The Ukrainian crisis has attracted saturation media coverage and some very creative commentary. Russian President Vladimir Putin, for example, has been likened to such legendary bad guys as Ivan the Terrible and Vlad the Impaler, alias Dracula. Putin’s occupation of the Crimean peninsula has been compared with Adolf Hitler’s assault on Europe in the 1930s. Putin’s ham-handed actions certainly deserve to be condemned – and strongly resisted – but over-the-top denunciations do little to help us understand the crisis or find a satisfactory way out of it.
For some, the Ukrainian tangle is a simple black-and-white matter, right versus wrong. Or, as one analyst put it, the fundamental question is “Will America again allow evil to go on the march?” But this is not 1930s Europe, nor is the United States uniquely responsible for what happens on that continent. We have friends and allies there and play a critical role in the international community; but no one has empowered us to act alone as the world’s policeman.
The real question is not whether President Barack Obama will have the nerve to stare down Putin but whether the statesmen of the world can find a formula for resolving the Ukrainian crisis that prevents further bloodshed and protects the legitimate interests of all the parties to the conflict. That is the political challenge that U.S. policymakers must address, but together with other world leaders, not alone.
U.S. is rightfully engaged
Those who argue that we have no important interest in Ukraine, no dog in this faraway fight, take a too narrow view of national interest, like the isolationists of the ’30s. We concluded after World War II that our security could not be separated from Europe’s, and so we chose collective security, through the Atlantic Alliance and NATO. That security could be threatened by continuing instability in Ukraine, which is in the center of a region where two global wars started. Nor can we allow the rule of law to be flouted. So we are we rightfully engaged.
But to what end? The goal must be a political settlement that meets the legitimate interests of all the parties. The alternative is war or the threat of war, with either Russia or NATO forcing the other side to cry uncle. Such a capitulation seems quite unlikely, since both Russia and NATO believe their vital interests are involved.
“Political settlement” is not another way of saying sellout, of Munich or Yalta all over again. Rather it’s the use of tough and skilled diplomacy – including sanctions that bite — to reach an acceptable outcome, one in which all sides get what they must have but not necessarily everything they want. The Ukrainian patriots who overthrew a despotic regime have earned the right to decide who rules in Kiev. Moscow cannot be allowed to turn back that revolution. Russia will have to accept free elections that will likely validate the taking of power by pro-western leaders. And those leaders should be free, if they choose, to seek membership in the European Union and the economic help it offers.
NATO and Ukraine’s new leaders will have to give up something too. In particular, the idea of Ukraine joining NATO may be off the table, at least for now. The country is too sharply divided and the placing of NATO bases or forces that close to Russia too provocative for such a move to actually promote anyone’s security. We Americans might remember that President Kennedy went to the brink of nuclear war in 1962 to get rid of the Soviet missiles next door to us in Cuba. A better solution for protecting Ukraine at this juncture might be neutrality guaranteed by outside powers, rather than membership in NATO.
Russia’s interest in Crimea
Crimea is, of course, a special problem. Sunday’s referendum there was a sham that will not be the final word on Crimea’s future. But the area was part of Russia until 1954, when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev gave it to what was then the Ukrainian republic of the USSR. It is Russia’s back yard, its access to the sea, and the base area for its Black Sea fleet. When Ukraine became an independent country in the ’90s, it acknowledged these ongoing Russians interests and allowed Russian naval activities to continue there. Fear that a new Ukraine government might disown this arrangement was a prime reason Putin moved to occupy the peninsula. (When Castro came to power in Cuba, despite the regime change we kept the U.S. naval base on the island and remain at Guantanamo to this day). A peaceful settlement of the Crimea issue will need to acknowledge in some form that Russia has valid interests in the region.
Behind the public posturing and tactical maneuvering, serious thinking and hard bargaining will determine what Ukraine and the Crimea look like when the fog of war lifts.
Dick Virden is a retired diplomat whose assignments abroad included two tours in Poland and one in Romania.