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.

But perhaps not. There is a road to deescalation. It does not consist in showing Putin “who’s boss,” as the US Russophobes (a majority of the commentariat and political class) wish to do, but rather in acknowledging certain basic principles. The framework for a settlement has been set forth by Henry Kissinger, writing in The Washington Post, and Thomas E. Graham, in The National Interest. Kissinger’s contribution was especially welcome; he has retreated from the hawkish stance he adopted after 9/11. He has come, it seems, to a greater appreciation of the limits of military force: “In my life, I have seen four wars begun with great enthusiasm and public support, all of which we did not know how to end and from three of which we withdrew unilaterally. The test of policy is how it ends, not how it begins.”

Kissinger rebukes all the main external players: Russia must understand that it cannot coerce Ukraine into satellite status; the West must acknowledge that Ukraine is a country in which Russia takes a deep and abiding interest; the EU should understand that “its bureaucratic dilatoriness and subordination of the strategic element to domestic politics in negotiating Ukraine’s relationship to Europe contributed to turning a negotiation into a crisis.” He wisely counsels against steps that look like domination:

Any attempt by one wing of Ukraine to dominate the other — as has been the pattern — would lead eventually to civil war or breakup. To treat Ukraine as part of an East-West confrontation would scuttle for decades any prospect to bring Russia and the West — especially Russia and Europe — into a cooperative international system.

Like Anatol Lieven and Thomas Graham, Kissinger stresses the close electoral competition since independence and doubts that street demonstrations in one part of the country can adequately represent the whole. The drawn-out contest between Viktor Yanukovych and Yulia Tymoshenko, he notes, was a struggle in which each side sought the domination of the other. Outside powers, he in effect observes, should seek to mitigate or contain that destructive competition, not feed it. That is not what they’ve been doing.

Thomas Graham’s more detailed proposal is simpatico with Kissinger’s guidelines. Graham served as Bush’s senior director for Russia on the National Security Council staff from 2004 to 2007. On the basis of his essay, it is difficult to believe that he supported the Bush administration’s quest to bring Ukraine into NATO, a deeply destabilizing proposal that at the time was turned aside by opposition from Germany and Britain. He argues, rightly, that Ukraine has a serious democratic deficit, and that the interim government “consists of members of the same corrupt elite that has dominated Ukraine for at least the past decade and brought the country to the brink of ruin.” He notes the irony that “we are backing the actions of a Rada that was elected in 2012 in a process the OSCE judged less free and fair than the one that elected Yanukovych in 2010.”

Graham’s proposal for a resolution of the current impasse is moderate in tenor. As Russia refuses to recognize the legitimacy of the new government and continues to hold out for a return to the February 21 agreement, Graham wants Russia to agree that part of the February 21 agreement (allowing Yanukovych to remain in power until December) is no longer viable and that Russia should get Yanukovych to formally resign. In return, the West should agree to a broadening of the interim government to include a bigger part of Ukraine’s political spectrum. The president’s formal resignation would set in motion a constitutional process for new presidential and parliamentary elections, resulting in a new government that would be tasked with writing a new constitution. He insists, critically, on OSCE supervision of the electoral process (another point on which the US has been mum, though the fairness of hastily scheduled elections should clearly be of outside concern). During this process, Graham wants outside powers to reaffirm the Budapest Memorandum consecrating Ukraine’s territorial integrity, and he thinks there should be a moratorium on negotiations for an EU Association Agreement or a Russian-led Customs Union.

Against the Tide

Graham’s motive for suspending negotiations with external bodies is laudable; he wants to secure each side “its minimal goal of keeping Ukraine out of the other side’s economic structures and regulatory space.” But while such suspension is advisable at the formal level, pending new elections, the nature of the offer the EU and Russia wish to make to the Ukrainian people should form a vital part of the election campaign. Ukraine is now an economic basket case, in immediate need of bridge loans to survive the coming year. The EU needs to spell out clearly what it is prepared to give, what conditions it will impose, what future beckons for Ukraine. The EU needs to be transparent rather than opaque; there has been almost no detailed reporting on what, concretely, the “restructuring” of the Ukrainian economy would entail if the Ukrainians were to “join” Europe. (It is extremely doubtful, of course, that full membership in the EU is really on offer). Both sides—the West and Russia—would have an opportunity to show that their vision for Ukraine did not preclude association with the other side. Lieven notes that over the past year “Neither Russia nor the EU made any serious effort to talk to each other about whether a compromise might be reached that would allow Ukraine somehow to combine the two agreements [with the EU and the Eurasian Union], to avoid having to choose sides.” Both sides—Russia and the West—would have an opportunity to do so in the elections. On current form, the needed dialogue will just be a shouting match or worse, but there is an opportunity here.

Nearly all leaders and commentators, realists included, reject the idea of partition. They do so on the assumption that partition would be equivalent to civil war. When America confronted its own secession crisis, Daniel Webster observed that there were not five men in the country who could agree on the borders that would separate the states, and perhaps that would be the case here as well. The West’s policy, however, should not be that partition is entirely off the table. It would clearly be acceptable were the parties themselves to agree to it, as in the Velvet Divorce dividing the Czech Republic from Slovakia. That said, it seems much better for now to work for a peaceful settlement within the framework of a united country. In Ukraine, partition does not look like a war-avoiding strategy, but it will inexorably become one of the possibilities for a settlement if a civil war begins.

The Ukrainian crisis is tailor made for a concert strategy, such as has existed at various times in international history. In the bad old days, the Powers met and, reaching a consensus among themselves, imposed a settlement on the small fry. Unfortunately, there is no concert in today’s international society, and there are powerful domestic forces in America that want to keep it that way. A breakdown of the limited cooperation that has existed between Russia and the West since the end of the Cold War would be bad for both sides, but not so bad for the military-industrial complex and the national-security state. That is one factor pushing against a reasonable attitude in the United States. But it is not so much sordid material interests as firmly affixed cultural blinders that make a concert strategy so difficult for Americans to accept. Kissinger may note that the “demonization of Putin is not a policy,” but that’s the way they roll in Washington, D.C. and in all the major media establishments.

David C. Hendrickson is Professor of Political Science at Colorado College. He is the author of Union, Nation, or Empire: The American Debate over International Relations (Kansas, 2009). He blogs at IR and All That. His essay “The West and the Decline of Oil” appeared in the premier issue of The National Interest in 1985.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Mstyslav Chernov. CC BY-SA 3.0.