In Ukraine, there may be no good options for resolving the crisis, but the “least bad” option would be a settlement brokered by the UN.


Participants of a Ukrainian activists' rally against the Crimea referendum, near the monument to Vladimir Lenin in Simferopol. Photo: RIA Novosti / Valery Melnikov

Now that the Obama administration's State Department and the European Union's eager expansionists have assisted in the overthrow of a democratically elected government in Ukraine, a move that has – so far – drawn  something of a soft military response from the Russian Federation, it is worth examining how we got to this point and what our options now are.

A detailed examination of all the events that led us to the precipice of a hot war in Europe would fall outside the scope of this article but we can identify a couple of the key drivers of recent events. We must begin with the Clinton administration’s policy of NATO expansion. Prescient as usual, the diplomat and historian George F. Kennan said in an interview with the New York Times in May 1998 on NATO’s move eastward:

“I think it is the beginning of a new Cold War… I think it is a tragic mistake… There was no reason for this whatsoever. We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way… It shows so little understanding of Russian history and Soviet history. Of course there is going to be a bad reaction from Russia.”

The idea that Vladimir Putin has reacted in the way that he has because he is determined to re-create the Soviet Union under the guise of a Eurasian Customs Union has become commonplace among the chattering classes in Washington. What is really driving an essentially pre-emptive and largely defensive move on Russia’s part is the prospect of Ukrainian accession to NATO.

And that is a reasonable fear given the contents of section 2.3 of the 2013 EU-Ukrainian Association Agenda which envisions close cooperation between the two on foreign policy and security matters. It is not at all unreasonable for Russia to see Ukrainian accession to the EU as a prelude to NATO membership.

So what are our options now? They are few, and they are for the most part unpalatable. A return to the pre-Maidan status quo seems out of the question, so now it’s incumbent on the U.S. and its European allies to seek and back the “least bad” option.

The “least bad” option would be a negotiated settlement brokered by the UN. A UN-backed settlement that addresses the status of Crimea, calls for early (and free and fair) elections, addresses the status of the ethnically Russian populations in the South and East - perhaps granting those provinces which are majoritarian Russian some measure of autonomy or, at a minimum, makes a security guarantee for that population - would be the very best we could hope for.

A political settlement would hopefully be accompanied by a tripartite aid package for Ukraine from the major players (Russia, the EU, and the U.S.) that would shun IMF-mandated austerity measures.

A worse option would be the “Finlandization” of Ukraine.  A prominent proponent of this policy approach is former Carter National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski.

The problem with this option is that it is unlikely to meet agreement from the Russians unless the special status of Crimea is addressed. While intuitively attractive, this option is also likely to be met with resistance from the Western Ukrainians who staged this revolution in order to become more closely integrated with Europe.

And finally, the Europeans - to say nothing of the Americans - would be unlikely to acquiesce in what they would see as a bow to Russian interests in the region. Finlandization would also simply institutionalize a ‘frozen conflict’ between Russia and NATO that would be perpetually at risk of melting down.

Finally, the worst option would be the “Two Ukraines” scenario. If Ukraine splinters into two countries (it already is two nations, but that’s another matter) what this will do is re-new the old Cold War divide that we lived with for 40 years. Yet that divide was drawn down the center of Berlin.

A split moves this divide right into the heart of Slavic civilization and the risk of conflict between West and East Ukraine, between Russia and West Ukraine, and between NATO and Russia, will remain ever-present. This is not a world we should want to bequeath to our children.

And so, since we have entered into a situation fraught with unforeseeable consequences, it may be useful for policymakers to keep a few things in mind as we move forward.

The first concerns Mr. Putin. In the U.S., most policymakers tend to see him as the reincarnation of Stalin. Putin does, in fact, have something in common with him, but it’s not what most Americans or Congressmen think.

To wit: During the War, British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden met with Stalin as the Germans were advancing on Moscow. Apropos of Hitler, Stalin said to Eden: “You know what his problem is? He doesn’t know when to stop.” Eden responded: “Who does?” Stalin: “I do.” Based on his past behavior, it would seem that Putin, too, knows when to stop.

The second concerns Putin’s Defense Minister, Sergei Shoigu. Before assuming the role of Defense Minister, Shoigu served for a brief time as the governor of the Moscow Oblast. This is someone with whom U.S. officials have worked with for many years when he was head of the Russian counterpart agency of FEMA. He was known to be pragmatic, effective, and like Putin, a good realist. He is said to be – by some – a possible successor to Mr. Putin.

And so, unless provoked by the new regime in Kiev, these are not people who are planning a wider war. They have sent a smallish force to protect their naval assets and to protect the ethnically Russian population in Crimea from what they – perhaps understandably – see as a new government in Kiev that is very hostile to Russians and includes in its government ministers with extremist sympathies.

Given all of the above, a rush to sanction and isolate the Russian government would likely prove to be counterproductive in the extreme. Caution on all sides should be the order of the day.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.