Ukraine: Cool the Rhetoric; Focus on the Outcome

In his interview with Thomas Friedman published on August 9, President Obama gave a convincing explanation of why the United States could not create an effective government in Iraq: “We cannot do for them what they are unwilling to do for themselves,” he pointed out, and also explained: “Societies don’t work if political factions take maximalist positions. And the more diverse the country is, the less it can afford to take maximalist positions.”

The President has identified the central issue, not only in Iraq but also in many of the world’s hotspots. In particular, his perception should be applied to guide our policy toward Ukraine and its conflict with Russia. American policy makers also need to pay closer attention to regional power realities and perceived interests than they apparently have in the recent past.

Neither Russia nor the United States has any right, under what is generally accepted as international law, to be involved in selecting a government in Ukraine. Russia, however, has an infinitely greater stake in that government’s orientation than has the United States and a much greater ability to affect what happens on the ground. The United States has traditionally opposed foreign military alliances in its own backyard—normally defined as the entire Western hemisphere—and in practice reserves to itself the right to take any action it considers necessary to insure its safety if it perceives a potential threat. One has to have a blind spot to salient features of the real world to expect that any country would be restrained by abstract and frequently violated principles of “international law” if its government believed that it must prevent a hostile foreign power from taking effective control of a neighboring country.

It does not matter that the Russian fear of foreign designs on Ukraine is exaggerated or misplaced—it is certainly exaggerated but perhaps not totally misplaced—because it is the perception that counts, the perception that motivates, the perception that agitates the public. If the United States government wishes to discourage undue Russian economic and military pressure on Ukraine, or Russian support for separatist sentiment in parts of Ukraine, it should do its best to diminish the Russian suspicion that the United States and its European allies are scheming to detach Ukraine from Russia’s sphere of influence and turn it into a link in a cordon sanitaire to “contain” and eventually subjugate Russia.

Instead, the actions of American officials and administration statements, particularly since the demonstrations on Kyiv’s Maidan began, seem designed to intensify Russian suspicions rather than attenuating them.

The American Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs discussed with our ambassador in Kyiv, on an easily intercepted cell phone call, possible replacements of the Ukrainian prime minister in terms that suggested that she was making an appointment. (“Yats. He’s the man!”) And indeed, “Yats” became prime minister after an armed rebellion. His government, which replaced a corrupt but constitutionally elected regime, received instant recognition from the United States, invitations to Washington and visits not only by American senators but also by the American Vice President (who, during his 2008 run for the presidency, had boasted that he could best “stand up to Vladimir Putin”—whatever that meant), and—of all people—the director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Now, from my limited understanding of Ukrainian politics, Prime Minister Yatsenyuk is a capable politician free of some of the most glaring faults of his predecessors. Any friend of Ukraine will wish him and President Poroshenko well in their efforts to put that tortured country back together. Nevertheless, we should not ignore the fact that their government is unrepresentative of the country as a whole, and that, so long as extensive fighting continues in the eastern provinces, valid representation of Ukrainian citizens there will be virtually impossible.

Kyiv’s Western friends cannot provide political representation from Ukraine’s eastern provinces and Kyiv is unlikely to enlist it while fighting goes on in Donetsk and Luhansk. Those who feel that the Kyiv government can unify the country by a military victory over the separatists are surely wrong. Even in the unlikely event that Russia would permit a complete military victory, the government in Kyiv would face the challenge of dealing with festering cancers rather than healthy, functional organs in Ukraine’s body politic.

The Russian government has bolstered its case with its citizens by heavy use of propaganda filled with distorted interpretations, questionable and sometimes false analogies, and occasional fabrications. Coverage of events in Ukraine by prominent American and West European information media, while more accurate and balanced than that in the Russian government-controlled media (not much of a hurdle to cross), has nevertheless devoted little attention to the militant right-wing elements in Ukraine’s “Maidan” movement, or to Kyiv’s use of unofficial armed militias with ties in countries to the west. Even if the Maidan militants in the current government embody the purest virtue (a standard no one can meet), one could hardly expect the Russian government and public to welcome their apparent control of key positions in Kyiv’s military and security apparatus given their outspoken hostility to Russia. One need only recall the American reaction during the Cold War to revolutionary movements in Latin America suspected of being under Communist influence—whether or not they were in fact.

We are not in a new cold war, but the participation of our political leaders in public accusations, demands, and threats has helped recreate much of that atmosphere. This acrimonious public dialogue, at times descending to little more than name calling, set off destabilizing vibrations that become amplified by feedback at each exchange.

Public challenges that impugn the honesty or probity of other political leaders, however well founded in fact, can hardly be expected to encourage the targeted leader to accept the demands. In fact, they normally stimulate a defiant posture to show the leader’s own people who is boss in the area. When that leader has control of the country’s information media, it is not difficult to convince the great majority of citizens that his actions are necessary to preserve the security and honor of their country.

The spate of official name-calling seems to be abating, and that is encouraging, for only quiet, realistic diplomacy is going to steer the warring parties in Ukraine away from the disastrous course they have chosen. The Ukrainians must understand that they cannot achieve the unity any successful nation-state requires by imposing the will of part of the country on the rest. The Russians must be convinced that ending support for the rebellion in eastern Ukraine is in their interest and not a precursor to a NATO-dominated Ukraine. The EU needs to understand that, no matter how well meaning the arrangements it has made with the government in Kyiv may be, they have no hope of succeeding unless Ukraine can create a genuine degree of national unity.

Settlement on any terms while fighting continues seems most unlikely, so efforts to stop the fighting and meet the humanitarian needs of the people trapped in combat zones must take priority. Nevertheless, active negotiations to reach an overall settlement must proceed in order to improve the prospects for a cease-fire and the durability of one, if reached.

The principles on which the civil war in Ukraine could be brought to an end and a government established that can provide effective rule for the entire country (minus, at least temporarily, the Crimea) are well known to those familiar with the area and not blinded by partisan passions. They are, speaking broadly: (1) A commitment, embedded in the constitution, by Ukrainian political leaders to power sharing that prevents the domination of one section of the country by the other; (2) A federal structure in function if not necessarily in name; (3) Acceptance of Russian as an official language along with Ukrainian in regions with a significant number of Russian speakers—ideally in the entire country; and (4) A credible assurance that Ukraine will not become a member of NATO, perhaps by requiring the vote of a supermajority as a prerequisite to joining any military alliance.

An agreement among Ukrainians along these lines should be strongly encouraged by outside parties. It could be reached without necessarily agreeing on the status of Crimea, a question that could remain in legal limbo, subject to further negotiation between Ukraine and Russia in, one would hope, calmer times. It might eventually be possible to provide some face-saving for both Ukraine and Russia by agreeing to an OSCE-sponsored referendum in the Crimea following a specified period of Russian administration.

The planned meetings this week by Russian and Ukrainian representatives with European and, in some instances, American diplomats provide opportunities to nudge the warring parties to end the violence and to negotiate their differences. Given the mounting security challenges elsewhere, which are as threatening to Russia as to the United States and the countries of the European Union, all the external powers have a stake in the ability of the Ukrainians to forge a national consensus. It is time to end the feckless imitation of Cold War tactics and concentrate on ways to help the Ukrainians do for themselves what only they can do.

This article is part of Carnegie Corporation of New York’s Carnegie Forum: Rebuilding U.S.-Russia Relations. Read more perspectives here.

This entry was posted in In the United States, In the World, Musings and Polemics. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Ukraine: Cool the Rhetoric; Focus on the Outcome

  1. Benjamin Tua says:

    I concur in Jack Matlock’s analysis on Ukraine.
    Ukraine is in its present predicament because the US, the EU and some in Ukraine overreached. The US miscalculated and so did the EU, the latter by insisting that the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, eventually signed in late June, be on an either/or basis, with no possibility for a parallel Eurasian Customs Union relationship. The agreement also contains language which leaves open the possibility of eventual NATO membership.
    The idea that if we moved quickly to facilitate Yanukovich’s demise – admittedly, with his unintended help – Russia might not notice, is astonishing, especially after the footage of Assistant Secretary Victoria Nuland handing out sandwiches to demonstrators in the Maidan and the release of her phone conversation with our ambassador to Kiev.
    Putin’s 2008 reaction to Georgia’s policies when Sakashvili gave him an opportunity should have been sufficient warning. Even more than the breakaway parts of Georgia supported by Russia, Crimea is, for all practical purposes, lost to Ukraine. The best we can do with respect to Crimea is a long-term non-recognition policy akin to that which we sustained with respect to the Baltic States up to the demise of the Soviet Union.
    Ukraine also may lose part of its eastern region unless Poroshenko, with assistance from the EU (i.e., Germany), saves the situation. I don’t think Putin is eager to try to absorb eastern Ukraine. But he will continue to make trouble there unless he becomes convinced that Ukraine will adopt an enduring Moscow-friendly foreign policy posture along the lines of that of Finland, which has done very well since World War II.
    It is interesting that it is central Asian countries like Kazakhstan, with its enormous ethnic-Russian population, which have successfully navigated a relationship between Russia and the West, rather than Ukraine, which had more potential to benefit from a Finland-like approach.
    But it is in the Middle East where developments are most dramatic and, in my view, have the most potential for cooperation to achieve positive outcomes for the US, the region and the world.
    I have in mind developments related to Iran, which continues its policy of cooperation with the US, established early on in Afghanistan and later in Iraq. Most recently this now not-so-tacit cooperation is reflected in the dislodging of Iraqi PM Malaki and the continued provision of assistance not only to Baghdad but also to the Kurds in dealing with the Sunni extremist so-called Islamic State. Countering the latter is a matter in which the interests of just about everyone – including Iran, Russia, Turkey, the Saudis, Egypt, Israel and the EU coincide.
    It seems clear that without Iran being accepted as a major regional player, little can be solved in the Middle East. Russia and most of the other big players in the region and outside understand this. I think the Obama administration does as well. . It will take a lot of work. But we have made a good start by opening up formal direct contacts at high levels within the general framework of the P5 plus 1 negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program.

    • Niko Papula says:

      Benjamin Tua commented about Kazakhstan. It is interesting indeed that
      its relations to Russia are so good given that Russia has great
      strategic interests there: significant part of Russian space industry
      operations are there. Is this a good example, or does this mean there
      will be troubles in the future, only time will tell. But at least for
      now, it is a good example of how things can be run.

  2. Jack says:

    Thanks for your comment, Ben. I think you are absolutely right about Iran as well. How hard it is for governments to change course even when existing policy has become counterproductive and even dangerous!

  3. Jim Nail says:

    Gentlemen, Ukraine is in its present predicament because large numbers of its people grew determined to change the status quo. Perhaps their hopes were illusory, but you could do them and the dead of Maidan the honor of recognizing their sincerity. After Yanukovich fled, there were no mass demonstrations in his support or in protest against the events in Kiev, nor where there any ethnic disturbances anywhere in the country. Russia made a lightning grab for the power centers of the Crimean peninsula, while its media launched a campaign of lies about a fascist coup that was coming to kill ethnic Russians. Gradually this campaign (and the explicit promise of higher pensions and public salaries, etc, within a new, Russia-oriented dispensation) did begin to have an effect on the Russian-speaking local population. However you misread events if you think that the hostilities in eastern Ukraine today are primarily a reflection of that region’s quest for self-determination. Notice that the people of Mariupol are demonstrating in the tens of thousands against Putin today, while a column of Russian armor heads in their direction. Read about the reception afforded the invaders who took Novoazovsk this week – they couldn’t even mobilize 100 nostalgia-crazed pensioners to demonstrate in their favor. Thus your arguments about federalization and the Russian language rather sadly miss the point. I won’t go into the issue of Western encroachment here, simply for space reasons and to respect the fact that it’s Jack’s blog, after all. I will just share with you my belief that Putin’s desire to destroy Ukraine traces back not to any concern about a military threat from NATO but to his very personal fear of “ending like Qaddafi.” As you may recall, the Russian mass protest movement of 2011-12 shook the regime badly, and of course Navalny’s 27% in the Moscow mayoral election of 2013 continued that momentum. There is a link between the “Bolotnaya delo” and Crimea.

  4. Jon Gundersen says:


    So good to be back in touch. Have followed your commentary over the past few years. Btw, am now reviewing and declassifying Reagan/Bush 1 era NSC docs for State/NSC. Am very impressed with prudent way both handled the end of the Cold War and the collapse. As the docs reveal and as “is well known,” as the Russians would say, you played an influential role in many of these decisions. Just read your “Cool the Rhetoric” article above. As you know, I was the Consul General and later Charge’ in Kiev/Kyiv in 1991/92, so I still have more than a passing interest in Ukraine. I must say, while I agree with many of your policy prescriptions, I respectfully and strongly disagree with some of your rationale. One can disagree about US/NATO policy since the end of the Cold War and, rightly, criticize the corrupt and often dysfunctional Ukrainian government. However, the cause of the current crisis can be attributed to the dark vision of one man: Vladimir Putin. The War in Eastern Ukraine is a War of Choice not necessity. It may be seen as irrational in Western eyes, but it has a certain thuggish logic form Putin’s perspective. Of course, there will be costs to any NATO actions against Russia. At the same time, there will – and have been – costs to inaction as well (as we have already seen). Rather than continue this critique, allow me to attach a response I wrote for the Washington Post on your lead article in the Post a few weeks ago. This sums up my thoughts. Again, Jack, having worked for you, I very much respect your service and your contribution to US-Russian relations. I look forward to continuing this dialogue.

    Gundersen response to Matlock Wash Post Article (Written in early July):

    “Virtually anyone who has served in Russia or the Soviet Union over the past 40 years has worked with or for Ambassador Jack Matlock. He probably knows more about the region than any other American. Unfortunately, in the view of this former employee, his analysis of the cause of current poisonous state of Russian-American relations is, for the most part, dead wrong.

    Let’s start with the title of this article: “The U.S. has treated Russia like a loser since the end of the Cold War.” In fact, the examples cited in this article belie this assertion. As the Ambassador correctly noted, in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, Washington worked with Moscow to “halt the arms race, ban chemical weapons, and agreed to drastically reduce nuclear weapons”. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Washington and the major industrial democracies expanded the G-7 to include Russia (even though it was far from a democracy), welcomed Moscow’s entry into international institutions such the WTO and even encouraged cooperation with NATO (16+1). In the 1990s, the West welcomed Russian participation in IFOR, SFOR and KFOR to defuse the Balkan crises. Since 9/11, Presidents Bush and Obama and President Putin have worked together on areas of common interest, e.g., strategic arms control, counter-terrorism. Western NGOs have consistently promoted the development of civil society in Russia. At every juncture, the West assumed, perhaps naively, that Russia, as a more integral part of the international architecture, would act as a normal European nation-state. The assumption was that all European nations now willingly accepted post-Cold War boundaries while sharing a common home “from Lisbon to Vladivostok.” Does Vladimir Putin? In his triumphant speech to the Russian Parliament accepting Crimea as part of Russia and invoking the suffering of the Russian people at the hands of the perfidious West, Putin maintained that it was Russia’s right and duty to defend ethnic Russians wherever they may live. Ukraine and Russia are “one nation,” he declared. So much for a “common European home.”

    Ambassador Matlock also questions the “common assumption that the West forced the collapse of the Soviet Union and thus won the Cold War.” On the contrary, he posits, “the Cold War ended by negotiations to the advantage of both sides.” He is correct on both counts, but for the wrong reasons. Yes, “negotiations” played a role, albeit a small one. And other factors did contribute to the demise of the Soviet Empire. For example, by the 1980s it became clear that Soviet communism could not compete with western industrial democracies in an increasingly open and technological world; it offered nothing of consequence to its people or to the world. Moreover, the Soviet empire collapsed because people such as Sakharov to Havel to Walesa bravely challenged the legitimacy of Russian rule and the nations of NATO, with the United States in the lead, had the strategic patience to contain and ultimately role back Soviet Communism. Yes, negotiations also contributed to ending the Cold War. They were successful because of adept and flexible Western engagement (including by Ambassador Matlock) and, more importantly, because of the change from the ossified and obdurate Brezhnev era to a more dynamic leadership. In other words, negotiations would not have been possible without the collapse of the “ancien regime”. When Gorbachev introduced limited economic reform (Perestroika) and political freedom (Glasnost) and, most critically, hinted that Moscow would no longer use force in Eastern Europe to follow its dictates, Gorbachev unintentionally lit the spark that led to the disintegration of the Warsaw Pact and the break up of the Soviet Union.

    In his column, Ambassador Matlock understandably reminisces about those heady days leading to the end of the Cold Wars. For example, when American Secretary of State Shultz brought up Soviet human rights abuses, Soviet Foreign Minister Shevardnadze calmly accepted the paper, noting that, if true, he would correct the problems “because it’s what my country needs to do”. Can one imagine President Putin replying with similar equanimity? Ambassador Matlock then maintains that Putin “initially followed a pro-Western orientation” and asks “what did he (Putin) get in return?” Well, leaders, most particularly Putin, pursue policies based on in their own national interest, not as a “favor to the West.” Nevertheless, Putin’s allegedly “pro-western” policies were met by a “swift kick in the groin,” according to Matlock. I doubt anyone would describe the occupation of parts of Georgia and now Crimea or the slow but steady erosion of democracy and civil society in Russia as “pro-western.” Even the policies cited in the article – arms control, counter-terrorism and closing some foreign bases (but not Syria) – were based on Russian political (they have their own terrorist problems) and economic (foreign bases and nuclear weapons cost money) interests and not as a “favor to the west.”

    Regarding the graphic “swift kick in the groin” metaphor, the article specifically cites the expansion of NATO, the invasion of Iraq, and support for Color revolutions in former Soviet Republics as “poisoning” the relationship” and causing Russian “overreaction.” Putin and his acolytes may believe that these and other American policies are aimed at Russia. However, who outside of Moscow really believes that the disastrous US invasion of Iraq was prompted by our animus to Russia? How about expansion of NATO and support for Color revolutions? Are the fears of an autocratic ruler sitting in the Kremlin more important than the hopes of people of Warsaw or Tallinn or Kiev? If we based our policies on not alienating Moscow during the Cold War, there would be no Marshall Plan, no NATO, no European Community and, after the Cold War ended, no reunited Germany, no vibrant democracies (and, yes, pro-western NATO members by their own choice) in East Europe and the Baltics.

    So who’s to blame for the present volatile situation? Ambassador Matlock acknowledges that Russian occupation of Crimea may have “exacerbated” the situation. Well, yes. But the article implies that Putin had legitimate reasons, however: the rise of fascist “anti-Russian extremists,” and the resistance from “neighboring governments to join the Moscow sponsored economic union.” Again, does anyone, outside of Moscow, really believe that a few anti-Russian extremists really threaten a great power or that the neighboring countries would voluntarily join a Russian led economic union?

    Ambassador Matlock worries that a “resentful Russia” would pull back from global and regional issues such as the Iranian nuclear program, North Korea and the Syrian civil war.” The Ambassador knows better than anyone that the Soviet Union frequently threatened to (and sometimes did) pull out of negotiations with Washington on arms control (INF), on human rights (CSCE), and on regional issues (Middle East). Ultimately, Moscow remained or returned to the negotiation table not as a favor to the West, but based on its own perceived interests. The same is true for negotiations on Korea, the Iranian nuclear program and the Syrian Civil War today.

    Ambassador Matlock concludes by suggesting that by “engaging in mutual recriminations and economic sanctions” we are “encouraging a more obstructive Russia;” that present “tensions are based on…misunderstandings and misrepresentations.” On the contrary, I think we now understand President Putin quite well. Just read his triumphant speech to the Russian Parliament. Finally, what in the final analysis most encourages bad Russian behavior? A West that meekly accepts Putin’s land grab in Crimea contrary to numerous solemn treaties signed by Moscow and the most basic tenets of international law, respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty? Or a united coalition of democracies with the political will, economic wherewithal and, most importantly, strategic patience to stand up to Mr. Putin’s Potemkin democracy?

  5. Marc Salzberger says:

    Jack Matlock ignores the Budapest Memorandums of December 1994 in which Russia, the UK and the US guaranteed Ukraine her territorial integrity in return for her nuclear arsenal. That leaves the ambassador’s argument with a large hole.

    Moreover, the rest of the donut he offers us is rancid. Neither the idea of a Russian sphere of influence or America’s freedom of action in the Western Hemisphere were ever internationally accepted, nor were they equivalents. Instead they were Cold War realities which both sides adhered to, but only when they had to.

    US interference in Russia’s neighborhood began right after the Bolshevik Revolution, and never stopped. Similarly, the USSR unhesitatingly sought for decades to push its cause across Latin America and the Caribbean.

    Khrushchev did not back down during th Cuban missile crisis in deference to the Monroe Doctrine. He retreated for the same reason we allowed Soviet tanks to smash the East German, Hungarian and Czech revolutions. It was not because we respected Russia’s sphere of influence, but because we lacked the strength to do otherwise.

    When we pursued Castro, strong armed Grenada and Panama, and squashed Salvador Allende, it was not because we had that right under the Monroe Doctrine. It was because we were in a fight for the future of the world. All of Latin America was a tinder box. We were not going to tolerate even a modest flame flickering in Chile, and risk a continent wide conflagration.

    It was a war for enormous stakes. We danced for decades on a tightrope over a nuclear abyss. An occasional inelegant step was forgiveable. Thus we suppressed Mossadegh, supported dictatorships in South Korea, Indonesia, Philippines, etc., tolerated apartheid South Africa and even Franco in Spain. In WWII we had bombed cities until the asphalt burned in the streets, suffocating hundreds of thousands. Because then too, we could not afford to lose.

    But as the Cold War drew to a close the picture changed. Apartheid South Africa was abandoned. Matlock’s [Vulcan] colleagues shoehorned Indonesia, South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines into democratic reform, anti-American regimes as in Venezuela and Bolivia, are nowadays stomached.

    But when Putin starts taking big bites out of Ukraine, an informed American cannot logically and in decency justify that.

    The ambassador’s one valid argument is with respect to Ukraine’s fascist resurgence. Washington should declare that that is as unacceptable to the United States of America as it is to Russia. Western Europe’s constitutions proscribe neo Nazis. Our side must demand Kiev do the same. But Kiev also deserves that we honor our 1994 commitment, and scorn Matlock’s apologia.

  6. Pingback: Вести из Украины -2 - Page 120

Leave a Reply