Crisis in Ukraine, Part 5:

The Right and Honorable Thing

by Branislav L. Slantchev

Comments on the developing crisis in Ukraine

April 30, 2014

The crisis in Ukraine is unfolding according to a dismally predictable script and the eastern provinces are sliding toward civil war through internal subversion and relentless Russian pressure while the West impotently rages on. The US has just added a few names to its personal targets for sanctions, and the EU is reluctantly trudging behind it, both hoping for some miracle to bring Putin to reason or divine interference to get him ousted in a coup. NATO has stirred enough to send a token force on token maneuvers in the vain hope of impressing Moscow. One of only two things the West seems to have resolved upon with steely determination is to ignore the Russians who are welcoming this latest assertion of military power with positive glee and who are predicting that it will help stabilize their relations with fractious neighbors in Georgia even when just a few months ago they seemed intent on topping the man who had somehow contrived to deliver sustained – albeit slowing – economic growth while simultaneously denying most of its benefits to the ordinary people. The other is the inevitable endgame in Ukraine if its current policies are followed to their logical conclusion.

I will not dwell on the first point, for I have already done so previously. Instead, I would like to look at our refusal to countenance what in fact is the only thing that can happen in Ukraine under present (and future) sanctions-only policies. As I have argued before, without direct overt and immediate military support for Ukraine in the form of NATO troops to join the Ukrainian army in stabilizing the border region by creating a trip-wire against overt Russian aggression, Kiev must make the painful choice between preserving the territorial integrity of what remains of Ukraine post-Crimea by succumbing to Russian demands or trying to assert its rule in the East amid increasing violence that is very likely to provide a pretext for a Russian invasion and effective dismemberment of the country. If the West continues with the loud but ineffective denunciations of Putin and indulges in an ever-growing list of useless sanctions, Kiev might be fatally encouraged to resist by the belief that open Russian aggression might, in the end, cause the West to put its military power where it (loud) mouth is. I am very, very afraid that this will simply cause the Ukrainians to join Finns, Poles, Germans, Hungarians, Czechs (twice!), and (at least when it comes to the American response) Georgians on the list of artless victims who were duped into relying on the West in their attempt to escape the Russian embrace. It is not that the West is exclusively perfidious when it comes to Russia as abandoned Iraqis would be the first to attest.

The right thing to do is to intervene in support of Ukrainian independence even at the risk of escalation to a war with Russia. Although this risk exists, it is not very large, and we should be prepared to bear it at least for defensive operations against Russia in eastern Ukraine.

I am certain that the West will do no such thing.

In that case, we should do the honorable thing. Admit to ourselves that we are in no position to contest the expansion of Russian military, economic, and political influence in its Eurasian sphere, and then act to at least prevent bloodshed in Ukraine. To this end, we should abandon our vain posturing that might be stiffening Kiev’s resolve to resist and instead press the Ukrainians to eliminate the pretext for Russian intervention by abandoning control of the eastern provinces. Instead of giving them false hopes, we should make it abundantly clear that it is either this or civil war – and zero prospects of meaningful NATO help.

The Ukrainians are, in fact, already alone against Moscow. They just do not know it yet, and our irresponsible yapping is to blame. It is high time we end it and hunker down for a costly recovery of our credibility with our allies and our defensive posture with our enemies.

The West acted without regard to consequences when it somehow convinced itself that it can detach Ukraine from Russian influence without Putin – Putin of all people! – doing anything about it. The West encouraged Maidan without a single thought of how this scenario might play out. The West made a series of empty threats against the Russian annexation of Crimea. And now the West is failing the Ukrainians for it will doubtless abandon them just when the shooting starts. Our history is littered with the bodies of people who mistakenly placed their faith in our words. And although the attractiveness of our ideals could be the reason people still persist in the folly of taking us at our word, I am genuinely puzzled as to what madness impels them to do so time and again.

Branislav L. Slantchev
Professor of Political Science
University of California, San Diego