Foreign Affairs: Does America have to take sides in the Ukrainian crisis?

Russia’s problematic conduct does not excuse confusing Putin’s nationalism with imperialism, and Ukraine’s nationalism with democracy.

US President Barack Obama seen on the phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin discussing crisis in Ukraine. (photo credit: REUTERS)
US President Barack Obama seen on the phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin discussing crisis in Ukraine.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The tenants of the Kremlin and the White House are perfect opposites.
Vladimir Putin is an introverted, mediashy spy of few words, Barack Obama is an outgoing public speaker whose sound bites dominate headlines every week; Obama’s political conscience was shaped by the Berlin Wall’s dismantlers, Putin’s by its builders; Obama cultivates the image of a dedicated family man, the Putins last jointly faced the cameras to announce their divorce; Putin ridicules gay rights, Obama is their crusader; Putin is judo, Obama is basketball; Putin arrives in the arena stern-faced and belligerent, Obama arrives smiling and verbose, only to repeatedly emerge apologetic and floored.
It therefore comes naturally these days for Europeans and Americans to interpret the crisis that flared last month in Kiev and this week escalated in Crimea as a clash between good and evil – the latter, of course, being Putin and his imperial appetite, and the former being Obama and his imperial fatigue.
Reality is very different, and it should make the US explore a path it has not considered: neutrality.
THE DA NGERS surrounding Ukraine’s conflict are grave. The timing of this crisis, the centennial of World War I’s outbreak, serves as an ominous reminder that inept statesmen can trigger a war that will victimize millions and leave historians at a loss to explain its causes. And the location of this week’s drama, the peninsula where history’s first modern war was fought in the 1850s, did little to assuage fears that history is being rewound – as if the lessons of war’s vanity and traumas have been forgotten.
War here would be catastrophic. The Russian military is much bigger and better, but Ukraine’s is still the largest west of Russia and east of America, and being the party on the defensive, it will arrive in the battlefield highly motivated. Even a short war can cost thousands of lives on both sides, but chances are that a clash will not be as brief as it was in minuscule Georgia in summer 2008.
Worse, war in Ukraine might disrupt Russian gas supplies to Europe, whether because Russia will disrupt them, or just because the pipeline that leads them runs through Ukraine. In addition, prices of wheat and corn might rise in commodity markets, and with them food prices worldwide, because Ukraine is now the world’s second-largest grain exporter.
Understandably, then, when news broke that Russia is serving Ukraine an ultimatum to evict naval bases or face attack, the markets responded nervously, with gold and oil prices rising by 3 percent and 4%, respectively, while the ruble and the Dow Jones Industrial Average shed roughly 4% each, only to recover when that news proved unfounded.
Faced with all this, it made sense that US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Europe eager to mediate. Kerry only forgot that he had taken sides in the conflict, and was therefore in no position to mediate – not to mention the fact that the Russians and Ukrainians have known each other for 1,000 years and don’t need a foreigner, least of all an American, to introduce them.
America had taken sides in the conflict, buying the superficial thesis that it represents a clash between freedom and oppression, and between imperialism and self-determination. Never mind there was no way a power like Russia would allow a rival power with such an attitude to mediate in the conflict; the American attitude itself reflected a Cold War reflex no less misguided than Moscow’s gunboat diplomacy. Having been thrown off balance by Moscow’s judoka, Washington responded with its own flip-over, in the form of an unusual State Department communiqué that counted 10 lies Putin had said, from suggesting Russians in Ukraine had been threatened, to claiming military action in eastern Ukraine was not Putin’s but Crimean Russians’.
Washington then verbally pinned its opponent to the canvass with a cleaver statement: that Putin’s lies are the “most startling Russian fiction” since Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote that “the formula ‘two plus two equals five’ is not without its attractions.”
When that was over and the competitors rose from the mattress, Washington won several copywriters’ applause – while Russia won Crimea.
RUSSIA ’S GAMBLE is obviously derelict.
Not only might it lose people, it is risking economic crisis and diplomatic siege.
Since his succession of Boris Yeltsin in 2000, Putin has stabilized the Russian economy and led it to impressive growth, which resulted in average income nearly trebling.
However, he has failed to reindustrialize the world’s largest country, feeding its coffers instead with petrodollars and exports of many other raw materials, from precious metals to timber and steel. Russia’s $375 billion in oil and gas sales are now 71% of its exports, while industrial products are less than $8b., a measly 1.5%.
Not only is Russia failing to become a serious industrial exporter of anything except arms, it is suffering from severe demographic depletion. Twenty-three years since emerging from the USSR’s bosom numbering 149 million people, Russia has shrunk by 5 million people, reflecting growing death rates, plunging birthrates and steady emigration, all of which now add up to an annual 0.5% population decline.
With its society aging, shrinking and failing to manufacture, Russia is in many ways an idol with feet of clay. War would only make more people want to leave it for greener pastures.
Putin’s imprint so far on Russian history is remarkably similar to those of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, who modernized the military and consolidated Russia’s position as a world power, but failed to reinvent Russia’s economy.
Putin has restored much of that czarist legacy, replete with its knack for authoritarianism, enlistment of religion and infatuation with ceremony.
Russia’s admission into the club of global industrial powers, now known as the G8, reflected his restoration of the world-power status which Russia had lost in its first post-communist decade.
Now Putin’s Ukrainian gambit is risking this achievement, in two ways.
First, if conflict erupts, his military’s performance might prove less impressive than he seems to assume. If Russia finds itself bleeding in a lagging conflict, Putin’s domestic power will erode, and his diplomatic sway will diminish.
Secondly, the fight Putin thought he was picking with a feeble Europe and a feckless America unexpectedly reached China Wednesday, where the government said it expected Russia to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty. Until now, China tended to back Russia whenever its diplomats dueled with America, most notably in wake of the current Arab civil wars. Russia cannot afford to be simultaneously at odds with Asia, Europe and America.
Then again, Putin does have a cause.
America reflexively sees russian meddling in other countries as imperialism. That was certainly true when the countries at stake were Vietnam, Ethiopia or Cuba.
That is not, however, what Ukraine is for Russia.
Even before considering the ethnic and cultural context, only the geography of a vast land that crouches smack at Russia’s bosom, one must realize that Ukraine is for Putin pretty much what Cuba was for US president John F. Kennedy, only with much more justification.
Kennedy was upholding the 19th-century Monroe Doctrine, which arbitrarily and unilaterally warned European powers to stay away from the Western Hemisphere.
This has been the most solid pillar in US foreign policy for the better part of two centuries.
Russia’s quest is for an equivalent formula.
From the Russian viewpoint, what is now at stake is its own Monroe Doctrine, only more so, because Ukraine is much closer to Russia geographically, culturally and politically, than the US is to Brazil, Argentina or Chile. Russia really has historic roots in parts of Ukraine, certainly in Crimea; denying this, while also obstructing Russia’s effort to build with its neighbors an economic union, means cornering an already wounded Russian bear – by hurting its interests and also its pride.
Even so, America has been treating Russia’s Ukrainian intrusion as if it had taken place outside Russia’s natural sphere, and as if it had been not about nationalism, but about the Communist International trying to spread Marxism. In fact, Russia has long ceased to defy America’s economic interests, and what it is seeking in Ukraine is its own broken soul.
Like Jacob and Esau, the Russian and Ukrainian nations emerged as antagonistic twins along the medieval trade route that linked the Vikings and the Byzantines. That these Slavic siblings are feuding again is sad, but also routine, banal and not really the outer world’s business. The EU-led attempt to portray this as a moral clash between East and West is unfounded historically, and will backfire politically.
Independent Ukraine has had 23 years in which to consolidate nationally and mature economically.
It squandered them all, allowing its politicians to fight each other, steal from the people, distort democracy and also incubate fascism.
Now the only way to salvage hope from this mess is for Kiev’s Western sponsors to convince it to accept some kind of partition with Russia, and then help the Ukrainians build from scratch a functioning country that will belong simultaneously in Russia’s and Europe’s economic spheres.
On the margins of this week’s drama, the State Department reportedly pressured Jerusalem to say something publicly about the commotion in Crimea.
Incidentally, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman is a native of Ukraine’s neighbor Moldova, and thus less vulnerable than others to the emotional rhetoric which the crisis has been generating. “Israel,” his office therefore said, “is following with great concern the events in Ukraine.” And after asserting that Jerusalem “is anxious for peace for all its [Ukraine’s] citizens and hopes that the situation will not deteriorate to a loss of human life,” the communiqué ended with wishes that the crisis “will be handled through diplomatic means, and will be resolved peacefully.”
It was Liberman’s polite way of saying what Obama has yet to realize: “I have no horse in this race.”