In Ukraine we see the continuation of an Obama administration pattern that we saw in Libya, Egypt, and Syria - encouragement of crowds to replace the sitting government without a good understanding of who the players were or a plan for what was to follow. The first three were not strategically important to the West, but in Ukraine we are dealing with Vladimir Putin and a resurgent Russia. The problem is far beyond threatening e-mails from John Kerry in Kinshasa or a frosty discussion between Obama and Angela Merkel. Fortunately, Putin offers a way out if the administration and our European allies will listen.
In his farewell speech, President Reagan offered the following advice on dealing with Moscow:
"I want the new closeness to continue. And it will, as long as we make it clear that we will continue to act in a certain way as long as they continue to act in a helpful manner. If and when they don't, at first pull your punches. If they persist, pull the plug. It's still trust by verify. It's still play, but cut the
cards. It's still watch closely. And don't be afraid to see what you see." The last phrase is the most relevant here.
Vladimir Putin can see through our cards and knows that we are holding a pair of threes. President Obama, John Kerry, and the European Union, it would seem, are afraid to see what Putin is showing them.
First, the broader picture. The Russian empire is not like the western European empires which expanded around the world and could contract without directly threatening the homeland. Instead, when the Russian empire has contracted it has brought rivals in force to the gates of Moscow - the Mongols, Napoleon, Hitler. With the collapse of the Soviet Union the European protective buffer moved 400 miles to the east, millions of former subjects are now members of the European Union and NATO, and the ebbing tide has left Russian nationals stranded in enclaves from the Baltics to the Black Sea. For Putin, enough is enough.
Russia did not upset the status quo in Ukraine; the West did. Putin's specific gripes:
- Since 2009 the European Union has been encouraging an "Eastern Partnership" under which Ukraine, Moldova, and Belarus could integrate into the western bloc, with the potential for future membership. Russia has instead sought Ukrainan participation in an economic association of former Soviet republics, using Russia's longstanding supply of natural gas as a club.
- In February, when Ukranian President Yanukovich defied his parliament by opting to continue Ukraine's alignment with Russia and rejecting the EU affiliation offer, he was overthrown. Within a month his appointed successor signed the affiliation agreement with the 28 European Union states setting off the current conflict.
- Concurrently, the Kiev parliment repealed a 2012 law which formalized the right of minorities to use languages other than Ukranian for local government matters, thus stoking fears among the Russian-speakers in eastern Ukraine. Yanukovich's successor vetoed the law, but the geni was out of the bottle.
So, what would Reagan have seen? The European Union, notably Germany, is not willing to impose sanctions which would severely disrupt their economiies. The Russians have accomplished their minimal objective by incorporating the Crimea into Russia. Even in eastern Ukraine, Russian-speakers are a minority of about 38%, making assimilation problematic. Military conflict is unpredictable and subject to miscalculation, with the Russians posessing vastly superior forces.
Fortunately, Putin has told the world what he wants , even if the West has been unwilling to listen - non-aligned status for Ukraine and a new constitution giving autonomy to the eastern regions where the Russian minority is centered. (Oh, and to keep the Crimea.) Non-alignment is not a new concept on the Russian border - post WW II the pragmatic agrement was to keep Finland and Austria out of the Warsaw Pact and NATO alliances which faced off across Europe. It didn't too much matter what the Finns and the Austrians wanted.
In a different era, with different leadership, the West would be able to accept the reality that the push into Russia's historic sphere of influence is over. Hopefully fewer lives will be lost in Ukraine than in Syria before the realities are recognized and an accomodation is reached. But then, leadership requires the ability to determine a course of action and convince others to follow. As many have noted, we don't do world leadership anymore.