The double standard in American politics has rarely been on more visible display than in the current crisis in Ukraine. Put the shoe on the other foot and you’ll see what I mean.
In Ukraine — best still described as a region rather than a state, with its government (rather like ours, come to think of it) the plaything of billionaire oligarchs and the corrupt politicians they sponsor and its population divided between ethnic Ukrainians in the west and Russians in the east — an elected president, Viktor Yanukovych, was ousted after months of violent demonstrations. Yanukovych was portrayed in the Western press as a would-be dictator with a Saddam Hussein-like predilection for building palaces, but his real sin was in voiding a deal that would have brought Ukraine into the European Union, weakening if not severing its strong economic ties to Russia.
Ukraine was, of course, a part of Russia itself until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. That calamity cost Russia about a third of its territory and nearly half its population, which declined further in the disastrous decade that followed. Of the constituent republics of the USSR that declared themselves independent states, Ukraine was the largest, with 46 million people, and also the most strategically significant. Its southerly extension, the Crimean peninsula, was Russia’s major port on the Black Sea and its only naval base bordering the Mediterranean. This region was so vital to Russian interests — and to European powers wishing to check them — that it occasioned the largest single European conflict of the post-Napoleonic 19th century, the Crimean War of 1853-1856.
To retain its base, the Russians signed a long-term lease with Ukraine that runs until 2042. Russian forces are thus legally in Ukraine. Crimea is also a Russian ethnic enclave, thanks in part to Stalin’s mass expulsion of native Tatars. This ethnic base rose up in protest at the overthrow of Yanukovych. Doubtless this was encouraged by Moscow, just as the anti-Yanukovych demonstrators had been by the West. It gave Russian president Vladimir Putin the pretext he needed to put additional military personnel into Crimea. The provisional government of Ukraine has declared this an invasion, mobilized troops and reserves, and called for international assistance.
What’s at stake here? Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the European Union and its U.S.-led military wing, NATO, has steadily encroached on Russia’s former Eastern European empire, including both satellite states and ex-Soviet republics themselves. The Russians themselves refer to their former national territory as “the near abroad,” a term that suggests a more-than-neighborly interest. Had the Confederacy managed to secede during the American Civil War, the surviving states of our Union would doubtless have taken a similar interest in their quondam southern territories. They would also have watched any ties between the Confederacy and Mexico very carefully — or any attempt by Mexico to recover its own former lands in the American Southwest.
Let’s bring the analogy more up to date. Let’s say the Cuban government was perceived as threatening our military base at Guantanamo Bay. Let’s say the European Union was trying to entice Mexico to abandon the North American Free Trade Agreement and join the EU bloc and had sponsored a coup to bring an anti-American government to power. How would we likely react?
To the first example we don’t need a suppositional answer. The U.S. responded to an unfriendly regime in Cuba by seeking to overthrow it by invasion in 1961. As for Mexico, I think we can take it for granted that a counter-coup would have been arranged shortly to bring Mexico back to its senses. It may be remembered that we invaded Mexico too, to restore “order” during World War I.
In short, in our backyard the Monroe Doctrine is still in force, and we patrol a domain that stretches nearly from pole to pole. That’s a privilege we reserve to ourselves, though. When other powers, whether Russia in its “near abroad” or China in Southeast Asia, assert their own spheres of influence, we preach sermons about sovereignty and territorial integrity. Editorial opinion chimes in on cue too; The Washington Post declared that we cannot permit Russian boots on the ground “in the center of Europe,” although the last time I looked, Crimea was due north of central Turkey.
It’s by no means clear in any case where American interests lie here. The European Union means Germany, and Germany has vested economic disaster on much of the Continent in the form of economic austerity. It had rolled out the same prescription for Ukraine via the International Monetary Fund, whereas Russia had offered instead a $15 billion loan and steeply discounted natural gas. Yanukovych’s preference for the latter, whether a choice or a ploy, was not, on its face, irrational or merely the reflex of a puppet ruler. The opposition to him in Independence Square talked a lot about democracy, at least for Western cameras, but anti-Russian nationalism, some of it with far-right associations, was at its base. Ethnic Ukrainians joined Hitler to fight against the Soviet Union during World War II, a memory that lingers in Moscow. When Ronald Reagan beamed radio propaganda at Ukraine in the 1980s, it included praise of the Ukrainian units that had joined the fascist cause. Now the Germans are back, not with tanks, but with a mightier weapon: the euro. Angela Merkel is no Hitler, but ethnic Ukrainians seem to be backing the same horse again.
The problem, obviously, is that Ukraine’s substantial Russian minority has a good deal less enthusiasm for the EU. And we have been here before. When the former Yugoslavia teetered on the brink of collapse in 1991, Germany helped give it a push, hoping to draw the Catholic regions of Slovenia and Croatia into its orbit. The consequence was war in Bosnia, as a large Serb minority rejected an independence referendum staged by the Muslim community and Serbia intervened on its behalf. That war proved to be the bloodiest conflict on European soil since World War II. It is not difficult to see a similar scenario playing out in Ukraine; indeed, it is already underway.
Serbia was and still is demonized for its intervention in Bosnia, while the Muslims who provoked the crisis are depicted, like ethnic Ukrainians today, as freedom fighters. Serbia’s president, Slobodan Milosevic, wound up on trial before the Hague Court of International Justice and died in captivity. Ethnic Ukrainians want Yanukovych put on trial. That won’t happen — he’s found safe haven in Russia — but Western opinion has already condemned him.
What should the U.S. do? For one thing, not make a bad situation worse. The Russians hold all the military cards here. Russian cooperation is essential if anything is to be done about the humanitarian disaster in Syria or restraining Iran’s nuclear ambitions. We must not succumb to the rhetoric being drummed up by Germany about a new Iron Curtain descending on Europe. If there’s any dominion in Europe to be feared, it’s that of Germany itself. Quiet diplomacy is best, the quieter the better. Russia will not want to damage the image it so assiduously cultivated with the Winter Olympics, but neither will it permit Ukraine to become German territory again. These are the facts from which we need to begin.
Robert Zaller is a professor of history at Drexel University. He can be contacted at [email protected]