It’s one thing for libertarians to argue against helping Ukraine with weaponry, but it is quite another to call Ukrainians neo-Nazis and anti-Semitic, giving credence to the barrage of propaganda on Russian TV, and to try to defame their struggle. There are some elements that could be so described, especially in the Azov Brigade, which fought key battles with the separatists and Russian invaders. But the national election last May showed them winning only 1 percent of the national vote and being decisively defeated.
Let’s see: America allied with Stalin to defeat Hitler. We then gave succor to former Nazi scientists to help build our rockets. Today we are aiding the terrorist Kurdish PKK against ISIS in Syria (WSJ 7/25/15); we are now on the same side as the Iranians to defeat ISIS in Iraq; and we sustained many assorted dictators during the Cold War. Think of the Saudis, too: we now help Saudi Arabia’s dictators (even refueling their bombers) to target and kill Yemenis who never did America any harm—indeed, they are al-Qaeda’s enemies.
Ukrainian history is bloody and complicated. After the Soviets killed some 7 million Ukrainians, is it a wonder that many survivors welcomed the Germans? And their leader, Stepan Bandera, went on fighting for years. Resisting Ukrainians and Poles were only finally suppressed by Stalin five years after the end of the Second World War, in 1950. Anne Applebaum’s book Gulag movingly describes how survivors in the labor camps revolted and killed their guards after Stalin’s death. They weren’t the intellectuals and peasants who filled the camps in the 1930s, who didn’t know how to fight and kill.
So now we have some conservatives and libertarians unfortunately parroting and spreading Putin’s Russian accusations that a few hundred men who appeal to the mottos of the old resistance discredit all the millions of Ukrainians. And that therefore Ukraine should be abandoned.
They’re wrong. But what should American policy be, and what are some possible avenues for compromise? Former Canadian intelligence officials have put forth a very good analysis that explains, “Washington and its NATO allies have only the fuzziest idea of what they want to achieve but are nonetheless taking military measures apparently oblivious to their potential impact on Russian security interests. As Sun Tzu observed, ‘Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat’. In Europe, the noise people hear is the rumble of Russian mechanized forces preparing to move on Mariupol, Kharkiv and maybe Kiev.”
First, we should recognize that before Yanukovych’s ouster and the present crisis Russian interests were overly pressed and prejudiced by European Union officials who “would have forced Ukraine to decide between Russia and the European Union, flatly rejecting Putin’s offer of a tripartite arrangement”—between Russia, Ukraine, and the EU—“that would allow Ukraine to sustain its ties with Russia.” There was even a proposal to change Ukraine’s railroad gauge from Russian to West European widths so trains could not easily travel into Russia, Ukraine’s main trading partner. The Association Agreement between the EU and Ukraine alludes to “military-technological co-operation” and repeatedly addresses “mutual security” and defense. Small wonder that Russia felt threatened.
Most of these initiatives came from lower-level officials, perhaps even without the knowledge of Obama and Germany’s Chancellor Merkel. What’s more, Obama’s State Department European chief is a neoconservative, Victoria Nuland, inherited from Cheney’s gang of “rule-the-worlders.” It has been said of Western dealings with Ukraine that no grown-ups were in charge.
Putin’s actions in seizing Crimea and destabilizing Ukraine, however, needed a strong response. That doesn’t preclude negotiation: at a recent meeting of the Washington Oil & Gas Forum, a speaker explained that Putin only has liquid reserves—some $200 billion—to carry on another two years before sanctions and the decline in oil prices cause real havoc with the Russian economy. He said that Russian officials lately seemed more open to compromise. In another context, Obama recently praised Putin for helping in the Iran negotiations.
But the Russians also require convincing that they cannot continue slicing up Ukraine without severe consequences. America should help the Ukrainians: defensive weapons, especially against tanks and artillery, should be on the table. First, however, Washington should reach out to Putin with diplomacy, especially now, after its successful beginning with Iran.
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has reported on a feasible structure of compromise. Russia would keep Crimea through “buying” a 99-year lease, paying with discounted gas deliveries to Ukraine. Ukraine would end its blockade, recognize the lease, and sell water and electricity to the peninsula. Free transit of citizens and goods of both nations would be guaranteed, and Russia would respect past property rights in place at the time of its invasion.
The breakaway East Ukraine would have some kind of federalist semi-autonomy within the nation. (Indeed, federalism could be a reform of tremendous significance for the prosperity of many nations afflicted by corruption and overly centralized governments, including Russia.) Ukraine would be part of both the European Union, through an association agreement, and belong to the Russian customs union. Europe and Russia would end their trade and investment restrictions and travel bans.
There is an encouraging example from the past, that of Austria after World War II. Russia and the West agreed that it would be neutral, with no foreign military bases or alliances: “neutrality on the Swiss model.” It worked very well. Austria prospered with peace and as a middle ground for commerce between East and West.
An agreement would be the crowning achievement of Obama—diplomacy and peace with Iran and Russia. Admittedly, diplomacy is tough for Republicans. Ever since the Civil War they have thought winning means demanding unconditional surrender. Most of their leaders think blockade and bombing should be the first measures in any dispute with other nations. (Former American Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Chas Freeman has written an excellent appeal for and explanation of diplomacy . It explains why diplomacy is vital, especially for preventing and ending wars. It should be read by all Republicans in Congress.)
Finally, Washington should address the lies coming out of Russian media, including into America through RT. Google searches give prominence and credibility to Russian state-controlled “media” and bloggers who often promote disinformation. CNN in Russia has shut down because of the censorship and danger to its journalists. Anne Applebaum has suggested various ways to empower silenced Russian journalists to help get their voices out to the Russian people.
I lectured in three Ukrainian cities years ago on “Free Market Lessons from Asia and Latin America,” sponsored by the American Foreign Policy Council with a grant from CIPE. The Atlas Network sponsored a special mission last fall to explain and promote free market, anti-corruption measures to the new government. Students for Liberty held a special conference in Kiev. All the participants spoke of the idealistic young people working for Ukraine to emulate Europe rather than Putin’s Russia. Since Russians took over Crimea they have shut down Western television reception and curtailed the free Internet. Believe me, most Ukrainians do not want to come under the rule of modern Russian police state.
Jon Basil Utley is publisher of The American Conservative.