On March 6th President Barack Obama signed an executive order "Blocking Property of Certain Persons Contributing to the Situation in Ukraine" which permits Washington to seize the assets of any "United States person" who opposes current US policies vis-à-vis that country. The order claims absurdly that the status quo in Ukraine and the Crimean referendum constitute a "national emergency" for the United States. Anyone who directly or indirectly is involved in "actions or policies that threaten the peace, security, stability, sovereignty, or territorial integrity of Ukraine" can have his or her assets seized. That means if you think a referendum by Crimeans that might result in union with Russia is not necessarily a bad idea and you write a letter to the local paper saying so it could be good-bye bank account. There is no appeal mechanism in the executive order.
Obama’s transition to the tin hat brigade is eerily similar to an order signed by George W. Bush in 2007, the "Blocking Property of Certain Persons Who Threaten Stabilization Efforts in Iraq." Taking both orders together, it is a clear indication of how low we have sunk so as to penalize any dissent over policies that have never been openly debated or voted on by the American public, but I suppose Bush would explain proudly that he "brought democracy" to Iraq while Obama would change the subject by noting that he killed Usama bin-Laden. Either way, the criminalizing of Americans exercising their First Amendment rights ends up making the rest of what happens relatively unimportant, nothing more than what our war masters refer to as collateral damage.
I am no expert on what is going on in Ukraine, apart from speaking a little Russian, an ability which many Ukrainian citizens reportedly also have. But it is clear that some unfortunate patterns relating to the past twenty years or so appear to be resurfacing in spite of the fact that most observers would likely agree that Washington has made a complete hash of the post-bipolar world that has prevailed since 1991. We are already seeing Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, demonized for years in the mainstream media, compared to Hitler by no less than Hillary Clinton and a supporting chorus of neocons. We are back in the bunkers and it is 1938 in Munich. Again we are being called on to oppose evil, the same clarion call sounded over every overseas crisis for the past twenty years.
But the evil is us. We started the Ukraine problem by meddling with a democratically elected Ukrainian government which was admittedly corrupt and autocratic, but legal nonetheless. We openly provided the type of support that enabled a diverse group of demonstrators to bring President Viktor Yanukovich down and US diplomats spoke on a phone about who might head an alternative government that would be to Washington’s taste.
And the seeds of the conflict, one of a series that have roiled Eastern Europe for the past twenty years, were actually planted earlier when the United States violated an understanding with Moscow not to take advantage of the fall of the Soviet empire by advancing its zone of influence. Nearly all Eastern Europe states now have a relationship with the western dominated European Union, some as full members, and most are also in NATO, a defensive alliance aimed at Russia. If Moscow is alarmed, it has a right to be so.
Ukraine, once referred to as "little Russia" because of its cultural similarity to its larger neighbor is the birthplace of the Russian Orthodox faith, and sits squarely on Russia’s border. Putin, a Russian nationalist, could not ignore a threat to Moscow’s national security, just as the United States would never look the other way in the event of a takeover in Mexico by a mob aligned with either Russia or China, so how this crisis has been playing out should not surprise anyone.
A little history is in order. The Crimea, part of Ukraine only since 1954, was a Tartar Khanate under the protection of the Ottoman Empire until it was annexed by Catherine the Great in 1783. It became part of Russia, its capital Sebastopol the only Russian ice free naval base, operating on the Black Sea. Most Crimeans identify ethnically as Russians rather than as Ukrainians and Russia continues to operate its major naval base, complete with a large garrison, under a long term bilateral agreement with the Ukrainian government. Russia sees its ability to use the Crimea as a vital national security interest and it is hard to deny that Moscow has a legitimate stake regarding what occurs in Ukraine.
In post-Soviet Europe there were indeed good practical reasons to encourage the transition to popular government of some kind for nations that had suffered under totalitarianism for forty-five years, but the process has both gotten out of hand and has focused too much on introducing western democratic norms without any regard for local ability to absorb such an development. This has meant that aspiring politicians who are good at talking democracy (and often speak English) generally get Washington’s support in their pastel revolutions and then out to be either completely corrupt or hopelessly incompetent leaders. This process is currently playing out in Ukraine, as it played out earlier in places like Georgia. As in the case of Georgia, which was the aggressor in a war with Russia, we Americans are being told that we must stand by Ukraine with military support, a short hand way to suggest that the US must stop Russia now even if it does mean starting World War III. Senator John McCain is, as usual, leading the charge, claiming that Russia is a "gas station masquerading as a country." If I were Putin I might well respond that McCain is a psychopath pretending to be a statesman.
All of the above would seem to indicate that Washington would be wise to pause and consider its actual interests in Ukraine. I would suggest that there are no actual American interests, not even the good old Obama tried-and-true universal excuse to intervene "Responsibility to protect" or R2P, as there are no massacres taking place.
So here is the simple truth about Ukraine – we have no genuine national interests there and we are needlessly provoking Russia which does have legitimate interests. Putin might not be Adlai Stevenson, but he is a reliable actor on the world stage who will do what he thinks is best for his country and will do it regardless of what Europeans or Americans think. He also, not irrelevantly, has enough nuclear weapons and delivery systems to destroy both the United States and the rest of the world. Washington, meanwhile, has little leverage over what is happening anyway and it has to be a complete mystery why there is a passion to "do something," particularly when doing something will no doubt make most things worse, just as it has almost everywhere since 1991. Slapping on sanctions and pouring billions of dollars we don’t have into a bottomless pit is not rational. Risking bringing back the Cold War just because we can in support of a group of Ukrainian new "leaders" that we understand as poorly as we do the leaders in the Syrian insurgency is folly.
A Washington crafted foreign policy should be designed to better the lot of the American people, not to remake the rest of the world at great expense in both lives and dollars. It is past time that Barack Obama and John Kerry figured out that provoking Russia and financing a rabble of would-be "democrats" while intervening in Ukraine’s internal politics is not a very good idea. It will not turn out any better than Georgia, Libya, Egypt, Afghanistan or Iraq. It is, in fact, a very bad idea.