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Ukraine Isn’t a “Prize,” And No One Is “Winning” Anything

Rod Dreher asks [1] in the wake of Assistant Secretary Nuland’s leaked phone call:

But is Ukraine really so important a prize as to risk our relationship with Russia, and with the EU?

A point that Mark Adomanis made [2] very early [3] on when the protests in Kiev began last year was that Ukraine is not a prize of any kind. It’s a huge liability for whichever patron has the “fortune” to “win” it. Indeed, thanks to the ongoing upheaval and Russia’s suspension of the aid that it had offered, Ukraine is on the verge of default [4] and may soon become even more of an economic mess than it already is. This the country that Western governments are so afraid of “losing” to Russia.

The leaking of Nuland’s call was presumably supposed to create ill-will between the U.S. and its European allies, but based on Nuland’s comments it is apparent that there was already plenty of ill-will before the remarks were made public. To make things even more ridiculous, it is the EU’s Eastern Partnership project that helped to create [5] the political dispute in the first place. There is no reason why the U.S. should be taking more responsibility for the EU’s own policy than the EU does, but that seems to have become the administration’s position anyway.

Frustration with the EU is easy enough to understand, but it just drives home how absurd the U.S. position in all of this has become. If the EU struggles to come up with a unified policy on Ukraine, that is because it struggles to have a unified foreign policy on any subject. European views on how the dispute in Ukraine should be addressed are all over the map. As Bloomberg reports [4]:

Some sought sanctions against the former Soviet republic as others proposed boosting incentives to steer the Ukrainian government back toward the west after it spurned an EU offer in late November.

Since European governments are this divided over how to proceed on a matter that is of greater importance to them than it is to us, why should the U.S. take a more active interest in resolving the dispute than the Europeans are willing or able to take?

The substance of Nuland’s call focused on which opposition leader should enter government in a cohabitation arrangement with Yanukovych, but notably no one had even attempted to get any of the opposition leaders to endorse the power-sharing agreement that Nuland and the ambassador were discussing. As it turned out, all of the opposition leaders summarily rejected a power-sharing deal when an offer to join the government was made. On the one hand, the inability to carry out the plan should serve as a reminder that the internal political disputes of other countries are well beyond our constructive influence. The presumption that U.S. officials should be trying to shape the composition of a foreign government puts the U.S. in the absurd position of meddling where we’re not needed or wanted. This is what will often happen when the U.S. pretends to have interests in foreign disputes where none exists: the crisis continues or perhaps even worsens and other governments are needlessly offended and provoked by interference that wouldn’t advance a single concrete U.S. interest even if it had “worked.”


As Samuel Charap explained in a recent article [6], there are no winners to be found in this contest. He also comments on how foolish it was for the U.S. to think that it could impose a solution without coordinating with the Russians:

What is surprising about the conversation, if it did in fact occur, is that the United States still believes it can unilaterally create sustainable political outcomes in Ukraine while keeping Moscow in the dark. Lost in the reporting is that most of the alleged conversation is about cobbling together a political compromise and sealing the deal — before Russia has time to react.

Of course, this is what one would try to do if the goal is to spite Moscow, which unfortunately seems to become the default response of many Western governments to anything related to Russia and its neighbors. Charap went on to identify the destructive rivalry between Russia and Western governments as one of the causes of Ukrainian political dysfunction:

It is precisely this 20-year tradition of geopolitical one-upmanship that led to this crisis in the first place, by allowing a parasitic political-economic system to bargain its way out of reform, and by sharpening the existing divisions in the Ukrainian polity.

The fact that neither the West nor Russia seem ready to accept is that one side acting alone cannot resolve the crisis. In fact, unilateral action is likely to make it worse. The dysfunctional, deeply corrupt political-economic system that caused so many Ukrainians to take to the streets depends for its very survival on the absence of Russian-Western substantive exchanges about Ukraine policy.

Perhaps if at least some of the outside parties now involved in the dispute stopped treating Ukraine as a “prize,” it would become possible to start having these exchanges. Matthew Rojansky discussed [7] the basis for improved EU-Russia cooperation in the future:

To start, both sides would have to be clear about their own most vital interests in the region, while recognizing the legitimacy of the other side’s views. From Europe’s perspective, that means not simply dismissing Russia’s stated interests because they do not match those of the West. Nor can Europe maintain the specious position that the only legitimate representatives of regional states’ interests are those who are already oriented to the West. Simply put, Europe cannot wish Russia into irrelevance in a geographic area that has historically been central to Russia’s global role, its economic development and Russian national identity.

At the same time, Russia must abandon unrealistic expectations that it can “divide and conquer” in its dealings with the EU by prioritizing selective bilateral engagement with member states over EU-Russia dialogue.

Until these things begin to change, we will likely see more of the same fruitless contest for influence that has been exacerbating Ukraine’s political divisions.

20 Comments (Open | Close)

20 Comments To "Ukraine Isn’t a “Prize,” And No One Is “Winning” Anything"

#1 Comment By James Canning On February 10, 2014 @ 2:05 pm

Any potential EU membership by Ukraine is many years away. Ukraine likely will need Russian subsidies for years.

I agree Ukraines should not be viewed as a “prize”.

#2 Comment By carl lundgren On February 10, 2014 @ 2:08 pm

If Ukraine is the “prize” I shudder to think what the runner-up is.

#3 Comment By Ben H On February 10, 2014 @ 2:30 pm

Ukraine is a ‘prize’ to some international investors because of its wealth of fertile and probably underused farmland. There is an idea that food and therefore farmland will increase in value as the world population increases, so big investors buy up land in different countries for the usual investment reasons. This kind of investing got a lot of notice in 2008 and 2009 when people were looking for ‘safe’ investments but I’m not sure if it is still a popular investment right now.

#4 Comment By Gromaticus On February 10, 2014 @ 3:31 pm

“If Ukraine is the “prize” I shudder to think what the runner-up is.”

Belarus. And Moldova along with Rice-A-Roni is the “valuable parting gift”.

#5 Comment By Bruce MA On February 10, 2014 @ 3:59 pm

Dear Ben, Yes, you are correct about under-valued farmland…much of this is due to infrastructure collapse since 1991 (roads are falling apart) making, for example, the import of meat from Brazil cheaper than domestic production. Uncertainty (cf. Obamacare) about land-ownership is another big negative. This uncertainty (e.g., cooperative agreements between farms for meat production, labor inflexibility due to personal allotments in farms being under-valued in market terms) deters investment here. About Russia, Ukraine earns 8+ Billion in export income per year to the CIS (present reserves under 20 Billion USD). Europe cannot replace this structurally, so from this POV, UA cannot afford to shun RU. These are just a few economic realities.

#6 Comment By Bruce MA On February 10, 2014 @ 4:03 pm

To author (Rob D), Yes, Russia may be unrealistic about wanting to deal selectively with say, Germany alone, and not Germany plus Portugal plus Spain plus Italy plus Greece, BUT can you blame them for trying?

#7 Comment By Fran Macadam On February 10, 2014 @ 4:33 pm

It’s as likely as not this leak came from within our own U.S. security and surveillance sources, who “collect it all” – including all conversations of our own side. After all, there is a major push to closely surveil all government employees, post-Snowden, as we cannot be sure of their loyalty unless they are monitored.

Given extreme neocon opposition to peace in Syria and Iran, there would be good reason for neocon Nuland (married to Cheney national security adviser Robert Kagan, also a prominent neocon) to be discredited from inside.

Official Washington is addicted to leaks that serve the purposes of internecine squabbling and careerist backstabbing.

It’s a matter of the tradecraft exposed in the latest Snowden whistleblowing documents that these operations are then made to conveniently appear to come from foreign adversaries, killing as it were two birds with one stone and casting suspicion elsewhere.

It’s easy for our services with their unlimited access to determine just who posted these recordings, of extremely high quality, to YouTube. Just track the IP addresses associated with logging in and uploading it. But then, they already know and aren’t going to share that information, because it doesn’t suit them.

#8 Comment By burton50 On February 10, 2014 @ 4:45 pm

Mr. Larison’s analysis, as usual, is quite sensible. What strikes me, in addition, is that the cold war mentality in the Washington political class and the punditocracy seems to have returned with a vengeance, after all the initial triumphalist shouting of the period after the disintegration of the USSR. Boris Eltsin, of course, was Washington’s dream: abandoned by the old Communist corporate elite (regional governors, heads of enterprises, the politically well-connected), who made off with the nation’s assets and left the “shareholders” – the Russian citizenry – with all those worthless vouchers, he was a weak president who struggled to assert any sort of influence. Russia and its natural resources were, at this point, ripe for what the West likes to call “investment.” The animus against Putin stems certainly from the fact that he has restored to a very real extent the power and authority of the Russian centralized state, its tax base and its armed forces (the August, 2008, war with Georgia showing that much remains to be done on this latter project), and re-inserted a critical measure of central oversight over leading sectors of the economy. Western interference in the Ukrainian situation in the effort to subvert a government that was legally elected – the last election was certified by the OECD as free and fair – is only a continuation of an old policy, for which the famous “reset” was a sort of window-dressing. Of course, the enmity toward Russia is, as usual, masked by the usual appeals to “human rights” and “democracy”, though the “concern” for such issues in the West is always and everywhere entirely selective, as the military coup d’état in Egypt and the Obama administration’s verbal gymnastics on this score is only the latest example among so many others.

#9 Comment By Jim On February 10, 2014 @ 5:39 pm

I have no desire for the U.S. too foolhardily try to influence Ukraine one way or the other using any means. Putin’s Russia ain’t the Soviet Union, after all, so aside from a bunch more shirtless pictures of a 61yo man, there is little to fear of Russian hegemony.

That being said, concerns over Ukraine being on the verge of default are such small beer as to be irrelevant. No matter the general Keynesian nuttery of folks who think that food shortages will be the tinderbox for World War III, the bread basket of Eastern Europe is a strategic enough interest for everyone in that part of the world that economic collapse is rightly hand-waved away.

#10 Comment By Victory over Eurasia On February 10, 2014 @ 6:05 pm

First prize – the Ukraine. Second prize – a set of steak knives.

#11 Comment By Lev Havryliv On February 10, 2014 @ 6:20 pm

It is not a question of a “prize”. Ukrainians are trying to embrace European values and move away from Russian-style autocracy. They are being hindered by Putin’s neo-imperial stance and all assiatance from the democratic West is greatly appreciated. With Putin’s support Yanukovich is turning Ukraine into a police state.

Targeted personal and economic sanctions against the most odious Ukrainian leaders is fully justified on human rights grounds.

When Ukraine gave up nuclear weapons after the collapse of the USSR, the USA vowed to protect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The least the US could do is let Putin know in no uncertain terms that Russia’s neo-imperial stance towards Ukraine is totally unacceptable and could have grave consequences for the stability of Easrern Europe.

#12 Comment By Begemot On February 10, 2014 @ 6:29 pm

Ukraine may not be an economic prize today, but down the road, it will be a different story. Germany twice tried to take Ukraine in the last century. Poland occupied all of Western Ukraine up to the Dniepr (including Kiev) for a short time in the chaos of post WW1.

I think the real goal here, even if we exclude Ukraine’s economic potential, is its geostrategic position. The US and NATO (or do I repeat myself?) want Ukraine under their control. Bringing Ukraine into the US/NATO military structure would turn Russia’s southern flank and further squeeze Russia out of the Black Sea. Anticipate the loss of the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s base at Sevastopol. This would undo what Catherine the Great accomplished. It isn’t the economics at stake here.

#13 Comment By TomB On February 10, 2014 @ 6:41 pm

While I too do not think the situation right now is such that the U.S. ought to be involved in much of anything that could be called meddling in the Ukraine, I’ve also tried to argue that we do have a large and long-term interest in not seeing it being absorbed into any sort of Russian bloc in the event Russia would turn seriously hostile to us. (A future I think we ought very much strive to head off, in a friendly manner, and indeed being so important that we ought not unduly antagonize Moscow over the Ukraine issue even.)

Perhaps I’m wrong but it still seems to me that the comments here on Mr. Larison’s blog and those over at Dreher’s go a bit too far in the isolationist direction (not at all meant pejoratively), and so let me quote someone here who for sure ought to persuade better than I:

“CONTRARY TO what isolationists think, there are three regions of the world—Europe, Northeast Asia and the Persian Gulf—that are indeed of vital strategic importance to the United States. Of course, Europe and Northeast Asia are important because the world’s other great powers are located in those regions, and they are the only states that might acquire the capability to threaten the United States in a serious way.

One might counter that they still cannot attack across the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans and reach the shores of the United States. True, but if a distant great power were to dominate Asia or Europe the way America dominates the Western Hemisphere, it would then be free to roam around the globe and form alliances with countries in the Western Hemisphere that have an adversarial relationship with the United States. In that circumstance, the stopping power of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans would be far less effective. Thus, American policy makers have a deep-seated interest in preventing another great power from achieving regional hegemony in Asia or Europe.”

John Mearsheimer in “America Unhinged.”

See: [8]

#14 Comment By moysaenko On February 10, 2014 @ 7:22 pm

The Ukraine indeed is not a “prize”. It is a nation that is suffering under a group of oppressive, corrupt, oligarchs. This cartel is extorting the nation for personal wealth. The people are seeking a just,representative government. But what does that matter? We need to engage in geo-political power strategies to benefit ourselves.

#15 Comment By carl lundgren On February 10, 2014 @ 7:51 pm

TomB So what we have to fear is the dreaded Russo-Venezuelan Axis of Incompetents?

Victory over Eurasia- I am still laughing.

“Putin’s Russia ain’t the Soviet Union, after all, so aside from a bunch more shirtless pictures of a 61yo man, there is little to fear of Russian hegemony.”

There is a tendency in Russia to let things run down until it cannot be ignored, and then, to use a business term, a turnaround specialist is brought in. Someone who will clear up corruption, clear out the deadwood, and get the country back to work, at gunpoint if necessary. The term is “Vozhd”, usually translated as “leader” but more accurately, as “the boss”. Someone like Peter the Great, Ivan the Terrible, Catherine the Great, and yes, Stalin. Russia’s misfortune is that right now they need a Stalin, and find themselves with Mussolini.

#16 Comment By Fast Jimmy On February 11, 2014 @ 12:14 am

Keep shouting it to the rooftops Mr. Larison. Once you strip away all the juvenile gamesmanship, amateur armchair quarterbacking and paid sponsorship of bad foreign policy, all you’re left with is logic.

Too few voices out there to help point this out. Thank you!!

#17 Comment By spite On February 11, 2014 @ 6:39 am

I honestly believe that some of these peoples approach to the world is like playing the board game Risk.

#18 Comment By EliteCommInc. On February 11, 2014 @ 9:55 am

I am not sure that there isanydoubt that the US has interests in every art of the globe that may erupt into some greater regional issue thatwill pose a direct threat to US interests.

But more times than not our preemption and involvement having little knowledge of so many local players, and history has only exaccerbated those issues to our detriment.

#19 Comment By EliteCommInc. On February 11, 2014 @ 9:56 am

oops, such is the case with the Ukraine. To what advantage is it to increase US Russian tensons over the debt ridded Ukraine.

#20 Comment By Fran Macadam On February 11, 2014 @ 10:30 pm

“…the US has interests in every part of the globe that may erupt into some greater regional issue that will pose a direct threat to US interests.”

Are those “US interests” those of the American people in general or rather those of a financial elite who socialize their risks using taxpayer debt, while privatizing the possible profits for policies that benefit them alone?

One would be hard-pressed to find benefit for the American people in all this; yet somehow a coterie of Wall Street banksters and military-industrialist war profiteers end up being the alpha and omega of a bully Americanism.