It is an immense pleasure to be able to commend the Obama administration on a foreign-policy issue, and so far, the handling of the Ukrainian crisis by the president, vice president, secretary of state, and National Security Advisor Susan Rice has been exemplary. They have taken from and expanded upon the Bill Clinton playbook of the eastward expansion of NATO following the implosion of the Soviet sphere of occupation and of the Soviet Union itself. President Clinton devised the Partnership for Peace, which had the semblance of a Clinton flimflam job, but covered adequately the admission of the former satellite states and the Baltic republics of the late USSR (Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia), into NATO, while Russia and its former Asian and other republics were granted NATO observer status and generally treated as cordial new acquaintances of NATO, not the raison d’être of that alliance, which was just then reaping the harvest of the success of its 45-year containment strategy that laid the Soviet Union low.
The entire foreign policy of Russian president Vladimir Putin has been a pastiche of posturing and provocations: the bullying of Georgia, obstruction of efforts to deter Iran from achieving a nuclear capability, all his mischief in Syria, and his opportunistic colluding with the Chinese, militant Arabs, Latin American leftists, Iranians, even the Russians’ ancient Turkish foes, and anyone else who could be relied upon to irritate the West, and especially the United States. It has been a very inelegant and crudely improvised replication of the activities of previous leaders of important countries who felt under-recognized, of whom the most prominent in recent memory was French president Charles de Gaulle. But de Gaulle avoided direct military aggression, never forgot what he owed the “Anglo-Saxons” historically and for the assurance of France’s current security, and rallied instantly in the face of a real crisis, such as the U-2 fiasco in 1960 and the Cuban missile confrontation of 1962. Putin has set himself at the head of the nativists, the Russian traditional nationalists who are hostile to the West, a stance legitimized by some of Russia’s greatest cultural icons, including Leo Tolstoy (with his mythologization of the resistance to Napoleon, who would have modernized Russia and dispensed with serfdom in a stroke if he had been able to influence Russian public policy), and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who was not rallied to the virtues of the West by his asylum in the New England woods.
Almost all countries that are not altogether in the West, such as Russia, India, China, and even Turkey, have internecine frictions between West-emulators and nativists, and it has been politically convenient for Putin to disguise the thuggish and corrupt aspects of his regime behind an absurd personality cult of the rugged man of the vast and savage Russian wilderness, reinforced by an aggressive nationalism that rekindles Russian pride in the country’s status as a Great Power, which it has enjoyed since Peter the Great brought Russia forward into Europe at the end of the 17th century. These dramatic events in Ukraine ramify much more widely than on the progress of democracy in that country, and even than over the success of Putin’s chosen foreign-policy path. The administration, and Western leaders generally, have been careful and wise to avoid affronting Russian sensibilities (a solicitude that Russian leaders have rarely reciprocated, and certainly not the current one). We are witnessing the advance of Westernization to the very edge and fringe of Russia, and of the escalation of the struggle for the heart and mind of that stolid, but talented and unconquerable people, barely a generation after the same struggle was successfully concluded in respect of Germany. One assumes that these thoughts are in the minds of Washington policymakers, and it is to their credit that they do not speak publicly in these terms.
For all the West’s problems and quaverings, and especially the alternately impetuous and diffident foreign policy of recent U.S. administrations, the West is still advancing: Democratic government and the market economy, and comparatively widely distributed wealth and latitude for individual choice in personal conduct, continue to expand; to the point where our chief rival, China, is advancing largely by the adoption of Western goals and methods, apart from in political institutions. The extent of the Western world was effectively set by the Roman Empire, and then by the predominantly Christian world, and then by the major founding members of the principal European nation- and dynastic states — Britain, France, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire — and extended by exploration and colonization. It was generally recognized, especially by successive French regimes and by the Habsburg monarchy that ruled much of Central Europe from Vienna (by Richelieu and Napoleon, as well as by Metternich), that Germans had to be divided or they would dominate all Europe, and Germans could not decide whether they were a westward- or an eastward-facing nation. It was German reaction to the restraint of their country that effectively led to the World Wars, and it is the genius of American policymakers, who, unlike the British, French, and Russians, did not fear a united Germany, that Germany was welcomed quickly into the Western Alliance.
The prevailing sentiment in Germany for over 60 years has been in the phrase of former (four-term) federal chancellor Helmut Kohl: “a European Germany and not a German Europe.” Germany is now having its third turn as the leading European power, after the Wilhelmine and Nazi disasters (morally and otherwise); is exercising its influence entirely by good example and collegially with its European and trans-Atlantic allies, and is enjoying much greater, if more gradual, success than in the previous attempts. Germany advances very tentatively and cautiously, but it is a very powerful country and is filling the vacuum created and maintained through much of modern European history by the enforced absence of German leadership, where it should naturally have existed.
The reunification of Germany and the admission of Poland to NATO and to the European Union brought the Western world to the border of the former Soviet Union, and Ukraine is now tilting toward the West, a process that, if completed, will bring the West to the gates of and within Russia itself. This is the overarching significance of the contest for the adherence of Ukraine. It is a complicated and tragic country, of 46 million people (6 million fewer than 25 years ago because of emigration, a collapsed birth rate, poor public health and medical care, pollution, and chronic alcoholism). Ukraine has never been homogeneous like most European nationalities. The Ukrainians were a fluid medieval association of Poles, Lithuanians, and the Mongol and Tatar remnants of the Golden Horde, the heirs of the Khanate of Batu, and of Tamerlane. The Poles prevailed, but the Ukrainians rebelled against them and solicited the aid of the Russians in the 17th century, and Russia seized most of Ukraine following the final partition of Poland with the Austrians and Prussians in 1795. There was civil war in Ukraine and war with the Russians after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917; Stalin starved or massacred almost 10 percent of Ukrainians in the Thirties, and about 20 percent of those who survived were killed in World War II (including over 90 percent of the Jews). Churchill and Roosevelt gave Stalin (Ukraine in fact) 200 miles of eastern Poland, and compensated the Poles in the west with 200 miles of Germany. This brought a very anti-Russian ingredient into Ukraine, and drove about 10 million Germans westwards before the Red Army into what was West Germany. Moscow gave the Crimea to Ukraine in 1954, and Ukraine seceded, like all the other republics, from the USSR in 1991, but Ukrainian independence has never really been accepted by Russia.
Ukraine remains very divided in sectarian as in ethnic terms. About 30 million speak Ukrainian and 15 million Russian; about 15 million Ukrainians are practicing Christians, most Orthodox, and about 2.5 million Catholics. The recent uprising was not entirely a demand for democracy. Viktor Yanukovych won the 2010 election only because the outgoing president splintered the vote that would have gone to the former prime minister, the glamorous Yulia Timoshenko, whom Yanukovych promptly and rather spuriously imprisoned, until this past weekend. As Yanukovych fled the embrace of the European Union for the arms of Moscow, the majority that can plainly see the superiority of the European over the Putinist model rebelled. The army and police soon refused to fire on their countrymen, as usually happens in these circumstances (in 1989, the Romanian dictator Ceausescu ordered his security forces to kill demonstrators and they soon decided to execute Ceausescu instead). The Right Sector and the anti-Semitic group Svoboda are a significant part of the opposition that chased out Yanukovych, and none of the factions is especially virtuous.
But none of this is really the point; Putin was too overbearing and has been flung out, as the Chinese were in Burma two years ago, after overplaying their hand. Almost everyone will hope that Ukraine, which has not had a day of good government as the West would define it in its history, will elevate a new political class that will govern sensibly and moderately, though it must be said that there is as yet little sign of it. There is much talk of partition, especially to restore to Russia the Crimea where its Black Sea fleet now has to rent bases. But what is most important is the defeat of Putin’s aggression, the repulse of reemergent Russian nationalism, and the prospect of the West’s absorbing Ukraine, as it has advanced in two bounds in 60 years eastward from the Rhine, enveloping Germany and then Poland. This would bring the Western presence and its siren temptations right into Russia, and would raise the prospect of uniting the Western world of the Americas and Western Europe with the east-Asian West of Japan, South Korea, Thailand, and Singapore, and of Australasia, over the mighty bridge of Eurasian Russia. Whatever its sorrows and travails, Russia is one of the world’s great civilizations and peoples, and its adherence to the West would be almost as important an addition as was Germany.
A cooperative and compatible Russia, prospering and relaxed with the West as Germany and Poland have become, would add immeasurably to Western strength and security, and would remove a very troublesome gadfly from the range of impediments posed to the normalization of international affairs and the rise of a more hospitable world. Such factors are little noted in current commentaries on Ukraine, but are the great prize that may be brought within reach by the heroics and vehemence of the protesters of Kiev and other Ukrainian centers this week.
— 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.