Firm Steps and Missteps

by Dave Schuler on March 2, 2014

As an example of why I’m concerned about the reactions of official Washington to the situation in Ukraine, consider this press release from Secretary of State John Kerry:

The United States condemns the Russian Federation’s invasion and occupation of Ukrainian territory, and its violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity in full contravention of Russia’s obligations under the UN Charter, the Helsinki Final Act, its 1997 military basing agreement with Ukraine, and the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. This action is a threat to the peace and security of Ukraine, and the wider region.

I spoke with President Turchynov this morning to assure him he had the strong support of the United States and commend the new government for showing the utmost restraint in the face of the clear and present danger to the integrity of their state, and the assaults on their sovereignty. We also urge that the Government of Ukraine continue to make clear, as it has from throughout this crisis, its commitment to protect the rights of all Ukrainians and uphold its international obligations.

As President Obama has said, we call for Russia to withdraw its forces back to bases, refrain from interference elsewhere in Ukraine, and support international mediation to address any legitimate issues regarding the protection of minority rights or security.

From day one, we’ve made clear that we recognize and respect Russia’s ties to Ukraine and its concerns about treatment of ethnic Russians. But these concerns can and must be addressed in a way that does not violate Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, by directly engaging the Government of Ukraine.

Unless immediate and concrete steps are taken by Russia to deescalate tensions, the effect on U.S.-Russian relations and on Russia’s international standing will be profound.
I convened a call this afternoon with my counterparts from around the world, to coordinate on next steps. We were unified in our assessment and will work closely together to support Ukraine and its people at this historic hour.

In the coming days, emergency consultations will commence in the UN Security Council, the North Atlantic Council, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in defense of the underlying principles critical to the maintenance of international peace and security. We continue to believe in the importance of an international presence from the UN or OSCE to gather facts, monitor for violations or abuses and help protect rights. As a leading member of both organizations, Russia can actively participate and make sure its interests are taken into account.

The people of Ukraine want nothing more than the right to define their own future – peacefully, politically and in stability. They must have the international community’s full support at this vital moment. The United States stands with them, as we have for 22 years, in seeing their rights restored.

The first paragraph:

The United States condemns the Russian Federation’s invasion and occupation of Ukrainian territory, and its violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity in full contravention of Russia’s obligations under the UN Charter, the Helsinki Final Act, its 1997 military basing agreement with Ukraine, and the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. This action is a threat to the peace and security of Ukraine, and the wider region.

is fine. It says what’s needed to be said and, if that were the complete statement, in my view it would be enough. Sadly, it does not. The conclusion:

The people of Ukraine want nothing more than the right to define their own future – peacefully, politically and in stability. They must have the international community’s full support at this vital moment. The United States stands with them, as we have for 22 years, in seeing their rights restored.

We may not see it that way but I believe that from the point-of-view of the Russians it’s both provocative and offensive. Sec. Kerry is speaking on behalf of the Ukrainian people here and his characterization does not appear to comport with the facts of the case or, at the very least, with the facts of the case as they are known to the Russians. From their point-of-view the fairly and democratically-elected president of Ukraine has been ousted by an armed mob. He was not removed according to Ukrainian law or even by an action of a majority of Ukrainians.

There are other quibbles I could make about the statement. For example, I don’t think that Sec. Kerry is a particularly good spokesman to condemn violation of international law or national sovereignty. I have a vague recollection that as a senator he voted in favor of the Authorization to Use Military Force that empowered President Bush to invade Iraq, a country far from our borders and one in which we have national interests far less than Russia has in Ukraine. As my old business partner once put it, I may agree with what you say but I will condemn to the death your right to say it. But, as I say, that’s a quibble.

My point here is not that we should say nothing. It is that we should be careful in what we say.

{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

michael reynolds March 2, 2014 at 2:14 pm

I think these are the meat of it:

As President Obama has said, we call for Russia to withdraw its forces back to bases, refrain from interference elsewhere in Ukraine, and support international mediation to address any legitimate issues regarding the protection of minority rights or security.

From day one, we’ve made clear that we recognize and respect Russia’s ties to Ukraine and its concerns about treatment of ethnic Russians. But these concerns can and must be addressed in a way that does not violate Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, by directly engaging the Government of Ukraine.

Which I read as Look, Vlad, you can take Crimea, but that’s it. Then let’s have a bunch of international conferences.

If one were to be cynical, one would say this could all work out well for the west. If Putin stops at the Crimea. The Ukrainian nationalists will have just subtracted a couple million opposition voters. The Ukrainian people will be feeling the Russian threat. If Ukrainians then voted in a westward-looking moderate you could see Ukraine 10 years from now in pre-EU mode.

Of course I think we have to suspect that no one involved will behave rationally and the whole thing will spiral down.

... March 2, 2014 at 2:17 pm

At least SecState didn’t say, “We are all Ukrainians.” Gotta give old Chingis Kerry that much.

Dave Schuler March 2, 2014 at 2:19 pm

The Ukrainian nationalists will have just subtracted a couple million opposition voters.

I don’t think the politics works out quite the way you’ve envisioned it. I think that will heighten the perceived need for Russia to intervene to protect ethnic Russians and pro-Russia Ukrainians in Ukraine. In other words, I don’t think there’s just one domino here. Said another way, I’m skeptical that it’s possible to take just one bite out of Ukraine.

At least SecState didn’t say, “We are all Ukrainians.” Gotta give old Chingis Kerry that much.

Since John McCain has already said it, it would be redundant.

... March 2, 2014 at 2:23 pm

I know McCainsaid it, but he is in the minority party. Not that it play that way in the Russian press, of course.

I know that historically our best people don’t go into politics, but why does it have to be our worst people?

steve March 2, 2014 at 2:30 pm

How powerful is Svoboda in the protest government? Are they a real entity in Ukraine or too small to worry about? I kind of end up feeling that we are looking at Syria writ larger. I dont see much to like about either side in this conflict.

Dave Schuler March 2, 2014 at 2:33 pm

I know that historically our best people don’t go into politics, but why does it have to be our worst people?

Well, as Mark Twain is said to have said, in the United States we have no distinctly native criminal class other than the Congress.

Dave Schuler March 2, 2014 at 2:36 pm

Steve:

Ukraine doesn’t have any liberal democratic institutions or even a tradition of self-government. I believe that liberal democracy grows from institutions rather than the other way around.

Other than the bloodthirstiness of the participants the comparison with Syria isn’t bad and our best policy is the same in both places: stand up for our nominal values in abstract terms and otherwise maintain a low profile.

michael reynolds March 2, 2014 at 3:02 pm

Dave:

For the record, the way I envision it is:

Of course I think we have to suspect that no one involved will behave rationally and the whole thing will spiral down.

But it’s good to hope.

I wonder if Putin is really ready to grab half of Ukraine. If he takes the western half, he’s nuts, and then we really do have a serious issue. Wily and ruthless Putin is one thing. Crazy Putin is another thing altogether.

Piercello March 2, 2014 at 3:06 pm

I recall reading recently that the Crimean peninsula gets something like 70% of its utilities (read “water and electricity”) from the mainland to the north, which may mean Putin can’t easily stop with just the peninsula.

Dave Schuler March 2, 2014 at 3:12 pm

Putin can’t easily stop with just the peninsula.

Yeah, that’s highlighted by the gas pipeline map I posted at OTB. The two countries are really tightly intertwined.

michael reynolds March 2, 2014 at 3:19 pm

He can stop with the peninsula if the Ukrainian government (whoever they may be at any give moment) agree to concessions. Given that Ukraine has no money, no prospects of outside intervention, an army of extremely dubious loyalty and competence, and is kept warm by Russian gas, it’s hard for me to see why they wouldn’t agree to a Russian protectorate (call it what you will) over Crimea and a guarantee of unimpeded Russian access.

Unless of course they’re not very bright. But really, how often do we see governments do totally stupid, suicidal shit? I mean, other than the first 100 examples that come easily to mind?

PD Shaw March 2, 2014 at 3:19 pm

The President was removed by an impeachment vote of the parliament, introduced by a member of his own coalition and supported by members of his own coalition. Yanukovych and his Russian backers can rail at procedural technicalities (ultimately of his own machinations with the Constitution(s)), but his actions had united political opinion against him. Its what of the silver linings of recent events.

PD Shaw March 2, 2014 at 3:33 pm

I thought Kerry’s statement was fine. As to whether that last few lines is “taking sides” that’s fine too, the world is taking sides. Let us be transparent. I would be more interested in Russian examination of our assumptions embedded in that last paragraph. Whether Ukraine’s actions in criminalizing fleeing politicians, mandating language on minorities, and hollowing out its own commitment to neutrality are entirely peaceful, political, and stable.

PD Shaw March 2, 2014 at 3:40 pm

I dislike more Obama’s promise of imposing “costs,” particularly if he didn’t have an idea what those would be. I wouldn’t have promised costs, I would have expressed deepest concerns and promise full engagement. Irrespective of that, I believe now the U.S. must impose “costs” on Russia that don’t get mocked.

michael reynolds March 2, 2014 at 3:59 pm

PD:

“Costs” is pretty vague. I assume they’ll be the sorts of costs that won’t really cost us, our allies, or for that matter the Russians. Bad time to be planning a “cultural exchange” with Russians, that’s for sure. Will we evict Putin from the various trade alliances and organizations and so on? Somehow I doubt the EU has the stomach for that. At least not in cold weather.

PD Shaw March 2, 2014 at 4:11 pm

@michael, “costs” is also an implied threat, and my measure of Putin is that it makes it less likely to engage him diplomatically.

also @dave, the Iraq invasion had a figleaf of international support and a history of engagement with the issues at the U.N. I don’t want to refight the Iraq war, but there is no figleaf here and I would be happier, possibly even supportive of the Russian invasion, if there was.

PD Shaw March 2, 2014 at 4:13 pm

I admit I have not looked into Putin’s eyes though . . .

michael reynolds March 2, 2014 at 4:15 pm

Putin’s accepting a “fact-finding” mission including Kerry. I take that as a sign that his ambitions may be limited to the Crimea.

PD Shaw March 2, 2014 at 4:36 pm

Putin specifically told Obama that further invasion into Ukraine is not off the table. If Putin wanted to de-escalate international tensions, he could have said they have no intentions to do so (even if this is a lie). I would say he wants us to think his ambitions are not limited, and we are I believe required to assume they are not.

... March 2, 2014 at 4:39 pm

PD, why aren’t you running for office?

Oh, wait, that sounds like a threat, doesn’t it?

michael reynolds March 2, 2014 at 4:43 pm

PD:

That statement sounded like an “all options on the table” platitude rather than a plan. But we’ll see soon enough.

Dave:

You may know this. If Russia re-takes Crimea where would the Ukrainian navy harbor? Google Earth didn’t make Odessa look like a naval base.

PD Shaw March 2, 2014 at 5:08 pm

A couple of interesting links:

Jack Matlock, career diplomat passes on an America in Moscow’s observations about Russian public opinion.

This map shows the area of Ukranian identity when Ukranian nationalism emerged in WWI. These are the “extreme” territorial claims of the Ukrainian secessionists (not what they were ultimately able to claim within or without the Soviet Union), and the don’t include Crimea, nor a large chunk of the mainland to its North.

Dave Schuler March 2, 2014 at 5:54 pm

If Russia re-takes Crimea where would the Ukrainian navy harbor?

The port of Odessa is the largest in Ukraine and, if I’m not mistaken, the largest on the Black Sea so I would guess that would be the natural base for it.

However, I think the resignation of the head of the Ukrainian navy suggests that he has seen the hand writing on the wall.

PD:

That may be the map from which Ukrainian nationalists are working but IMO it has no basis in the realities on the ground today. It reflects a world that’s several mass migrations and mass expulsions ago.

Re: the link to Jack Matlock’s site

The opinions expressed comport pretty closely with my interpretation, especially the observations about the cues dropped by removing Russian as an official language. It’s probably the first language for half of all Ukrainians whatever their ethnicity and the comment, which echoes things I’ve written here that Americans are so used to their own institutions they don’t understand how anybody could have a different experience.

PD Shaw March 2, 2014 at 6:14 pm

@Dave, I should made a point of mentioning that subsequent population movements have changed things. But I see the map as the best bottom-up expression of Ukrainian political identity, and its significantly North and West of today’s legal borders, because of top-bottom decisions by the WWI victors (subtracting territory) and by the USSR (adding territory).

Dave Schuler March 2, 2014 at 6:17 pm

The Serbs had some pretty grandiose ideas about Greater Serbia, too. I don’t even want to contemplate the map the Kurds are probably thinking about.

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