Guest Viewpoints

The US Just Needs To Understand Moscow Better

At this writing, Russian troops have occupied the Crimean Peninsula. President Obama and NATO leaders have threatened Russia will pay an unspecified price, but events are moving fast.

This, in turn, has caused the Washington Post editorial board and other gentlemen who cheered us into Iraq to beat the war drums and demand we “do something.” The demand to “do something” may be one of the last vestiges of bipartisan policy remaining in Washington.

Obama may soon go down in political lore as the President who “lost Ukraine.” He “encouraged the Ukrainians to stand up to the Russians” and then betrayed them by not intervening.

He joins the distinguished company of Eisenhower who betrayed Hungary in 1956, Lyndon Johnson who abandoned Czechoslovakia in 1968 and George Bush the Younger who betrayed Georgia in 2008.

Step back and take a breath! Short of starting a nuclear exchange, we have no credible military option, the same as during the Cold War. Our foreign policy establishment still thinks in Cold War terms rather than deal with the complex multipolar world with shifting alliances and limited capacity determine events in which we now live. Importantly, we lack a clear-eyed and dispassionate understanding of what motivates the Russians. As Americans we ignore history.

The Ukrainian crisis has its roots in Josef Stalin’s decision to create the Ukrainian Soviet Federated Republic in the 1920s compounded by Khrushchev’s transfer of the Crimea from Russia to the Ukraine in 1954.

Stalin had taken over a huge ethnically and religiously diverse Empire with the vaguest of internal borders ruled by a God-anointed Emperor through a large interrelated land-owning nobility.

Lacking divine anointment, Stalin held this vast country together through the Communist Party whose ideology transcended ethnicity and religion.

He mobilized its diverse leadership by creating ethnic homelands (“federated republics”), governed by local communists. To ensure, however, that national unity flowed only from the Communist Party, he drew the boundaries of each federated republic so that its ostensible ethnic group was rarely a majority.

The Nazi invasion almost undid Stalin’s system. Western Ukrainians, heavily Catholic, welcomed the Nazis. So many thousands joined the German Army that Hitler created a special multi-division Ukrainian formation known as Vlasov’s Army.

Fortunately for the world, the Germans proved so brutal that Stalin could unify Soviet Russians and non-Russians alike to defeat the Germans. Russo-Ukrainians remember this as vividly as Serbs remember the Croatians fighting with the Nazis.

The system finally disintegrated with the end of communism in 1979 and each Republic, most of which were artificial constructs, became independent. The process proved ugly but the larger states, sobered by the implosion of the central system, stayed intact.

The small Caucasus states were not so lucky. Stalin’s machinations had so mixed Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Georgians, Abkhazians and Ossetians in each other’s territory that the lid blew off; the 2008 Russian – Georgian flare-up illustrates the continuing instability.

With the breakup of the USSR, the Crimea remained inside the Ukraine but Russia controlled the Black Sea naval bases and ethnic Russians the local autonomous government.

Ukrainian unity might have survived the East-West competition after independence had not all leadership, both Ukrainian and Russian ethnics, been so criminally corrupt. Eastern Europe’s potentially richest country grew poorer than its neighbors further exacerbating ethnic rivalries.

Tito copied Stalin in Yugoslavia after World War II, creating “republics” with minorities ruled by the Communist Party. In Yugoslavia’s case, ethnic gangsters took power and plunged the country into civil war. NATO, led by the United States and Germany, created a terrible precedent in Yugoslavia by picking sides and helped Albanian Kosovo secede from Serbia while helping Croatia to expel its Serb population. The Russians see us as hypocrites; we helped Kosovo secede from Serbia but deny Russia the right to do the same with Crimea.

From Moscow’s vantage point, we treated Russia as the Perpetual Enemy. We expanded NATO and the EU to Russia’s borders but made it clear that Russia itself could never apply for membership.

Russia threw off Communism but saw the West facilitate its transformation into a pitiful, corrupt, crony-capitalist economy governed by a drunken clown and plundered by oligarchs. Vladimir Putin inherited a country eager to regain its rightful place in the sun and paranoid about the Western threat.

He has brilliantly exploited our failure to realize that our economic seduction of the Baltic republics and the current attempt to draw Ukraine into the EU sphere feeds that paranoia.

In Russian eyes, we supported an aggressive Georgian President, exaggerated the Iranian threat so we can put missiles on Russia’s borders, destroyed Russian influence in Libya and are trying to close down the Russian naval bases in Syria. Now, we are pushing Ukraine to do the same in the Crimea.

We do not see our actions as the Russians see them and this hobbles our policy. We separate Syria, Ukraine, and Georgia into neat unrelated issues; Moscow sees them as a coordinated American/NATO plan to undermine Russia.

We must, of course, pursue interests that clash with those of Russia, but realistically. We must first correctly analyze our relationship with Russia.

Punitive and diplomatic measures can cause pain but are insufficient unless we know the price Russia is prepared to pay to retain control of the Crimea. Do we negotiate a deal on which, Russia loses Syria and we back down on Ukraine. Or is there another point of contact?

Until we understand the realities and allow the diplomats to work, we cannot deal effectively.


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