I wanted to commend an article at Foreign Affairs to your attention. It’s an explication by Frank Costigliola of George Kennan’s cautions about Russia and Ukraine. If you’re not familiar with the name Mr. Kennan’s “Long Telegram” laid out much of what was to become our post-World War II foreign policy.
Here are some key passages:
In a policy paper titled “U.S. Objectives with Respect to Russia” completed in August 1948, Kennan laid out the United States’ ultimate aims in the event that the Russians invaded Ukraine. He realized that Ukrainians “resented Russian domination; and their nationalistic organizations have been active and vocal abroad.” It would therefore “be easy to jump to the conclusion” that Ukraine should be independent. He asserted that the United States should not, however, encourage that separation.
Kennan’s assessment grossly underestimated Ukrainians’ will to self-determination. Nevertheless, two problems identified by Kennan three-quarters of a century ago have persisted, particularly in the minds of Russian leaders. Kennan doubted that Russians and Ukrainians could be easily distinguished in ethnic terms. He wrote in a State Department memo that “there is no clear dividing line between Russia and Ukraine, and it would be impossible to establish one.” Second, the Russian and Ukrainian economies were intertwined. Setting up an independent Ukraine “would be as artificial and as destructive as an attempt to separate the Corn Belt, including the Great Lakes industrial area, from the economy of the United States.”
Since 1991, Ukrainians have struggled to establish a territorial and ethnic dividing line while forging economic independence from the Russian behemoth. Moscow has undermined these efforts by encouraging discontent in the eastern Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine, fomenting independence movements and now officially annexing four breakaway regions. With years of political and economic pressure and now with military brutality, Russia has tried to thwart Ukraine’s economic independence by disrupting its gas pipelines, grain exports, and shipping.
Even at the height of the Cold War, Kennan insisted that “we cannot be indifferent to the feelings of the Great Russians themselves.” Because the Russians would remain the “strongest national element” in the area, any viable “long-term U.S. policy must be based on their acceptance and their cooperation.” Again, Kennan likened the Russian view of Ukraine to the American view of the Midwest. A separate, independent Ukraine could “be maintained, in the last analysis, only by force.” For all these reasons, a hypothetical triumphant United States should not seek to impose Ukrainian independence on a prostrate Russia.
Should the Ukrainians achieve independence on their own, Kennan advised the State Department, Washington should not interfere, at least initially. It was nearly inevitable, however, that an independent Ukraine would be “challenged eventually from the Russian side.” If in that conflict “an undesirable deadlock was developing,” the United States should push for “a composing of the differences along the lines of a reasonable federalism.”
By 1997, Kennan was further alarmed by Washington’s decision to have NATO not only admit the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland but also to initiate military and naval cooperation with Ukraine. The redrawn line dividing east from west was compelling Ukraine and other nations to choose sides. “Nowhere does this choice appear more portentous and pregnant with fateful consequences than in the case of Ukraine,” Kennan warned Talbott in a private letter.
There are links to several of Mr. Kennan’s letters in the article.
Few of the attitudes Mr. Kennan has described have changed in the intervening years and his views remain relevant. Sadly, we have not heeded him.