John McCain Can't Change Ukraine

December 19, 2013 Topic: Global Governance Region: Ukraine

John McCain Can't Change Ukraine

A deeply divided country won't be fixed by blunt diplomacy.


John McCain went to Ukraine the other day to meet with dissidents opposed to the pro-Russian leanings of Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych. "We are here to support your just cause, the sovereign right of Ukraine to determine its own destiny freely and independently," declared the senator. "And the destiny you seek lies in Europe."

Leaving aside the gravity of such meddling in another country’s internal affairs (and the reaction of Americans if foreign leaders came here to intrude into our politics in such ways), just about the entire McCain visit was bathed in ignorance. That’s when such meddling becomes dangerous.


McCain sees the Ukrainian drama in reassuringly simplistic terms. In his view, Ukraine is under the diplomatic thumb of its powerful eastern neighbor, Russia, which employs various carrots and sticks to dominate the country and keep Yanukovych in power against the desires and wishes of the Ukrainian people. In reality, continuing the McCain view, Ukraine doesn’t really want anything to do with Russia and wishes instead to cement closer ties with Western Europe. That’s why a protest movement emerged with Yanukovych’s last-minute decision to spurn a negotiated agreement designed to bring Ukraine closer to the European Union.

And now Russian president Vladimir Putin is doubling down in the stick department, offering a robust economic bailout package worth at least $15 billion in an effort to keep Ukraine in the Moscow orbit. This generated outrage at the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, which sees the situation through a prism similar to McCain’s. The Journal dismissively labeled the action "The Putin Crony Rescue Fund" (as if such approaches never occurred to U.S. leaders during the nearly seven decades since World War II) and suggested Putin’s aim was to keep Ukraine "in the Kremlin maw."

For McCain and the Journal, the solution to all this is more democracy for Ukraine. Then the people, in their ballot wisdom, would pull the country away from Russia, align with the West, and all would be well. Unfortunately for all concerned, it isn’t that simple. Democracy will not be the solution to Ukraine’s problems for the simple reason that Ukraine is a country split down the seams. True, roughly half favors closer western ties, but the other half cleaves to pro-Russian sentiments.

To understand this, it’s helpful to review a little history. As the late Samuel Huntington has pointed out, throughout most of the modern era Ukraine has been within Russia’s sphere of influence. The key development occurred in 1654, when a Cossack uprising against Polish rule yielded an agreement between the Cossacks and Russia: the Cossacks would align themselves with Russia if Russia would deliver them from the Polish threat. As Huntington puts it, "From then until 1991, except for a briefly independent republic between 1917 and 1920, what is now Ukraine was controlled politically from Moscow."

But Ukraine is what Huntington calls "a cleft country, with two distinct cultures"—a Western-oriented western portion and an eastern portion that is Orthodox in religion and outlook. At various times through history, the western portion has been part of Poland, Lithuania, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A large proportion of these people have coalesced around the Uniate Church, which combines Orthodox rites with a fealty to the Pope in Rome. Western Ukrainians speak largely Ukrainian and retain strong nationalist sentiments.

But in the east, the people are overwhelmingly Orthodox, and many people speak Russian. Indeed, in the early 1990s, 22 percent of all Ukrainians were ethnic Russians, and 31 percent of the Ukrainian people spoke Russian as their primary language.

This "cleft country" reality is manifest whenever Ukrainians go to the polls. Western-oriented candidates for president dominate the western portion of the country and are almost entirely shut out in the east, while candidates sympathetic to Russia sweep the eastern districts but are similarly shut out in the west.

Consider the ebb and flow of Ukrainian politics since the end of the Soviet Union. In the 1994 presidential election, incumbent Leonid Kravchuk, a strong nationalist in rhetoric (though capable of dealing amicably with Russia), dominated western Ukraine with vote totals approaching or exceeding 90 percent in some provinces. The opposition candidate, Leonid Kuchma, who took Ukrainian speech lessons to prepare himself for the campaign, carried the thirteen eastern provinces with corresponding majorities. Kuchma captured a 52 percent victory. One American observer said at the time that the outcome "reflected, even crystallized, the split between Europeanized Slavs in western Ukraine and the Russo-Slav vision of what Ukraine should be. It’s not ethnic polarization so much as different cultures."

More recently, Yanukovych was elected president in 2004, but amid allegations of a stolen election he lost his position in the face of the famous "Orange Revolution," and Viktor Yushchenko became president in a second electoral runoff. Yulia Tymoshenko, who harbored similar pro-Western views, became prime minister. Yanukovych was thrust into an opposition role. But he reemerged as prime minister in 2006, then lost that position again in 2007 to Tymoshenko. Then Yanukovych captured the presidency in 2010.

You can’t explain this seesaw political history exclusively through political corruption, although it’s easy to believe there has been plenty of that on both sides. Rather, it is explained largely through the reality of Ukraine as a cleft country, with two distinct enclaves of cultural sensibility and political interest.

So when McCain travels to Kiev and waxes pugnacious against the Ukrainian government, it’s wise to keep in mind that his pronouncements don’t square much with reality. When The Wall Street Journal suggests an economic boycott against the Ukrainian government "and its allies," it similarly is taking a blunt-instrument approach that can’t realistically address the complexities of the situation.

Ukraine will have to find its way through its historical predicament. Russia no doubt will play a role in whatever outcome emerges, if any. After all, Russia has been involved in the fate of Ukraine since 1654. Europe may have a role to play as well, given its proximity and the Western affinity of Ukraine’s western regions. But the United States has almost no standing to interfere.

What will be the outcome? Will Ukraine eventually split in two, each half going in its favored direction? It’s difficult to see such an eventuality absent a major international crisis in the region, although there will always be those who advocate such a course. As one Russian general once mused, "Ukraine or rather Eastern Ukraine will come back [into the Russian fold] in five, ten or fifteen years. Western Ukraine can go to hell!"

More likely, the country will continue to muddle through its current political conundrum as best it can. Huntington speculated that "Ukraine will remain united, remain cleft, remain independent, and generally cooperate closely with Russia." He quotes author John Morrison as saying that the Russian-Ukrainian relationship is to Eastern Europe what the Franco-German relationship is to western Europe. Huntington explains, "Just as the latter provides the core of the European Union, the former is the core essential to unity in the Orthodox world."

Such fundamental realities aren’t easily upended by John McCain’s brand of blunt instrument diplomacy.

Robert W. Merry is political editor of The National Interest and the author of books on American history and foreign policy. His most recent book is Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians.

Image from John McCain's Twitter feed.