After ducking the subject for two weeks and grasping at improbable straws, I bow to the inevitable and return to the Ukraine crisis. Everyone with the slightest insight into Eastern European or Russian history saw this problem coming. No full-blooded Russian, not Alexander Solzhenitsyn or any other dissident, has ever conceded for a minute Ukraine’s right to continue indefinitely as an independent country. A complicated and often infelicitous combination of Lithuanians, Poles, Tatars, and Russians, Ukraine rebelled against the Poles and adhered, semi-voluntarily, to Russia when, in 1795, that power and the Austrian Empire and Prussia joined in the division and elimination of Poland as an independent state. Nearly 200 years of Russian occupation and dominance followed, punctuated by the French and two German invasions of Russia, Stalin’s liquidation of the independent farmers, Hitler’s genocide against the Ukrainian Jews (who were 10 percent of the population), and various purges and assorted other atrocities of both those psychopathic monsters.
All of the 15 constituent republics of the Soviet Union seceded from the USSR in 1990 and 1991, including Russia itself, and none has so far remerged with Russia, though Belarus is very expressly under Russian influence, Georgia has been intimidated by a military intervention in two provinces of that country, a couple of the Asian republics have been infiltrated to some extent, and the status of Moldova is unclear. When Vladimir Putin set out to rebuild the status of Russia in the world, he certainly targeted many of the former republics as the place to start. Even if, as seems to be the case, he regards China and the East and the Muslim countries to the southeast and south as Russia’s natural opponents, Putin has always implied that he does not accept the durability of the arrangements with the West that included the complete independence of the former western, Baltic, and Caucasus components of the USSR. Although Putin squashed the complete independence of Georgia in the last days of the administration of George W. Bush, there could be no real question of Russia’s becoming too assertive in these matters until the Obama administration became well entrenched with its policy of almost unlimited appeasement, unilateral disarmament, and abdication of leadership of the Western alliance. The infamous “reset” of relations with Russia was followed by the unilateral scale-back of the European missile-defense system, to ensure that Putin retained his first-strike capacity against the European allies of the U.S., most of whom had gone through the Cold War and its immediate aftermath in the front lines and in lockstep with eleven consecutive American administrations.
Putin can be pardoned for believing that the absolute shambles of the Syrian misadventure, in which Obama drew his red line on Assad’s gassing of fellow Syrians, surrendered the role of commander-in-chief to the Congress, scaled back his promised punitive expedition, and then staved off congressional defeat by handing the entire task of securing voluntary surrender of the Assad regime’s sarin gas to Putin, has given the Kremlin a green light to do what it wants.
The same message has been generally conveyed by the ineffectual posturing over the Iranian nuclear program, which the Russians will probably live to regret having supported. Putin and Medvedev, his chief subordinate, presumably thought they were complicating the lives of the Americans by making the achievement of their promised prevention of the Iranian nuclear capability more difficult. The United States has effectively conceded the issue, and Russia will have to deal with a Middle East bristling with nuclear weapons, probably including Egypt, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia as well as Iran, Pakistan, and Israel. In this as in other contemporary matters, we are seeing the full play of the law of unintended consequences.
And it must be said that the United States is not alone among major countries in making hollow promises of retribution in recent times. Germany, which is fundamentally the strongest country in Europe, as it has been since Bismarck’s time, has allowed its armed forces virtually to evaporate. The German army, which invaded France with 3,000 tanks in 1940 and crushed that country in six weeks, now has no tanks. The capable Chancellor Merkel has talked a good line on this matter, as someone who was brought up as a practicing Lutheran under the jackboot of the Red Army in East Germany. She has no love of nor illusions about the Russians, but she has allowed German military strength to atrophy. The Poles and Canadians are putting on a better performance, and Canada has even promised to send six CF-18’s to Ukraine, but militarily, Canada has descended to the level of a paper tiger cub. The Poles are a bit stronger and can always be counted on to treat the Russians with skepticism, but Poland certainly cannot, by itself, see off even Putin’s truncated Russia.
And in the unfashionable and generally unappealing cause of fairness to Putin, I should mention that he apparently believed that he was the durable influence on Ukraine once the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych became president of Ukraine in 2010. But Yanukovych actually tried to establish Ukrainian independence by signing an economic deal with the European Union. Chancellor Merkel would approve only if Yanukovych released former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko from prison; though there are very few innocent politicians in the country, she was almost certainly convicted and imprisoned for false reasons. Merkel and other EU leaders also decided, reasonably in all contexts except the instability of Ukraine, that that country would have to sign an economic package that would ensure that it conformed to the fiscal conduct of a hard-currency country.
The economic requirements of the EU, already weighed down by the surplus baggage of irresponsibly managed countries that signed false prospectuses to enter in the first place, conflicted with the geopolitical interests of the West to get Ukraine, a country of 46 million people, out of the Russian and into the Western orbit. Putin had declared that if Yanukovych followed through on such an arrangement, Russia would apply sanctions and reduce natural-gas supplies to Western Europe. The Europeans waffled, Germany and Poland leading a chorus of King Lear–like threats even hollower, if of more recent devising, than the Obama-Kerry-Clinton addiction to the same genre. Yanukovych folded to Putin and was sent packing by the Ukrainian-ethnic and anti-Russian 70 percent of the country. Putin seized Crimea, mainly Russian ethnically, and is agitating the eastern zone of the country where most of Ukraine’s remaining 20 percent of ethnic Russians live, and which is the coal-and-steel heartland of Ukraine as a nation of heavy industry.
Last week’s Ukraine-Russia-EU-U.S. agreement on a cease-fire had all the hallmarks of these slippery arrangements in which this U.S. administration specializes, of vague and unenforceable commitments exchanged with a regime (the Kremlin) that never honors any agreement unless a (preferably nuclear) gun is held to its head. The agreement promises that occupied buildings and squares be vacated but that all sides avoid violence and “provocative actions.” This, in practice, means that Putin will interpret any attempt by Ukraine to remove Russian agitators from Ukrainian government buildings as a violation of the agreement and grounds to increase the boldness of his intervention, and the agreement seemed to have broken down after three days.
There are four possible outcomes: In the first, Ukraine is defended in its post-Crimean borders by the West and takes the Merkel deal. (Ms. Timoshenko has already been released and may well — given the shrinking number of Russians in the post-Crimea Ukraine electorate — win the election in three weeks.) In reality, this won’t happen, because no one in the West except the Poles (with distant cheerleading from Canada) has the stomach for such a thing, and heavier influences will be necessary to face down Putin, palsied though Russia is, despite its president’s Mussolini-like strutting and posturing. The second possibility is what was called during the Cold War “Finlandization,” in which Ukraine is neutral but does nothing to offend Russia, and contains ethnic Russian “autonomous zones” used by the Kremlin to represent its interests within Ukraine. This appears to be Putin’s current objective, and the weaklings who mainly lead the West now could set it up for him, while pretending to do better for the Ukrainian nationalists.
Third is a de facto partition of the country, in which the Russian areas secede and join Russia and the continuing Ukraine is made less ambiguous politically. It could then join the West, having adopted a consensus to behave fiscally and politically like a serious country, something it has never managed before, in distant or recent history. The West should be pulling itself together for the achievement of this objective, which is distinctly attainable. And last is the nightmare scenario that Putin would execute if he could: the reconquest and reabsorption of all of Ukraine into Russia. There can be little doubt that this is Putin’s long-term objective, but he is pursuing it in two or more bites, because an outright Russian invasion of the whole of Ukraine would lead to a terrible guerrilla war and provoke even helpless flounderers like Obama, Hollande, Cameron, and the Italian leaders (whoever they may be) into doing something that would be a serious inconvenience to Putin. It could even elicit a response from China, which is not so comatose as the West has become.
It is a choice between options two and three; experience would indicate two but inextinguishable desire screams for three. In the circumstances, no sensible person can fail to fear the worst, and to wonder again how the West got to this pitiful point less than 25 years after we won the Cold War.
— 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@example.com