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U.S. and New World Order: Why Ukraine Is Not a National Interest and ISIS (And Russia) Are

02/17/2015 09:50 am ET | Updated Apr 19, 2015

As in the U.S. the attention is focused on the ceasefire in Ukraine, many still insist that it be armed by the West. On the contrary, the international community should be consistent in pressing both parties for a quick, compromise solution, necessarily including a high degree of autonomy for eastern Ukraine. More pressing problems in fact require the U.S. and the international community's attention. ISIS is now at a mere 200 miles from NATO's borders, having conquered Sirte. In Italy there are calls for boots on the ground, while Egypt's jets raided Libya. Before it is too late, Russia must be back on board to help defuse ISIS.

This, however, will demand a shift in Washington's international relations paradigm. The current obsession with Ukraine is in fact due not to an actual national interest but to a difficulty in accepting that the post-Cold War idea of the U.S. as the only world superpower is only partially true.

Arming Ukraine would be useless. According to the CIA , there is only one successful case of arming foreign forces -- the mujahedeen in Afghanistan -- though that ultimately meant arming the Taliban.

Rising casualties will not change Putin's mind. Anti-Americanism is increasing among Russians: 80 percent see the U.S. negatively, 42 percent as hostile. In Russia, the personification of power is part of the political culture; as foreign policy is a non-divisive issue, accusing the leadership would equal blaming the entire nation. Patriotism, enthused by foreign denigration, helps overcoming political divisions and inhibits opposition.

There is a risk that the pro-Russian rebels will seize the weapons, or that they will be sold by the Ukrainian army. Ukrainian-produced high-quality weapons have been routinely sold for cash to China, Ethiopia, Pakistan, and even Russia, while Ukrainian armed forces have a record of pervasive corruption, with officials selling equipment for private benefit.

While defending national sovereignty's violations is theoretically the right thing to do, the choice to act in favor of Ukraine and not, say, Tibet is questionable. Ukraine is a historically divided country: Poland, and later Austria, dominated the westernmost regions for centuries. Some western Ukrainians were so bitterly anti-Soviet that they took the Nazis' side in World War II; others fought the German army hoping to carve out an independent state. A suitable solution could be a version of the 1971 South Tyrol agreement, granting a high degree of autonomy within territorial unity.

If the real goal is Russia -- a fully fledged democracy would certainly be desirable -- the Libyan or Iraqi messes are stark reminders that externally induced political revolutions only lead to chaos: democracy can only be exported -- as it was the case with post-World War II Italy and Germany -- when both elites and citizens share a deep desire for it.

While human rights violations must be condemned, it is peculiar to do so for Russia, to say nothing about allies such as Saudi Arabia. Some 5,000 deaths in Ukraine is horrible, but it is nothing compared with the 21,000 children who die every day around the world, many of whom could be saved if only a fraction of what is spent on armaments were invested in fighting poverty.

The point is that there is no justifiable reason to escalate the conflict in Ukraine and thus the risk of confrontation with Russia. It is time to recognize that Ukraine is not a national interest priority, while resuming full cooperation with Moscow is.

The crisis with Russia is also causing severe economic losses in the EU's countries, menacing economic recovery and with it a vital trans-Atlantic partnership, including threatening TTIP negotiations, already facing opposition in Europe. Russia is the third trading partner of the EU, and the EU is the first trading partner of Russia; Moscow is also the EU's most important energy supplier, accounting for over 25 percent of the EU consumption of oil and gas.

As Putin is feeling increasingly isolated and the effects of the economic sanctions are starting to bite, he is turning to fellow authoritarian regimes for mutual support, as the recent visit to Egypt showed. The last thing we need today is a rogue-states league.

The end of communism was perceived differently in Russia and in the United States, and that fundamental misunderstanding has progressively drifted the two countries apart, with each successive international crisis widening the gap. In the U.S., 1989 was seen as a victory against the Soviet Union. On the contrary, the USSR -- later Russia -- depicted the end of the Cold War as its political decision to recognize its former republics' independence and its former satellites' full sovereignty. Moscow was less than thrilled about their joining NATO, but at the time, it had no options but to accept it, in exchange for a gentlemen's agreement that NATO would not aim further east.

With Europe not a problem anymore and Russia out of the picture, the U.S. perceived itself as the world's only superpower, thus having a duty to intervene, the first case in point being the 1991 U.S.-led Gulf War, following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. The Gulf War was also a defining moment for the Soviet foreign policy. A James Baker and George Shevardnadze's joint statement sharply condemned Iraq, pointing to Baghdad's aggression as a challenge to the new world order, while Gorbachev described the Iraqi invasion as a blatant violation of international law and of the UN charter.

Then came 9/11, leading to the long, inconclusive wars in Afghanistan (2001-14) and Iraq (2003-11). It's worth recalling how the intervention in Iraq was based on the "evidence" that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, which we now know it was a willingly told lie.

Meanwhile, things were changing in Moscow. As Vladimir Putin became President in 2000, he explicitly committed to regaining Russia's status as a great power. He intended to first strengthen it politically and economically, then to restore Russia's international status and finally to act assertively on the international scene. Putin claimed to be treated as an equal by both NATO and the EU, but he was also the first one to react and offer the U.S. help after 9/11.

In a few years, however, a number of events deteriorated the relationship with the West: the alleged Western support for the Color Revolutions (Georgia 2003; Ukraine 2004; Kyrgyzstan 2005); EU engagement in the post-Soviet space with its Neighborhood Policy (2004); Bush's missile defense for Poland and the Czech Republic; the recognition of Kosovo's independence (2008); and the proposed NATO Road Map for Georgia and Ukraine (2008).

The 2009 "reset button" gave a fresh boost to the U.S.-Russia relationship -- also leading to an improvement in EU-Russia relations, leading to the New Start Treaty. However, when the EU launched the Eastern Partnership (EaP), Russia saw it as Brussels' attempt to develop its own sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space. The EaPs' countries' leaders started to tactically draw support now from Brussels, now from Moscow. Further tensions erupted over the 2011 military intervention in Libya. As things stand now, Russia had a point.

In this climate of a mounting competition, violent protests erupted in 2013 in Kiev, ultimately leading to a regime change. Unexpectedly Russia reacted by annexing Crimea, thus marking a new level of intervention, involving the use of force.

Differently from the U.S., Russia still believes in the principle of spheres of influence. Embedded in two opposite conceptions of word affairs, Moscow and Washington are unable to effectively talk. Yet today's most dramatic international challenges can only be solved jointly by the U.S. and Russia.

This is particularly the case in Middle East, where Russia must be on board for the international community to have a chance at stopping ISIS before it is too late. This primarily entails finalizing the nuclear agreement with Iran and ending the Syrian civil war. Neither one can be achieved without Russia, because both countries are in its sphere of influence.

Time is short. While the international attention was focused on Ukraine, ISIS took Sirte on the Libyan coastline, 200 miles from Sicily. Italy -- a NATO member -- evacuated the embassy, and Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni called for military action. ISIS now directly manages the illegal immigrants' trade into Europe, using it to send back European radicalized youth, ready for Paris-kind terrorist operations.

While the Atlantic Alliance shall reiterate that any threats on NATO's territory would not be tolerated, it is time to recognize Russia for what it is -- a major actor in a multipolar international system -- and resume full cooperation, including the NATO-Russia Council.

In foreign policy, values must be combined with national interests. Fifteen years of West-led wars in the name of values and rights have vilified them, while bringing international insecurity, economic crises and a feeling of resentment against the West.

As the major stakeholder in international relations, the U.S. is now at a crossroads. It can choose to bring the world to further international chaos by insisting on confronting Russia in Ukraine, or it can acknowledge that today's national priorities -- international security, peace, increased shared prosperity and real values and rights -- can only be achieved through shared international cooperation. This begins in cooperatively fixing Ukraine together with Russia, rather than against it.

This post was written together with Serena Giusti, a senior researcher at the Sant'Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa and an associate research fellow ISPI in Milan.