Last week in this column, I expressed admiration of the line President Obama and other Western leaders had taken in supporting the ouster of Russian ally Viktor Yanukovych from the presidency of the Ukraine. It was easily foreseeable and widely predicted that Russian president Vladimir Putin would retaliate, as his Russian official ego is even pricklier than that of the Soviet leaders whom he served in the days when the USSR was America’s only rival as a superpower, and intermittently asserted an eminent domain over neighboring countries, including East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Afghanistan, all of which it occupied militarily. As I wrote last week, Crimea was assigned to Ukraine only in 1954, and that country’s claim to it now is not unquestionable. Given the fact that about 60 percent of the population of Crimea is ethnically Russian and that almost half the others are Tatars of no more affinity to Ukrainians than to Russians, the ability of the Ukrainian government to hold the loyalty of Crimea was always doubtful, especially as Russia has never officially acknowledged the legitimacy of an independent Ukraine. As I also wrote last week, it is galling for the Russians to rely on the Ukraine for a naval base for its Black Sea fleet.
It was not a matter of immense importance to the Soviet Union where its naval forces were until the mid Sixties, because Russia was never a very serious naval power, boxed in as it was in the Baltic, the Black Sea, and the White Sea, and at Vladivostok in the Far East. Its naval effort was in submarines and it did not have a large merchant fleet. But after the Cuban Missile Crisis, Nikita Khrushchev began, and Leonid Brezhnev continued, a major naval and merchant-marine build-up, which severely strained the Soviet economy and drove the United States to an even larger naval expansion. It was as ineffective as Kaiser Wilhelm II’s challenge to the Royal Navy in the 20 years prior to World War I, a challenge that strained world tensions and drove Britain into the arms of the French and Russians — and resulted in total failure: When war came, the German navy engaged in only two days of fighting and ultimately surrendered and scuttled itself. The Soviet navy achieved no more, but there was no war between the Great Powers and the fleet subsists, though it is aging, and the Black Sea Fleet is a tenant of the Ukraine, needs the agreement of the Turks to exit the Black Sea, and is shadowed in the Mediterranean by the U.S. Sixth Fleet and can get to an ocean only via the Suez Canal or through the closely watched Straits of Gibraltar.
As this is being written, Russia has effectively invaded Crimea, reestablished a Crimean semi-autonomous republic, and given Ukrainian forces in the area an ultimatum. The commander of the Ukrainian navy, such as it is, has defected to the new pro-Russian entity of Crimea. The new government in Kiev has appointed new regional governors to replace the Yanukovych loyalists, but it is not clear that the writ of the central government will run any more authoritatively in the largely Russian eastern regions around Donetsk and Dnepropetrovsk and along the Russian border, a rich coal and steel area, than it has in Crimea. The danger to the West is that it goes on autopilot and Western leaders blather a lot of self-righteous paraphrases of King Lear about “costs” and red lines, which Putin could hardly be blamed for ignoring, and yet which will incite increased skirmishing between Ukraine and Russia and could lead to Russian aggression against Ukraine as a whole. This would be no day at the beach for the Russians: The Ukrainians are fierce fighters, and they would be assisted, at least materially if not in combat forces, by the West; and if Brezhnev’s Soviet Union could not hold Afghanistan, Putin’s shrunken remnant of that country would have insuperable problems with three times the number of Ukrainians, on the borders of NATO (albeit in terrain less conducive to guerrilla war than Afghanistan is). The Munich parallel, incidentally, has been overdrawn: Britain and France could not go to war to prevent Czech Germans (in the Sudetenland) from adhering to Germany. Chamberlain’s mistake was in spurning Stalin, agreeing to such a fast timetable, not securing a serious guarantee of the surviving Czechoslovakia (which the Poles and Hungarians then attacked), and representing the shabby episode as the triumph of “Peace with Honour.” (There was neither peace nor honor.)
The European Union appears to be ready to commit $35 billion to Ukraine, and the urgency of conditions may cause the Ukrainian political class, a pretty self-interested group on its record, to regroup in the unity of oppressed peoples and try to earn the respect of its compatriots. The glamorous former premier, Yulia Timoshenko, whom Yanukovych spuriously imprisoned for three years, hit the ground running last weekend, and could be an important player again. There is no point in threatening Putin with nameless vengeance that won’t happen. All the huffing and puffing over Syria and Iran has not got us very far and Obama’s pious bunk about red lines has become a butt of international mockery. The morale of the American public has suffered, as the means of its government have been dissipated, by $2 trillion and 50,000 casualties in the Iraqi and Afghan wars that seem not to have yielded very satisfactory results. The country is unenthused about military expeditionary activities. And Obama’s rank abdication of his constitutional role as commander-in-chief to the Congress in the Syrian fiasco does not cause America’s adversaries to tremble in contemplation of his countermeasures, as Japan did with Roosevelt over the Panay incident (1937), Stalin did with Truman over the Berlin Airlift (1948–49), Khrushchev did with Eisenhower after threatening to attack France and Britain after Suez (1956), Kim Jong Il did with Nixon after shooting down an American reconnaissance aircraft (1969), and as Qaddafi did after Reagan was provoked into bringing the rafters of his house down on him (1986).
Even after everything that has happened, there is an astonishing volume of uncomprehending nonsense in the Western media about what is at stake in Ukraine. On February 20, former Italian premier Romano Prodi had a piece in the New York Times urging collaboration with Putin in integrating Ukraine into Western Europe (exactly what Putin does not want). The sequel, on March 1 in the same place, by Georgetown professor Charles King, urged an incomprehensible form of countercultural tolerance on the beleaguered Ukrainians and imputed to the Russian leader the chief motive of an obsessive desire to reveal Western hypocrisy. (There has been no shortage of that, but it is scarcely relevant to the preservation of the independence of Ukraine.) This crisis is not and never has been anything except a struggle for primacy in Eastern Europe between Russia and the West. And despite the feebleness and irresolution of the West, it is still much stronger by every measurement than Russia, which is essentially an imposture, a make-believe effort to reenact the conduct and strength of a Great Power in the absence of the sinews of that power.
The West converted Japan to the Occident’s social, political, and economic virtues, which are now being partly emulated by China and India, and have displaced the palsied inefficacies and inhumanities of the czarist and Communist Russians and Ottoman Turks in much of Eastern Europe. The correlation of forces is favorable even in this week, in which British foreign secretary William Hague warned Russia of “costs and consequences” while a photograph of a position paper in the hands of a junior British official revealed that Britain would not actually seek sanctions or do anything; and in which the Western response took on a Gilbert and Sullivan air of reprisals through visas and the Paralympics. If Western leaders utter dire threats but follow through with such ineffectual nonsense, in the fine tradition of the infamous Joe Biden pledge to hit the “reset button” in U.S.–Soviet relations, Putin will just partition off the most Russian parts of the Ukraine and leave a much more homogeneous Ukraine of about 33 million people, well-launched with (mainly) German money. If the Western leaders completely overplay their hand — and with John Kerry in Kiev, any hyperbole is possible before the “unbelievably small” proportions of any likely response are revealed — Putin may actually invade the non-Russian Ukraine, which would in turn accelerate the collapse of his thugdom, swaddled as it is in the costs and artifices of his masquerade as a collector or breaker of nations like Catherine the Great, Alexander I, or Stalin.
Ukraine will be independent, possibly after a partition to save Russia’s ill-favored face, possibly even after repulsing a general Russian assault, and it will join the West. German influence will prevail over Russian in Eastern Europe, and the West will ultimately show Russia the way to being a great nationality not only in cultural, folkloric, and geographic terms, but as a civil society. This is a contest we cannot lose, not because our leaders seem to have much idea how to deal with it, unlike some of their recent forebears, but because they have every moral and material advantage over Russia, and if their incompetence deprives Ukraine of a swift resolution of this conflict, it will only be because that incompetence will induce Putin into adventurism Russia cannot support, a minor updated reprise of the failed occupation of Eastern Europe after World War II and the insane foray into the unremitting primitiveness of Afghanistan. Putin’s ego and braggadocio will, if necessary, insure us against the maladroitness of most of the West’s current statesmen. We could do worse, though some days it seems otherwise.
— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, A Matter of Principle, and the recently published Flight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies That Brought America from Colonial Dependence to World Leadership. He can be reached at [email protected].