Ukraine: Time to Reach a Resolution
bssb.be – nationalinterest.org 02.09.2014
In his interview with Thomas Friedman published on August 8, 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.”
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.
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.
Instead, the actions of American officials and administration statements, particularly since the demonstrations on Kiev’s Maidan began, seem designed to intensify Russian suspicions rather than attenuate them.
The American assistant secretary of state for European affairs discussed with our ambassador in Kiev, 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,” or Arseniy Yatsenyuk, 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 from American senators but also 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.
Kiev’s Western friends cannot provide political representation from Ukraine’s eastern provinces and Kiev is unlikely to enlist it while fighting goes on in Donetsk and Luhansk. Those who feel that the Kiev government can unify the country by means of 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 Kiev would face the challenge of dealing with festering cancers rather than healthy, functional organs in Ukraine’s body politic.
Coverage of events in Ukraine by prominent American and Western European media, while more accurate and balanced than that in the Russian government-controlled media, has nevertheless devoted little attention to the militant right-wing elements in Ukraine’s Maidan movement, or to Kiev’s use of unofficial armed militias with ties to countries in 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 Kiev’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 (correctly or not) of being under Communist influence.
We are not in a new cold war, but our political leaders’ public accusations, demands, and threats have helped recreate much of that atmosphere. This acrimonious public dialogue, at times descending to little more than name-calling, has set off destabilizing vibrations that are amplified by feedback at each exchange.
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 the country.
The Ukrainians must understand that they cannot achieve the unity any successful nation-state requires by imposing the will of one 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 is not a precursor to a NATO-dominated Ukraine.
The EU needs to understand that, no matter how well intended its arrangements with the government in Kiev may be, success is impossible 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, 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 a military alliance hostile to Russia, perhaps by requiring the vote of a supermajority as a prerequisite to joining any military alliance.
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.
Jack Matlock, Jr. is a former professor at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton and a former U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union.
This article is part of Carnegie Corporation of New York’s Carnegie Forum: Rebuilding U.S.-Russia Relations.