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How to Move Forward on Ukraine

The election that took place on Sunday in Ukraine has if nothing else given that country something it has not had since February 21: a legitimate head of state. As of this writing, the results show a convincing win for former economic and foreign minister Petro Poroshenko over former President Yulia Tymoshenko.

And so, the election of the confectionery magnate Poroshenko may augur well for Ukraine’s chances to stay intact, all the while remaining tacitly divided. Unlike the interim government, tainted as it was by its close association with all manner of neo-fascists, Poroshenko appears to have at least some measure of credibility on both sides—east and west—of the great Ukrainian divide; and we may permit ourselves to hope he may be able to assemble a coalition that represents the aspirations of all the Ukrainian people rather than only those who took to the barricades in February.

He is said to be someone with whom Putin can deal. Yet the very suggestion that Poroshenko might be acceptable to Putin has already raised the hackles of some American neoconservatives. The American Interest magazine, for instance, has tried to sully Poroshenko’s reputation in the run-up to the election by running two pieces stressing Poroshenko’s alleged connection to a corrupt gas oligarch.

That aside, Poroshenko has a long road ahead of him: he will have to handle tricky and combustible issues like federalization, the status of the Russian language, and the orientation of Ukraine’s foreign policy. He will still need to contend with the pro-Russian separatists in Lugansk and Donetsk all the while trying to repair Ukrainian-Russian relations without alienating the pro-Western majorities in the former Hapsburg provinces.

It’s a fine line he will have to walk, yet if the new government is able to put a stop to the burgeoning civil war and reach a satisfactory settlement over the aforementioned issues, then the Obama administration should use the resulting diplomatic breathing space to re-examine its neo-Containment policy towards Russia forthwith. Doing so now is a strategic necessity in light of Putin’s successful trip to China last week. With the long-term natural gas deal inked between Russia and China it is now beyond question that Putin, good realist that he is, intends to align Russia more closely with the Chinese in order to balance against what he sees as American hegemony. Indeed, missing from most of the U.S. coverage of the $400 billion Gazprom deal was the Shanghai summit’s other not inconsiderable successes, among them:

  • Vneshekonombank’s agreement with China’s Export-Import Bank for a $500 million line of credit to finance projects in Russia
  • Russian gas company Novatek’s 20 year deal to supply China with 3 million tons of liquefied natural gas (LNG) annually
  • An agreement on the development of a coal field in Siberia which is estimated to be worth roughly $900 billion

In light of this, the Obama administration ought to attempt a limited reset with Russia sometime after the mid-term elections this fall. Such a reset might include the revival of several, but certainly not all, of the working groups of the now-defunct Bilateral Commission. If the administration does decide to revisit the Commission, rather revive all of the 20 working groups (a few of which were simply moribund anyway), it might consider narrowing the focus of U.S.-Russian engagement to a handful of working groups, focusing on counterterrorism, nuclear security, health cooperation (with a focus on combating infectious diseases), trade relations, and counter-narcotics cooperation.

The aim should be to focus on areas of mutual interest all the while trying to lower the temperature and rein in some of the more provocative rhetoric emanating out of the White House and the State Department. A good first step towards repairing the breach would be to refrain from further additions to the Magnitsky list. A policy of limited engagement, which scales back both the number of items on the agenda and avoids over-blown hopes for a complete rapprochement, would be a sensible policy for the remainder of the Obama era. Perhaps the administration will finally learn that we need to deal with the Russia that is, not the Russia we wish it to be.

James Carden is a TAC contributing editor, and served as an advisor to the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission at the State Department from 2011-2012.

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