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Is Ukraine a Problem for America to Solve?

Senate Foreign Relations Committee testimony made a feeble case—but hinted at a better foreign example for Yankovych's foes.
Ukraine protests

Last week the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on the “Implications of the Crisis in Ukraine.” Featuring the testimony of two high-ranking State Department officials followed by that of former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, it was a largely dispiriting affair. The opening statements from Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland and Deputy Assistant Secretary for  Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Tom Melia featured the by now standard declarations of “support for the aspirations of all Ukrainian citizens” and assurances that the “U.S. stands with the Ukrainian people in solidarity in their struggle for fundamental human rights.”

Of the two, Melia went furthest (Nuland, a former State Department spokesperson, was marginally more nuanced), stating that the committee’s attention to Ukraine was warranted not only because it lay “at the center of Europe” but because it was also a “valued” and “important” partner to the United States. If those assertions didn’t raise eyebrows, then the dollar figures he cited certainly should have.

According to Melia, since the dissolution of the USSR in December 1991, the U.S. has spent—the term of art Melia used was “invested”—over $5 billion on assistance to Ukraine, $815 million of which went towards funding democracy and exchange programs. Further, since 2009 the Obama administration has funneled $184 million to programs ostensibly aimed at supporting civil society, human rights, good governance, and the rule of law in Ukraine.

Taken together, the testimony of Nuland and Melia seem to rest on a number of questionable assumptions:

  • Clear and identifiable U.S. national interests are at stake in the debate currently being played out in Maidan Square.
  • Without U.S. financial and moral support the opposition to the Yanukovych regime is unlikely to succeed.
  • Russia, by offering the Ukrainian government a more attractive bailout package than that proposed by the EU and IMF, was acting in bad faith.
  • The protesters in Maidan speak for all Ukrainian people, the vast majority of whom desire to be integrated into the EU.
  • The outcome of the current crisis will have a definite effect on Russia’s future development; if Ukraine chooses a European future, so too (someday) will Russia.

The Q&A portion of the hearing left little doubt that these assumptions are shared by committee chairman Robert Menendez, ranking member Sen. Bob Corker, and not surprisingly, Sens. Chris Murphy and John McCain, fresh off their recent trip to Kiev.

The less said about McCain’s questions, the better. After asserting that Ukraine “is a country that wants to be European, not Russian” and that the Ukrainian people “cry out for our assistance,” he went on, in a bizarre aside, to mention not once, but twice, that Russia was “embargoing” supplies of chocolate to Ukraine. It was that chocolate embargo that really seemed to stoke his outrage.

For their part, Menendez and Corker stayed more on point. Menendez threatened sanctions against the Yanukovych regime and was incredulous as to why the administration hadn’t already filed a complaint against Russia in the WTO. Corker’s first order of business was to scold the State Department for not adding names to the Magnitsky list, which, he said, it was supposed to do “under law.” Yet he made clear that he concurred with the witnesses’ views that “Ukraine is an incredibly important country” and the outcome of the current crisis “could be the thing that shapes policy inside Russia itself.”

At no point was there any evidence, either in the senators’ questions or in the respondents’ answers, that any thought had been given to whether it was at all appropriate for the U.S. government to get ever more deeply involved in the political life of a sovereign state halfway around the globe. No doubts were expressed over whether the choices that a democratically elected government makes with regard to its trading partners, elections, and security are the proper objects of American scrutiny. As Princeton emeritus professor Stephen F. Cohen has trenchantly noted, “It is not democratic to overthrow a democratically elected government. It’s the opposite of that.”

Nor was there any recognition that Ukraine is deeply and almost evenly divided between Ukraine’s westernizers in the urban centers such as Kiev and Lviv, and the Russophiles in the South and East, never mind the fact that Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus all have common roots which trace back to the Kievan Rus in the 9th century.

Zbigniew Brzezinski followed Nuland and Melia and for the most part shared the prevailing view of the hearing, particularly the idea—call it Democratic Domino Theory—that Ukraine’s integration with the West would (somehow) lead Russia to follow a similar path. Yet while overstating Ukraine’s strategic importance, Brzezinski did draw the committee’s attention to the lessons Ukrainian Westernizers might take from the experiences of Poland’s Solidarity movement of the 1980s.

Solidarity’s distinguishing characteristic was that it was a “national movement for independence which became institutionalized.” So while it was somewhat like Maidan, the key difference was that the opposition in Poland coalesced around the popular figure of Lech Walesa, who gradually “forced the ruling Communist regime to negotiate” a path to free elections that set Poland on the path to where it is today: a NATO member in good standing and a leading voice within the EU.

If the Ukrainian opposition is to succeed, then, it would be well advised to follow the example of the Solidarity movement—as Brzezinski suggests—and put quite a bit less hope in the fulsome rhetoric of the American political class that was in abundant supply at last week’s hearing.

James Carden served as an advisor to the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission at the State Department from 2011-2012.



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