The crisis in Ukraine should serve as a lesson that while the power of the United States and the West is vast, it’s not unlimited — and that while the Ukrainian people should decide their future, they must do so in a way that safeguards the rights of their Russian minority.
While President Vladimir Putin is not a democratic leader, he is elected (voting irregularities notwithstanding) and is still popular in Russia. His reasons for intervening in Crimea, and maybe elsewhere in Ukraine, are grounded in concrete security concerns as well as in history. His intervention aims at securing the safety of Ukraine’s sizable Russian minority and safeguarding his country’s dominance by keeping the West from encroaching on Russia’s traditional sphere of influence.
The people of Ukraine rid themselves of a corrupt leader, but one who was elected. The election four years ago, like the one before, highlighted the cultural and economic differences between two parts of Ukraine that voted for different candidates (with the east and south voting for the pro-Russian candidate each time).
The recent revolt, while genuinely popular, was limited to the parts of Ukraine (north and west) that voted against President Viktor Yanukovych four years ago. In contrast to Lviv and Kiev, the bastions of revolt, eastern and southern parts of the country remained calm, an ominous sign for those who know the area and its history.
The fact that the West interfered in the internal affairs of Ukraine (hacked phone conversations proved that our government was not only supporting Ukraine’s opposition but also that it wanted to install its favorites as the country’s new leaders) added to the mistrust that both Russia and the people of southern and eastern Ukraine felt. The new Ukrainian government includes in its ranks the neo-nazi Svoboda party, which advocates ethnically cleansing Ukraine of minorities. One of its first acts was to pass a law ending recognition of Russian as an official language, adding to the insecurity of the minority Russian population. (The law has been reversed, but only after the Russian invasion).
At this point, our options are limited. We cannot confront Russia militarily, while economic sanctions will not work, as Europe needs Russian oil and gas.
The sad truth is that Ukraine is not vital to our interests, but it is vital for Russia and for Putin. This is a fight we cannot win — because it is a fight Russia cannot afford to lose. The solution to the crisis, if indeed one exists, will satisfy few. It is time for the West to admit its inability to force Russia out of Ukraine and find ways to make the best out of a bad situation.
We should recognize that Russia has many legitimate interests in the area. For its part, Ukraine has to realize that the West cannot really help and that it should try to cut a deal with Russia securing its independence but somehow satisfying Russian concerns. To accomplish this, the three parties should sit down together, after Ukrainian elections produce a legitimate government, and come to a major agreement in which old-fashioned give and take, rather than unrealistic expectations, would be their guide.
Yanukovych is not going back to Ukraine — but neither is Crimea. It will become part of Russia, or “independent” or (in the best scenario for Ukraine) remain in Ukraine as an autonomous area with even greater sovereignty. This might be bad enough for Ukraine, but if its leaders do not solve their differences with Russia, other parts of Ukraine in the east and south might join Crimea and the region will be destabilized for decades to come.
That’s a scenario that would harm Ukraine and Russia directly, but indirectly Europe and the West, as well.
John A. Mazis is a professor of Russian history at Hamline University.