Why Obama Shouldn’t Fall for Putin’s Ukrainian Folly

Russia and the West Have Conspired to Tear the Country Apart. Both Sides Must Stand Down Now or Face the Consequences.

We’re now witnessing the consequences of how grossly both Russia and the West have overplayed their hands in Ukraine. It is urgently necessary that both should find ways of withdrawing from some of the positions that they have taken. Otherwise, the result could very easily be civil war, Russian invasion, the partition of Ukraine, and a conflict that will haunt Europe for generations to come.

The only country that could possibly benefit from such an outcome is China. As with the invasion of Iraq and the horrible mismanagement of the campaign in Afghanistan, the U.S. would be distracted for another decade from the question of how to deal with its only competitive peer in the world today. Yet given the potentially appalling consequences for the world economy of a war in Ukraine, it is probable that even Beijing would not welcome such an outcome.

If there is one absolutely undeniable fact about Ukraine, which screams from every election and every opinion poll since its independence two decades ago, it is that the country’s population is deeply divided between pro-Russian and pro-Western sentiments. Every election victory for one side or another has been by a narrow margin, and has subsequently been reversed by an electoral victory for an opposing coalition.

What has saved the country until recently has been the existence of a certain middle ground of Ukrainians sharing elements of both positions; that the division in consequence was not clear cut; and that the West and Russia generally refrained from forcing Ukrainians to make a clear choice between these positions.

During George W. Bush’s second term as president, the U.S., Britain, and other NATO countries made a morally criminal attempt to force this choice by the offer of a NATO Membership Action Plan for Ukraine (despite the fact that repeated opinion polls had shown around two-thirds of Ukrainians opposed to NATO membership). French and German opposition delayed this ill-advised gambit, and after August 2008, it was quietly abandoned. The Georgian-Russian war in that month had made clear both the extreme dangers of further NATO expansion, and that the United States would not in fact fight to defend its allies in the former Soviet Union.

In the two decades after the collapse of the USSR, it should have become obvious that neither West nor Russia had reliable allies in Ukraine. As the demonstrations in Kiev have amply demonstrated, the “pro-Western” camp in Ukraine contains many ultra-nationalists and even neo-fascists who detest Western democracy and modern Western culture. As for Russia’s allies from the former Soviet establishment, they have extracted as much financial aid from Russia as possible, diverted most of it into their own pockets, and done as little for Russia in return as they possibly could.

Over the past year, both Russia and the European Union tried to force Ukraine to make a clear choice between them—and the entirely predictable result has been to tear the country apart. Russia attempted to draw Ukraine into the Eurasian Customs Union by offering a massive financial bailout and heavily subsidized gas supplies. The European Union then tried to block this by offering an association agreement, though (initially) with no major financial aid attached. Neither Russia nor the EU made any serious effort to talk to each other about whether a compromise might be reached that would allow Ukraine somehow to combine the two agreements, to avoid having to choose sides.

President Viktor Yanukovych’s rejection of the EU offer led to an uprising in Kiev and the western and central parts of Ukraine, and to his own flight from Kiev, together with many of his supporters in the Ukrainian parliament. This marks a very serious geopolitical defeat for Russia. It is now obvious that Ukraine as a whole cannot be brought into the Eurasian Union, reducing that union to a shadow of what the Putin administration hoped. And though Russia continues officially to recognize him, President Yanukovych can only be restored to power in Kiev if Moscow is prepared to launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine and seize its capital by force.

The result would be horrendous bloodshed, a complete collapse of Russia’s relations with the West and of Western investment in Russia, a shattering economic crisis, and Russia’s inevitable economic and geopolitical dependency on China.

But Western governments, too, have put themselves in an extremely dangerous position. They have acquiesced to the overthrow of an elected government by ultra-nationalist militias, which have also chased away a large part of the elected parliament. This has provided a perfect precedent for Russian-backed militias in turn to seize power in the east and south of the country.

The West has stood by in silence while the rump parliament in Kiev abolished the official status of Russian and other minority languages, and members of the new government threatened publicly to ban the main parties that supported Yanukovych—an effort that would effectively disenfranchise around a third of the population.

After years of demanding that successive Ukrainian governments undertake painful reforms in order to draw nearer to the West, the West is now in a paradoxical position: If it wishes to save the new government from a Russian-backed counter-revolution, it will have to forget about any reforms that will alienate ordinary people, and instead give huge sums in aid with no strings attached. The EU has allowed the demonstrators in Kiev to believe that their actions have brought Ukraine closer to EU membership—but, if anything, this is now even further away than it was before the revolution.

In these circumstances, it is essential that both the West and Russia act with caution. The issue here is not Crimea. From the moment when the Yanukovych government in Kiev was overthrown, it was obvious that Crimea was effectively lost to Ukraine. Russia is in full military control of the peninsula with the support of a large majority of its population, and only a Western military invasion can expel it.

This does not mean that Crimea will declare independence. So far, the call of the Crimean parliament has been only for increased autonomy. It does mean, however, that Russia will decide the fate of Crimea when and as it chooses. For the moment, Moscow appears to be using Crimea, like Yanukovych, in order to influence developments in Ukraine as a whole.

It also seems unlikely that the government in Kiev will try to retake Crimea by force, both because this would lead to their inevitable defeat, and because even some Ukrainian nationalists have told me in private that Crimea was never part of historic Ukraine. They would be prepared to sacrifice it if that was the price of taking the rest of Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit.

But that is not true of important Ukrainian cities with significant ethnic Russian populations, such as Donetsk, Kharkov, and Odessa. The real and urgent issue now is what happens across the eastern and southern Ukraine, and it is essential that neither side initiates the use of force there. Any move by the new Ukrainian government or nationalist militias to overthrow elected local authorities and suppress anti-government demonstrations in these regions is likely to provoke a Russian military intervention. Any Russian military intervention in turn will compel the Ukrainian government and army (or at least its more nationalist factions) to fight.

The West must therefore urge restraint—not only from Moscow, but from Kiev as well. Any aid to the government in Kiev should be made strictly conditional on measures to reassure the Russian-speaking populations of the east and south of the country: respect for elected local authorities; restoration of the official status of minority languages; and above all, no use of force in those regions. In the longer run, the only way to keep Ukraine together may be the introduction of a new federal constitution with much greater powers for the different regions.

But that is for the future. For now, the overwhelming need is to prevent war. War in Ukraine would be an economic, political, and cultural catastrophe for Russia. In many ways, the country would never recover, but Russia would win the war itself. As it proved in August 2008, if Russia sees its vital interests in the former USSR as under attack, Russia will fight. NATO will not. War in Ukraine would therefore also be a shattering blow to the prestige of NATO and the European Union from which these organizations might never recover either.

A century ago, two groups of countries whose real common interests vastly outweighed their differences allowed themselves to be drawn into a European war in which more than 10 million of their people died and every country suffered irreparable losses. In the name of those dead, every sane and responsible citizen in the West, Russia, and Ukraine itself should now urge caution and restraint on the part of their respective leaders.

Anatol Lieven is a professor in the war studies department of King’s College London and a senior fellow of the New America Foundation. He is author of Ukraine and Russia: A Fraternal Rivalry.
Primary Editor: Andrés Martinez. Secondary Editor: Jia-Rui Cook.
*Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Baz Ratner.
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  • Terry Ruddy

    Thanks for the opinion Professor. Many of us lived the Cold War and are not surprised by today’s events. It’s also very easy to tell which side of the Iron Curtain held your affection. I’ll assume since you’ve written a book you know the history there and so you know why western Ukraine despises Russia. To many Ukrainians, their country was already being handed over to Mr. Putin by one more in a long line of rather corrupt leaders. The British colonies here had far less reason to form a “rump” government in 1776. No matter, at this point Ukraine is already partitioned. No one believes the US/NATO has the will to do anything except bloviate about Crimea. The real question now is how far west does Putin think his empire extends. So far he does’t seem to be impressed when others show restraint except when it means he gets what he wants. A war would be a terrible thing but if NATO doesn’t get it’s act together and show more determination, Russian will become a mandatory class in a lot more schools next year. The more things change I guess. At least under the Soviet Union, they never felt the need to wear ski masks when they invaded. Maybe they were just left over from the winter Olympics.

    • Ben

      Speaking of bloviation, Terry, the only reason any of us are here to argue the point is because during the Cold War our leaders and theirs didn’t follow the advice of people like you when it really mattered.

  • Gu Daqian

    best piece on the current crisis. everyone should get out of the mentality of keeping treating Russia as public enemy #1.

  • JamesKoenig

    It’s a strange mix of news this morning– who won Oscar Gold, a “snow day” in Washington, and, Putin’s attempted (or is it already done) annexation of the Crimea. If one reads the history of the Crimea from the “Crimean War” days on it’s chilling to see how a place that has been so “under the radar” for most of Western Europe and certainly America, has been and continues to be a possible pivot point on world history. The Ukraine is calling up reserves. John Kerry is on his way to Kiev. It almost feels like the responding “bomb squad” going in to defuse the thing– with the minor detail that the timer is set and ticking.

    Does anyone really think that Vladimir Putin just “saw an opportunity” this week and took it? Last week he was saying “We’re just doing normal military exercises in the region.” This week it’s “Surrender your military bases by tomorrow or we’ll take them by force. By tomorrow morning the news may go from Oscar gold to blood red. If it were a weather prediction, the report would be blood red skies on the horizon.

    Are our eyes so easily diverted by spectacle? Rewind a few weeks– both the opening and closing ceremonies of the Winter Olympics didn’t have more than a few perfunctory statements about “peace and world unity” through athletic competition. Instead we had dazzling spectacles that were nothing short of a glorification– and rewriting– of Russian history. Putin and his team actually managed to leave out Joseph Stalin and, his namesake, Vladimir Lenin– along with pogroms, and Jews, and homosexuals. Of course there was Tchaikovsky and mention of Diagalev and the Rite of Spring (made famous “in the day” by Ninjinsky). But denials of the composer of the 1812 Overture’s relations with men had already been “deleted” from history when Putin defended his anti-gay Nazi-esque tactics earlier this year. Even protests at the Metropolitan Opera in New York against those Russian anti-gay policies were dismissed here by the head of the Met with “Of course we don’t discriminate, but we try to stay out of politics.” Diva Anna Netrebko and Conductor Valery Giergev are know to be darlings of Putin. Giergev was the capable podium maestro for musical elements of the greatest propaganda extravaganza ever. In the meanwhile, struggles in Kiev escalated—

    I am involved in the arts in many ways, including founding the 15 year old Scandinavian Film Festival L.A. Two years ago we screened a film by Finnish Director Reny Harlin called “Eight Days of War” about Russia’s (i.e. Putin’s) activities in Georgia. This year we included a “Baltic film expo” at the festival with films from Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. You can bet the Balts are watching Putin. The result of many “relocations” during Soviet times have resulted in large Russian ethnic and linguistic minority populations in each of those countries. (During Soviet times all civil service and licensing exams were given ONLY in Russian.) Does the presence of a Russian speaking population give license to invade?

    The Russian people have a great history and the world is blessed with the gifts of Russian culture. We know many many talented Russians who live in the west– in the arts, and in the sciences, and more than a few figure-skaters! But Putin is skating on thin ice. The Russian people can celebrate their culture. But no one can re-write it’s history to exclude pogroms, anti-semitism, labor camps, gulags, and violations of human rights.

    The morning news had emotional interviews from the large Ukrainian community in Chicago. They remember the history left out of Putin’s Sochi spectacles in olympic proportions. Here in Los Angeles we have large Russian and Ukrainian communities. These communities are comprised of people that left oppression. Some of that oppression was during Soviet times. Some of it was the “same old, same old” that continued after Soviet times. To NOT take this all very seriously is like pre-WW II days when people didn’t think Hitler and National Socialism was a threat. Yes, restraint is prudent, but inaction is not. This is a time for careful handling of a situation that threatens world peace– a time for working together with our allies and through structures like the United Nations. This is not a time for reckless and nearly treasonous politics as we are seeing from Lindsey Graham and John McCain’s Obama bashing. Enough of their political sour grapes. This is the time to stand together as a united nation and let our leaders do their job.

  • Ken Murray

    Brilliant piece that allows those of us who are interested, but are not in-depth followers of the history of the region, to have some perspective of what is actually happening. Thanks!

  • Rich Naff

    Suggestions about the ultra nationalist are probably correct; They seem to exist in all societies. I have read most recently that a number of the ultra-nationalist proclamations have been rescinded (official Lithuanian language usage, etc). But what about reports of the the existence of Russian provocateurs ( They too seem credible. And how can Crimea be of any use to the Russians without the Ukraine? I doesn’t seem logical to take the Peninsula without extracting additional concessions from the Ukraine concerning access, water, etc?

    Agreed; the West doesn’t need to provoke Russian nationalist, but shouldn’t there be limits on Mr. Putin? He has, after all, turned into a tyrant of sorts. The legitimacy of the Ukrainian Parliament may be questioned;elections need to be held. However, elections shouldn’t be treated as a winner-take-all affair. Rights and institutions need to be respected by all parties; if the winner put the loser on trial, then surely bad blood will result. If corruptions make the common Lithuanian feel deprived, then a sense of righteousness in protest will result, even if it is misguided. Both the EU and Russia need to quite using the Ukraine as a pawn in global politics; they have sufficient problems of their own.

  • George Ivan

    Very good balanced article.

  • justin bristow

    Great article, incomplete policy prescription.

    Our primary objective should be a reasonable containment of Russia, allowing its sphere of influence to include eastern Ukraine.

    We should be deploying troops to Poland and the Baltics now. On a permanent basis. This will demonstrate in language Russia will understand, “hey, our bad on Ukraine we didn’t realize it was so important to you, but this far and no further.” We should be making back channel deals with Kiev to deploy our forces straight to Kiev if Russia threatens the capital. We should leak these deals to the Russians, and also leak that we have no intent of defending southern and eastern Ukraine.

    Though I don’t know if the author understands it, what he advocates necessarily means the breaking off of southern and eastern Ukraine. Which, in the long run, is a good thing for both Ukraine and the West. The police and officials there are powerless. Russian and pro-Russian Ukrainian protesters are seizing buildings all over the place. If the central government does not crack down, make arrests etc. the riots and attacks on government facilities and politicians and their families will just continue until each region votes the government in Kiev illegitimate and votes to join Crimea’s status (whatever that turns out to be). But if Kiev does crack down, Russia will invade.

    So Kiev can’t win here. But, if it keeps up a strategy of doing nothing, it will only lose the south and east. That’s 50% of the economy and 45% of the people but what will be left is a state with a truly united culture and opinion on foreign policy. Carrying out back breaking reforms and joining Europe would then be feasible in a few years.

    What Europe and America must NOT do, is allow Russia to play its leverage in negotiations for an adjustment of the situation in Kiev and Ukraine as a whole. That will only mean this will happen again, it will demoralize western Ukraine, alienate them from the West, and probably lead to a violent struggle in Western Ukraine between the nationalists and the mainstream politicians. That will in turn divide Western Ukraine and allow another Russian backed candidate to triumph in the next elections. After that, Ukraine will lose all its freedoms as authoritarian methods are imposed.

  • glebsky

    Erm… Chechnya? The public persecution of many minorities especially in Moscow? Internet is full of gruesome videos of Russian neo-nazis beating up people from Caucasus or Central Asia. Work ads recruit often only “European-looking” employees. Russian society is currently the most xenophobic in Europe. And if Russia annexes Crimea, the indigenous Crimean Tartars will have to face it once again…

  • Andrei Bilderburger

    You should ask some Chechens what kind of place modern Russia is.

    • Trevor Bacon

      You should ask some Iraqis or Afghanis what kind of place the US is.

  • Andrei Bilderburger

    The US has utterly incompetent leadership. We can do 2 things. One is sanctions on anyone who knows Putin, with 100% asset seizures and travel bans. This is mostly Russian oligarchs who stole their money so why not?

    The other is simple. Offer Ukraine better economic integration with the west but DO NOT force them to choose between the West and Russia. Let them have better integration with Russia too if they want. This is very much in Russia’s best interests economically, which may be adequate to distract them from how corrosive it would be of their totalitarian government to let their people travel freely in Ukraine and see things working well there under a more open system.

  • tromly76 .

    This is a penetrating analysis, but I think it overstates the case for ethnic division in Ukraine.

    I am not convinced that large numbers of East Europeans want to leave Ukraine. An estimate is that 17% of Ukrainians are ethnic Russians. The rest are not (including large numbers of Easterners). “Russified” Ukrainians (in language, culture) are not necessarily or even probably Russian nationalists; the idea that linguistic borders match national sentiments in Ukraine, in my view, is a myth propagated by nationalists on both sides. After all, Soviet internal passports designated nationality as an official category, and Ukrainians were distinguished from Russians independent of language use.

    My suspicion is that bused-in Russians from the East make up a significant part of the angry crowds in Kharkiv, Donetsk etc.

  • Elena O

    The articles uses an old “West- East” conspiracy theory without giving the Ukrainian people a right of self-determination. The revolution in Ukraine was an attempt to break with the post -Soviet past (the concentraion of power in the hands of one person, corruption, absence of rule of law ). The new government recieved a broad support by all parties, including the Party of regions of the former president Yanukovich. No one “chased away the large part of the parliament” and the language law was subsequently repealed. The deep divide between the West and East of Ukraine is largely overplayed.

  • Rascalndear

    I think the first premise, that the West “overplayed its hand” is completely wrong… which badly affects the subsequent arguments presented here, unfortunately. The West was not interfering on the ground and stirring up trouble in Ukraine through a corrupt administration and shipped in rioters. The west was mostly too busy with its own problems to really even think much about the Maidan until a few people got killed.

  • James Gordon

    So. Let’s talk reapolitik here, not ideals. The issues with the IIPB that led to the War of Dagestan and the Moscow Apartment Bombings are very unlikely in Ukraine. I’m not saying life in Russia is charming or progressive. However, it is likely preferential to a pointless civil war which would not be supported by the majority of the population of Crimea and other parts of Eastern Ukraine which is Russian. That’s simply the case. Life in a somewhat repressive state is usually preferably to calamitous Civil War, and those areas lean toward Russia.

  • Trevor Bacon

    “in the longer run, the only way to keep Ukraine together may be the
    introduction of a new federal constitution with much greater powers for
    the different regions.”I

    am given to understand that this is exactly the suggestion given by Putin and Lavrov and was rejected by the EU and US. Or is my understanding incorrect?

  • Terry Ruddy

    Just a tad late to the game don’t you think? Morally criminal, you must be talking about Mr. Putin’s entire administration.
    No matter, I don’t think there are any areas of agreement between us on who the good guys and the bad guys are. Прощай