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Our Entirely Self-Inflicted Ukraine Disaster

It must have been nearly 26 years ago, in the spring. On a Saturday, I was playing golf with my new boss, Owen Harries, editor of The National Interest. We were puzzling over Gorbachev, who was sounding and acting so damned reasonable. “It’s just counterintuitive” said Owen, and I of course concurred. Gorbachev’s behavior seemed to […]
Victoria Nuland

It must have been nearly 26 years ago, in the spring. On a Saturday, I was playing golf with my new boss, Owen Harries, editor of The National Interest. We were puzzling over Gorbachev, who was sounding and acting so damned reasonable. “It’s just counterintuitive” said Owen, and I of course concurred. Gorbachev’s behavior seemed to contravene everything I had learned in my fifteen or so years of reading intensely about Soviet communism, and Owen’s education was of course deeper still. That long bibliography, passionately devoured and fervently embraced: Adam Ulam, Medvedev, Orwell, Koestler, Raymond Aron, Solzhenitsyn, Nadezdha Mandelstam, dozens of articles in Commentary, Encounter, National Review-–all soon to be shifted to my mind’s attic. My Columbia University dissertation devoted to some minor but fascinating corner of the cultural Cold War, suddenly as timely as if it concerned the War of the Roses. I had come to The National Interest (then published by Irving Kristol) in no small part to fight communism, and now what was I going to do?

And yet of course, one couldn’t deny what a blessing it was. Suddenly the United Nations could get things done; we weren’t going to have an accidental civilization ending war; and Russia (Tolstoy, vodka, etc) could be appreciated without being some sort of dupe. On the first day the subway opened after 9/11, I overheard a young pretty blonde woman, Russian accent, flirting with her American beau as they stood in line to buy farecards. “So, ve are now going to be allies.” Poignant and delicious. And yet sad were the Yeltsin years: Russia seeming to disintegrate into alchoholism, falling birthrates, a great civilization, a core part of everyone’s mental architecture of the world, coming apart at the seams.

Looking around the American media in the past few days, I realize I am not very much in step with my countrymen. Stephen Cohen makes some sensible points about Putin’s obligations to Russia on PBS, saying basically, look Putin is not entirely the bad guy here, and no one should be trying to push Western institutions right up to Russia’s borders, and any responsible leader would have acted similarly , and the reaction–look at the comments!– is a kind of full-blown of rage. What drives it? Or more precisely, what is the motivation to try to drive the sphere of Western influence right up to Russia’s borders? Is it because our ambitions (and whose, exactly?) are insatiable? Because that seems to be it: we aren’t satisfied with the liberation of the satellites of Eastern Europe, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, former Cold War flashpoints and now NATO members; with the reunification of Germany and under Western auspices, so that Berlin is now a virtual capital of Nato; with the Baltic states as NATO members too. There seemed to be no end to it. We have learned from Robert Gates’s memoirs that at the time, Dick Cheney was advocating not only for the dismantlement of the Soviet empire (accomplished) but of Russia itself. Cheney then lacked the power to try carry this out, but what would have been the plan if he had?

The dream of chaos inside Russia still animates half the people inside the Beltway. Paula Dobriansky, a big deal ambassador during the Bush administration tells an audience that Putin’s real fear is that the Maidan revolutionary spirit will spread to Moscow. That is obviously what she wants—though why anyone would seek regime disintegration in a state that possesses hundreds of nuclear missiles in not obvious. And why was the neoconservative Victoria Nuland apparently put in charge of Obama’s Ukraine policy? Several weeks ago her cell phone conversations were intercepted and published, revealing Nuland choosing the ministers for the regime which would soon overthrow Ukraine’s fairly elected government. What was she doing there, plotting a regime change right on Russia’s border? What would have been our reaction, or Berlin’s, if Russian diplomats were active in fomenting anti-EU demonstrations in Athens? Or plotting the overthrow of similarly fairly elected Western governments?

John Kerry has run off to make a fool of himself in Kiev. Kerry will find that Nuland, or whoever has been in charge of trying to drag the divided Ukraine into the Western camp, has created a situation in which the United States is now isolated from and privately mocked by its main European allies. Britain is not expressing much interest in anything other than symbolic sanctions against Russia, and early signs are that Germany is opposed too. Apparently there are some people in the foreign offices there who understand that it isn’t really a good idea to pick a fight with a major power with whom you have, to boot, substantial economic ties, over a matter which has zero national interest value for you. So United States diplomats will get to rant and rave and find they have no one standing behind them. Congratulations!

Oh, the U.S. has less interest in who rules Ukraine, or its various parts, than Germany or Britain. Two weeks into the crisis one has finally begun to see some knowledgeable viewpoints expressed in the American political webosphere—apart from the tireless Stephen Cohen, who has for several days had the role of resident sane person almost entirely to himself. Of particular note are John Judis’s interview here with Dmitri Simes and Anatol Lieven’s observations here.

Simes is correct on the origins of the current crisis:

And I also again have to say that looking at Yanukovych, he clearly was unsavory, and unpopular, and inept, and I can understand why we would not do anything to promote his questionable legitimacy. But we have to realize, that as we were applying this pressure on the Ukrainian political process to promote those we favor, we clearly were rocking the political boat in Ukraine, a country deeply divided, a country with different religions, different histories, different ethnicities. And it was that process of rocking the boat that led to the outcome have seen. That is not to justify what Putin has done, that is not to say that the Russians are entitled to use their troops on the territory of another state. But let me say this: any Russian wrongdoings should not be used as an alibi for the incompetence of the Obama administration. European and American steps that contributed to this unfortunate outcome, and quite remarkably, nobody in this administration even seems to have been thinking about what the consequences of their previous actions could be. That’s how we got to our current predicament.

In other words, if the Obama administration now finds itself in an awkward situation, having encouraged an anti-Russian revolution on Russia’s doorstep and now finding itself unable or unwilling, thankfully, to follow through, it is a problem entirely of its own making. Nothing required the administration to do anything about the Ukraine. The very least Obama can do is recall Victoria Nuland and perhaps in a few months give her the Micronesia portfolio, which will at least send a message that the administration is capable of learning from its mistakes.