With all of the reports coming out of Ukraine, Moscow, Washington, and European capitals, the mutual accusations, the knee-jerk speculation, and—not least—the hysterical language of some observers, bordering on the apocalyptic, it is difficult to keep in mind the long-term implications of what is happening. Nevertheless, I believe that nobody can understand the likely outcomes of what is happening unless they bear in mind the historical, geographic, political and psychological factors at play in these dramatic events. The view of most of the media, whether Russian or Western, seems to be that one side or the other is going to “win” or “lose” Ukraine.
I believe that is fundamentally mistaken. If I were Ukrainian I would echo the immortal words of the late Walt Kelly’s Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” The fact is, Ukraine is a state but not yet a nation. In the 22-plus years of its independence, it has not yet found a leader who can unite its citizens in a shared concept of Ukrainian identity. Yes, Russia has interfered, but it is not Russian interference that has created Ukrainian disunity but rather the haphazard way the country was assembled from parts that were not always mutually compatible. To the flaw at the inception of an independent Ukraine, one must add the baleful effects of the Soviet Communist heritage both Russia and Ukraine have inherited.
A second mistake people make is to assume that when a given government adopts a particular policy that policy is in the true interest of that country. In fact, as often as not, policies made in the heat of emotion, by leaders who feel personally challenged by opponents, are more likely to be counterproductive than supportive of a country’s true interest. Political leaders are not computers weighing costs and benefits or risks and rewards in objective fashion. They are human beings endowed with their full share of human weaknesses, including especially vanity, pride and the felt necessity of maintaining appearances, whatever the reality.
1. The current territory of the Ukrainian state was assembled, not by Ukrainians themselves but by outsiders, and took its present form following the end of World War II. To think of it as a traditional or primordial whole is absurd. This applies a fortiori to the two most recent additions to Ukraine—that of some eastern portions of interwar Poland and Czechoslovakia, annexed by Stalin at the end of the war, and the largely Russian-speaking Crimea, which was transferred from the RSFSR well after the war, when Nikita Khrushchev controlled the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Since all constituent parts of the USSR were ruled from Moscow, it seemed at the time a paper transfer of no practical significance. (Even then, the city of Sevastopol, the headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet, was subordinated directly to Moscow, not Kiev.) Up to then, the Crimea had been considered an integral part of Russia since Catherine “the Great” conquered it in the 18th century. 2. The lumping together of people with strikingly different historical experience and comfortable in different (though closely related) languages, underlies the current divisions. That division, however, is not clear-cut as it was, for example, between the Czech lands and Slovakia, which made a civilized divorce practical. If one takes Galicia and adjoining provinces in the west on the one hand and the Donbas and Crimea in the east and south on the other as exemplars of the extremes, the areas in between are mixed, proportions gradually shifting from one tradition to the other. There is no clear dividing line, and Kyiv/Kiev would be claimed by both.
3. Because of its history, geographical location, and both natural and constructed economic ties, there is no way Ukraine will ever be a prosperous, healthy, or united country unless it has a friendly (or, at the very least, non-antagonistic) relationship with Russia.
4. Russia, as any other country would be, is extremely sensitive about foreign military activity adjacent to its borders. It has signaled repeatedly that it will stop at nothing to prevent NATO membership for Ukraine. (In fact, most Ukrainians do not want it.) Nevertheless, Ukrainian membership in NATO was an avowed objective of the Bush-Cheney administration and one that has not been categorically excluded by the Obama Administration.
5. A wise Russian leadership (something one can no more assume that one can a wise U.S. or European leadership) could tolerate a Ukraine that modernizes its political and economic systems in cooperation with the European Union so long as (1) this is not seen as having an anti-Russian basis; (2) Russian-speaking citizens are granted social, cultural and linquistic equality with Ukrainians, and (3) most important of all, that the gradual economic integration with Europe will not lead to Ukraine becoming a member of NATO.
6. So far, Ukrainian nationalists in the west have been willing to concede none of these conditions, and the United States has, by its policies, either encouraged or condoned attitudes and policies that have made them anathema to Moscow. This may be grossly unfair, but it is a fact.
So where does this leave us? Some random thoughts:
a. It has been a mistake for all the parties, those in Ukraine and those outside, to treat this crisis as a contest for control of Ukraine. b. Obama’s “warning” to Putin was ill-advised. 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. c. At this moment it is not clear, at least to me, what the ultimate Russian intent is. I do not believe it is in Russia’s interest to split Ukraine, though they may want to detach the Crimea from it—and if they did, they would probably have the support of the majority of Crimean residents. But they may simply wish to bolster the hand of their friends in Eastern Ukraine in negotiations over the new power structure. At the very least, they are signaling that they will not be deterred by the United States from doing what they consider necessary to secure their interests in the neighborhood. d. Ukraine is already shattered de facto, with different groups in command of the various provinces. If there is any hope of putting it together again, there must be cooperation of all parties in forming a coalition at least minimally acceptable to Russia and the Russian-speaking Ukrainian citizens in the East and South. A federation with governors elected locally and not appointed by a winner-take-all president or prime minister would be essential. Real autonomy for Crimea will also be required. e. Many important questions remain. One relates to the principle of “territorial integrity.” Yes, that is important, but it is not the only principle to consider. Russians would argue, with some substance in the argument, that the U.S. is interested in territorial integrity only when its interests are served. American governments have a record of ignoring it when convenient, as when it and its NATO allies violated Serbian territorial integrity by creating and then recognizing an independent Kosovo. Also, by supporting the separation of South Sudan from Sudan, Eritrea from Ethiopia, and East Timor from Indonesia.
So far as violating sovereignty is concerned, Russia would point out that the U.S. invaded Panama to arrest Noriega, invaded Grenada to prevent American citizens from being taken hostage (even though they had not been taken hostage), invaded Iraq on spurious grounds that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, targets people in other countries with drones, etc., etc. In other words, for the U.S. to preach about respect for sovereignty and preservation of territorial integrity to a Russian president can seem a claim to special rights not allowed others.