The West, and especially the English-speaking West, has wrongly taken sides in the present conflict in Ukraine. On the one hand, our leaders have mimicked the line of the news media, which simplistically represent the revolutionary ouster of President Yanukovych as an occasion of desperate democratic action against a corrupt leader. On the other hand, various pundits have elevated Vladimir Putin’s Russia to the status of enemy, whose actions must be “contained” as an apparent foreign-policy sine qua non.
For instance, the Washington Post’s Charles Krauthammer argues that President Obama “sees Ukraine as merely a crisis to be managed rather than an opportunity to alter the increasingly autocratic trajectory of the region, allow Ukrainians to join their destiny to the West, and block Russian neo-imperialism.”
In response to the Administration’s claim that democracy “must not be imposed by outside intervention but develop on its own,” Krauthammer writes: “Ukraine is never on its own. Not with a bear next door. American neutrality doesn’t allow an authentic Ukrainian polity to emerge. It leaves Ukraine naked to Russian pressure.”
But this “authentic Ukrainian polity” is wrought with ethnic divisions, particularly concerning the Crimean peninsula, which is populated in a majority by ethnic Russians. The pro-Europe posture of the protesters is a reflection less of a considered moral preference than of a country torn in politics and identity between East and West. Krauthammer also fails to mention that the “Russian pressure” involved here is not a mere exercise in imperial Realpolitik. What’s really involved is the fear of Ukrainians that they may be unduly influenced by Russia, or worse, that they may lose territory. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian Russians fear that a more nationalist government will leave them with less clout and fewer political rights, such as the regional language recognition that the new parliament has just taken away from them.
Putin isn’t going to leave the Russian residents of the Ukraine, and especially those in Crimea, proverbially out to dry. It’s a matter of legitimate interest for Russia, whose ethnic brethren was stranded from the homeland when Ukraine declared independence, to use its geopolitical might to protect them. (One remembers that it was only in 1954 that Crimea was tacked onto the Ukrainian SSR — a fact of little importance when the entire country was run by the Kremlin, but of great importance now.) But so too it is legitimate for the new Ukrainian government to fight any specter of partition in Crimea. It will want to preserve the territorial integrity of its state and ensure that the substantial Ukrainian minority in that region remains within its sovereign borders.
Where does this leave Western countries and their national interests? As a rule, these kind of ethno-territorial conflicts involve deep-seated animosities that are scarcely appreciable to those unfamiliar with their histories. They also invariably involve the atrocious use of force by both sides, contrary to the tendency of news organizations and other media to portray such conflicts as one of “good guys” and “bad guys.” Evidently, not all human conflicts can be boiled down to matters of good versus evil.
A salient example is that of the Kosovo conflict of some 15 years ago. After having foolishly maintained an arms embargo that favoured the Serb forces over the Croats and Muslims during the Bosnian War, and subsequently intervening in pursuit of a peace agreement in 1995, the West came down like a ton of bricks on Serbia and Montenegro in 1999, which employed force to put down secessionist uprisings in the south. The Muslim Kosovar-Albanians formed a majority in the region and wished to break away from Serbia, either to form an independent state or to join Albania. The Christian Serbs, who formed a minority in Kosovo but a majority in the country, understandably wanted to keep Kosovo as part of their territory.
In hindsight, it remains remarkably unclear why the West was so decisively on the side of the Kosovar-Albanians. Perhaps we thought that extending a helping hand to the Kosovo Liberation Army would earn us sympathies in the Muslim world. Another idea, which is persuasive to me, is that the Western media collectively decided that Slobodon Milosevic was evil, which meant that any action his country took, however legitimate, was also evil. Today, Vladimir Putin has been deemed evil by our opinion-makers, meaning that any enemy of his is supposedly a friend of ours.
The Kosovo War had a further implication. When the United States and its allies directed NATO to perform air strikes on Serbia, it did so without the permission of the United Nations Security Council, of which Russia is a permanent and veto-wielding member. Perhaps more importantly, that case established the ability of a powerful state to choose one side in an ethnic conflict and commit military force in its support, seemingly without any overarching geopolitical reason.
Ironically, this plays directly into the hands of the loathed Mister Putin, who has called Obama’s bluff by first moving his troops to the Ukrainian border, and then into Crimea itself. Given the brazenness of our intervention in Kosovo, with its ignorance of international law as well as the wishes of other powerful states, on what remaining leg will we stand if Putin decides to forcibly remove Crimea from Ukraine? Such action, after all, would be ostensibly in support of a beleaguered minority seeking refuge from a nationalist government.
This is a very irresponsible way to even think about, and let alone conduct, foreign affairs. One doesn’t have to be an isolationist to see that some conflicts are not of paramount importance to the national interest, and hence to the calculation of sacrificing blood and treasure overseas. To the contrary, many such situations are, to use Krauthammer’s scornful words, “merely a crisis to be managed.”
Instead of making empty promises or threats, our message should be clear and decisive: “What is happening in Ukraine is a matter that its population has to sort out for itself. But, if asked, we will work with all interested parties to mediate a speedy and peaceful resolution.” No more, no less.
This piece also appears in the Prince Arthur Herald.