Putin’s Ultimate Solution for Ukraine May Be the Best

by , March 12, 2014

Vladimir Putin and Russia – almost never on the receiving end of good publicity in the United States – do deserve criticism for the quiet invasion of Crimea, a Russian-speaking region of Ukraine. Invading other countries for any reason, except to pre-empt an attack, should be out-of-bounds in today’s world.

Unfortunately, this panacea has not been achieved, as the United States has also proven time after time. That stark reality is why Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent comments on Meet the Press were so hypocritical. On Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he said, "This is an act of aggression that is completely trumped up in terms of its pretext" and "you just don’t invade another country on phony pretext in order to assert your interests." Hmmm. What about the George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq after exaggerating threats from Iraqi "weapons of mass destruction" and dreaming up a nonexistent operational link between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden and the 9/11 attacks. And what about Ronald Reagan’s invasion of Grenada in 1983 to save U.S. medical students in no danger and George H.W. Bush’s invasion of Panama because its leader, Manuel Noriega, was associated with the narcotics trade? In the latter case, many other leaders in Latin America at the time probably profited from such drug connections. More generally, Latin America has been a US sphere of influence and playground for US invasions since the early 1900s – Lyndon Johnson’s invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965 and Bill Clinton’s threatened invasion of Haiti in 1994 being two recent examples.

In most cross-border invasions, two divergent levels exist – nations’ interests and the rhetoric used to justify them. As just noted, the US government is often the champion of hypocrisy, criticizing other nations for transgressions it regularly commits as a superpower "doing good." Although even John Kerry surprisingly seemed to partially tip his hat to Putin’s lame excuse for invading Crimea – that Russian-speaking people there were in danger: "There are plenty of ways to protect Russian-speaking people in Crimea or other parts of Ukraine. But they are really sort of a hidden pretext here, possibly trying to annex Crimea." Kerry is probably right about Putin’s goal of annexation of Crimea or perhaps other parts of eastern Ukraine, which are also populated by Russian-speaking peoples. And although Russia also invaded Georgia in 2008 after the then-Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili’s actions threatened Russian speaking people there, Russian-speakers have been seemingly in less danger this time in Crimea.

Nevertheless, rhetoric aside, Ukraine is clearly in the sphere of influence of neighboring Russia, Crimea used to be part of Russia, the Russians have based their fleet on the peninsula for centuries, and most of the Crimean population probably wouldn’t object to Russia’s annexation of the region. The same is probably true for most of Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine. Russia may very well try to foment unrest in eastern Ukraine to justify further intervention. However, Russia is not dealing from a position of strength in Ukraine; the Russia-friendly elected government ruling all of Ukraine was overthrown by unelected street protesters, and Russia is merely trying to salvage the parts of Ukraine that speak Russian. In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European Empire and the triumphalist expansion of the adversary NATO alliance right up to Russia’s borders, Russia’s sphere of influence has contracted greatly, and it is trying to hold on to something.

Because the nearby Russians have local military superiority, the more powerful United States and West have no good military options and must confine their responses to likely ineffective diplomatic protests and economic sanctions. And even those measures are often short-lived. Remember, Russia was given the Olympic games even after its invasion of Georgia.

So after the US and Western governments’ indignant and hypocritical bombast about the admittedly unjustifiable Russian actions have passed, maybe Ukraine should be partitioned. Today’s world is made up of states that usually avoid this solution, because many of them don’t want to set an example for their own ethnic, religious, or tribal minorities that might want to break away. And the United States resists this solution because it is a status quo power and irrationally fears instability. Yet partitioning, if done correctly, can enhance stability. For example, if Iraq would have been partitioned into a loose confederation of autonomous regions, or even separate countries, by mutual consent of warring ethno-sectarian groups – as my book Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq advocated – the current resurgent violence likely could have been avoided. The central government would have been weak or nonexistent, and the various groups would have had no incentive to fight to control the oppressive potential of it. The same is true for Ukraine.

Since the Orange Revolution in 2004, which yanked Ukraine out of the Russian orbit, the country has been whipsawed back and forth between East and West. The pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych was legitimately elected in 2010, but has now been overthrown. If the country were partitioned into a pro-Western nation in western Ukraine and a pro-Russian nation in eastern Ukraine (including Crimea), this solution would allow the major groups self-determination, supposedly a U.S.-endorsed principle since President Woodrow Wilson championed it in World War I. Even if Russia annexed eastern Ukraine, most people who live there would not object; they do not want to be ruled by western Ukrainians. With partition, in addition to achieving self-determination, the situation in the region might at last become stable. Western Ukraine, Catholic and speaking Ukrainian, could grow closer to the West economically and politically and act as showcase of relative economic freedom, much as South Korea does vis-à-vis the less economically free North Korea. Eastern Ukraine, Orthodox and speaking Russian, could either be an independent state or be absorbed into Russia. Achieving this more stable situation might also allow tensions to be eased between nuclear-armed Russia and United States.

Under no circumstances, however, should the NATO alliance be further expanded to include western Ukraine. The United States is currently reaping the bitter rewards of rubbing Russia’s nose in the Soviet Union’s collapse for more than 20 years. Putin is what he is and does what he does – and gets support in Russia for it – because he wants to restore the security buffer zone that was taken away by the alliance’s unnecessary and provocative expansion after the Cold War ended. Counterintuitively, after the dust settles on this crisis, perhaps Putin – although not justified in the way he did it – will have unilaterally arrived at a more stable arrangement for the future of Ukraine and the region.

Read more by Ivan Eland