"It is no surprise that Ukraine has ceased to function as a state—the surprise is that it ever appeared to do so"by Gregory Treverton / March 3, 2014 / Leave a comment
EU foreign ministers met in Brussels on Monday to discuss the crisis in Ukraine
The situation in Ukraine evokes eerie echoes of the Cold War, not to mention czarist preoccupation with what has come to be called Russia’s “near abroad.” The situation is dangerous, and in that circumstance, wishes are not policy. Neither is foot-stomping. The first task is not rolling back the effective occupation of Crimea by Russian troops, but trying to keep a bad situation from getting worse.
It is useful to begin with a clear-eyed appraisal of what we know and what we don’t. The most important “knowns” are two: Russia’s occupation of Crimea will not be undone unless and until Vladimir Putin decides to; and Ukraine has ceased to exist as a functioning state.
Take the two in turn. Neither western foot-stomping nor sanctions can force Putin to withdraw Russian troops or replace them with European observers to guard Crimea from a danger no one has yet seen. As Lyndon Johnson said: sometimes, like a mule in the rain, you just have to stand there and take it. Putin’s spokesman was, alas, on target when he made fun of threats to cancel the G8 meeting scheduled for June in Sochi or to expel Russia from the group. Europe’s dependence on Russian oil and gas means there is no stomach for sanctions against those exports. In any case, those sanctions, like ones against visas or assets, would take time to bite.
In an important sense, it is no surprise that Ukraine has ceased to function as a state. The surprise is that it ever appeared to. The divide between its east and west is yawning; parts of western Ukraine were annexed only through the force of the Red Army in 1939. Ukraine received Crimea as a “gift” from the Russian republic in 1954. Like other Soviet republics—but unlike Soviet satellite-states in eastern Europe—Ukraine came to independence with no semblance of a national organised military command.
So, too, the “known” category almost surely includes a Russian protectorate, in some form, over Crimea. Russian interests and entanglements begin with the Black Sea Fleet but run much deeper. And the populace generally seems to have welcomed the Russian occupiers.
Beyond that, Ukraine’s future is in the unknown column. Neither a loose federation nor a three-way split (East, West and Crimea) would be the end of the world—provided there were decent signs it is what “Ukrainians” desired. It surely is painfully plain in retrospect that Ukraine’s previous status quo could not endure.
In these circumstances, the touchstones for policy need to be generosity toward Ukraine and openness to Russia. Europe’s niggardliness toward Ukraine was hardly the cause of the previous government’s turn to Russia, but it did precipitate it. The crisis has brought long-simmering political issues to the surface. Now is the time to try to take dour economic prospects out of the equation. As Sir Winston Churchill famously said, it is better to jaw, jaw than to war, war. The same might be said of “pay, pay” in the form of an aid package for Ukraine.
Putin is the harder part. Stern words and firm lines are unwise when your target’s interests are strong and yours are relatively weak, all the more so if you can’t do much about that target’s transgression in any case. The last crisis, over Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, began with foot-stomping but ended more in a whimper. The Bush administration was unwilling to risk escalation through sending troops, bombing key chokepoints or arming the Georgians.
This time around, while Ukraine is more important to Europe than Georgia, so too the risk of escalation is all that much more dangerous. Rather, this seems like the time for policy to hold its nose and engage Russia, not try to isolate it. This time around more creative diplomacy might seek to recognise Russia’s legitimate interests in Crimea while engaging Russia in a discussion of Ukraine’s future.