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Dec 5, 2023

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Getting It Right On Ukraine:
Realpolitik vs. Wishing Thinking

  As anti-government protests accelerate across Ukraine, CEPA Senior Fellow Edward Lucas provides a compelling case for why robust U.S. engagement is needed at this decisive moment. Confronting those who believe the United States should not get involved, Lucas demonstrates how American disinterest, or wishful thinking, will only turn a troubling situation into a dangerous one.

American engagement in Europe is increasingly irrelevant. Or counterproductive. Or expensive. Or useless. At any rate, America has no business getting involved in Ukraine, a complicated ex-Soviet republic where a democratically-elected government is under attack from a mixed-bag opposition, which includes football hooligans and extremists. Leave that to the Russians, or to the Europeans. But the United States has no dog in this faraway fight. That, at least, is the thinking behind some voices in the United States, which argue for keeping out of the Ukrainian scrum.

The muddle behind this approach deserves some unpicking. Start with the facts. American engagement in Ukraine has not been a great success. The prospect of NATO membership, albeit a distant one, was dangled in front of Ukraine by the Bush administration in 2007. It vanished at the Bucharest NATO summit in 2008, thanks to a combination of botched American diplomacy, European timidity, and Russian resistance.

Second, the “opposition” in Ukraine is a mixed bag. It includes remnants of the discredited “Orange” camp which triumphed in 2005, and then wasted its triumph through incompetence, division and corruption. It also includes a sprinkling of thuggish skinheads and the unpleasant radical-right (some would say quasi-fascist) Svaboda – Freedom – party. The weakness of the opposition is one reason why Viktor Yanukovych won the last presidential election. He may have governed abominably, but he has a far stronger democratic mandate than other leaders in the region who suffer barely a breath of criticism from the United States, such as Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan.

Third, there is no obvious policy lever to pull. Ukraine has already shunned Western economic help, by turning to the Kremlin for cheap gas and soft loans. We cannot compete with the quality and quantity of carrots offered by Moscow. And we have few sticks to wave either. Mr Yanukovych does not quail under Western criticism.

Fourth, Russia minds deeply about Ukraine. It believes that the West is behind the “color revolutions” of the last decade. It scents a plot to curb its influence in the former Soviet empire. It thinks that talk of “democracy” and “human rights” is phony. Ukraine is where the tide of Western influence has turned. Now it wants to consolidate the advantage – building a sea wall against European or American influence in the Slavic heartland. So if you want to avoid rows with Russia, staying out of Ukraine is a good place to start.

All this is true. But the arguments against American involvement in Ukraine are both muddled and dangerous. If America cares about European security at all, it must worry about Ukraine. In the long term, the vision of “Europe whole and free” remains compelling. Strong, stable, sovereign law-governed countries, with free media and political competition, make good allies, partners and neighbors. A prosperous and friendly Ukraine helps solve other problems (such as the frozen conflict in Moldova). And it would set the best possible example to Russia.

That vision is not on offer now, and probably will not be for some time. Instead, Europe and America face options including chaos, stalemate or an authoritarian crackdown. All are bad. A full crackdown in Ukraine would be possible only with bloodshed and Russian help. That raises the prospect of civil war on Europe’s borders, large numbers of refugees, and dislocation of vital oil and gas supplies.

Chaos will be little better. What happens if Western Ukraine and some other regions simply refuse to recognize the central authorities in Kiev? Then Europe faces a Galician version of Transnistria. Do we recognize separatist regions when they declare independence? Or try to nudge them under the Yanukovych regime’s control?

Stalemate means months of jittery uncertainty, with the looming prospect of default, devaluation and sharply declining living standards. The center ground is shrinking: a nightmare for the West is a version of the disaster that unfolded in Syria, with an intransigent authoritarian regime facing an extremist and fragmented opposition.

All three of these scenarios – crackdown, chaos and stalemate – offer plenty of scope for Kremlin mischief-making. Any one of them could draw in outsiders. What happens if a real or invented nationalist guerrilla group blows up an oil or gas pipeline? Russia could then offer “help” to restore order. What would the West do then?

The voices in Washington who want America to stay out of Ukraine would be more honest if they said that they wanted America to abandon Europe entirely. Yet there is not the slightest chance of that happening. With 500 million consumers and a GDP of more than $13 trillion, the EU is an indispensable partner for the United States – in economics, commerce and diplomacy. The choice is not between a Europe policy or not. It is a choice between a wise policy and bad ones.

The most prominent bad policy is based on the assumption that the vital national interest for the United States is maintaining good ties with Russia. Nobody pretends that the regime in Moscow is pleasant or easy to deal with. But America cannot care more about European security than Europe does itself. If big countries like France, Germany and (increasingly) Britain want to do bilateral deals with the Kremlin, then it is foolish for America to take a high-minded stance – for example in defense of small or weak countries. What matters is getting Russian cooperation on other issues, such as Syria, space, the Arctic, climate change, cyber-weapons, Afghanistan, Iran and so forth.

This is a much stronger argument. It was the thinking behind the “reset.” America needs only to maintain a minimal security backstop in Europe. Nobody seriously thinks Russia will mount a real military threat, so most efforts can go into other issues. Nervous countries such as Poland and the Baltic states can be calmed down and bought off. Ukraine can be completely neglected.

The flaw in this argument is that it is based on wishful thinking, not realism. It should be called Wunschpolitik (i.e. the politics of wishful thinking), not Realpolitik. It misunderstands the nature of the regime in Moscow. Mr. Putin and his friends do not want win-win solutions. They like win-lose ones. They see concessions as signs of weakness, not as displays of trust. Russia is a revisionist power, which sees the geopolitical settlement of 1991 as profoundly unjust – as bad as the treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1917. It wants to reverse its losses. The main obstacle is America. Now it senses weakness in Washington, and is determined to exploit it.

Abandoning Ukraine to its fate would therefore not calm Russia’s nerves, but stoke its appetite. Georgia and Moldova – the two small ex-Soviet republics that still wish to pursue European integration – will likely be the next targets of the Kremlin pushback, once the Sochi Olympics are over.

Russia has also already made troubling inroads further west. It has pulled off a stunning energy deal with Hungary, offering cheap gas in exchange for a contract to build a new nuclear power plant. Its gas diplomacy has made inroads in Bulgaria, Croatia and Serbia. It is wielding economic clout in the Baltic States and the Czech Republic. It perceives a new willingness in Berlin to do deals with Moscow, over the heads of the countries in between.

American policy in Ukraine could be better. It could extend the Magnitsky list sanctions (named after a Russian whistleblower who died in prison after exposing a $230 million fraud perpetrated by corrupt officials against the Russian taxpayer). Denying visas to Mr. Yanukovych’s cronies, and perhaps freezing their corruptly acquired assets, would send a powerful signal. If the EU would do the same, it could be a decisive one.

The tragedy of American policy in Ukraine was that too little came too late. In the fall, American and EU officials together with the IMF came close to creating a successful and coordinated Western policy to Ukraine. Had that started earlier, and been pursued with more vigor, it could perhaps have been convincing – to the regime and to the large number of Ukrainians who feel cynical and apathetic about their country’s future with the West.

Having failed to do the right thing, it would be perverse if America would now toy with deliberately doing the wrong one. Either isolationism or Wunschpolitik would help turn a deeply troubling situation into a terrifyingly dangerous one.

By Edward Lucas

Reprinted with permission from CEPA (Center for European Policy Analysis), Washington, D.C. –