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On Ukraine, Cool the Triumphalism

I don’t recall ever feeling such ambivalence about a major political event. Of course it is impossible to not feel exhilarated at the toppling of a corrupt and mendacious Ukrainian autocrat Victor Yanukovich, his flight to parts unknown with his much younger mistress in tow, impossible not to enjoy the press accounts of Ukrainians free […]
Maidan night

I don’t recall ever feeling such ambivalence about a major political event. Of course it is impossible to not feel exhilarated at the toppling of a corrupt and mendacious Ukrainian autocrat Victor Yanukovich, his flight to parts unknown with his much younger mistress in tow, impossible not to enjoy the press accounts of Ukrainians free to wander about and ogle his palace—the gold toilet, the imported exotic birds, the private golf course, the ridiculous furniture—this caricature of vulgarity, and given the circumstances which financed it, robbery as well. Of course there is much to admire in the young men and women who both waited it out and fought in Kiev’s Maidan, eventually triumphing when the police were no longer willing to defend the Yanukovich presidency. Most Ukranians—a distinct majority—want to move their country towards Europe; they see, and rightly so, post-communist Poland as a huge success. More naively, they believe that the West is a big candy mountain of capitalist plenty, ready to envelop their country into a cornucopia of prosperity.

Ukraine of course had its anti-Russian revolutions before, only ten years ago in fact. The makers of the Orange Revolution made such a mess of things with infighting and corruption that Yanukovich was legitimately voted into power in 2010. Now he has been ousted by young revolutionaries, but if you are a Russian-speaking Ukranian,—perhaps a third of population—you might well think of the Maidan crowds as street mobs with no legitimacy.

Today I attended a lunch forum, a Ukraine policy debate of sorts, at the Council for the National Interest. Speaking for Russia’s perspective was Andranik Migranyan, a “unofficial” advisor to the Putin government and director of a Russian foundation in New York. Representing the American side was Paula Dobriansky, a former ambassador under George W. Bush who in today’s Times lamented the Obama administration’s “absence of strategic vision, disinterest in democracy promotion, and an unwillingness to lead.”

Dobriansky was essentially using Weekly Standard talking points 101. Trouble is, there really is no more certainty that Ukraine would be any more democratic than Iraq. I suspect, without being prepared to debate the point, that Max Blumenthal is far too broadly negative in his portrayal of the Ukranian revolutionary movement as honeycombed with modern day neo-Nazis. But the fact is that Ukraine, for most of its recent history, has had a frightful political culture: basically the country has served as a hothouse and battleground to most some of the brutal forces in world history—communist and fascist both. The title of Timothy Snyder’s celebrated Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin gives a reasonable impression.

That history by itself would make the triumphant integration of “democratic” Ukraine into Western Europe an unlikely proposition. That would be the case whether Europe abrogated its own membership rules to give Ukraine membership on a fast track or left the country on an indeterminate candidate membership period.

But there’s another problem: much of Ukraine, perhaps a third of it, identifies not with the West, but with Russia. And vice versa. William Pfaff concisely portrays the depth of this association by observing that Europe’s maneuvering to draw the Ukraine into the EU

required rupturing Ukraine’s medieval and modern association with Russia, whose people are held to have been Christianized by Ukraine’s Byzantine Saints Cyril and Methodius in the ninth century, thereby laying the foundation of Russian civilization.

In other words, by messing with the connection between Ukraine and Russia, Europe and Washington’s diplomats and armchair strategists are playing with something that cuts to the core identities of Russians and many Ukrainians both. Perhaps this is why the Russian speaker at today’s forum, a learned and witty man, reminded his powerlunch audience that he appreciated a quotation he had once heard from Alexander Haig: “There are some things worse than war.” He also made it crystal clear, indeed repeating several times, that the Russian fleet was based in the Crimean (i.e Ukranian) port of Sevastopol, and that the Russian leadership could not and would not ignore it if their Russian brethren in the east and south of Ukraine asked for assistance.

There is perhaps a slim middle path between a Ukraine “won” by the EU and the West and one which falls into civil strife and provokes Russian intervention. Zbigniew Brzezinski pointed to it in the Financial Times: an independent and undivided Ukraine which will “practice policies toward Russia similar to those so effectively practiced by Finland”—i.e. economic ties to both East and West, and no military associaiton with any group perceived, by the Russians, to be anti-Russian. “Finlandization” was a neocon bugaboo during the Cold War, not because it was bad for Finland, which it obviously wasn’t, but because Finlandization for Europe as a whole would have been a strategic victory for Moscow. But clearly a neutralized Ukraine—more difficult to achieve of course because Ukraine is not Finland—would be bad for nobody. Significantly, Angranik Mingranyan had kind words for Brzezinski’s formulation, significant because Zbig, a veteran cold warrior, is generally perceived as cool if not hostile to Russia.

In the end I would conclude that despite my distant admiration for the Maidan revolutionaries and contempt for the kleptocrat Yanukovich, I want a solution Russia can feel comfortable with. There’s much in the present neocon and neoliberal churning over Ukraine that’s based on yearning for another “Western” victory—especially desired by those deprived of one in Syria, Iraq, and of course, Iran. One bad but quite plausible outcome to the present crisis is an unruly revolution, a plea for help from the Russian-speaking Ukranians, followed by a Russian military intervention which puts Russia in the global doghouse for a generation and reignites a new version of the Cold War. This would be a great loss for Russia, but for most of us as well. If I had to think about it, I would consider Putin the best Russian leader to have existed in my lifetime and perhaps for hundreds of years before. An autocrat, certainly, a dictator—arguably. But not a totalitarian dictator, and not, like his predecessor, an alcoholic pushover who lost track of what was going on in his own country. With Putin’s Russia, as the phrase goes, we can certainly do business. When one considers the weighty issues on which the United States and Russia can clash or cooperate: China, climate change, Islamic terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and whatever else emerges in the next decades—I see no advantage whatsoever in trying to squeeze out a win over Moscow from the Ukraine situation.



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