UN Secretary Ban Ki Moon's trip to Moscow to meet with President Putin yesterday was, at best, an exercise in pro forma UN diplomacy. It seems mostly designed to show to UN member-states that Secretary-General was acting expeditiously to resolve the Crimean crisis but without really advancing any innovative or practical solutions to the dispute. Listen to Mr. Ban's words to Russian President Vladimir Putin, as reported in the press: let's protect the Russian minority in the Ukraine; let's make sure that "a small incident" does not spiral out of control; let's begin a dialogue between Kiev and Moscow.
Now no person will disagree with Ban's sentiments. Surely this is a desirable path for Ban to pursue in his guise as a global peacemaker. But given the dire confrontational situation now looming between Europe and the US versus Russia, one might have expected Ban to come forward at this stage in the stand-off -- now weeks old, beset with military build-ups, extremist factions popping up on both sides, hardening rhetoric churning through the air -- with more proactive, innovative or far-reaching recommendations for a solution to this potential catastrophe.
Indeed Ban has been surprisingly reticent in his role as a worldly mediator. So far Ban has not taken any position as to whether the referendum in Crimea was unlawful or not. In Moscow, he praised Russia as "one of the most important partners to the United Nations" and said Putin is a leader who has always called for "international disputes to be solved within the framework of the United Nations Charter." While Ban did mention that a desired outcome would "respect Ukraine's unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity," he apparently did not press that position with Putin.
Ban could have forwarded a number of different proposals to jump-start serious talks. That is, after all, the moral authority, indeed prerogative, which any Secretary-General carries with him which enables him to thrust himself into the center of showdowns and mark out the parameters for accords -- and, in certain situations, push concepts forward that are indisputably controversial even among his own organization's membership. For example, former Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 1999 proposed that the UN should support humanitarian interventions in countries that were committing genocide against their own people -- a notion that caused great agitation at the time. Ultimately though his speech led to the adoption of the "responsibility to protect" doctrine now embedded in the Security Council.
In the Ukrainian case, Ban might have placed on the table the idea of making Ukraine a neutral state, or "Finlandizing" Ukraine -- turning it into a buffer state on Russia's borders, something which, among others, Henry Kissinger, has recently advanced. With Ukraine in this special status, Russia would not have to fear anymore that Ukraine might join NATO, and thereby have that military body be implanted on its eastern frontiers. At the same time, such a deal would relieve the US and Europe from having to worry that a country, historically recognized as within Russia's sphere of influence, would be subject to future surprise incursions.
But there are other ways that Ban could consider working out a respectable settlement. He could suggest that Crimea stay as a part of Russia, but obtain an agreement that the rest of Ukraine remain open to both European and Russian trade. This way Ukraine gets the best of both worlds. Russia would continue to provide it with low-cost gas. Europe would, in its turn, give Ukraine a vast market for its products. As part of the overall deal, Russia and Europe and the US would agree to jointly bail the country out of its financial plight. Ukraine could then stand tall as an independent nation but with a realistic interdependency with its neighbors. There may be yet other innovative solutions. But where is Ban Ki Moon?