Has the U.S. been helping to enforce Russia’s ultimatums on Ukraine, serving as backup to Russia in scaring Ukraine off from defending itself? The only possible answer is: Yes. The real question is: Why?
The U.S. is not doing this as a deliberate policy. What gives its policies this edge is a mentality of seeking safety through an implicit alignment with the aggressor, despite the surface opposition to the aggression.
The Obama administration has called on the Ukrainian government to stay calm and avoid responding to provocations, even as pro-Russian groups take over public buildings in eastern Ukraine. It has warned Ukraine against giving Russia any “pretext” for invading, telling it in effect to keep walking on the eggshells that are already crumbling beneath its feet. It has demoralized the Ukrainian government — and praised it for its lack of a forceful response.
This has, predictably, served to embolden the attackers. It has helped bring on a series of one-sided escalations.
The Obama administration has also refused to provide Ukraine significant military aid to defend itself, on the ground that it is too late to train the Ukrainian armed forces to use it. This smells of evasion. There are numerous weapons that require minimal training; delaying help always makes it “too late”; and Ukrainians are not short on technical capabilities.
Another of the explanations — that the U.S. does not want to provoke Russia — comes closer to displaying the administration’s true motivation. This line deserves some deconstruction. It means that Russia has a right to be provoked by Ukrainian self-defense, and that Ukraine and the West do not have a right to defend, lest they provoke Russia. It translates into privileging Russia with an exclusive right to get upset and fight.
Similarly, the policy of calling for Ukraine to refrain from using force translates into granting Russia and its “protesters” alone the right to use force. It adds a layer of Western reinforcement to Russia’s ultimatums against any use of force by Ukraine. Russia threatens to use any casualties as a pretext for invading; the West urges passivity out of fear of providing Russia with a “pretext.”
It is analogous to what is going on when a battered wife yields to an abusive husband, repeats his version of the story, and agrees that she should stop doing anything to “provoke” him — buying off his anger for a moment, at the cost of justifying to him his anger and violence. It aids and empowers the abuse, in return for a brief respite.
Any psychologist will immediately understand what this is about: identifying with the aggressor, lining up behind the more violent party for a sense of protection, yielding to his demands to tell the story his way or else get pummeled again. Children often do it when faced with a bully on the playground. It is what the Stockholm Syndrome exhibited by many hostages is about.
This is no psychological surprise when it is coming from hostages — people who are kept in a helpless, isolated position. It would be understandable coming from Ukraine at this moment. But what is it doing coming from the United States?
Russia has stated repeatedly that Ukraine’s police and military must not use force to stop the Russian-backed takeovers of government buildings, or else Russia will invade in the name of “protecting” the ethnic Russians. It is impressive that Russia feels safe enough to be completely open in saying this; it is a direct denial of, and threat against, the sovereign jurisdiction of Ukraine. But what matters here is something else. It is a two-edged signal: Ukraine must allow an indirect invasion and permit dual power to continue to grow in eastern Ukraine, until it becomes impossible to restore public order; or else Russia will invade directly.