The escalating crisis in the Ukraine has set off unseemly missile-rattling and muscle flexing in this country. Prominent neo-con Charles Krauthammer sees this as a Cold War faceoff, calling for the U.S. to ante up $15 billion for the Ukrainian rebels and send a fleet to the Black Sea.
OK, folks, take a deep breath. Shelve the Cold War textbooks. Let’s take a sober look before we commit treasure and prestige to an unknown and still unsettled coup in a country on Russia’s border, harbor to its fleet, that has had a fragile independent existence for barely 20 years.
Former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych was an unpopular, corrupt, compromised, but democratically elected leader of Ukraine. He was leading the country toward membership in the European Union, when under enormous pressure from Putin, he reversed course. That led to street demonstrations, clearly spurred on by the United States, and eventually to the coup that sent him packing.
The nature of the new government is far from clear. The country itself is deeply divided. As David C. Speedie, director of U.S. Global Engagement at the Carnegie Council of Ethics in International Affairs says, “In simple terms, half of the people in Ukraine look to Russia and the other half look to the West.” The new leaders in Kiev include ultra-nationalists who have already banned the use of Russian language in some areas. Not surprisingly, the coup is very unpopular in semi-autonomous Crimea, populated largely by Russian speaking people.
Yanukovych’s decision to postpone consideration of joining the European Union wasn’t irrational. The EU was forcing Yanukovych to decide between Russia and the EU, flatly rejecting Putin’s offer of a tripartite arrangement that would allow Ukraine to sustain its ties with Russia. In December, Putin then offered to rescue the bankrupt Ukraine. The Ukraine is totally dependent on Russia economically. The EU and the U.S. are not about to replace that with Western aid and trade. Americans will be less than supportive of sending billions to Kiev on the other side of the world, while we are starving investment in education, Head Start and other vital investments here at home. The EU, dominated by Germany, has inflicted a brutal austerity on members like Greece, Spain and Portugal. The Ukraine might get promises of aid in the crisis, but any sober government would be worried about how much support would be sustained over the next years.
Putin, of course, is the villain in the piece. The Ukraine only went independent when the Soviet Union imploded, but it remains central to Russian security. The Russian fear is far less about economic relations with the EU (Russia itself is a major source of energy for the Europeans), than the further extension of NATO to its borders. A hostile Ukraine might displace Russian bases in the Black Sea, harbor the American fleet, and provide a home to NATO bases. This isn’t an irrational fear. Despite U.S. promises by George Bush not to extend NATO when Germany was united, the reality is that nine former Warsaw Pact nations and three former Soviet Republics have been incorporated into NATO, with the U.S.-NATO even setting up a military outpost in Georgia. And the European pact, advertised as offering access to free trade and a free access, in fact called for integrating Ukraine into the EU defense structure, including cooperation on “civilian and military crisis management operations” and “relevant exercises” concerning them. No one should be surprised that Putin reacted negatively to that prospect. No U.S. administration would put up with Putin cutting a deal with Mexico to join a military alliance with Russia.
Some minimal hold on reality is needed. Obama hasn’t “taken the stick off the table,” for there is no “stick” in relation to the Ukraine. Americans have no desire and no reason to go to war with Russia over what happens in Crimea. The EU and the U.S. are not going to supplant Russia’s economic influence in the Ukraine. We’re not going to provide the aid, the trade or the subsidized energy — and the EU austerity regime doesn’t offer an expansive growing region to join. The new Ukrainian government is neither elected nor legitimate nor settled. An unpopular leader has been unseated. But before this new, fragile and bitterly divided country breaks apart, the international community should be pushing hard for new elections and compromise.
The neo-cons like Krauthammer, the frustrated cold warriors filling armchairs in the outdated “strategic” think tanks that litter Washington will continue to howl at the moon. But American policy should be run by the sober and the adult. The president would be well advised to probe now whether the EU, Russia and the U.S. can join together to preserve the Ukraine’s territorial unity, to support new and free elections, agreeing to allow the Ukraine to be part of both the EU and the Russian customs union, while reaffirming the pledge that NATO will not extend itself into the Ukraine. It is time to reduce tensions and create possibility, not draw lines, flex rhetorical muscles and fan the flames of folly.
“He’s going to lose on the international stage,” Kerry said on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” referring to Putin. “Russia is going to lose, the Russian people are going to lose, and he’s going to lose all of the glow that came out of the Olympics, his $60 billion extravaganza.”
Economic sanctions and travel restrictions on individual Russians are one possibility, as is a U.S. and European boycott of planning meetings this week for the upcoming summit of the Group of Eight leading industrial nations in Russia.
The United States, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Russia are members of the G-8.
“There are visa bans, asset freezes, isolation with respect to trade, investment,” Kerry said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “American businesses may well want to start thinking twice about whether they want to do business with a country that behaves like this. These are serious implications.”
Kerry also said that the administration was ready to provide economic assistance “of a major sort” to Ukraine.
Jesse Jackson, Sr. is founder and president of Rainbow PUSH Coalition.