The turmoil in Ukraine — precipitated by President Viktor Yanukovych’s snubbing of a European Union (EU) trade deal — exemplifies the still-fertile elements of nationalism and ideology in Eastern Europe.
Russia’s dispatching of troops to, in the words of Ukraine ambassador Yuriy Sergeyev, “seize, block and control crucial governmental and military objects of Ukraine in Crimea,” runs the risk of embroiling Russia and Ukraine in war.
Ukraine rebuffed the EU courtship in favor of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s scheme for a Eurasian Union, comprising various Eastern European nations such as Belarus, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Russia. Street protests broke out not solely over the European Union rejection, but also over an autocratic crackdown on press freedoms, a poor economy, and government corruption. The New York Review of Books noted, “Tens of billions of dollars simply disappeared from the state budget. Yanukovych built for himself a series of extravagant homes, perhaps the ugliest in architectural history.”
The enormous expenditures necessitated a loan, with Yanukovych first gravitating toward the EU and then seeking a rapport with Putin. This spawned anti-government protests by Ukrainians favoring integration into the EU. Yanukovych’s response was typically callous. CNN reported: “Opposition medics said that 100 protesters died Thursday in clashes with police, when gunfire was unleashed” and “In video shot by Radio Free Europe, men wearing what appear to be government uniforms fired at unseen targets with automatic rifles and a sniper rifle with a telescopic sight”.
While the EU is not without significant flaws — such as its quixotic ideal of a Western and Central European entity that resembles the United States without taking into account the severe enmity between nation-states and the still virulent power of nationalism — the move toward the EU would have established a framework of law in the Ukraine, respecting the civil liberties of its citizens.
Subsuming Ukraine into the Russian comity would undoubtedly recapitulate policies based on the whim of the strongman. For example, it is illegal in Russia to distribute gay “propaganda” to minors, a law that has been construed, according to the Atlantic, to include “holding gay pride events, speaking in defense of gay rights, or equating gay and heterosexual relationships can now result in fines of up to $31,000.”
Homosexuals have been killed and subjected to brutal treatment at the hand of the state and citizens of Russia. However, a common misconception, mainly derived from Western ideologies focusing on the chimera of human progress, is to think that Putin carries out these policies without popular approval. This is far from the case, as only 16 percent of Russians think that homosexuality should be treated permissively by society. He is a master of social control, facilitating a sordid rapprochement between altar and throne, in this case, the Russian Orthodox Church, guiding Russians to a form of theocratic dogmatism. A move to the EU may eventually assist in blunting these trends in the region, but it certainly would be a difficult task.
Those calling for a vigorous response to Putin’s troop movement into the Crimea would have to account for a populace with significant swaths of pro-Russian opinion. Many in the eastern Ukrainian share the sentiments of Aleksandr Sorokin, a pensioner who said, “I would welcome (Russians) with flowers .. We do not want to spill blood, but we are willing to do so.” This sort of feeling speaks to the dissatisfaction some Ukrainians have with the protest movement.
The fall of the Berlin Wall has hastened great progress, but it is folly to think that the values of the Enlightenment will permeate the world. This creates a frightening situation for pro-Western Ukrainians, condemned to the power struggles of reactionary regimes.
Barack Obama, an arch-critic of thinking through what he has called the “cold war chessboard,” has said that “there will be costs” if the Russian government flouts Ukrainian sovereignty.
Much like the derided “red line” on Syria’s gassing of its own people, the president’s ultimatums smack more of dithering fatuity than principled statesmanship. Is the United States — which recently shrunk its military to pre-World War II levels, due primarily to budget considerations — really prepared to take a stand on the Crimea, a region openly sympathetic to Putinism?
Vacuous rhetoric has increasingly been the president’s mainstay in an incompetent and perfunctory handling of situations such as the health care rollout, exhibiting poor statesmanship (the naiveté regarding Iran’s further moves to obtain the bomb is one example among many).
With no obvious good options on the table, other than imposing sanctions, to express disapproval of Putin’s actions, Wittgenstein’s classic maxim “whereof one cannot speak, therefore one must be silent” would suggest a far more prudent approach for the Obama administration.
Furthermore, economic pressures Western countries have threatened — the principal threat being economic sanctions and prohibiting Russia from the G-8 summit, recall George W. Bush’s similar attempts to forestall Russia’s war against Georgia in 2008, which failed. The uselessness of the United Nations in resolving inflammatory issues is also on firm display, as Obama seeks cooperation with Russia over Iran’s nuclear program and preferred U.S. policies toward the war in Syria. Yet ultimatums are still being issued, as if the clout of the United States is omnipotent enough to resolve festering nationalistic divides within the Ukraine.
So why frame this contest with a Munichesque posture? Ukraine is not the Sudetenland. Opinion in the region shows antipathy to NATO and Putin is deeply committed to holding onto Ukraine. To put it mildly, the United States does not really have a large stake in the matter, nor a large ability to steer events in a pro-Western direction. While caveats admonishing Russia to respect the civil liberties and rights of liberal Ukrainians are to be commended, foreign policy realism and realpolitik requires that the United States eschew chest-beating.