observe this ritual. It did not even pretend to. That is a mark against it, not a mark in its favor.

The coup de grace for Yanukovych was the sniper fire on Maidan square that killed over eighty people on February 21. In its aftermath, Maidan demanded the government’s immediate abdication, Yanukovych’s supporters deserted him, and he fled the capital. Since the reaction of the entire world to the sniper fire (and indeed, it seems, of his own cadre) was that this constituted proof that Yanukovych was unfit to govern, there is some room for doubt whether he ordered it. Most rulers are not suicidal. But even if we accept that Yanukovych was more out of touch than Ceausescu, and a bigger thief than Mobutu, there are still some unanswered questions about how he went down.

The government that succeeded him ought to have been accorded no more than a provisional legitimacy, and it ought now to be under international inspection. But far from claiming the latter right, the western powers seem determined to avert their eyes and to glory in the Revolution.

It was the people—er, the demonstrators, a fraction of Ukraine’s electorate—who put paid to the February 21 agreement; and it was the people—er, those of them in the square—to which the new ministry presented its choices. This occurred before the names for the new government were submitted to the Ukrainian parliament, just to show who was first among the legitimators of the new regime. The paramilitary groups that have now entered the interim government supplied the muscle in clashes with the police. The interim government remains under scrutiny by the demonstrators, who arrogate to themselves the role of “the surveillance of the people.” No one in the West thinks it anomalous that the mob claims a veto.

In democracies, people have a right to demonstrate, but a fraction of the people does not have the right to bring down a government. The western leaders who sanctioned such a principle in Ukraine would never allow it in their own jurisdictions.

Russia Blunders

These big missteps on the U.S. side (now being weirdly celebrated as a great success for democracy) are matched by some pretty poor calculations on Russia’s part. “Worse than a crime” is the only reasonable judgment on the mobilization of its forces and its use of Russian soldiers and equipment to secure the Crimea (a fact which it denies but which has been well established by numerous sources). These actions diverted attention from the manner in which the new government was formed in Kiev and put the focus squarely on Russia’s illegal actions in Crimea. By playing cards that everybody already knew he had, Putin seemed to act as if it were incumbent on him to put Russia in a bad position.

The move into Crimea and talk of its secession is frightening for one basic reason. By itself, the addition of the Crimea is really a poor compensation for Russia’s loss of Ukraine, but the secession of the Crimea would make the loss of the whole more likely and more durable. Given the razor sharp divisions at the national level, the loss of Crimea’s voters could easily tip the balance against a pro-Russian slate in national elections. If the secession goes forward, it signals that Russia would have essentially given up the quest to exercise influence in Ukraine through electoral means. The secession of Crimea points toward the secession of the rest of eastern Ukraine. It doesn’t add up by itself. A first step in this direction leads on to a second and a third.

The Russians are reputed to be masters at chess, but their initial responses to the revolution in Kiev were inept. They were in a position where they could play for time, considering certain basic factors:

● The package likely to be offered by the EU and IMF will include painful austerity measures.

● The boost given to Ukrainian nationalism could also strain relations with the EU; many of Ukraine’s nationalists do not like Brussels any better than other far-right European parties.

● The expected loss of gas subsidies as a condition of EU (and IMF) restructuring would also be unpopular. Yats himself described his interim administration as a kamikaze government, destined to blow up on arrival.

● With estimates of a needed package at around $25 billion, the $1 billion in loan guarantees the United States put on the table was risibly below expectations.

● The Germans did not appear especially keen to step up to the plate; on the contrary, German leaders were reportedly angry that the leaders of Maidan had held out hope of ultimate EU membership. Chancellor Angela Merkel was not likely to be willing to do for Ukraine what she had proved unwilling to do for Greece.

The voices coming from Ukraine, indeed, indicate a whole slew of very optimistic expectations of what they are likely to get from the West in the form of tangible aid, both economic and military. Nicely fitting the bill for disappointed expectations and bitter recriminations, in short, was the disjunction between the popular expectations generated by Ukraine’s revolution and the West’s reluctance to take on grave new financial burdens. The Russians might have waited until these disappointed expectations induced rancor in the opposing coalition; instead, they managed to convert the crisis into one centered on their own misbehavior.

It is true that whatever the Russians did in response to the extraconstitutional removal of Yanukovych would likely have found harsh critics in the West, but they did not have to hand their enemies a propaganda victory. Former NSC staffer Thomas Graham notes that “While we should be humble about our ability to read [Putin’s] mind, the goal behind his recent actions is not likely slicing off a bit of Ukraine in a neoimperialist fit, but rather using control of the Crimea as a bargaining chip to gain a government in Kiev that satisfies his minimal goal, that is, one that does not decide in favor of Europe but keeps open the option of a future closer alignment with Russia.” If that was his objective, his step accomplished the precise opposite of what he intended.

Escalation vs. De-escalation

The potential for escalation of the crisis into a military encounter remains real. That it would be a disaster for all sides is pretty nearly self-evident. There is a huge gulf in perceptions: America does not hear Russia; Russia does not hear America. A civil war between eastern and western Ukraine is not likely to escalate into another military confrontation between Washington and Moscow, but it would recall the dark days of the Cold War and lead to punishing economic costs on both sides. The Russians do have the capability to match the West tit for tat on a whole range of issues. Even if we can escape a civil war in Ukraine, with all the dangerous instabilities it would cause, a prolonged standoff that does not issue in a settlement will provide plenty of opportunity for the sanctioners on either side to exhaust their ingenuity in making life difficult for the enemy.

In theory, the West holds more cards than the Russians do, as its economic weight and resilience is undoubtedly greater; but the disparity of interest that exists between the two sides makes up for this imbalance of power. Because deepening conflict would be a greater disaster for Russia, it might seem to follow that Russia will concede the issue rather than face these consequences. But it is doubtful the Russians will see it that way. Both the Russians and the Americans need to be reminded of Hans Morgenthau’s dictum to “never put yourself in a position from which you cannot retreat without losing face.” At least, they ought to have been reminded two weeks ago. Now it may be too late.