Ukraine: The Price of Internal Division

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.

Some Basics

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.

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48 Responses to Ukraine: The Price of Internal Division

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  28. JPLeonard says:

    Dear Jack,
    thank you for inviting me to post a comment, and for your nod of approval to the Finland model for Ukraine!
    You made an excellent point that because of history and geography, Ukraine needs to have a friendly relationship with Russia.
    It so happens that one of my authors, Webster Tarpley, on the radio last week, declared a similar opinion, that the Finland model would be the ideal one for Ukraine.
    Just today, I happened to learn that Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote an article on the same idea in the Financial Times on Feb. 23. This is a paradox, since Tarpley is a vociferous critic of Brzezinski! If those two great minds agree on something, they’re probably on the right track.
    As for what he means by the Finland model, Zbig wrote:
    “Mutually respectful neighbours with wide-ranging economic relations with Russia and the EU; no participation in any military alliance viewed by Moscow as directed at itself, but expanding its European connectivity.” In other words, no NATO membership.
    Tarpley went into a bit more detail in his talk (on, March 5). This is what I gathered from it:
    “Finland was an active ally of Hitler. After the war, the Soviets said, you can be independent, but you are going to be neutral, and not tolerate revanchist parties. Finland did well under that policy. Finland also did have to give back territory they took during Operation Barbarossa. So Donetsk, or even east of the Dnieper might be given back to Russia. The border can be worked out, main thing is the ability to suppress hotheads. US neocons can’t be let to run wild.” Tarpley added, no joining EU or NATO.
    Schroeder sees the EU mistake was to make itself into an anti-Russian alliance by giving Ukraine an either-or choice:
    The European Union “only facilitated the conflict in Ukraine” when it announced that “the Association Agreement is incompatible with the Customs Union agreement between Kiev and Moscow”, according to TASS
    Ukraine is in a very big mess economically. It’s a fairly big country, with almost a third the population of Russia. Its growth rate has been by far the slowest of all the post-Soviet republics — Russian GNP has grown 5 times faster.
    Which is why I posted to my blog today,
    “It still seems to me to make sense for Ukraine to split up and go two ways. The country’s economic problems are too big for either Russia or the West to take on alone.”
    Or as a Russian MP put it more astringently the other day
    “No one in the European Union is eagerly awaiting Ukraine, except Poland and the United States which are offering just a penny and want to shake over to Europe the entire burden of financing the broken Ukraine.”
    Whether in one piece or two, East and West need to cooperate and not start a tug of war over the prize that is Ukraine.
    That was the sense of the Feb. 21 agreement that Putin wants the West and Kiev to keep. The current crisis was brought on by “neocons going wild” with their “soft power” tactics, building up to their “Reichstag Fire Anniversary Putsch” the day after the agreement. This clearly crossed the Red Line of all Red Lines.
    I’m hopeful a solution can be found, when elder statesmen agree. You also mentioned the Finnish model in the Ukrainian context, in, where you noted,
    “The Finns give their Swedish-speaking minority full and equal cultural rights and have one of the most successful and democratic societies on earth.”
    In contrast, the Kiev junta’s moves against the rights of the Russian-speaking minority, and their prominent inclusion of Banderist neofascist personalities in the government, were great errors.
    Unless the intention all along was to bait the Russian bear, because in that, they succeeded famously!
    Thanks again for giving me a chance to sound off on your forum, Jack!
    Best wishes

  29. Jack says:

    The EU would have been well advised to let Finland carry the ball in its efforts. The U.S. should have held back and stayed out of it, except to join the Europeans in providing economic assistance once the Ukrainians put together a credible coalition. Too bad it didn’t work out that way.

  30. Brian Runyon says:

    From what I’ve read about Finland’s recent history, it seems that that model mentioned in this post would be the ideal model for Ukraine to follow if it had worked out.

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  34. Putin’s invasion of Crimea confirmed the authoritarian nature of his regime. Unfortunately, the West has limited options for a response. The goal of forced regime change in Russia is unrealistic, counterproductive, and extremely dangerous. Diplomatic and economic sanctions are important, but have limited impact, especially since China, India, and Japan are not likely to join and many European countries express only half-hearted support (e.g., France is continuing military sales to Russia). Sanctions will not change the nature of the regime and will have negative economic impact on Europe and Ukraine as well. The Putin’s regime will disappear eventually but not because of the outside pressure; when it does, Russia will have a chance (again) to develop into a modern democratic society and will succeed or fail based on its own internal dynamics. Until then, it is important to evaluate the best strategies available for the Ukraine’s democratic forces.

    Long term, the democratic Ukraine can only be built through integration with Europe. But achieving that goal is not guaranteed – Ukraine failed to do so at least once before, after the previous democratically inspired revolution. Following the Orange revolution, the efforts of the democratic forces were derailed by continuing and growing corruption, political infighting and instability, and by Moscow’s interference. The presence of a small but toxic radical nationalist component also did not help but exacerbated internal divisions between West and East Ukraine. In the end, the failures of the democratic parties led to the elevation of Yanukovych and his pro-Russia party in 2010, which was even worse. Transitioning from a post-Soviet state to a modern democracy based on rule of law and market economy is difficult for any country; Ukraine faces even more than the usual difficulties because of its close economic and other ties to the authoritarian Russia, its largest energy supplier and trading partner. Only a politically stable democratic government with broad mandate can achieve the painful restructuring of the economy, overcome the pervasive corruption, and rebuild the state on democratic values. Ukraine’ democratic parties had an opportunity to work towards such a government during the recent protests. Opinion surveys last December indicated that Yanukovych and his government were hugely unpopular, largely due to enormous corruption, and that unfavorable view of Yanukovych was uniform across both Western and Eastern Ukraine. That momentum could have resulted in the election of a united government. Instead Yanukovych was removed from office in violation of the normal process by protests with mostly Western Ukraine support while the people in the Eastern Ukraine, which was the base of Yanukovych’s 2010 electoral success, felt left out of the decision. Instead of mending the political rift by being inclusive, the new government initially behaved as if the Western Ukraine had triumphed over the Eastern Ukraine. One of the first new laws was a demotion of the status of Russian language – a clearly harmful action, since that is the language that a majority of Ukrainian people (not only the Russian ethnic minority) prefers to use on a daily basis. That law was later vetoed but the damage was done – those who were apprehensive about the events in Kiev saw it as proof that the new government was beholden to the small nationalist component in the protest movement. Another unfortunate decision was an attempt to strengthen political control in the East by appointing several oligarchs as provincial governors. It seriously damaged the new government’s credentials as a force against corruption since the same oligarchs were only recently denounced by the Euromaidan protesters as part of the Yanukovych’s criminal regime. These rush and counterproductive actions would not have occurred if the new government had come to power in a regular election. But the present government is weak and governs by “crisis management” and reaction. Considering that the government was created on the fly to fill the vacuum left by the ouster of Yanukovych and that it faced a Russian invasion in Crimea a few days later, it is quite understandable that they are unable to focus on the long term goals. Unfortunately, if the crisis continues in the form of political and economic confrontation with Russia, the scheduled elections in May are unlikely to improve the situation much. The focus of the election will be on topics that exacerbate internal divisions (rejecting or supporting relations with Russia) instead of the unifying ones – fight against corruption for the rule of law, democracy, and prosperity. Russia is unlikely to continue subsidies or loans to Ukraine while aid from the financially stressed Europe will be insufficient on its own. The offer of US aid to date is mainly symbolic (one billion in loan guarantees is not going to make a dent in Ukraine’s problems). Whatever sanctions are applied against Russia will also impact Ukraine. The combination of economic and political stress will almost guarantee the failure of needed reforms, repeating the failure of the Orange revolution. Under such conditions the government may not even survive for the full term and Ukraine will continue its vicious cycle of failed democratic efforts followed by a reactionary regime. This may be precisely what Putin wants – Ukraine mired in internal problems and unable to move forward suits him well.

    Ukraine needs time to concentrate on building a successful democratic society. It can buy such time by leveraging the current high diplomatic support from the West into a favorable deal with Russia (endorsed by EU and US), with these main points:
    1. Ukraine agrees to a referendum on the status of Crimea 10 years or so from now;
    2. Russia agrees to continue the subsidies and aid it promised Yanukovych and will continue normal trading relationship with Ukraine;
    3. Crimea, while remaining legally part of Ukraine, has a special status in the interim period, with special provisions for the rights of Tatar and ethnic Ukrainian minorities;
    4. As a sweetener for Putin, the base agreement for the Back See Fleet is automatically extended for a number of years following the referendum in Crimea.

    A deal along these lines will diffuse the tensions inside Ukraine, provide economic and political stability, and create a strong incentive for the US and European countries to provide steady economic aid for the transformation of the Ukrainian economy and society. In 10 years, when Ukraine is a free, stable democracy with a growing market economy the people of Crimea will likely choose to be part of that success, even most ethnic Russians might vote to join.

    Some may see the above suggestions as an appeasement of Russia and argue that it is better to stand up to Russia now rather than later. That would be correct if Russia presented an existential threat to the Western democracies; I do not think it does. I believe the real victory is not in sticking it to Putin and Russia but in helping Ukraine to be truly successful. Ukrainian democrats and those interested in the welfare and bright future of the Ukrainian people should evaluate all options by asking first “What is best for Ukraine?” rather than “How to punish Putin the most?” These are not the same goals and only one can be primary. In my opinion, a free, democratic, and prosperous Ukraine is the most important goal and a great outcome, which would also serve as a guiding light for Russia’s transformation following the end of the Putin’s regime.

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