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In Ukraine, Obama’s Watching the Verdict of 1989 Dissolve



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As Russian pressure increased on a newly self-liberated Ukraine, with the Crimean peninsula as the initial focus of the Kremlin’s appetite for Soviet-era revanchism, President Obama had this to say to the nation and the world on the evening of February 28:

Any violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity would be deeply destabilizing, which is not in the interests of Ukraine, Russia or Europe.

Doesn’t something seem obviously, glaringly missing here? Are there no American interests engaged in the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine? And if there are, why isn’t that card laid squarely on the table, if the presidential intent is to warn off Vladimir Putin and his irredentist colleagues?

The strategic and political myopia the administration has displayed in confronting Russian intransigence in Syria and Iran was inevitably going to lower the throw-weight of any warning from this White House over Russian adventurism in a post-Yanukovych Ukraine, whose people want to provide an eastern Slavic alternative to Putin’s “managed democracy.” But the fecklessness involved in describing the sovereign and territorial integrity of Ukraine as a matter of interest only to Ukraine, Russia, and Europe is a virtual invitation to the Kremlin to, well, “Do what you gotta do.” And even if that were not the intent, that is precisely how the president’s delimitation of who’s-interested-in-Ukraine was almost certainly read by Putin & Co., who have already taken the measure of the American leaders they continue to think of as geopolitical opponents – and the Europeans they regard with barely disguised contempt.  

Recent commentary on the administration’s belated show of interest in the future of Ukraine (which did seem to have some positive effect on the dramatic events that led to the Yanukovych scuttle and the formation of a new Ukrainian government committed to constitutional reform and early elections) has tended to focus on whether that flurry of diplomatic activism amounted to a re-calibration of the Obama administration’s famous “re-set” of U.S.-Russian relations. But whatever may be afoot on that front, the decision to signal Putin that Ukraine’s future is not a vital American strategic interest (and one has to assume that it was a decision, the alternative being incomprehensible, indeed staggering, stupidity) reflects the chronic unease with which left-of-center American foreign-policy circles have regarded what Walter Russell Mead has called “the verdict of 1989.”

If memory serves, General Douglas MacArthur ended the Japanese surrender ceremony on the deck of the USS Missouri by stating, simply, “These proceedings are closed.” What was done at the end of the Second World War ought to have been said in 1989, when Central and Eastern Europe broke free of Communism, and again in 1991, when the Soviet empire disintegrated: “These proceedings are closed.” That is, the Cold War is over. Democracies won, and tyrannies lost. The imperfect democracies won because their societies, however flawed, were built upon certain moral truths about human beings and what makes for human flourishing; the tyrannies lost because they denied those moral truths and laid waste to entire nations as a result.

The failure to confront those blunt facts is one of the sources of current Russian irredentism. The historic roots of the imperial mindset in Moscow may date back to Peter the Great (and are culturally reinforced by Russian Orthodoxy’s insistence that it is the “Third Rome”). But for Vladimir Putin, who once described the Soviet crack-up as the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century, the more proximate motive for the reconstruction of Stalin’s old imperium is the reversal of the verdict of 1989/1991. Those proceedings, Putin insists, are not over.

There are several reasons why it is imperative that the West, led by the United States, resist this crude attempt to rewrite history be permitting once-captive nations to be re-chained by new forms of tyranny. 

Maintaining the verdict of 1989 is essential for the future of human rights, democracy, and stability in central and eastern Europe. There are many things to dislike about 21st-century Europe, including its arid secularism, its stifling political correctness, its sodden transnational bureaucracy, and what appears to be a fervent embrace of the culture of death, manifest most recently in a Belgian law allowing the euthanizing of children. But Europe still remains a zone of freedom in which legal and political means are available to challenge the corruptions of politics, society, and culture. And there is little reason to think that a Europe being held hostage by an enlarged Russia, camped once again on Europe’s Polish doorstep, will get serious about its cultural and political decadence.

The people of the Ukrainian Maidan have been calling Europe back to its founding principles and fundamental moral commitments, by putting their lives on the line in order to enter that zone of freedom and the rule of law. To ignore that call is to concede that those who have argued that, during World War I, Europe died as a vital civilizational force have been right all along.

Maintaining the verdict of 1989 is essential if Russia is to realize the promise of its rich cultural heritage. Putin’s Russia is a dying society, run by a kleptocracy that maintains control by state-authorized thuggery and systematically ignores the most severe public-health problems in the developed world. Revanchism and imperial muscle-flexing, like Winter Olympic Games in the grand style of Nero, are distractions from all that, and excuses not to come to grips with Russia’s own social and political deficiencies. Thus Putin’s determination to reverse the verdict of 1989, as it applies to Ukraine, is not only old-fashioned Russian imperialism; it is an obvious attempt to forestall the “Russian Maidan” that, inspired by the Ukrainian example, could begin the process of civic renewal in Russia.

That is why the state-controlled media in Russia have been engaging in a vicious program of anti-Ukrainian agitprop for the past several months – a campaign to which some Western media sources have proven unbecomingly susceptible. If Putin’s Russia is permitted to get away with the Big Lie vis-à-vis Ukraine, then the possibility of pro-democracy activists in Russia successfully confronting the culture of the lie with which they must contend on a daily basis will be severely eroded. And a Putinized, irredentist Russia will become a permanently destabilizing force, not only in Europe but in the rest of the world.

The riches of its cultural heritage suggest that Russia can be, and should be, a great nation. But Russia will not be that for so long as it is beset by imperial fantasies and the public culture of prevarication needed to sustain those fantasies.

Maintaining the verdict of 1989 is essential to the maintenance of democratic solidarity in the trans-Atlantic world. One of the most troubling aspects of the American governmental response to the Maidan revolution in Ukraine has been that it has gravely disappointed brave Ukrainian democracy activists, who think they have been insufficiently supported by what they continue to imagine is the world’s leading democracy. “What is the matter in Washington?” is a question one regularly gets from Ukrainian friends and colleagues. “Don’t they understand what’s at stake here?”

And of course the honest answer would be that much of the present administration, judged by its actions (or inactions), does not. It continues to think of international politics and diplomacy in therapeutic categories, rather than in terms of interests informed by values and pursued by all the available levers of power. It issues warnings that are belied by their very formulation, as well as by subsequent inaction. It is run by leaders who never really grasped the essence of the Cold War, and therefore do not understand why the verdict of 1989 must be maintained, precisely in service of the peace they claim to be seeking.

If America leaves Ukraine to be dismembered, the credibility of the United States will reach a new post–Cold War low. Those who bitterly opposed the American-led deposition of Saddam Hussein complained about the superpower run amok. But just wait until the results of the feckless superpower are made unmistakably clear, beyond the clarity already evident in the bloody awfulness of Syria.

Then the world will see that “world order” is not a mantra or an idea, but the achievement of politics and diplomacy, backed up by the many forms of power that a superpower can deploy.



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