Katrina vanden Heuvel: The Ukraine crisis calls for less bluster, more common sense

March 4

The escalating crisis in Ukraine has set off reckless missile-rattling and muscle-flexing in this country. My Post colleague Charles Krauthammer sees this as a Cold War faceoff, calling for the United States to ante up $15 billion for Ukraine and send a flotilla to the Black Sea. A front-page headline in The Post on Sunday said that the crisis “tests Obama’s focus on diplomacy over force,” quoting Andrew C. Kuchins of the Center for Strategic and International Studies decrying President Obama for “taking the stick option off the table.” Right-wing and Republican posturing fills the airwaves.

The Obama administration has responded to the crisis by flexing its own rhetorical muscle. When Vladi­mir Putin ignored Obama’s warning that “there will be costs” if he sent troops into Crimea, Secretary of State John Kerry denounced the “brazen act of aggression,” vowing that “Russia is going to lose [and] the Russian people are going to lose,” suggesting “asset freezes [and] isolation with respect to trade [and] investment” while promising economic assistance of a “major sort” for whatever government emerges in Kiev. Cooler heads such as Reagan’s ambassador to the Soviet Union Jack Matlock described Obama’s warnings to Putin as “ill-advised” and argued that “whatever slim hope that Moscow might avoid overt military intervention in Ukraine disappeared when Obama in effect threw down a gauntlet and challenged him. This was not just a mistake of political judgment — it was a failure to understand human psychology — unless, of course, he actually wanted a Russian intervention, which is hard for me to believe.”

Let’s all take a deep breath before we commit our limited treasure and prestige to an unknown and still unsettled leadership in a country on Russia’s border, harbor to its fleet, that has had a fragile independent existence for barely 20 years.

That said, Russia’s dispatch of military forces to Crimea is a clear violation of international law, as the Obama administration has stated. Putin justifies the invasion as necessary to protect Russian citizens and allies, but this is an unacceptable fig leaf. The administration is right to condemn it, as should the world community, although much of the world will grimace at the irony of Kerry denouncing the invasion of a sovereign country as unacceptable in the 21st century when the United States is only now winding down its “war of choice” in Iraq.

Some history would also serve us well if we’re to understand fast-moving developments. The United States is reaping the bitter fruit of a deeply flawed post-Cold War settlement that looks more like Versailles than it does Bretton Woods, and that settlement was made even worse by the United States’ violation of the settlement by deciding to enlarge NATO and pursue other triumphalist policies aimed at isolating Russia and ignoring Russian interests.

Fugitive Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych was an unpopular, corrupt, compromised but democratically elected leader of Ukraine. He was leading the country towards membership in the European Union when, confronted by Russia’s substantial financial blandishments, he reversed course. That led to street demonstrations, spurred in part by the European Union and the United States, and eventually to the rebellion that sent him packing.

The nature of the new government is far from clear. Ukraine itself is deeply divided. As David C. Speedie, director of U.S. Global Engagement at the Carnegie Council of Ethics in International Affairs, says, “In simple terms, half of the people in Ukraine look to Russia, and the other half look to the West.” The new leaders in Kiev include ultra-nationalists who, in one of their first acts, voted to repeal the 2012 law allowing Russian and other minority languages to be used locally. (Not surprisingly, these new leaders are very unpopular in semi-autonomous Crimea, which is populated largely by Russian-speaking people, and in many parts of eastern and southern Ukraine.) It is also worth noting that a key ally of the new government, holding central leadership positions in the parliament and law enforcement, is the Svoboda party, which the European Parliament has condemned for its “racist, anti-Semitic and xenophobic views.”

Yanukovych’s decision to postpone consideration of joining the European Union was not irrational. The E.U. Association Agreement would have forced Ukraine to decide between Russia and the European Union, flatly rejecting Putin’s offer of a tripartite arrangement that would allow Ukraine to sustain its ties with Russia. In December, Putin then offered to rescue the bankrupt Ukraine. Ukraine’s economy depends heavily on Russia, which supplies and subsidizes much of its energy and is its largest trading partner. The European Union and the United States, for all the bluster, are not about to replace that with Western aid and trade.

Americans across the political spectrum will not be eager to send billions of dollars to Kiev while we are starving investment in education, Head Start and other vital programs here at home. The European Union, dominated by Germany, has inflicted a brutal austerity on members such as Greece, Spain and Portugal. And there is good evidence to assume that the union’s approach to Ukraine would be similar. The country might get promises of aid in the crisis, but any sober government would be worried about how much support would be sustained over the next years.

In a Western media culture that largely disdains context or history, Putin has been made the villain in the piece. But Russia has legitimate security concerns in its near-neighbor. The Russian fear is far less about economic relations with the European Union (Russia is a major source of energy for the Europeans) than about the further extension of NATO to its borders. A hostile Ukraine might displace Russian bases in the Black Sea, harbor the U.S. fleet and provide a home to NATO bases. This isn’t an irrational fear. Despite U.S. promises by George H.W. Bush not to extend NATO when Germany was united, the reality is that nine former Warsaw Pact nations and three former Soviet republics have been incorporated into NATO, including a military outpost in Georgia. And the E.U. agreement, advertised as offering access to free trade, in fact included military clauses that called for integrating Ukraine into the E.U. defense structure, including cooperation on “civilian and military crisis management operations” and “relevant exercises” concerning them. No one should be surprised that Putin reacted negatively to that prospect. No U.S. administration would put up with Putin cutting a deal with Mexico to join a military alliance with Russia.

We desperately need a strong dose of realism and common sense. There is no “stick” in relation to Ukraine. Americans have no desire and no reason to go to war with Russia over what happens in Crimea. The European Union and the United States are not going to supplant Russia’s economic influence in Ukraine. The United States is not going to provide the aid, the trade or the subsidized energy — and the E.U. austerity regime doesn’t offer an expansive or growing region to join. An unpopular and corrupt leader has been unseated in Kiev, but the new Ukrainian government is neither elected nor settled. Before this new, fragile and bitterly divided country breaks apart, the international community should be pushing hard for elections and compromise.

Neoconservatives, politicians and frustrated Cold Warriors filling armchairs in the outdated “strategic” think tanks that litter Washington will continue to howl at the moon. But U.S. policy should be run by the sober. The president would be well advised to investigate whether the European Union, Russia and the United States can join together to preserve Ukraine’s territorial unity; to support new and free elections; and to agree to allow Ukraine to be part of both the European Union and Russian customs union, while reaffirming the pledge that NATO will not extend itself into Ukraine. It is time to reduce tensions and create possibility, not flex rhetorical muscles and fan the flames of folly.

Read more from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s archive or follow her on Twitter.

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