May 13

Violence in Ukraine is spreading. The Ukrainian military and police are splitting apart, a reflection of the fissures in that deeply divided country. Pro-Russian separatists are taking over government buildings and police stations in eastern Ukraine. Pro-government mobs have burned protesters alive. The referenda on self-rule cobbled together by pro-Russian movements in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions deepens the divisions. Zealots on both sides could drive the country into a bloody and destructive civil war.

The United States has no direct national security interests at stake in Ukraine, but we do have an interest in a united and functional Ukraine that has stable relations with its European Union neighbors to the west and with Russia to the east. And the United States surely wants to forestall a crisis that could disintegrate into civil war, economic collapse and chaos, possibly destabilizing a weak European economy.

But if the United States is to help stabilize Ukraine and prevent a much larger European crisis, then the American political establishment and much of the mainstream media will need a sober reassessment of reality.

U.S. actions over the past several months have defied common sense. Given the deep divisions in Ukrainian society and the vital interest Russia has in the country, it was a provocative step for the United States to immediately and unconditionally recognize as legitimate the government erected out of violent protests and in violation of the negotiated agreement for a peaceful transition. And it makes no sense to treat Russia’s actions as an existential threat to the post-war international order, given that the West needs Russian cooperation to stabilize Ukraine both politically and financially.

Not only have the media and political class egged on the administration in a rash and destructive foreign policy, but the debate, shamefully inadequate as it has been, has had an Alice in Wonderland quality to it. Voices across the political spectrum have scorned the president as weak, fulminating about forceful action while forswearing any use of U.S. military forces, knowing the American people had no appetite for another conflict on the other side of the world.

Leaks from the White House to the New York Times suggest that Russia must be treated as a “pariah nation,” in an updated form of Cold War containment. This would require isolating the sixth-largest economy in the world, one that supplies Europe with more than a quarter of its oil and gas and has growing ties with emerging powers, including China and India. The only way to sell that to Americans — much less the Europeans — would be to repeat the Dean Acheson formula at the beginning of the Cold War of painting the threat “clearer than truth.” Action to deal with the crisis is vital before events on the ground get farther out of hand.

The first step is a return to common sense about basic reality. Ukraine is and has been a deeply divided country. Roughly half of the country looks west to Europe, and roughly half looks east to Russia for help.

Russia views its border with Ukraine as vital to its security. Neither the United States nor its European allies will go to war with Russia to defend Ukraine. Nor will they endlessly support Kiev financially or cover its energy bill. Inevitably, the country, if it is to survive, will have to find a way to coexist with Russia.

After the chaotic autonomy votes of this past weekend, negotiation could be the sole path to prevent Ukraine’s disintegration. It is vital now to do what can be done to defuse the crisis on the ground and move to a broader, comprehensive settlement. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s proposal for a multi-party roundtable to work out the details of such a plan was almost immediately supported by Russian President Vladi­mir Putin (in his barely reported statement on May 6). It is critical that the United States add its clear support for constructive steps forward.

The parameters of an acceptable outcome are clear and have, in essence, been agreed upon by the United States, Russia and the Ukraine authorities in the Geneva Declaration of April 17, updated by Merkel’s “roundtable.” Together these two measures call for all parties to disarm, while convening a national dialogue to consider a new constitutional arrangement that will provide for greater regional autonomy. The authorities in Kiev agree that regional authority is vital for the country to have any hope of cleaning out the corruption that has impoverished it. The premature presidential election scheduled for the end of May will be contested in much of eastern Ukraine. Hopefully, whoever emerges in the election will support the roundtable leading to constitutional reforms; that would provide the basis for nationwide agreement on new elections to create a legitimate national government. International bodies such as the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe could provide the space for the national dialogue.

A constitutional settlement inside Ukraine will solve nothing if the country remains a pawn in U.S.-Russian jockeying. Here, the bipartisan establishment dream of extending NATO to Russia’s borders needs to be abandoned. Instead, the West should accept that Ukraine will remain independent of NATO, while Russia accepts that it will remain a unified independent country. Similarly, the European Union should abandon the effort to force Ukraine to choose between Russia and Europe. Instead, the E.U. should embrace the compromise put forward by Moscow that Ukraine should be part of both the European market and the Russian customs federation. If the country has any chance of recovery, assistance from both Russia and the West will be needed.

This outcome will be possible only if common sense can find some traction in Washington and in media coverage of the crisis. The United States needs to get over its post-Cold War triumphalism: It has neither the resources nor the mandate to “police” the world. Countries such as Ukraine need to find their own way to protect their independence while recognizing the reality of living with powerful neighbors. The United States, its allies and global institutions and opinion can help make those arrangements more or less stable. But we should be wary of risking the lives of others to fulfill the fantasies of those blind to the limits of our power or our military.

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