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Too Many Red Lines; Resolving the Ukraine Crisis

It appears that US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin have laid down Red Lines that lie approximately 1,290 kilometers BEHIND one another – measuring from Ukraine’s border with Poland to its border with Russia. Both countries have dug themselves into immovable positions and insist the other side simply surrender. Do we really want to start another Cold War (or maybe even a hot one) with Russia when we are also confronting an aggressive and increasingly more powerful China and engaged in on-again off-again hostilities with Iran? Have we ruled out any more imaginative resolution than a massive game of chicken? Diplomacy has more options than poker. Why not consider an option that served us well during the Cold War in another country that bordered the USSR/Russia: Finland?

Putin insists that allowing Ukraine to join NATO constitutes an unacceptable threat to Russian security. We (the United States and Europe) insist Russia’s demands are unacceptable and that Ukraine has every right to join any alliance it wishes. But our position, however, has certain internal inconsistencies. Every major NATO power agrees that Ukraine will not be invited to join NATO in the foreseeable future. We threaten Russia with an economic Armageddon if the large army it has massed on Ukraine’s border should invade that country and, in the same breath, state we will not oppose it militarily. Our threat of economic warfare assumes Europe will forgo importing Russian gas – 80% of vital EU gas imports.

Our threat assumes that Putin’s fear of economic punishment outweighs Russia’s five hundred years’ experience of repeated invasion from the West. We forget that Russia attacked Georgia when President Bush (43) pushed to make that country and Ukraine NATO members. We might call Putin’s bluff but if we are wrong, we cannot stop an invasion. Russian tanks will be on NATO’s borders before we can call a meeting. Then what?

Unlike other issues, confronting Russia enjoys full-throated bipartisan support. GOP stalwarts such as Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) blast Biden for not doing more to harm Russia. Political pundits across the spectrum have renewed their demonization of Russia. One respected conservative think tank even published an article calling Russians “liars.” A peaceful diplomatic solution to the Ukraine crisis would probably dump more political vitriol on Biden’s head than the Afghanistan debacle. Hostile rhetoric has reached levels rivaling what Moscow and Washington were saying during the 1961 Cuban missile crisis. Those of us old enough to remember should not forget that only last-minute diplomatic horse-trading prevented a nuclear war and the eradication of humanity.

We label the Russian position as a ‘threat’ while insisting that extending NATO deep into what was once the Russian heartland should not concern Moscow; our intentions are always benign. We forget U.S. Secretary of State James Baker’s famous “not one inch eastward” assurance to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on February 9, 1990, about NATO expansion into the vacuum left by the collapse of the Warsaw Pact. British, French, and German leaders repeated the same assurances to Gorbachev and other Soviet officials until Bush 41 lost the 1992 elections. All his successors ignored these promises and pushed NATO steadily eastward. We also forget that in 1997, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright announced that NATO would expand where it wished, and Russia had no vote on the subject. Putin, however, makes sure Russians remember.

Putin’s Russia has dramatically disappointed those of us who had hoped for the development of a democratic Russia. But the humiliation we inflicted on Russia after 1992 helped Putin make himself a modern Tsar. Putin has played the card we dealt him – the timeless western threat to Russia – masterfully. Now, Secretary of State Tony Blinken castigates Russia for making diplomacy difficult but other than repeating the mantra that “Russia has nothing to fear from NATO expansion” he offers no realistic carrots, and only the threat of sticks. We simply demand Russia do what we say.

Are we so stuck in a Cold War mentality? At the height of the Cold War, President Nixon deftly drove a wedge between the USSR and China, thus weakening our most powerful adversary. Now we seem hellbent on pushing them back together again, at a time of talk of war with China over Taiwan.

We can try another proven approach, one that will undermine Putin’s claims of a Western threat while offering the Ukrainian people real hope of stability and prosperity. In the late 1940s as NATO and the Warsaw Pact were first forming, Finland, once (like Ukraine) part of Imperial Russia, came to an informal understanding with Joseph Stalin that it would maintain a strict neutrality between the opposing power blocs. In return, the USSR would respect Finland’s democracy and territorial sovereignty. The Soviets rather scrupulously respected the understanding. The West, especially American hawks, ridiculed the Finns with the demeaning term ‘Finlandization’. We too often define the world as “for us or against us,” not understanding that this was how a country trapped between powerful enemies survived and prospered. One Finnish comedian described his country’s policies as “the art of bowing to the East without mooning the West.”

We should not underestimate the obstacles to making Ukraine a neutral buffer state. We must persuade Ukrainian politicians that NATO will neither admit them to membership nor go to war to defend them. We must also persuade them to address provocative issues such as banning the teaching of Russian in primary schools. The most difficult obstacle will be persuading American politicians in today’s deeply polarized climate that supporting diplomacy must take priority over making political capital. On the other hand, most Ukrainian citizens could probably live with independent neutrality quite comfortably. Churchill is credited with saying that “Jaw, Jaw is better than War, War.” We should try it.

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