Monday, February 24, 2014

"Ukraine, Russia and the West"

     Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
Ukraine, Russia and the West”
February 24, 2014

Just over 200 years ago, Immanuel Kant noted that a republic was best situated for perpetual peace. The reasons were simple: a republic requires the consent of the governed to enter war; the people must pay all costs, and are required to repair any devastation left in its aftermath. On the other hand, when a country is governed by autocrats, “a declaration of war is the easiest thing in the world to decide upon.” Princeton PhD candidate, Raymond Kuo made the same observation three years ago. “…the leaders of two democracies tend not to attack each other, as they are both constrained by publics which would prefer not to bear the costs of war. Autocracies lack these constraining effects, and so go to war more often.”

That concept is why it is in the world’s interest that Ukraine becomes a free and democratic state, in actuality, not just in name. In contrast, from Vladimir Putin’s perspective it is important that Ukraine be a malleable vassal-state in the empire he is attempting to rebuild.

But peace in a world as unstable as ours is not possible without a global enforcer, a responsibility that lies with the United States. For most of the post-war years, the world lived with a balance of power, but that ended in 1991. In Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, Niall Ferguson quoted Henry Kissinger. “The balance of power is the classic expression of the lesson of history that no order is safe without physical safeguards against aggression.” As the default “balancer,” the United States has an awesome responsibility. It must maintain a strong military presence and must exhibit the moral courage to enforce its stands. When we walk away from such responsibilities violence erupts. In 2013, as Professor Ferguson noted in his column, 75,000 people died in the Greater Middle East as a result of armed conflict. That was the highest number since the International Institute of Strategic Studies Armed Conflict database began in 1998 – higher than during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Walking away from Iraq and Afghanistan has not reduced violence. Ignoring the self-imposed “red line” has not reduced casualties in Syria. Shrinking the U.S. army to the smallest force since before World War II, as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has proposed, seems a foolish and risky proposition.

Wherever and whenever political leaders have assumed excessive power (whether democratically elected or not), violence and revolution are the consequence. The people in Ukraine caught a rare glimpse of freedom with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 – Russia had essentially been their master for the previous 350 years. But it proved ephemeral when Viktor Yanukovych, a disciple of Russian president Vladimir Putin, was elected president in 2010. Shortly thereafter, he had his political nemesis Yulia Tymoshenko jailed on drummed-up charges. While eastern Ukrainians, which includes the Crimean Peninsula, have much closer ties to Russia than those in the western regions, most Ukrainians are anxious to get out from under the boot of Russia. Putin, on the other hand, wants to restore Russia to its Tsarist and/or Soviet past.

But to understand why so many Ukrainians are willing to die that freedom might live requires a quick review of Russia’s historical relationship with Ukraine. That history also helps explain why Putin is so determined to keep Ukraine within the Russian orbit. The eastern part of Ukraine – east of the Dnieper River – has been in Russian hands since the mid-17th Century and Russian, as well as Ukrainian, is still spoken. The western part of the country spent many years as part of Poland and, later, part of the Austria-Hungarian Empire. Galicia, a western province of Ukraine, only became part of the USSR after World War II. The Crimean Peninsula, like the eastern regions, has long been populated with Russian ex-pats. In 1920, after a brutal civil war, Ukraine became a Soviet Republic. In 1932, Stalin forced a famine on the Ukrainian people. Between 5 and 7 million people died, or 15-20% of the nation’s population.  Stalin’s purges in the late 1930s murdered more. Balaklava, now part of the Crimean city of Sevastopol and where Yanukovych was last seen, is the scene of the famous Charge of the Light Brigade against the Russian guns in 1854. And, of course, Yalta, a Crimean resort town on the Black Sea that for three years had been occupied by the Germans, was where Stalin met Roosevelt and Churchill in February 1945.

Sevastopol is Russia’s one warm-water port and is home to their navy’s Black Sea Fleet.  That naval base has a great meaning to Russia, as it was established in 1783 by Catherine the Great. It became part of Ukraine in 1991. A “Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation between Russia and Ukraine” was signed in May 1997, which allowed both countries to maintain fleets at Sevastopol. However, the Ukrainians in 2008 made it clear that the Russians must leave when the treaty concludes in May 2017. There is no question that Mr. Putin does not want to be held responsible for the loss of Sevastopol.

The breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 set the stage for former Soviet satellites to remove the yoke of Soviet Communist domination. Many nations have made the transition, including Poland, the Czech Republic, Romania, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary and East Germany, but others like Georgia and Ukraine have felt the heavy foot of Mr. Putin. In 2008, at his last NATO summit as President, George W. Bush urged that Georgia and Ukraine be welcomed into a Membership Action Plan (MAP) that prepares countries for NATO membership. However, Western European nations objected, for fear of upsetting Russia and Mr. Putin. Newer members of NATO – including those bordering Ukraine, like Poland, Belarus, Slovakia, and Romania, who understood what it meant to live under Soviet domination – supported Mr. Bush. It may have been a case of historical amnesia that allowed the West to ignore people struggling for democracy, but I suspect it had more to do with an absence of strong Western leaders, those with the moral compass of a Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.

When trade agreements were offered by the EU last November, Ukraine president Viktor Yanukovych, under pressure from a strengthened Mr. Putin and an offer of $15 billion, refused, setting off demonstrations. Six years after that NATO meeting where European leaders weaseled out of doing the right thing for the Ukrainian people, the European Union, the Obama Administration, and mainstream media are finally coming to understand that there is a crisis – that Putin’s Russia means to establish hegemony over the southern regions of the former Soviet Union and that a timorous West will not stop him. Mr. Obama’s response was that there would be “consequences” if Ukraine’s president did not back off, though his remarks were diluted by requesting that the protestors act “responsibly,” either ignoring or confusing Barry Goldwater’s maxim that “moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

It could be that the Friday meeting with three EU foreign ministers and a Russian envoy may have averted the crisis from getting worse. The disappearance of Mr. Yanukovych and the releasing from prison of Ms. Tymoshenko are certainly favorable developments. But I suspect the Russians will not retreat so quickly. No one can predict what will happen. Mr. Yanukovych, before he fled, promised to form a coalition government and to hold general elections at the end of 2014, rather than 2015. But, he is a puppet of Mr. Putin and cannot be trusted. Even Ms. Tymoshenko cannot divorce herself from Russia. Mr. Putin sees himself sitting in a position of strength, facing Western ambivalence and leaders who have lost their moral sense.


The consequence of Western ambivalence toward despotic leaders, whether they be in Syria, Venezuela, Iran or Ukraine, is not helpful for people struggling to be free, nor is it propitious for world peace. Such hesitation makes the world less safe. 

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