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

Rod Dreher asks 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 very early on when the protests in Kiev began last year was that Ukraine is not a […]

Rod Dreher asks 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 very early 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 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 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:

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, 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 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.



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