© Getty Images.
Battle for Ukraine
Springtime in Kiev, or Just Another Winter Storm?

With a revolution on, the chances that events in Ukraine could provoke a dangerous confrontation between Russia and the West may be increasing.

Published on: February 22, 2014
show comments
  • lukelea

    Very interesting points for an ignoramus about all things Ukrainian. May I link to another interesting take on the situation, this time from Czech blogger (and theoretical physicist and former Harvard Fellow) Lubos Motl? Don’t miss the comments.

    • Scott Locklin

      That’s Vaclav Klaus’ essay, not Lubos Motl’s (though he has strong opinions expressed in the comments). I agree with both of them completely though, and wrote as much for Taki back in December. Including making the point that “this is not an easy split.” The north-east, even Kiev will be particularly difficult.

      Our political scientists need to particularly take heed of Western culpability in this mess. It’s a fact that *somebody* was paying some of the Maidanfolk to be there: it probably ain’t the Russians. We have vast bureaucracies designed to create problems like this, and our State Department seems well committed to the idea.

      • citicrab

        Scott, *somebody* may indeed have been paying *some* of the *Maidanfolk*, but it would not be the State. They do not operate like this, and there are no examples to the contrary in recent history. There is enough money inside the Ukraine opposed to Yanukovich and company. We are not talking big money here, mind you, that would be needed; there was also lots of sincere volunteer effort to help, and, finally, the vast majority of “foot soldiers” were there on their own idealistic accord.

  • charlesrwilliams

    Ukraine is a geographic region and not a nation. Thanks to the Communists, there are large numbers of ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine. Even before the Revolution many people in Ukraine viewed themselves as Russian and spoke Russian by preference, looking to Moscow and St. Petersburg as centers of culture. Western Ukraine was annexed by Stalin in 1939. This region is largely Greek Catholic with a history as part of Poland, Austria-Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Anti-Polish, anti-Russian Ukrainian nationalism is strong here for obvious historical reasons. Some kind of partition is inevitable.

    • tomdperk

      “Ukraine is a geographic region and not a nation.”

      That’s nonsense. The Ukraine has has a distinct ethnic identity and corresponding geographic extent for over a thousand years, and has had sovereignty over itself on and off for the last three hundred,

      • jb willikers

        True – just talk to some Ukrainians.

      • charlesrwilliams

        Well, now, we can consider the history of Lviv/L’wow/Lvov/Lemberg, in the heart of Western Ukraine. Before the holocaust and the Soviet expulsion of the Poles in the 1940’s this city never had a majority of first-language Ukrainian speakers. It was overwhelmingly Polish and Jewish with a significant ethnic German-community and a Rusyn presence. Whether the Rusyns are Ukrainian or not depends on who you ask. The city was part of Poland, part of Russia, and part of Austria-Hungary at various stages of history. The peasants in the country-side spoke a dialect of east Slavic that we might describe today as a non-literary regional variant of Ukrainian. These “ethnicities” were largely a matter of religion and cultural identity rather than birth.

        This city was the heart of the Ukrainian nationalist movement. A movement which created a national identity for Ukrainian speakers complete with a romanticized history. In this, the Ukrainians are not unique in Eastern Europe. A similar process took place in Slovakia and Lithuania.

        So today, Ukrainians differ in the extent to which they accept this national identity, ethnic Russians for obvious reasons, least of all. There truly are many Ukrainians who are nostalgic for the Soviet era, are comfortable with autocratic government and who want very close economic ties to Russia. There are others who want the opposite.

  • Mark Michael

    It’s been two decades plus now since the Soviet Union collapsed. The day-to-day behavior, ethics, morals of large segments of society, elite at the top, bureaucrats, working folks, police, low-level functionaries is decidedly of an inferior sort. I’ve read that within Russia, Ukraine, and most of the former USSR Republics, some of the old Warsaw Pact countries bribes, dishonest dealings, ignoring the basic rule of law principles we take for granted in the West are the order of the day.

    I blame it on the militant atheism of Communism and its active expulsion of any obedience to God and his Will. (Karl Marx: “religion is the opiate of the people.” Lenin & Stalin tried to end the role of the Orthodox church in Russian society/culture directly, but discovered it was too difficult, so they settled for thoroughly undermining it from within.) Recall our American Founding Fathers took it for granted that their “experiment” of a democratic republic required a highly moral and ethical people for it to have a chance of working. To that end, they instituted land grant colleges to explicitly teach the leaders of society Golden Rule-based ethics and morals. Without such leaders, they feared their Grand Experiment would surely fail.

    I think we’re seeing the truth of the concerns of our Founding Fathers in the Ukraine, Russia, et al.

  • Anthony

    “For the third time in a generation, there is revolution in Ukraine. For the second time in a decade, Viktor Yanukovych has been overthrown in Kiev.” It seems WRM in Ukraine tragedy and farce are inseparable and outsiders need to realize how high stakes have become (in post soviet space). Simplistically, there appears to be two opposing integration efforts (EurAsEC and EU) hovering above Ukrainian society. But as you intimate both participants in this geopolitical match are uncertain (though Russia more willing) and Ukraine’s road remains fraught with fissures. From geopolitical point of view, we are in very interesting times.

  • PKCasimir

    All times are interesting; ours are no more interesting than others. Any historian will acknowledge that and historians spend their lives recounting how countries and leaders respond to their own interesting times. What is so frightening about this particular confrontation between the West and Russia is that the West is rudderless. Instead of a President in the White House like FDR or Truman or Ronald Reagan, we have a limp-wristed ex-street organizer and adjunct law professor with absolutely no executive experience in charge of the West’s forces. Abraham Lincoln had no experience, either, to confront the Civil War, but he had a firm faith in his own convictions and was not ambivalent about the fact that the US is a force for good in the world. He marshaled whatever resource’s he could find and learned how to wield power and mobilize his supporters. Alas, we have Barrack Hussein Obama. It’s not that Vladimir Putin is so clever; it’s that Barrack Obama is so incompetent.

    • Kavanna

      Of course. Russia is a declining power. Only the stunning silliness in the White House could have made this disaster, and the related disaster in Syria, possible.

      • Regula

        That is wishful thinking.

    • danram

      Obama’s basic problem is that he is not decisive. That’s just simply not his personality type. He’s very careful, thoughtful, and analytical. These are great traits for a law professor or a research scientist.

      But when put in a position of leadership, this kind of personality type very often falls victim to “paralysis by analysis.” They tend to delay, wait for more information, try to build consensus, etc. But at the end of the day, they find that events have overtaken them and the opportunity has been lost.

      A president needs to have conviction as well as the courage to act both quickly and decisively when circumstances require it, as they clearly do now. So far, those traits have not been evidenced by Barack Obama.

      He blew a golden opportunity in Iran in 2009.

      He blew a golden opportunity in Syria in 2011.

      For the sake of Ukraine’s 48,000,000 people, let’s hope that’s he’s learned his lesson and won’t blow this opportunity too.

      • Regula

        This fast action advised by Mead is propaganda. In reality it will take some time for things to develop, because they are so complex and offer only bad solutions to Ukraine. As to Obama – he has a difficult job with the hawks in Congress pursuing the Zionist agenda and the Americans in Congress pursuing a course of action that serves the US. Unfortunately, the two directions hit each other down from behind.

    • Regula

      the US is not a force for good in the world – that is the spin, not the reality. No nation is as destructive to the world as the US. War is not the answer here, as it would likely affect the US homeland. Russia will not just stand and cry if attacked, it will and can hit back at the US homeland. Eastern Ukraine isn’t worth a world war.

  • ThomasD

    Russia may be willing to play along with a ‘partition,’ but only as a delaying tactic, inevitably they will attempt to assert dominance over the western end.

    Europe nor the US are willing to commit any serious effort or resources into a western Ukraine, and Putin knows this.

    Why would he settle for half a loaf when the whole loaf comes at near the same price?

    Europe had better prepare for another wave of refugees.

    • Regula

      The refugees – i.e. migrant workers from Ukraine – that is of course why the EU is so undecided. Germany in 2005 eased the visa conditions and ended up with 1m Ukrainians inside their country. So yes, flooding with Ukrainians when the EU already has 12% unemployment average – from 10 – 25% is more realistic – is clearly a concern to the EU.

  • Terenc Blakely

    Given that there aren’t any leaders in the West who have balls, it won’t be much of a confrontation.

    • Andrew Allison

      Except perhaps Angela Merkel LOL

  • Fat_Man

    “the Dnieper … partition with the dividing line as close to
    that river as possible in the north, and stretching across it to
    Moldova in the south.”

    I am not sure I get this. The ethnic Russian population is in the river shed of the Donetsk. To my knowledge the west bank of the Dnepr, l9ike the east bank is ethnic Ukrainian. Further how they rope off Moldova, which is ethnic Romanian, is a mystery to me any line running that way cuts off Ukraine from the Sea.

    • citicrab

      The map in the article vastly exaggerates the divide. Only a few on the easternmost regions are “firmly” pro-Russian. We are talking Kharkiv, Donetsk and Luhansk, plus the Crimea in the south (which has its own complications.) And even those are not a done deal: the majority would still not want to go under Putin, notwithstanding the fact they may sincerely hate their Lviv compatriots at the same time.

      • To be fair, the map makes no claims as to people wanting to live “under Putin” or not. It’s just a testament to how riven the country is, and though the data is several years old now, it suggests that a very geographically contiguous part of the country is likely to be none too pleased with having ‘their’ candidate chased out of office after winning a reasonably fair election not too long ago.

        • citicrab

          What I am trying to say then is it exaggerates the degree of how riven the country is. The recent insurrection also manifested itself in many of the red(dish) – colored areas. Outside of just a couple of the regions where the Russian money and propaganda are felt the most, any candidate that is perceived as non-corrupt (e.g. Klitschko) has a fair chance of getting solid support. And even those hard-core regions are not lost to a moderate candidate. I just hope Timoshenko could be convinced not to participate this time: you really want a clean slate, and that’s Klitschko.

          • All fair points, though I’m rather skeptical of ‘clean slates’. Yes, Klitschko may not be tainted yet, but neither were the Orange Revolutionaries back in the day.

          • Regula

            They all get tainted – the seduction to make easy millions is just too large!

          • Regula

            That would be disastrous and nobody would vote for him – he isn’t an experienced politician and would be outsmarted very easily by just about anybody.

    • Regula

      It would do that, but a port could be stipulated to be used by both parts.

  • PapayaSF

    I seem to remember a book of some years ago on partitioned countries. The gist was that partitioning almost never works well.

    • Regula

      It depends to what extent the countries who do the partitioning see to proper development of the pieces.

  • teapartydoc

    Spengler’s idea about partition is looking better all the time.

    • Regula

      Along the lines suggested by Gorbachev to connect to Moldova, yes, it would solve all the problems. That may well be the solution this takes, peacefully by agreement, not with war because it solves the problems of the EU, the US and Ukraine.

  • Kavanna

    In fact, there’s no reason to think partition would work. Ukraine is divided in a number of ways. But that’s not its real problem. Its real problem is being the victim of two gangster elites, one native, the other from the east.

    It’s hard to see how this situation can lead to anything other than a showdown with Putin and Russia. Putin will eventually lose this one, but he will do a lot of damage in the meantime. Much of this could have been prevented if a more decisive stance against Putin had been developed earlier and the West hadn’t acted with such incompetence in Syria.

    • Regula

      That is a false analyses. You forget that the biggest problem was produced by the gangster elite in the west, not Russia. Russia brought most of the industry to Ukraine and a lot of well-being for the eastern provinces with it. The west never invested in Ukraine and also now has not much intention to invest in any way other than US bases and missile shield systems. Russia isn’t America’s enemy – it is its competitor, which irks the US.

      The real problem are the US Republicans who believe that by destabilizing the world they can recoup the situation after WW2, when the US was the unquestioned and unrivaled hegemon of the world – the rest was in ruins.

  • Let´s just say that Putin lost this time.

  • danram

    If all else fails, Putin may very well decide to send in his tanks and troops in a bid to annex the eastern and southern portions of the country at the very least.

    Sadly, from his point of view, based on the pathetically weak western response to his aggression in Georgia in 2008 as well as the way he’s run rings around Barack Obama for the past five years, he has good reason to feel that the west is unlikely to oppose him.

    If we are to avoid this, Barack Obama needs to make it abundantly clear to Putin that if he tries to intervene militarily in Ukraine …

    1) The billions of dollars that he and his “siloviki” cronies in Russia have stolen and stashed in western banks will be immediately frozen and their travel visas to the west will be revoked.
    2) Russia will be immediately kicked out of both the G8 as well as the WTO.
    3) A total trade embargo will be imposed against Russia by the west
    4) Most importantly, both the US and the EU will fulfill their current treaty obligations to Ukraine in the event of a foreign invasion by responding with full military force.

    In other words, we will kick his butt all the way back to Moscow. It wouldn’t be hard. The Russian military isn’t nearly the force that it once was. They would stand absolutely no chance against the combined forces of the US, the EU, and the Ukrainian military itself.

    To underscore this last point, President Obama should send a couple of US carrier battle groups into the Black Sea as well as have the B-2s and F-22s at Incirlik and Aviano fueled up and ready to go. The US should not commit ground troops to any fight, but the fact is that they wouldn’t be needed. We could easily blunt any attempted Russian incursion with air power alone.

    The policy of attempting to appease and coddle Putin has only emboldened him. He is an evil man exercising dictatorial power over an evil system. It is time to forcefully oppose him at every turn. Ukraine’s 48,000,000 people should and must be protected from this predator.

    • Regula

      You forget the main point: the US cannnot do that. For one thing, if the US arms up the rebels in Syria to overthrow Assad, the US will lose all influence in the Middle East, as Syria will be split up into warring fiefdoms. If thereafter the US attacks Iran, the latter will hit back at Israel and possibly KSA. Which means the US would have to do all the fighting for them – given some 2 million soldiers and basiji, that means some 10 to 20 year guerilla war – likely worse than Vietnam. c) If the US were to attack Russia inside Russia, the latter would attack the US inside its homeland – it would likely trigger WW3. And all that to come across as strongman in the world? America would isolate itself as the world would be horrified of the disproportional force. Should eastern Ukraine be worth it for the US to start WW3? Not really. Which means a partition would have to be agreed by the people, the US and Russia, peacefully – a way better solution. Don’t let your adrenaline shoot up for Meads propagandist article! Things are more complex, the importances not as dramatic as he likes to make them. In addition, Putin is a very good president and not an evil man, just very intelligent – and way less trigger happy than the US and way more rational than the US.

      • B-Sabre

        For one thing, if the US arms up the rebels in Syria to overthrow Assad, the US will lose all influence in the Middle East, as Syria will be split up into warring fiefdoms.

        We didn’t do anything, and we’re already losing influence, so I don’t see how that follows.

        If thereafter the US attacks Iran, the latter will hit back at Israel and possibly KSA. Which means the US would have to do all the fighting for them

        Both Israel and the KSA have large air forces (I’m betting #1 and #2 in the region) with access to the best technology money can buy, while Iran has been embargoed for 40+ years and photoshops fake “stealth” fighters conceal their weakness. Also, if you look at the satellite photos of the KSA’s missile bases, the launch pads for their IRBM’s have orientation markings pointing at both Tel Aviv and Tehran. The Israeli’s aren’t that obvious about things. Iran takes a poke at either, and they’re probably going to pull back a stub. And it will be a war fought either in the air or in the waters of the Gulf. 2 million soldiers and basiji need not apply.

        In addition, Putin is a very good president and not an evil man, just very intelligent – and way less trigger happy than the US and way more rational than the US.
        Right. Go ahead and pull the other one. It has bells on it.

        • Regula

          I think you are wrong: the US definitely instigated the civil war in Syria and even finances it in part. It certainly trains the so-called rebels, which are the same as al Nusra et al. The US miscalculated by believing that Assad would fall fast and that the rebels would have a person to take over government, but neither is the case. So the US settled for longterm turmoil which they now have to let Assad win, as that is the lesser evil.

          I still think that Putin is a good president and yes, he is less triggerhappy than the US. Russia’s wars in Chechnya and Georgia were short and to the point. After 12 years, the US is still at it in Afghanistan – because they didn’t really want to end that war – it was the pivot to destabilize so many other countries. Surely, you don’t want to tell me that the US needs 140’000 soldiers to chase after about 100 al Qaida – and then not even getting them because they moved to LIbya. Seems to me the US government has more bells on it.

    • B-Sabre

      “Most importantly, both the US and the EU will fulfill their current treaty obligations to Ukraine in the event of a foreign invasion by responding with full military force. ”
      Do we have a defense treaty with Ukraine ? They’re not part of NATO, just the PfP, and the PfP does not have reciprocal defense entanglements as far as I know. If we don’t, that means either the UN, NATO or the EU will have to make a special authorization for use of force, and I think we can guess how that will turn out….

  • DiogenesDespairs

    Reports that the mayor of Kharkiv and a provincial governor left the country for Russia, and that Janukovych himself attempted to leave Ukraine from Kharkiv but was prevented by officials suggest that support for him, and by extension, for aligning with Moscow against Kiev and the west is not particularly strong in the east.

    • Regula

      The east divorced from Yanucovich, but it will be way more difficult to separate from Russia – a) they will close the border to tariff free trade and they will have to repatriate some of the factories where they produce defense parts in Ukraine. That will make most Ukrainian products non-competitive and engender large unemployment. When it comes to protecting their livelihood I am sure they will think twice to pay for the west’s bills with a fraction of the work or stay with Russia to live decently.

      This article is a bit over dramatized. The real questions are way more tricky – which is of course why Yanucovich made a U-turn. But the rest of the country didn’t understand or wasn’t informed.

  • DiogenesDespairs

    Things are getting interesting geopoitcally speaking in Ukraine:


    Russia’s naval base at Sevastopol is undoubtedly a must-have to Putin, and has a significant number of military personnel based there, I think many with their families.

    • Regula

      Yes, but that isn’t really endangered: Putin has a40 years plus lease on that port – which by necessity the EU would have to honor, the same way that the EU would have to honor that the east Ukrainians would never fight against Russians or other closely related neighbors. It would be fratricide. For these reasons, Mead tries to make things more dramatic than they are going to be – contrary to being fast, this will all drag out through some time as the interim government has to go find money to pay its expensive, already existing IMF loans – at least the portion that gets due in April. They will also have to come to terms with the conditions for additional IMF loans, brokered by the EU – and that will not be easy, as of course all these new people in the interim government posts are there for the money, not for Ukraine. It also has the nice side-effect that – unless the US or EU extend loans without strings attached, at which time they have no certainty at all that Ukraine won’t just take the money and run – any newly elected government will have to inform the citizens that government salaries, pensions will go down, gas prices, and with them living costs will go up considerably in order to join the EU, or it will be new protests a soon as the people find out. This is not a good election platform, to say the least!

  • ShadrachSmith

    The key for the new nation surviving is reaching agreement with Russia about the Crimean issues. Russia has vital security and economic issues that must be met. These include Russian bases in Crimea and free port access to Odessa. Geography is what it is, and Russia will have defensible borders, there must be agreement or war. And if there is war the new Ukraine will die, alone.

    • Andrew Allison

      Returning the 1954 gift of Crimea to the then SSR of Ukraine would probably get the job done.

  • pabarge

    Walter Russell Mead voted for Barack Obama.

    • Enemy Leopard

      And Kim Jong Un’s uncle reportedly failed to applaud enthusiastically enough during his nephew’s inauguration. What would you say to ensuring that all Obama voters meet the same fate as poor old Jang Song Thaek? Although some people still hold on to the quaint notion that, in this country, people are allowed to change their minds without their past opinions causing them to be purged from the public arena.

    • Andrew Allison

      And has repented at leisure.

    • Thirdsyphon

      And he was right to.

  • hdc77494

    One huge problem of Obama’s own making is that while pursuing his robust domestic agenda confident that a bare minimum of congressional votes would give him what he sought, he ignored the reality that there are times, and dangers, that require broad agreement before he can effectively act. We’re now on the verge of being presented with a quandary necessitating controversial and decisive action. Through the misuse of political capital, Obama has left himself impotent to do anything other than politely ask Putin not to invade. The president has effectively alienated half the country. Republican politicians have responded by declaring war on him for doing so. Under his leadership we no longer have the societal cohesion necessary for Obama to assume the role of a true leader and take calculated risks in our interests. That’s sad for Ukraine, and for us.

  • Laurence Daley

    Think 1920 in Poland

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2018 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service
We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.