Why Won’t the West Just Let Ukraine Go?

August 9, 2014 at 11:34 am (tWP) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

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The downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, seemingly by action of pro-Russian separatists in East Ukraine, has reinvigorated the Russophobe wave in the West. Interventionists and Russia-isolationists alike, feel vindicated in their view that there can be no compromise on Ukraine with Moscow. As tragic as the loss of life may be, it is difficult to conclude the downing of the aircraft changes much in the way of political calculations to any of the actors in question.

If indeed the separatists did it, the intention was surely not to down a civilian airliner, much less one carrying Australians, Malaysians and Dutch. It was not even a surprise attack as the separatists have been shooting down Ukrainian large transport and attack aircraft for the past months and weeks. The much referenced analogy of the German sinking of the ship Lusitania in 1915 is not an analogy at all as that attack was intentional and the result of a clear policy; MH17 was most likely an accident – but an avoidable one if the airspace over a warzone had been appropriately closed.

What is Russia’s motivation in Ukraine? Ukraine is perhaps the most important state for Russia: its market, industrial interdependence, cultural and historical ties and strategic location make it imperative for Russia to preserve Ukraine in its orbit. Moscow had apparently even been willing to allow Kiev to pursue an equidistant path under the leadership of Viktor Yanukovych, so long as that path never strayed from neutrality. Ukraine’s Finlandisation however, was interrupted abruptly by the forceful removal of Yanukovych from power earlier this year. That event empirically proved to the Kremlin that its influence over Ukraine was no longer accepted: its economic subsidies and electioneering could not buy it coexistence of interests with the West as the West was more than willing to recognize and support violent forces in Ukraine, so long as these were pro-Western.

Faced with what it saw as a betrayal – after the West’s governments had declared themselves guarantors of a power sharing agreement between the Yanukovych regime and the Maidan movement, but then reneged on it – Moscow decided to pay back in kind and play the game with the same methods: by exerting force and sponsoring violent pro-Russian movements.

Can the West boast the same concerns and interests? Hardly. Washington, Paris or London don’t have much in the way of economic interests in Ukraine, they share no cultural or historical ties and Ukraine’s location can only really be useful when planning a conflict with Russia. The Atlantic powers do have some economic interests in the country but so far those interests have not been threatened. On the contrary, it will be more difficult for Russia’s economic interdependence with Ukraine to linger with Kiev increasingly tied to the EU.

Never one to discourage the West from defending its interests, there is however a cost-benefit ratio to assess in the matter: is Ukraine worth antagonism with Russia? It often happens that smaller countries become strategically more important than bigger powers. For instance, Israel may be a small economy relatively speaking, but it is a regional power in its own right, culturally close to America and a much more stable regional ally than any Muslim nation. History also teaches that economic ties are not a guarantee for peace in and of themselves: France and Germany, China and Japan, Turkey and Iran, all were great economic partners and the greatest geopolitical rivals.mi24

Thus Russia should not be given a break simply because its economy is more important to the West than Ukraine’s. The problem is that the West has a number of challenges to deal with and creating new ones should not be a priority. In Africa and Latin America, Western powers face increasing economic rivalry from Asian powers, in Southeast Asia and the Middle East, their interests are threatened by regional spoilers such as China and Iran. On top of all this the West is facing a severe economic crisis which limits its power projecting abilities. It is very difficult to see how France’s interests would be served by redirecting its power projection from sub-Saharan Africa and the MENA, to Eastern Europe; how Britain’s interests would be served by involving itself in a continental dispute when its navy is already the weakest it has been in decades; how America’s need to balance its military budget, keep sea lanes open and counter-balance regional spoilers would be positively affected by a new deployment to a region that not only cannot help America but is in fact characterised by its perennial security deficit.

All this assuming, of course, that Europe and America will continue to cooperate rather than rival each other, around the world.

To leave Ukraine to its own fate would not constitute a loss to the West because the West never had Ukraine to begin with. To leave Ukraine would be a statement of stability, it would be a mere recognition of the status quo. The more pressure is put on Russia and Ukraine, the more Moscow will seek to cut its losses by weakening Kiev’s central rule.

In his op-ed at Offiziere, Nick Ottens writes:

1. “Russian president Vladimir Putin stands to gain little from continuing to incite rebellion in Ukraine (…)Russia’s economy expected to hardly expand this year at least partially as a result of Western financial sanctions”

Russia has everything to gain from protecting its interests in Ukraine – hard to see how the opposite is true – and what is at stake is a strategic asset, not a short-term gain. By the same token, what would the US have to gain by defending Taiwan? Or China, by seeking to co-opt it? Russia’s financial pain is to the Kremlin an investment in a more strategically safe future, where a buffer better insulates Moscow from threats from the West – which Western ideological universalism has only made more urgent.

2. “(…) Putin’s strategy failed (…) only hardened most European leaders in their resolve to draw the country into their orbit”

Russia actually needs Ukraine and Russia’s strategic focus does not have a short attention span. Hypothetically, does Nick Ottens believe that Russia should also surrender Siberia to China to avoid short-term economic pains from a Chinese embargo?…

3. “Putin’s actions also alienated the vast majority of Ukrainians”

This is perhaps the most irrelevant of arguments which are often raised in the West. Not only because it in no way changes the calculation of interests but also because; since when do interventions hinge on the targeted populations’ approval?! This is absurd. Should Israelis wait until Palestinians are fond of Benjamin Netanyahu before enacting reprisals against terrorist rockets? Or perhaps the US should wait until Iran’s ayatollahs are sufficiently unpopular before targeting a hypothetical nuclear weapons programme…

“it turned most Ukrainians decidedly away from Putin’s regime and convinced them their future lay in Europe”

Ottens needs only to speak to the instigators of the current regime in power in Kiev to quickly learn that Putin’s regime was never very tempting. Quite to the contrary, if Western Ukrainians were already Russophobic, it was Crimeans and East Ukrainians who became far more pro-Russian with the current crisis.

But lets face the argument’s validity head on: when a state intervenes, it does so to defend the interests of the citizens it represents, no one else’s.

4. “Putin had appeared to warm to the fantasies of the likes of Dugin”

This is another meme that deserves to be disproven since it is another Western lazy myth. Putin is a politician and does not follow any one person’s advice unconditionally. Aleksandr Dugin himself seems anything but Kremlin’s favourite these days. Most importantly, Dugin advises autarky and strategic counter-balancing of both the West and China. This Putin has acted against time and again: by collaborating with NATO on AfPak, with the West on Iran, by siding with China against the West, etc. By contrast Dugin would’ve preferred an alliance with Germany, Iran and Japan against both China and America. Oddly enough, Western mainstream media analysis resembles something more akin to FOX News or Russian media these days, which is ironic given its strong pride in objectivity.

5. Ottens goes on to accuse Russia of crony capitalism and claiming Moscow’s stance on Ukraine is a way for Putin to shore up the support of the working classes. Yet, Putin’s Russia always reacts to any perceived threat – be it in Chechnya, Georgia or Ukraine – regardless of who is voting for Putin at any particular moment.A10soverM1commanderart

I would suggest Nick Ottens applies the same analysis instead to the West, whose Liberal post-modern elites persist in mobilizing the limited resources of their respective nations, to serve the interests of the limitless, universalistic, radical and autistic project of converting the planet to the mantra of Western liberal democracy.

Only this tremendous bias could possibly justify Western obsession with a territory it is barely connected with or thinly depends on. Western obsession with Ukraine is ideologically corrupt – no other conflict deserves as much Western attention under the justification of the same declared principles – but most of all it is incommensurately strategically incompetent.

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1 Comment

  1. The Westphalian Post said,

    http://www.forbes.com/sites/dougbandow/2016/03/25/busted-fantasies-in-kiev-america-and-europe-wont-save-the-ukrainian-maiden-in-distress/print/

    Many Ukrainians expect America and Europe to save them. Suggest that they are living a fantasy gets you tarred as a blatant fool and Russian stooge. Yet Ukraine shouldn’t waste time posing as a fairy tale maiden in distress waiting for rescue by the Western knight in shining armor. Kiev risks ending up as a failed state.

    Ukraine has suffered through a difficult existence. It long was part of the Russian Empire or Soviet Union. Since gaining independence Kiev has endured horrendous political leadership. In recent years the presidency flipped from pro-Western incompetent Viktor Yushchenko to pro-Russian kleptocrat Viktor Yanukovych. After the latter’s ouster oligarchical economic interests remain in control, only through a different set of fractious politicians. Moreover, the country itself is badly divided, melding together vastly different western and eastern sections.

    Obviously life isn’t fair. But no one gains from pretending otherwise. The West and Ukraine both need to make policies based on reality, not fantasy. This argument does not make one a fan of Vladimir Putin or Russia. Rather, it recognizes that we live in the world as it is, not as we wish it would be.

    Ukraine is stuck in a bad neighborhood. Rather like Mexicans say of America, Kiev’s tragic lot is being so close to Russia and so far from God. The colossus next door has special historical, cultural, economic, and security ties to Ukraine. Many people share at least some of those connections. This explains Moscow’s willingness to accept international criticism, economic sanctions, political isolation, and military threats to prevent Ukraine from joining the Western bloc. Making this observation is not an endorsement. But good policy requires honest analysis. Acting as if Putin had been mysteriously transformed into Adolf Hitler and planned a blitzkrieg across Finland, the Baltic States, and Poland, on into Germany and to the Atlantic helps no one.

    America and Europe don’t have much at stake in Ukraine. It’s an unpleasant truth which sets off much screeching in Kiev, but that makes it no less true. For most of their respective histories America and Europe got along just fine with Ukraine under St. Petersburg’s and later Moscow’s control. That has not changed.

    Despite the outrage over Russian behavior expressed in Brussels, “Old Europe” feels little threat from the east. The economic benefits of integrating even an undivided Ukraine at peace into the European Union would be modest and take much time. Today Kiev is an economic black hole and the fiscally strapped Europeans have shown no inclination to contribute anything close to the aid levels required by Ukraine.

    The U.S. has even less interest in the region. Other than Ukrainian expatriates who believe the sun rises and sets in Kiev and ideological Neoconservatives who believe Washington should war against any power that resists America’s dictates, few Americans even think about Ukraine. Much silly rhetoric has been spewed in the presidential contest so far on all manner of subjects. Yet Russia is rarely mentioned and even then mostly to complain about Moscow’s intervention in Syria, not Ukraine.

    Thus, bleeding Ukraine elicits sympathy, not commitment. Neither America nor Europe is prepared to impose serious sanctions designed to break the Russian economy. Neither America nor Europe is prepared to risk war with Russia. The West will not retrieve Crimea, suppress Donbas separatists, guarantee Ukraine’s territorial integrity, or even bail out the latter’s economy. Which means Kiev is effectively on its own.

    Ukraine’s leaders only fooled themselves if they thought otherwise. Despite the antics of Washington’s war lobby, led by the likes of Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, none of America’s post-Cold War presidents was prepared to toss away the success of the end of the Cold War by triggering a war with Russia over lesser stakes. The most obvious case is the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances after Ukraine relinquished the nuclear weapons left by the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

    Some Ukrainians convinced themselves that the U.S. must “enforce” the agreement—presumably by nuclear war, if necessary. Washington’s refusal to act militarily is seen as a great betrayal. Actually, no. The U.S. joined Britain and Russia in making a series of commitments, but none involved a security guarantee, let alone a promise to go to war. First, the three signatories lauded Ukraine for signing the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. They also committed themselves to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and borders and refrain from threatening Ukraine with military force or economic coercion.

    How was this to be enforced? The signatories promised to … go to the UN on Kiev’s behalf if the latter faced aggression “in which nuclear weapons are used” and consult “in the event a situation arises that raises a question concerning these commitments.” Which means no one promised Ukraine anything meaningful if anyone violated the accord. Nevertheless, Kiev signed. Meaningless verbiage was all that Ukraine was going to get. The Clinton administration was not prepared to offer Kiev a bilateral security treaty or NATO membership. The West has no more interest in going to war for Ukraine today than in 1994.

    Russia won’t surrender Crimea short of war or collapse. Sanctions may be painful economically, but are not crippling, either financially or politically. So far Putin remains more popular than almost any of his Western counterparts. His poll numbers are down and could fall further, of course, but he would be unlikely to respond by retreating from his most dramatic, celebrated, and costly initiative.

    Nor does making things worse in Moscow necessarily benefit Ukraine or the West. Weimar Russia would be a fearsome phenomenon to behold. Unfortunately, the alternative to Putin is not likely some Western-style liberal, but a harder-line nationalist, of whom there are many. Imagine chaotic Ukraine-style politics in Moscow followed by greater repression. In none of these scenarios is Russia likely to improve its relationship with the West and Ukraine, let alone disgorge its conquest.

    Moreover, in an age of self-determination the objective should be to assess what the people Crimea want, not to shift control back to Ukraine. The referendum held under Russian control can’t be trusted but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t accurate. Throughout most of its history Crimea was part of Russia and the majority of residents are ethnic Russian. If they want to stay in Russia, their wishes should be respected. Thus, the West’s objective should be a fair vote.

    The West has no credibility complaining about Russian aggression. Moscow has behaved badly and bears most of the blame for the conflict engulfing the Donbas. However, there are real Russian separatists who genuinely object to rule from Kiev. And there are some nasty Ukrainian forces, extreme nationalists every bit as brutal as Russian fighters.

    Moreover, the allies cheerfully, even joyously trampled Russian security interests for years. Expanding NATO obviously was directed against Moscow, something well understood by Russians. The allies launched an unprovoked war against Moscow’s traditional friend, Serbia, dismembered that nation, and created a new country. Having done so, they then denied a similar right of self-determination to Serbs caught within a new hostile state in which they had suffered from brutal ethnic cleansing by triumphant ethnic Albanians after the war.

    The allies promised to bring Ukraine into NATO, an understandable anathema to Russia. Europe then pressed Kiev to shift West economically. Through all this Putin did nothing, even though Ukraine’s previous president, Yushchenko, was actively hostile to Moscow and sitting president, Yanukovych, maintained Ukraine’s ties both east and west. Only after the West pushed a street revolution against Ukraine’s corrupt but nevertheless elected president did Putin act to safeguard what he saw as Russia’s interests.

    Bad behavior by Putin to be sure, and unjustified. But no one has clean hands, least of all the U.S., which bombs, invades, occupies, and divides other nations as it sees fit without concern for other nations’ interests, international law dictates, or likely consequences. Sanctimonious complaints from Washington about the conduct of other countries merely undercut American credibility. Certainly Moscow has no reason to take America’s moralistic pretensions seriously.

    The status quo benefits no one. Two years ago Russia seized Crimea. A Moscow-backed insurgency in eastern Ukraine has waxed and waned since then. Russia and Western parties signed the Minsk agreement to end the Donbas conflict, which has reduced fighting though implementation remains sketchy on both sides.

    No one believes that sanctions are going to force Moscow to return Crimea. Nor do they offer any reason for Putin not to initiate another territorial grab if he is so inclined (in fact, there is no evidence that he wants to rule over non-Russians). At best the economic penalties encourage fuller implementation of Minsk by Russia, though not Ukraine. They also make a moral statement of sorts, but there are much better ways to do that.

    The continuing conflict is guaranteed to leave Ukraine a financial, economic, and political wreck. The way forward to normalcy is difficult enough. Maintaining a “frozen conflict” could disrupt life for a generation or more.

    Sanctions punish average Russians, allow Putin to blame the West for his nation’s economic problems, and give the Russian government even greater power over the economy and financially-strapped businesses. Beyond that is the negative impact on Western companies and consumers.

    Moreover, waging a low-grade economic war against Russia inevitably discourages Moscow from helping on other issues, which are many. The U.S., in particular, seeks Russian assistance in Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea, and Syria. Washington and Moscow share concerns over terrorism. Pushing Russia toward China is equally damaging. It is one thing to sacrifice other interests to achieve something significant. But in this case the U.S. is gaining nothing on an issue of at most modest importance. Confrontation with Russia is a penny-wise, pound-foolish policy.

    Instead, the allies should seek to negotiate a compromise everyone can live with. They should offer to end sanctions, pledge not to include Ukraine (and Georgia) in NATO, and support Ukrainian ties both east and west. Moscow should insist Ukrainian separatists accept autonomy, hold an internationally monitored referendum in Crimea, restructure Kiev’s unsustainable debt, and accept nonexclusive political and economic ties between Ukraine and the EU.

    Ukraine is free to make its own decisions on its own responsibility. Life isn’t fair, President Jimmy Carter said, and Kiev’s position reflects that reality. Of course, Ukraine is a sovereign state and might prefer full western integration, including NATO membership. But the allies need to act in their interest: adding a conflict-waiting-to-happen to the alliance would be extremely foolish. Kiev is free to decide its future, but it must do so knowing that no Western nation, including the U.S., is prepared for war with nuclear-armed Russia over Ukraine. Negotiating the best deal possible would be better than pining for a rescue that will never come.

    Forget the pious rhetoric out of Washington, Brussels, and various European capitals. Ukraine doesn’t matter. Certainly not enough for the West to do anything serious to reverse Russian actions in Crimea and the Donbas. It is in everyone’s interest, including that of Kiev, to adjust policy to reflect reality. The Americans and Europeans aren’t coming. It’s time for them to make a deal with Russia over Ukraine.

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