DENVER – Anyone who believes that foreign policy choices come down to Manichean choices between good and evil need to look no further than the Ukraine crisis. It is truly, as former US Secretary of State Warren Christopher said of the Balkans, “a problem from hell.” Worse, resolving it will require a temperament and clarity of thought that has become increasingly rare at a time when leaders must be seen to emote, rather than to reason their way to wise choices.
There is enough blame in this crisis to go around, but that does not mean that there is moral equivalence. The most direct responsibility lies with the Kremlin, which, sadly, is far more interested in manipulating nationalist sentiment to preserve Russia’s crony capitalism than in making a clear choice to join the global economy.
Historically, President Vladimir Putin is by no means the first Russian leader to confront such a choice. But he seems to have a preference for shallow populism – a penchant for seeking ready-made symbols of legitimacy to win over a restive population. That makes him particularly unsuited to leading a great power in a time of trouble.
Russia today combines the worst features of capitalism and statism – conditions that Putin has had more than enough time to identify, analyze, and correct. His grasp of facts and his knowledge of what is wrong indicate that what is missing is the wisdom needed to respond appropriately.
Russia’s energy resources, for example, are fast shifting from an opportunity to a familiar curse as the country fails to make the structural adjustments needed to diversify its brittle economy. As a result, Russia is a world leader in capital flight, while Putin’s authoritarian political style has alienated the intellectual and entrepreneurial classes that are crucial to creating investment opportunities at home.
None of this means that Russia can be turned into a Western state, akin to, say, the Benelux countries or northwest Europe. But Russia does need to resolve its own centuries-long tensions concerning its relationship with the West – tensions that continue to define its leaders’ conception of national identity and interest. Russians’ failure to figure out what their country “means” will result, in the end, in the choice being made for them. Ironically, a Russia that wants to determine Ukraine’s future could find that it is Ukraine – or at least its crisis – that defines Russia’s future.
But the Ukrainian leadership bears its own share of the blame for the crisis. Sovereignty requires the protection provided by effective governments and political systems. In its 23 years of post-Soviet independence, Ukraine has lurched from one political crisis to the next under a succession of governments that were corrupt, inept, or, in former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s case, both.
Ukraine sits on rich natural resources and has a talented population. Yet it is one of the world’s worst economic performers. Ukrainians may lament that they are fated to be Russia’s neighbor, rather than, say, Canada’s; but they need to deal with that neighbor and manage the relationship, difficult as it may be. Instead, Ukrainian politicians have alternated between venality and arrogant disregard for Russia’s interests. The prominence within the anti-Yanukovych “Maidan” movement of far-right forces has given Putin a highly effective political cudgel.
Yes, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev ceded Crimea to Ukraine in 1954 (to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the Treaty of Pereyaslav, which unified Ukraine and Russia); and, yes, Boris Yeltsin confirmed Crimea’s status during a period of fraught negotiations to dissolve the Soviet Union and secure Russia’s own statehood. But Ukrainians know well the complexity of the history and the need to tread lightly on Russian sensitivities.
And, lest there be any doubt, the West has hardly covered itself in glory. The European Union surely had the best of intentions in negotiating an Association Agreement with Ukraine, but that prospect had the unintended effect of setting off alarms in the Kremlin, which instantly put Yanukovych in a quandary. By all accounts, Yanukovych has a tough enough time with life’s easy decisions; this one was way over his head.
Finally, the United States’ politicians and pundits deserve a bouquet of dead flowers. No issue that enters the mosh pit of American politics can escape being framed in terms of domestic partisanship. But the future of Ukraine – and of Russia – is not a game that any US leader can win or lose.
The West has no choice but to impose sanctions on Putin’s Russia, and they will now come fast and furious. But they are unlikely to be anything more than punitive, with no coercive power to reverse facts on the ground in Crimea.
A sanctioned Russia – and a Russia that maintains its own set of sanctions – will be the new reality. But the great historical task remains to coax Russia back in the direction of membership in the international community. That means maintaining the dialogue between Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and seeking opportunities – Syria? North Korea? – for cooperation in a multilateral context.
At a time when the instinct is quite understandably to throw the book at the Russians, real statesmanship will be needed. To use the cliché of the month in Washington, everybody needs an exit ramp. The question is whether there are enough good drivers.