Ukraine – The Limits of Power

It’s worth another look at Ukraine. Americans have taken a principled pro-democracy stand. But before we get too self-congratulatory, let’s find a little perspective.

In the Cold War, beginning in the Truman Administration, the U.S. ringed the Soviet Union with bases and troops, creating trip wires to stop any Soviet advance. We had troops in Europe on the western side of the Iron Curtain. We made treaties with nations across Asia and our soldiers and sailors took up duties across the globe. Largely ignoring other kinds of battles, when communists attacked, we fought back – in Korea and Vietnam – though the latter decision was driven by our missing the rivalries within the Iron Curtain. All of that was aimed at the Soviet Union and China.

And then there was Gorbachev and an era when we and the Russians tried to befriend each other. The Russians brought in American economic advisors, who, of course, completely misunderstood Russian economic needs and made a mess. But geopolitically, their presence reflected an opening between us.

Naturally the countries of Eastern Europe also wanted to benefit from relations with the West and sought membership in the European Union and NATO. Europe welcomed many of those newly freed countries. Russia, ominously, objected – let them in too or stop. We and Europe ignored their objections because we could.

It is part of human nature to go too far, to assume that everything will go according to plan or as things went in the past. We did it then; we can do it now. An expert has been described as someone who did it before. But did what? Whether the situation is the same is a more subtle question. It’s a lot easier to raise one’s fist and shout than to examine and calculate what may result – the chances of success – or catastrophe.

Now, Ukraine is geopolitically crucial to Russia. It sits astride their warm-water access to the oceans through the Black Sea. Russia and Ukraine are major agricultural and industrial trading partners. European presence in Ukraine would re-tie the noose around the Russians. From the Russian point of view, western involvement in Ukraine is a major provocation. That’s not a moral statement, but it is a fact.

Putin has now consolidated his power within Russia. His people are raising their fists and shouting their support for Putin and Russia.

So Ukraine today is not Poland ten or twenty years ago. Europe and our state department should have understood that. Lots of people overplayed their hands in Ukraine. One of the miscalculations seems to have been a failure to appreciate in advance the implications of the EU Association Agreement with Ukraine. Sometimes it’s better to let well enough alone, and respect the danger of making things worse, by not going too far. Our leaders, here and in Europe, act like reluctant emissaries of popular jingoism. They should be very reluctant. Constraining other countries requires sensible calculation of when, where and how to do it in light of the risks and consequences.

It just isn’t true that because we are the only superpower we can have whatever we want. Nations which make that assumption litter the dustbin of history as they overextend their commitments, sap their resources, wear themselves down and reveal their weakness, while other countries watch, laugh, and build.

Our goal now should be to limit the fallout, and prevent Russia and China from assuming they can act with impunity elsewhere. That’s a complex mission. May our leaders have the wisdom and the strength to pursue it.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 22, 2014.

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