The dust has settled a bit following the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the seizure of the Crimea, and it’s now possible to discern the new landscape and to start thinking seriously about what the US and the EU should do next. The next steps won’t be easy; from a Western point of view the options are not great. The usual cheerleaders and White House boosters have been banging on about Putin falling into a trap, but it’s the West that was caught. Whether by design or by luck, Vladimir Putin has American and European leaders in an uncomfortable spot.
This is partly because in one sense, the West “won” the lion’s share of Ukraine. This was the point that the administration’s press acolytes were quick to point to as proof that our “smart diplomacy” still had the upper hand, but the cost of this “success” will be high. Russia sliced off Crimea, but has so far refrained from any more land grabs; that leaves the EU and the US holding the bag for the rest of the country. The weak and corrupt Ukrainian state, its inexperienced revolutionary leaders, its failing economy and its deeply divided population now turn to the West with hopes high and hands out. The West has two choices and neither one is particularly pleasant. Option one: it can turn its back on Ukraine while the country flounders further, turns bitter at western failure and inevitably slips into orbit around Moscow. Option two: it can embark on an expensive, difficult and quite possibly doomed exercise in nation-building, with Putin able to deploy a formidable array of policy tools against us whenever and however he chooses. Quite possibly, option two will turn out to be a longer, more humiliating, more painful and more expensive way of getting the same ultimate result as option one.
Given the state of leadership on both sides of the Atlantic, we will probably try to split the difference: giving enough aid to Ukraine so our leaders won’t be accused in the press of abandoning it, but not doing enough to make a lasting difference on the ground. Putin could not ask for a better policy mix from his point of view; the West appears determined to fulfill his dreams.
The West is not likely to behave very well or enjoy much success in Ukraine. The EU has a deeply dysfunctional policy making system (which is one reason it landed in this mess to begin with), it is riven by profound internal dissension between debtor and creditor countries and between Germany and its unwilling partners in austerity, and it lacks both military strength and money at the moment. As for the United States, it is hard to choose between the reflexive hawks who want to go back to the Cold War playbooks or the feckless liberals who thought we’d transcended all that messy geopolitical rivalry stuff and could go focus on the really interesting issues, like the role of women in development and improving the governance of Uzz-beki-bekistan. Like the European Union, the United States is not possessed of large quantities of free cash, and the voters are not looking to support major transfers of money to a government that Transparency International calls one of the world’s most corrupt, ranking it 144 out of 177 countries. There are few prospects for helping Ukraine’s uncompetitive, Russia-focused manufacturers win bigger market share in the west, and nothing about the country’s situation or prospects suggests that large infusions of private investment will be headed its way anytime soon.
A look at the country’s economic geography underlines just how hard it’s going to be for the West to make Ukraine work. With the exception of Kiev, the richest (or the least poor) regions of Ukraine are in the east; economically speaking western Ukraine is more like the Appalachia of Ukraine than its Silicon Valley. The wealth producing eastern regions are closely tied into the Russian economy with deep interconnections that go back into Soviet and even Czarist times. It is difficult to see where the energy intensive manufacturers of the eastern region can get replacement supplies for Russian oil and gas anytime soon; it is at least equally difficult to see what other market their goods will find if Russia becomes unavailable to them.
If we add to these factors the entrenched criminality of the Ukrainian governing class, the close linkages between ill-gotten economic wealth and short sighted political power that have persistently characterized the country since independence from the Soviet Union, and a polarized polity riven with ethnic, linguistic, economic and cultural divides, we do not see a promising field for western action. There are reasons why, despite strong and continuing pressure from some of its eastern members, the European Union hasn’t moved with greater alacrity to bring Ukraine into its orbit and why the prospect of EU membership for Ukraine has always looked distant.
Let’s look at just one aspect of the question of integrating Ukraine more thoroughly into the West. One of the most effective tools for rapid economic development in Ukraine would be to open the West to mass migration from the country; talented and hardworking young people could send remittances home and many would ultimately return to help build a new kind of economy and society. How ready are the western European members of the EU, already grumbling and complaining about immigration from the much smaller countries of Bulgaria and Romania, to handle a significant influx of job hungry Ukrainians? Is the United States willing to step in and offer, for example, a million or so immigrant visas over some limited period of time? If neither the EU nor the US cares enough about Ukraine to accept immigrants from the country (and, it should not be forgotten, those immigrants would likely over time bring significant benefits to the receiving countries), how likely is it that we will stick with the hard work and massive financial aid needed to build a stable and forward looking Ukrainian state and society?
Ukraine is not an easy country to work with. One doesn’t really know if it is even technically possible for the West to integrate Ukraine into its system, and hard questions need to be asked about how much that will cost. Western policymakers need to look realistically and unblinkingly at the changes Ukraine would have to make, the willingness of the oligarchs and other groups in Ukrainian society to support the transformation, and the degree of support in both the EU and the US for the costs that we on our side would have to incur. A serious effort is needed both to examine the kinds of pressure Putin can bring to bear and to ask whether and to what degree these can be countered. Only at that point could we reasonably say what our options are in Ukraine, and what kinds of commitments from which actors in Ukraine, in the EU and the United States would be needed ahead.
But Ukrainian policy can’t be made in isolation from the regional context. What are the prospects of (and our plans or potential plans) for the similarly situated countries of Belarus and Moldova? And what of the other troubled corner of post-Soviet space in Europe: Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia? What if anything do we propose to do and say about developments there, and how do we plan to manage what is certain to be a strong and determined Russian effort (that is already underway) to re-integrate them into a post-Soviet sphere of influence?
Despite the difficulties, to abandon Ukraine to its own devices and the sympathies of the Kremlin is not an attractive proposition. Giving Putin a free hand in Ukraine will empower exactly the forces in Russia that will make other policy issues in Europe and elsewhere more difficult for the United States and its allies. Putin is not looking for a few small territorial acquisitions until he settles down in bourgeois peace. He is a man in a hurry, and he doesn’t believe in win-win. Putin’s imperial project cannot be accomplished without seriously damaging the liberal project set on foot by the United States and its allies. On the positive side, bringing Ukraine into the West, or at least setting it on a long glide path leading westward, will force Russia to come to terms with a post-imperial life. This would be bad news for politicians like Putin, but a serious realization in Russia that the days of empire are done could humanize and normalize Russian politics and lead to a healthy focus on developing the country’s institutions and standard of living. Other countries have had to make this adjustment in the past; if the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, Britain and France have found life after empire, there’s no reason to think the Russians can’t do it as well.
And Ukraine also has a legitimate claim on the world. This is not a reference to the high sounding phrases of the United Nations charter, but to the tragic circumstances of Ukraine’s history in the 20th century. No place in Europe had a worse time in the last century than the lands now assembled under the flag of Ukraine. The front lines of World War I ran through the country, the Civil War in which the Bolsheviks consolidated their harsh and cruel control over the former Russian Empire was particularly bloody and atrocity-filled in modern Ukraine; the subsequent Russo-Polish War also took place there. Death, starvation, destruction and plague: horror was a familiar guest in Ukraine by 1923. There was more, and worse, to come. The hideous crimes of Stalinist collectivization reached their hellish climax in the deliberate starvation of Ukrainian farmers and peasants; the totalitarian nightmare of Stalin’s purges decimated Ukraine when collectivization was done. No sooner had the purges burned themselves out than Hitler crossed the frontier, and Ukraine was once more laid waste from end to end in a nightmarish, grisly war, a war in which the Holocaust was only one of the atrocities that took place as two of most vicious regimes in the history of mankind engaged in a total war of survival. There was partisan warfare and ethnic cleansing even as World War Two came to an end. The frozen peace of Brezhnevian decadence that settled over this tormented land during the Cold War was by contrast a blessing; still, when the corpse of Soviet communism finally crumbled away, Ukraine was backward, lawless and poor.
This history is and was a terrible burden, and both human solidarity and a basic sense of justice commend the Ukrainian people to the attention of the world. To abandon these people to whatever fate the Kremlin thinks will best enhance its quest for world power is not a course that decent people would lightly choose.
Sentiment is one thing, however. Policy is another. Having looked at all this and thought about the political, economic and military risks and costs involved of an active policy aimed at incorporating ex-Soviet, non-Russian Europe into the West or at least securely in its penumbra, we need to look equally carefully and thoroughly at the alternatives. What happens if you cut Ukraine and its neighbors loose? What are the costs and consequences of that?
Most fundamentally, serious people in our current situation would look into the gaping hole at the heart of western policy, the Big Blini that the West has never faced up to and ask the most important question in Europe: What is our Russia policy? Where does the West see Russia fitting into the international system?
Ever since the decisions to expand NATO and the EU were taken in the Clinton administration, western policy towards Russia has been dictated by two vetoes. The West had two grand projects for the post-Soviet space: NATO and the EU would expand into the Warsaw Pact areas and into the former Soviet Union, but Russia itself was barred from both. There would be no Russian membership in NATO and no Russian membership in the EU.
As many people pointed out in the 1990s, this strategy was asking for trouble. It more or less guaranteed the emergence of what we see now: a restless, hostile Russia with a zone of instability around it. What the West really needs now is something it hasn’t had since the fall of the Berlin Wall: a coherent, serious and historically responsible Russia policy. Gazing into Putin’s soulful eyes or frenetically pushing reset buttons and promising ‘more flexibility’ after the next election doesn’t cut it.
We are unlikely to get such a policy soon but the truth is that we can’t have a sensible Ukraine policy unless we have a serious Russia policy, and developing a serious Russia policy requires a serious Eurasian strategy for the long haul. This is something that the EU’s political machinery under current conditions can’t produce, and something that both the Obama administration and a significant number of its loudest critics are demonstrably bad at.
Given that, the US and the EU are likely to continue wandering in a maze of illusion and wishful thinking. Western policy will likely continue to feature a depressingly weak-minded mix of highfalutin rhetoric and half-hearted policy steps.
This is exactly what Putin needs, and he is likely looking forward to sampling the array of tasty dishes that western fecklessness is preparing to serve him. Putin’s signature geopolitical move is to exploit the gaps between western rhetoric and western will for geopolitical gain and theatrical triumph. In 2008 he exposed the hollow nature of the West’s support for Georgia; in 2013 he exploited President Obama’s ambivalence about military strikes against Syria; in the last few months he has made hay first out of the West’s halfhearted and unthinking attempt to bring Ukraine into an economic agreement with the European Union and then, following the revolution in Kiev, he exploited the West’s symbolic embrace of a government it could not actually help to humiliate western leaders by snatching Crimea.
The current status quo in Ukraine offers Putin a bonanza of opportunities for more theatrical victories, more attempts to portray himself as the upholder of traditional values and Russian nationalism, more delicious chances to make pompous and self righteous western politicians look incompetent and weak. We must expect him to capitalize on as many of these as he reasonably can.
In the absence of a hard headed analysis of western interest and Ukraine’s potential, and much less in the absence of a serious approach to Russia, western policy in Ukraine is all too likely to follow exactly the path that led to the Crimea disaster. We will combine loud and eloquent protestations about international law and the sacred principle of sovereignty with a failure to stabilize Ukraine. We will draw lines in the sand, red and otherwise, and our politicians will hasten to Ukraine to be filmed making cheap “We are all Ukrainians now” speeches.
And then, at leisure, Putin will bring the hammer down. Perhaps he will raise the price of gas… again. Perhaps he will stop Ukrainian trucks at the border. Perhaps the Russian banking system will reject or aggressively discount Ukrainian letters of credit. Perhaps he will push a political crisis or an oil embargo at just the time it brings on a major financial crisis — and perhaps some of his cronies will use their advance knowledge to make large bets in the financial markets. He and his allies will have many games to play, and the West will lack the will and in some cases the means to do anything about it. His aim will be to make western Ukraine an albatross for the West, even as he keeps his options open in the wealthier and more useful east and south.
Victories like the one in Crimea help Putin on several levels. He wins pieces of territory and burnishes his nationalist credentials at home, but he also undermines western norms and the confidence of others in western support. Does anyone think that the authorities in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan think the west would do more than send flowers and make speeches if any of these countries get in trouble with Russia? Do politicians in Latvia and Estonia sleep more soundly these days than they did three months ago? Does Iran worry as much about what Washington thinks as it did last year, or are China and Japan as confident as they used to be that the United States says what it means and means what it says? Putin wants a more multipolar world, and reducing American prestige and undermining its alliances gives him precisely that. The Crimean invasion was the latest, but is unlikely to be the last, in a series of moves that have steadily moved the world away from the path that Washington wanted and toward the shape that Putin likes.
There are still some things that the West can do that would change the trajectory in Ukraine and in my view there are significant costs to abandoning the country and the region to Moscow’s care. I’ll post some thoughts on this issues over the next week or so. But the West needs to make up its mind. Ukraine is a big project, and while there are good arguments for backing Ukraine and good arguments for walking away, there are no good arguments for dithering and posturing while Putin watches and waits for just the right moment to hit us again.