Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The Continuing Saga

Steven E. Meyer


By Steven E. Meyer

April 25, 2014

More than two months into the Ukrainian crisis, the West—mostly the United States—has not been able to “solve” the issue. From Washington’s perspective, it has only gotten worse. Not only is Crimea in Russian hands, but much of eastern and southern Ukraine is now bedeviled by insurrection. This crisis resists resolution for three interrelated reasons.

First, the complex state of affairs defies the usual American propensity to identify international situations as a Sisyphean struggle between virtue and turpitude. Although the Russian military has been active in eastern Ukraine, just as it was in Crimea, Russian interference has been clouded by strong, indigenous pro-Russian sympathies that have been simmering for years. While the majority population in the east is Ukrainian, much of eastern and southern Ukraine had been part of the Russian Empire since the rule of Catherine the Great during the second half of the eighteenth century until 1954.

Moreover, ever since Ukraine declared independence from the collapsing Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine’s political class, irrespective of pro-Western or pro-Russian leanings, has been defined by “kleptocracy,” robbing the country of billions of dollars. The government in Kiev has now been forced to beg the population for money to equip and train a military that, in its present condition, cannot stand up to the Russian military. Interestingly, Washington has overlooked criminal activity there for twenty-three years and has committed billions to shore up many of the corrupt politicians.  

Second, the post-Cold War strategy of American hegemony and worldwide democratization has failed. The end of communism had created a sense of optimism in US political circles that was mistaken for American capability to lead the world to a new millennium. Unfortunately, the American-led experiment came up against the tough reality that not everyone was ready, willing, or able to bend to Washington’s view of the future, particularly in the wake of American failures in Iraq and Afghanistan. The “American moment” was not much more than that—a moment. Russian President Putin is not cowed by the United States, and neither are a whole host of others. It is a world we will have to get used to. 

Third, the tools the West has attempted to use have been sorely lacking. Throughout the Ukrainian crisis, American officials have engaged in somewhat inept and naive rhetoric composed of statements that do not appreciate the complexity of the situation and tend towards a moral certainty that does not recognize our own spotty historical international record.

Additionally, the Ukrainian crisis has breathed new life into the NATO corpse with its attempts to reassure and placate East European allies. The Alliance is increasing air patrols in the skies above several East European members and naval patrols in the Baltic Sea. There has been talk of deploying American army units to the three Baltic Republics and Poland, but no final decisions have been made. Although Russian intrusion in the three Baltic Republics that have substantial Russian populations in their eastern provinces is not out of the question, two giant nuclear armed states are not likely to resort to military action over such political changes, however unjust they may be. The Russians know that NATO is essentially a “paper tiger.” 

The sanctions being imposed by the West have had some impact on the Russian economy, but sanctions can only go so far because they are unlikely to dissuade Russia from involvement in Ukraine, and eventually they will have a boomerang effect on Western economies. Hundreds of thousands of European jobs and billions of euros, especially in France and Germany, depend on the Russian market. Paris and Berlin already are balking at extending sanctions.

So, what is a way forward?  Washington needs to recognize that the West has continued to perpetuate a Cold War foreign policy that views Russia as an outlier. NATO’s expansion after the Warsaw Pact was dissolved is a concrete recognition that the Cold War never ended for Washington. Proposals to form a Europe-wide security structure were rejected in favor of maintaining a military alliance that was patently anti-Russian. While not a guarantee, including Russia in the “new” Europe might have provided a more realistic platform to resolve major security issues.

Economic and financial integration—pushed by business and governments alike--has far outstripped political integration between Russia and the West. While there is no necessary synonymy between economic integration and the absence of war, the economic progress made since 1991 has broken down the economic and financial isolation of East from West. This progress can serve as a model to end Cold War-era institutions and policies and build new integrating political and security structures and policies. This will not completely end changes in borders and the structure of political communities, but it might well provide a better avenue to explore those issues and find mutually acceptable solutions.     

- Steven E. Meyer is a Fellow at the Center for Public Justice.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”