Avoid War, Cold Or Hot, with Russia over Ukraine: Finding a Way Back from the Catastrophic Brink

The U.S. should avoid being drawn into a war with Russia over Ukraine’s future.
March 3, 2014 • Commentary
This article appeared on Forbes on March 3, 2014.

Ukrainians won an important political battle by ousting the corrupt Viktor Yanukovich as president. But replacing Yanukovich with another dubious politico, such as opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, just released from prison, would change little.

Washington also triumphed. Without doing much—no troops, no money, few words—Americans watched protesters rebuff police attacks, force Yanukovich to flee, and frustrate Russia’s Vladimir Putin. A trifecta at virtually no expense. Contrast that with U.S. debacles in Iraq, Egypt, and more.

But now Russia is attempting to win as well, intervening in Crimea to an unknown end. Whether intending to simply reinforce Moscow’s influence or completely sever the region from Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has created a tinderbox that could burst into flames with one errant shot from a Russian or Ukrainian soldier, or even angry protester.

The only certainty is that the U.S. should avoid being drawn into a war with Russia over Ukraine’s future. Kiev called for a UN Security Council meeting and pointed to general territorial guarantees included in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum signed by Washington governing divestment of nuclear weapons left in Ukraine. Moscow’s conduct is intolerable. Conflict with Russia would be many times worse.

The Ukrainian people have suffered much throughout history, especially under Communist oppression—highlighted by mass starvation under Joseph Stalin and briefly interrupted by brutal Nazi occupation. Independence came two decades ago.

But the nation’s politics have remained tempestuous. The 2004 Orange Revolution led to the election of U.S. favorite Viktor Yushchenko, who exhibited unparalleled incompetence and inconstancy. He broke with his ally Tymoshenko, the legendary “gas princess,” and eventually appointed Yanukovich, whom he had accused of attempted assassination during the presidential campaign, as prime minister. Yushchenko received just 5.4 percent of the vote in his reelection bid, while Yanukovich defeated Tymoshenko in a poll considered to be fair if not entirely clean.

Yanukovich’s corrupt proclivities surprised no one. In just a couple years his son, a dentist, became one of the country’s wealthiest businessmen. But victory by the scandal‐​tainted Tymoshenko would only have rearranged the oligarchs at the public trough. Indeed, her premiership under Yushchenko was friendlier towards Moscow than was Yanukovich’s presidency. Even in accepting Putin’s largesse last November Yanukovich refused to sign the Russian‐​led Customs Union; the Ukrainian president looked like the proverbial rug merchant squeezing the last penny out of his Russian customer.

Protestors filled Maidan Square in Kiev over Yanukovich’s rejection of a trade agreement with the European Union, but it was not Washington’s business. If the democratically elected government Ukraine desired to look east rather than west economically, so be it. The EU wasn’t happy, but it was outbid. Brussels assumed Ukraine had no choice. Brussels was wrong.

The issue, in contrast to Kiev’s later brutal treatment of protesters, had nothing to do with democracy, human rights, or even sovereignty. In fact, inking the proposed European pact would have meant agreeing to far more, and far more onerous conditions. Associating with Europe likely would have meant a more prosperous and freer future, but that was up to the Ukrainian people acting through their elected government. Ironically, plenty of Greeks and other Europeans now want to reconsider the EU deals struck by their past leaders.

And Ukraine is divided. Broadly speaking, the nation’s west is nationalist and leans European while the east is Russo‐​friendly. Kiev falls within opposition territory—two-thirds of city voters chose Tymoshenko over Yanukovich—so anti‐​government protestors rally easily. Demonstrations over policy quickly turned into a de facto putsch or street revolution, a machtuebernahme. It was as if Republican Party politicians, Ron Paul fans, and Tea Party activists showed up in Washington to protest ObamaCare and took over the Mall, occupied the Treasury Department, surrounded the White House, burned down the Democratic National Committee, blockaded key intersections, armed nationalist radicals, tossed firebombs at the police, demanded Barack Obama’s resignation, and threatened more violence if he didn’t quit immediately. Good demands, perhaps, but dubious tactics.

Even so, that wasn’t Washington’s problem either. Yanukovich’s ouster was Ukraine’s gain, especially if its people prove able to create a more liberal political order. However, the price paid may be high. Democratic parties allied with the neo‐​fascist Svoboda Party and strongly nationalistic Right Sector. Worse, street violence, especially by extreme nationalists, helped overturn the Yanukovich and could be deployed against better and more honest elected leaders in the future. Unfortunately, the “good guys” can’t assume only they get to violate democratic norms.

Indeed, many of those who look east and voted for Yanukovich—even if unenthused about his obvious failings, including newly exposed lavish lifestyle—feel cheated. There was no fascist coup, but the government they helped elect was violently overthrown. Some of them might prefer to shift their allegiance to Russia. These sentiments appear to be strongest in the Crimea, a Tartar state allied with the Ottoman Empire until conquered by the Russian Empire in the 18th Century.

In 1954 Soviet Communist Party General Secretary Nikita Krushchev, from Ukraine, gifted Crimea to Ukraine, largely for economic reasons. At the time the switch meant nothing internationally since no one expected the U.S.S.R. to split apart. But after the Soviet Union’s disintegration in late 1991 Ukraine departed with Crimea in tow. Moscow was forced to lease back its Black Sea naval base at Sevastopol.

National accommodation should be possible today through a commitment by Kiev to engage both east and west, which the Ukrainian people clearly desire. Moreover, the government should address disenfranchised Yanukovich backers, perhaps offering greater regional autonomy. Kiev also should reassure Moscow that Ukraine is not about to join any anti‐​Russia bloc, including NATO. But if Crimeans, in particular, want to return to Russia, they should be able to do so. It still wouldn’t be easy, since no region of Ukraine is truly monolithic. But the 1993 “Velvet Divorce” between the Czech and Slovak sections of Czechoslovakia offers an obvious model.

However, none of this should matter much to America. We should wish Ukrainians of all regions well as they attempt to rebuild amid the political rubble left by Yanukovich’s violent ouster. But there is no important let alone vital security issue at stake for the U.S. in the specific choices they make. And certainly nothing that warrants the sort of intrusive meddling evident in the recorded phone call between Victoria Nuland, Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs, and U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt.

Most important, the extended and violent protests against the Yanukovich government demonstrate that Moscow has no hope of dominating the country. A Russian invasion would face resistance from a determined people as well as sizable military and victory would yield perpetual conflict and instability. Kiev will be independent and almost certainly will look west economically. The only question is how much of Ukraine.

In principle that also isn’t Washington’s concern. It is hard for American officials to acknowledge that not everything requires Washington’s attention. But what is in or out of Ukraine does not. Indeed, in a poll last week just 17 percent of Americans wanted the U.S. involved.

That shouldn’t stop the EU from playing a new Great Game if it desires. Europe is both wealthy and next door: the European nations could offer foreign aid and the EU could promise membership. If Brussels believes Kiev’s orientation is critical, then the former should outbid Russia. That shouldn’t be hard, since the EU has ten times the GDP of Putin’s bedraggled wannabe empire. Hard‐​pressed U.S. taxpayers shouldn’t foot the bill for Europe’s benefit.

But rather than play the game Vladimir Putin has upended the board and scattered the pieces. Russia introduced troops, taking effective control of the Crimea at the formal request of Sergei Aksyonov, the region’s new pro‐​Russian premier. What comes next no one knows.

Of course, Russia shouldn’t meddle. However, a U.S. government that is ever ready to make demands, offer aid, impose sanctions, support leaders and factions, undermine governments, launch covert actions, and, most important, bomb, invade, and occupy other nations is in a weak position to criticize Moscow’s involvement in Ukraine. The most militarily interventionist state today is America. However good Washington’s justifications—and, frankly, in many cases they have not been very good—U.S. leaders have no principled argument against other governments acting in similar ways even if for more venal, even criminal, reasons, as in this case.

As for Ukraine’s east, and especially Crimea, all sides should abide by the wishes of its residents, many of whom appear committed to separation. In fact, in 1992 the Crimean parliament voted to secede, though advocates settled for additional autonomy. Now they may be more serious. Washington should discourage the new Ukrainian government—both unrepresentative and unstable—from using force to hold any region which genuinely seeks separation.

Yet Putin, demonstrating the hubris that comes naturally with authoritarian control, tossed aside his trump card, a planned referendum by Crimea’s residents. A majority secession vote would have allowed him to claim the moral high ground in standing by a kindred people. Aksyonov announced that he is advancing the poll, which will occur on March 30 and offer choices of autonomous status quo, independence, and Russian affiliation. However, an election conducted under foreign occupation lacks credibility.

As it stands Russia has committed acts of aggression and war. The only good news is that Putin’s ends almost certainly are limited. Could Russia attempt to take Ukraine in two gulps rather than one, rather like Adolf Hitler grabbed Czechoslovakia? Russia isn’t Nazi Germany and Ukraine isn’t 1938 Czechoslovakia, with or without the Crimea. Ukraine’s west wouldn’t be incorporated easily or completely.

So far the participants have not lost their heads and started shooting. That could lead to genuine disaster. Russia has more than ten times Ukraine’s GDP and outspends Ukraine 20–1 on the military. The former should easily win any conventional contest. But the aftermath, especially if Moscow sought to occupy anything more than the most heavily pro‐​Russian areas, would be continuing resistance and strife. Hopefully one Chechnya is enough for Vladimir Putin.

Even in the worst case the U.S. has no cause for military intervention. Andrew C. Kuchins of the Center for Strategic and International Studies complained: “If you are effectively taking the stick option off the table, then what are you left with?” However, it would be foolish to wave the stick if using it would risk far more than is at stake. Who controls the Crimea just ain’t worth a possible nuclear confrontation.

Putin is a nasty guy with a nasty agenda, but Great Power wannabe Russia is no ideologically‐​driven superpower Soviet Union. Moreover, Ukraine is not “in the center of Europe” as the Washington Post strangely proclaimed. Moscow perceives its vital interests as securing regional security, not winning global domination. The only thing worse than a completely unnecessary conflict would be a completely unnecessary conflict involving America—especially with a nuclear‐​armed power. This possibility offers a stark reminder of the case against inducting Ukraine into NATO, which would have created a formal legal commitment to start World War III.

The allies should develop an out for Russia. Moscow can yet step back. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the troop presence was required “until the normalization of the political situation.” How so? One scenario: Russia withdraws its forces while Kiev schedules independence referendums in Russian‐​leaning areas. Popular approval would lead to a negotiated separation process. Other modus Vivendi also are possible.

If Putin refuses to draw back, Washington and Brussels have little choice but to retaliate, imposing “costs,” in the president’s word. Secretary of State John Kerry promised “to go to the hilt in order to isolate Russia.” The allies could impose a range of sanctions—cancelling the June G-8 summit in Sochi, abandoning new economic or trade negotiations, denying visas to leading Russians, recalling ambassadors, refusing normal diplomatic discourse, excluding Russian banks from international finance—but none of these actions, except perhaps the latter, would have much impact.

Tougher would be banning investment and trade, which might build domestic political opposition to Putin. However, such a policy also might perversely strengthen the Russian state by making private Russian business more dependent on the authorities. Moreover, the Europeans are unlikely to stop purchasing natural gas from Moscow.

The other problem with retaliation is that the tougher the response the more likely Moscow would harm American interests elsewhere: interfere with operations in Afghanistan, offer positive support for Iran and its nuclear program, enhance backing for Syria’s Bashar Assad, and provide succor to North Korea’s Kim Jong‐​un. Today Russia is not, as Mitt Romney bizarrely claimed, America’s number one geopolitical adversary. And Putin’s machinations in Ukraine are not directed at the U.S. But Moscow could take over that spot if it desired. Whatever else Washington does, it needs to keep communications open, as even President Ronald Reagan did with the Evil Empire during the Cold War.

The struggle in Ukraine is vital for Ukrainians. However, history, geography, and reality all defy hysterical claims as to Ukraine’s global and historic importance. Its people deserve prosperity, stability, liberty, and democracy. America also would benefit from that result.

But that future is not within Washington’s power to bestow, on Ukraine or anyone else. Today the U.S. should concentrate on pulling Russia back from the brink in Ukraine. A new cold war is in no one’s interest. A hot war would be a global catastrophe.

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