Ukraine Is a Problem Only as Long as the West Makes It One

Ukrainian servicemen take part in a drill of the airborne troops taking place in Zhytomyr region on November 21, 2018. (photo: AFP)

Since the fall of the Soviet Union thirty years ago, US policy on Ukraine has been an ugly mix of inconsistency, quiet aggression, fear-mongering and stupidity. Now President Biden is recklessly intensifying the same failed tactics while expecting a different outcome and risking a confrontation of the world’s two major nuclear-armed states.

What could possibly go wrong?

What passes for conventional wisdom nowadays is expressed by the cover headline of the November 29 issue of The Nation magazine, of all places:

Ukraine: The Most Dangerous Problem in the World

That is such hogwash. The Nation knows better. But the fear-mongering leads, even though the magazine’s sub-head is: “But there’s already a solution.” Author Anatol Lieven argues persuasively that the essence of a solution for Ukraine issues have already been outlined in the so-called “Minsk II” agreement of 2015, reached by leaders of France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine. The agreement was endorsed unanimously by the United Nations Security Council. Despite their formal assent to Minsk II, three US administrations have supported Ukraine in refusing to implement the agreement. Nor have they proposed any better idea. This is an example of foreign policy guided by denial of reality.

Ukraine remains a “dangerous problem” only as long as the US and Ukraine insist on making it one. (It’s hardly “the most dangerous,” given climate change, or US provocation of China, or the US-led nuclear arms race, or the self-gutting of US democracy.)

With the Soviet Union gone in 1991, US President Bush assured Russian leaders that NATO would not expand to include former Soviet states. Whether this was a lie or a broken promise hardly matters. NATO expanded. Russia was confronted with the prospect of an avowedly hostile military alliance approaching its borders along the same invasion route followed by Napoleon and Hitler. As long as Ukraine remained unaligned, Russian historical memory could rest quietly. Ukraine puts almost 1,000 miles between Russia and NATO member Poland. Ukraine’s population of about 45 million ranges from very pro-western to virtually Russian. The country has long been deeply corrupt with a quasi-functional democracy (an opportunistic playground for the likes of Paul Manafort and Hunter Biden). All in all, from a geopolitical perspective, Ukraine was (and still is) a combustible potential best left undisturbed.

In 2013, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych put NATO and European Union membership in play, then reversed course under Russian pressure. In November 2013, he cancelled an EU association agreement just days before it was to take effect. With US connivance, pro-western Ukrainian forces launched the Maidan Revolution that lasted into the spring of 2014. Elected president Yanukovich was forced out of office (shades of Iran 1953) and the country entered a period of chaos. Russia took advantage of this to walk into Crimea unopposed and to annex it, as voted by the Crimean parliament, despite objections from the West. These objections have continued to the present, together with economic sanctions and military provocations from the Black Sea.

The US and NATO have justified their hostile actions by claiming Russia was also about to invade eastern Ukraine, which still hasn’t happened. Eastern Ukraine, the Donbas, has been a war zone since March 2014 when separatist Ukrainian forces in Donetsk and Luhansk started fighting for independence from the central government in Kiev. This is a civil war between the self-declared People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk against the Ukraine government. The People’s Republics comprise about 6,200 square miles (bigger than Connecticut) with almost 4 million people, mostly Russian-speaking, whose currency is the ruble. Russia has supported the People’s Republics, but short of introducing its own troops. Likewise, the US and NATO have supported Kiev, but short of introducing their own troops into the Donbas. The fighting has been intense in the past, with some 10,000 killed on both sides, but the conflict in recent years has been limited to trench warfare along a 400-mile front, with most casualties coming from sniper fire. Neither side has made significant advances in years.

In 2014, Russia and Ukraine met under the auspices of the European Union and signed the first Minsk Protocol in an ultimately ineffective effort to reach a ceasefire. The following year, five parties signed a second Minsk Protocol – Ukraine, Ukraine Separatists, Russia, France, and Germany – which led to reduced fighting but no lasting solution. Through all of this, the US under President Obama, played no useful role in resolving the issues or assuring anything like a stable peace.

The US remains gripped, apparently, by a reflexive Cold War rigidity which requires that Russia be to blame for anything we don’t like, such as the results of the US-sponsored coup in Ukraine in 2014. The new Cold War is manifested by the expansion of NATO, needlessly threatening Russia on the basis of a paranoid Western sense of threat.

Another manifestation of Cold War thinking is Biden’s choice of Victoria Nuland as his current special ambassador to Russia to discuss Ukraine. Nuland was notoriously involved in efforts to manipulate the 2013 Madan uprising and supporting the coup against Yanukovich. When apprised of European desires to proceed cautiously, Nuland was recorded on cell phone saying, “Fuck the EU.” Such assertions of American exceptionalism continue to make the world a more dangerous place.

What could Biden do now to make the world a safer place?

Biden could ease sanctions over Crimea, acknowledging that its return to Russia is a done deal with strong historic and geo-political justifications. Biden could also stop US nuclear-capable bombers from probing Russia in the Black Sea region. It’s hard to see how continuing such provocative flights can have a calming effect.

Most importantly, Biden could assure Russia (as the US did once before in 1992) that NATO would not expand to include Ukraine. In his recent conversation with Putin, Biden did the opposite, making it all but non-negotiable. That has the obvious effect of continuing the conflict, asserting the right to hold a knife to another’s throat.

This particular knife was forced into NATO’s hands in April 2008 by the illegitimate President Bush against the will of the majority of NATO members. The issue came up at NATO’s North Atlantic Council meeting in Bucharest. NATO members easily accepted the future membership of Albania and Croatia, but balked at approving Ukraine or Georgia. Instead, in the Bucharest Summit Declaration, members approved a compromise article drafted by the British with intentional imprecision, paragraph 23 of 50, that began:

NATO welcomes Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for

membership in NATO. We agreed today that these countries will become

members of NATO….

The paragraph continues with generalizations about the countries’ contributions to the war in Afghanistan, their promised democratic reforms, and so on. But there is no date for membership, no process for achieving membership (as distinct from Albania and Croatia), and actual approval is only anticipated at some unknown future date. This paragraph in the Bucharest Declaration is essentially a throwaway line, putting off to an indeterminate future the clearly divisive and dangerous issue of relating to Russian border states.

Elsewhere, the Bucharest Declaration discusses a variety of practical matters with consistent self-confidence and expressions of peaceful cooperation:

… we stand ready to continue working with Russia as equal partners in areas of common concern…. [paragraph 28]

We remain committed to substantive political discussions and effective cooperation…. [paragraph 32]

The Alliance will continue to support, as appropriate, these efforts as guided by regional priorities and based on transparency, complementarity and inclusiveness, in order to develop dialogue and cooperation among the Black Sea states and with the Alliance. [paragraph 36]

The Bucharest Declaration does not express an alliance seeking confrontation with Russia, for all that George W. Bush wanted it.

The Bucharest Declaration treats NATO’s war in Afghanistan as a success and expresses the need for possible future military actions against Iran and North Korea (but no mention of China). There is no hint of anyone wondering why something called the North Atlantic Treaty Organization thinks it has any legitimate business operating in landlocked Afghanistan.

More than a decade later, four American presidents have turned Afghanistan into a world class disaster. America has turned its back on mass starvation there. And still there is no sense of national responsibility or shame as Biden and the US governing elite stumble provocatively toward new looming catastrophes with Iran, China, climate change, public health, and functioning democracy itself.

Ukraine is a wholly American-made pseudo crisis in which the US national interest is close to zero. The US forced NATO to put Ukraine in play in 2008 by breaking the earlier US pledge not to put Ukraine in play. Now our obtuse leadership poses as acting on principle by refusing to break the pledge that broke the first pledge, even though that is the most obvious, effective de-escalation available: guarantee Russia a border with no more NATO threats and negotiate (as others have done) in good faith to defuse the rest of the Ukrainian mishmash.

When Secretary of State Anthony Blinken says that “one country trying to tell another what its choices should be, including with whom it associates, that’s not an acceptable proposition,…” what we’re hearing is a US official ignoring reality and denying what the US does every day. And when former US ambassador Michael McFaul tweets: “Putin invented this ‘crisis’ single-handedly. Nothing changed in Ukraine. Nothing changed regarding NATO policy” – he’s just lying.

Worse, the blind rigidity of the likes of Blinken and McFaul serves to enable the truly mindless warmongers like US Senator Roger Wicker, R-MS, who doesn’t have the sense not to invite nuclear war when he tells Fox News:

Military action could mean that we stand off with our ships in the Black Sea, and we rain destruction on Russian military capability. It could mean that. It could mean that we participate, and I would not rule that out, I would not rule out American troops on the ground. We don’t rule out first use nuclear action.

President Biden has the opportunity to re-direct US policy on Ukraine in a peaceful direction,

But it will take serious, steadfast courage. We don’t know how compromised he is by his previous dealing in Ukraine, or his son’s. We don’t know if he has the clarity of mind to see the obvious. And we don’t know if he has the strength to wage peace.

William M. Boardman has over 40 years experience in theatre, radio, TV, print journalism, and non-fiction, including 20 years in the Vermont judiciary. He has received honors from Writers Guild of America, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Vermont Life magazine, and an Emmy Award nomination from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. A collection of his essays, EXCEPTIONAL: American Exceptionalism Takes Its Toll (2019) is available from Yorkland Publishing of Toronto or Amazon. This article was first published in Reader Supported News. Read other articles by William.