International crises signify a failure of policy, and each one has both proximate causes—immediate factors and triggers—as well as a more longstanding historical context of foment and escalation. It appears that the Ukrainian chickens have come home to roost and that a vicious civil war will likely result. Although this crisis is fundamentally an internal event*, it was enabled by a larger sequence of historical and geopolitical currents. Even with a fragile ceasefire in place, it is possible that events have now reached a point where there is little that the United States or Russia can do to prevent a very dangerous conflict.
Although the eastward expansion of Western economic and security interests did not cause the internal dynamics that led to the Ukraine crisis (civil wars, after all, cannot be manufactured by outsiders), it did inflame the situation. Even allowing for a broader historical context, the emerging war in Ukraine is chiefly a civil conflict based on longstanding cultural and linguistic divisions. These fault lines go back to well before the Cold War, yet continuing mistrust and suspicion between the United States and Russia has only served to exacerbate them. Ukraine, as with Iraq and the former Yugoslavia, is no longer a single nation. Rather, it is now two nations contained within a single border, in effect the social equivalent of mutually repulsive magnetic poles. This condition is inherently unstable, and yet the alternatives to forcibly attempting to hold Ukraine together or dividing it in two would not be worth the costs—both in terms of human lives and the greater geopolitical danger they would pose.
A brief history of the present crisis proceeds as follows: An east-west split in voting patterns among the already-fractured Ukrainian population resulted in the election of the weak and extremely corrupt President Viktor Yanukovych in 2010. Owing to his tremendous unpopularity in Western Ukraine, popular demonstrations against the Yanukovych administration broke out in Kiev in early 2014, but were hijacked by an extreme right-wing minority. Not fully understanding the situation, but presumably seeing an opportunity to drive a wedge between Ukraine and Russia, U.S. officials like Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian AffairsVictoria Nuland and Arizona Senator John McCain openly supported a revolution that had in fact become a coup of the extreme right, which eventually overthrew the democratically elected government.
The revolution was followed by Russia’s annexation of the Crimea, which led American politicians and reporters to compare Putin in hyperbolic and unhistorical terms to a Hitler-like aggressor. The Obama administration responded with several rounds of economic sanctions as well as escalatory language. Most recently, this rhetorical condemnation has included threats to supply Western Ukrainian forcers with “defensive” weapons. Instead of trying to contain the very dangerous situation or tamp-down the internal and geopolitical tensions which sparked the violence in the first place, our leaders have done little but contribute to the tailspin of Ukrainian security conditions. To date, the American misunderstanding and overreaction to this crisis has been little short of breathtaking.
This American overreaction, with threats of arms sales still in the air, precluded any direct U.S. (or even British) participation at last week’s ceasefire talks in Minsk. However, Secretary of State John Kerry’s meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the Munich Security Conference on February 7 suggests that the administration—or at least the more moderate elements within it—have come to their senses and are attempting to de-escalate the situation. As such, it is possible that German President Angela Merkel—by far the most knowledgeable Western leader in this crisis—was in part an emissary of the more cautious contingent in the U.S. government. Merkel herself walks a tightrope between representing German interests, fears of a regional war, and a growing refugee crisis on the one hand and the EU and NATO’s provocative expansionistic goals on the other. She also realizes that Putin—far from being the Hitler that hysterical American politicians and pundits have made him out to be—is looking for a way out of this crisis as well.
The problem, however, is this: Merkel may well be the United States’ diplomatic proxy, but the elements driving this crisis do not originate with global or even regional powers. Rather, they are the forces on the ground who appear to be proxies: a right-wing minority in West Ukraine, and the separatists in the East who enjoy genuine popularity there. Complicating this issue further is the fact that the separatists are also popular among the Russian people themselves, and large numbers of Eastern Ukrainian refugees are now pouring into Russia proper. Putin, who has so far shown great restraint (probably out of fear of a major civil or regional war on his front doorstep), may eventually be forced by the weight of Russian public opinion to take a more forceful stand. As it is, he has signed on to the Minsk agreement to include provisions calling for a withdrawal of material support of the separatists and the participation of Russian volunteer fighters.
At this point, Kiev’s strategy (i.e., that of the West Ukrainian extreme right wing minority, given that President Petro Poroshenko has been all marginalized throughout the crisis) rests on two premises that are irreconcilable under the Minsk agreement. Having taken a beating on the battlefield—and knowing that they cannot win a civil war militarily—they seek, first, the withdrawal of Russian support for the separatists (which is a provision of the Minsk agreement), and, second, increased Western involvement to perhaps include the direct participation of NATO forces (precisely what the Minsk ceasefire is intended to prevent). Thus, it is likely that loyalist Ukrainians will stake their fate on the probability that the ceasefire will not hold, and will pursue the second possibility. They will wager that a shooting war will bring in the active support of the West, which, they hope, will counteract Russian aid to the separatists.
The actual combatants on both sides of this fight—the zealous and well-organized extreme right in Western Ukraine and the equally zealous separatists in the East—do not want peace short of achieving their respective goals. In other words, what so many experts see as mere geopolitical proxies are actually driving events on the ground. That alone should scare the hell out of Western leaders. Elements of Western Ukraine have stated their intention to disregard the ceasefire, and in some places the fighting has already resumed.
If the ceasefire collapses, a civil war will likely ensue that combines the worst elements of a people’s war (think of the last Balkan War on a three- or fourfold scale) with the intensity and arms capabilities of modern conventional warfare. It will be a war with no good guys and which will in no way serve the interests of the United States, NATO, the European Union, or Russia. Along with the tens or even of hundreds of thousands of casualties (current estimates put the number at well over 5,000 already), the currently underreported refugee crisis will become cataclysmic. Moreover, unlike the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, this conflict would be bipolar but with nuclear-powered backers. Most disturbingly, it could easily become the war that the United States and Russia’s previous incarnation, the Soviet Union, successfully avoided fighting between 1945 and 1991.
The immediate goal of the United States and the Minsk signatories should therefore be to make sure that any conflict that does come to Ukraine is contained within its borders and does not spill over into a broader regional conflict. Although it seems unlikely with Republican control of both houses of the American Congress and a lame duck Democratic president who has demonstrated little acumen for foreign affairs, the United States must also reduce its anti-Russian rhetoric. Time and time again, history has shown that bellicose discourse that is easily ratcheted-up may not be so easy to bring down again. At the very least, a regional war in Europe will likely divide the major powers and distract them from problems that threaten all of us, like the ongoing global environmental crisis. For all its horror, war is sometimes necessary. But should a broader conflict break out in Ukraine, it would be just the opposite.
If things do somehow simmer down in Ukraine, the United States, along with the delegates of Minsk, should also act as brokers toward the eventual goal of partitioning the nation. If the intensity of both sides in this conflict demonstrates anything, it is that Ukraine is in fact two distinct nations living within a border as a fictional whole. We have seen what happens when mutually hostile populations historically divided by culture and language are artificially held together. The historical example set not only by the Balkans and Rwanda but now by Iraq and Syria as well should give us pause. Although the non-acrimonious divorces of the Czech Republic and Slovakia as well as that between Norway and Sweden may seem too amicable to serve as models, the goal of separation should be pursued with focus and vigor. This is in no way an endorsement of ethnic nationalism, but rather a realistic concession that partition is preferable to the most dangerous sort of war. Partition would also allow Russia to maintain a buffer to the West, while allowing Western Ukraine to align itself with the EU if it so desires.
If war is somehow averted, the United States will need to understand the cold reality that so long as large nations exist they will have spheres of influence, and that even competitor nations have legitimate interests which, by geographical necessity, may trump our own. The United States must also understand—as it once did—that there is no shame in negotiating with those whose interests run counter to its own and that, in fact, such discourse is necessary if it is to prevent limited regional conflicts from becoming great power wars. Perhaps most importantly, the United States and other parties who wish to avert a broader Ukrainian conflict must not let geopolitical perceptions and generalities or the lingering distrust of a bygone era blind them to the complex and nuanced realities of actual crises—and, in doing so, make them even worse.
* The idea that the Ukrainian crisis is first and foremost an internal situation was suggested to me by my friend, David Isenbergh