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Seeking An Exit From the Ukrainian Cul-de-Sac

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German chancellor Angela Merkel came away from a phone conversation with Russian president Vladmir Putin this week convinced that he is living "in another world," she told Barack Obama -- an Orwellian alternative universe, perhaps, in which freedom is slavery and lies are propagated by a Ministry of Truth. The political crisis that is consuming Ukraine has re-ignited the embers of cold war hostility and paranoia.

Yet as the West and Russia square off, Merkel has been reluctant to sanction and isolate Russia for destabilizing Ukraine. This only reinforces Washington hardliners' disdain for Europe's supposed ineffectuality: it was the European Union's trade initiative that Putin torpedoed, triggering the Ukrainian upheaval -- and now the E.U. expects the Americans to deal with Russia's hardball reaction?

Europhile Henry Kissinger caustically blames E.U. "bureaucratic dilatoriness" for "turning a negotiation into a crisis." The last disciple of Metternichian realpolitik, Kissinger at least recognizes the perils of reacting intemperately and urges a compromise with Moscow involving "Finlandization" of Ukraine. But his fellow Republicans have seized on Ukraine to launch a full-throated assault on Obama as a "weak indecisive leader" whose "feckless foreign policy" invited Russian aggression and who lacks the backbone to force Putin into ignominious retreat.

If cold-war reflexes still come quickly to life in conservative quarters in Washington, they are far more deeply ingrained in Russia. Putin famously told the Duma that the dissolution of the Soviet Union was "the greatest geopolitical disaster of the last century." NATO's expansion eastward and its war with Serbia over Kosovo propelled his ascension to power in 1999, and what he sees through the Moscow looking-glass is an implacable Western drive to hem in Russia and impose Western economic and political models worldwide.

Russian rhetoric about Ukraine bitterly parodies the language of current Western internationalism. Russian military forces are undertaking a "humanitarian intervention," just as the Western countries did in Libya and have proposed for Syria (though in Ukraine no one has been killed or remotely threatened by the current Kiev authorities).

The Crimean autonomous region has the right to secede from Ukraine, just as the Western countries asserted for Kosovo (juridically an uncomfortably snug parallel, though missing the small detail of internationally certified lethal repression by Belgrade).

Ejection of sitting government officials from their posts by militant protesters in Russified districts of Ukraine is an expression of the popular will, a just riposte to the "Euro-Maidan" protesters who finally forced the flight of president Viktor Yanukovych.

Sergey Aksyonov, whose fervently Russian party won four percent of Crimeans' votes in regional elections, could then be legitimately installed as the region's leader, while it was illegitimate for the national parliament, including Yanukovych's own party members, to appoint Oleksandr Turchynov, whose Fatherland party had garnered 26 percent of Ukrainians' votes for the Rada in 2012, to fill the purportedly vacant presidency.

All this pretended symmetry is simply pretextual. The bottom line is that Putin deemed even a modest European link for Ukraine as a serious threat to Russia, perhaps a first step toward NATO. He gambled that he could prevent it.

The gamble backfired badly, mobilizing legions of protesters and knocking Yanukovych, who had walked a fine line between Ukrainians' European aspirations and Russian sympathies, off balance and finally out of power. While Obama does not see "some cold war chessboard," Moscow concluded it had just lost its queen, and riskily upped the ante.

The confrontation, however, actually poses more danger to Putin's economically brittle regime than to the West. And for a leader who craves international respect--basking in hosting the G-20 summit last September, sulking in the absence of his peers at the Sochi Olympics--Russia's deepening isolation is a blow.

Last year the Pew Research Center found barely a third of citizens across 38 countries had a favorable view of Russia, compared to the half that saw China favorably and the nearly two-thirds favorable to the United States. Without bonds of amity, every relationship becomes transactional. Now, Putin's tough talk and rough action are only exacerbating the international distaste. Even China, often an ally in the United Nations Security Council, is warning Moscow "not to interfere in others' internal affairs."

The militiamen in Crimea who blocked U.N. envoy Robert Serry's way sent a particularly disquieting signal. The United Nations provides one of the few international mechanisms of ingrained impartiality that can walk everyone back from confrontation.

Presumably a deal can be made. Putin had evinced no interest in Russian control of Crimea so long as the government in Kiev was neutral between East and West, and permanently detaching it from Ukraine tilts the country's electoral balance decisively toward the Russoskeptics. An international accord that guarantees a democratic Ukraine's territorial integrity and bars it from any military alliance, on the Finnish and Austrian model, will likely be at the heart of a resolution. And if Putin decides to proceed with Crimea's incorporation into Russia, he is signing off on NATO membership for Kiev, and other countries can permanently reject visa applications from Crimea or economic transactions with it.

The United States has proved itself essential to mobilizing the political pressures most persuasive to Putin, and Secretary of State John Kerry is managing the diplomacy with admirable firmness and nuance. But this is really a European affair. It is Europe that has the economic leverage that matters to Russia, and Europe whose prosperity Ukrainians want to share. Let Europe lead.