Patriotic Heresy vs. the New Cold War
Fallacy No. 4: Today’s civil war in Ukraine was caused by Putin’s aggressive response to the peaceful Maidan protests against Yanukovych’s decision.
Fact: In February 2014, the radicalized Maidan protests, strongly influenced by extreme nationalist and even semi-fascist street forces, turned violent. Hoping for a peaceful resolution, European foreign ministers brokered a compromise between Maidan’s parliamentary representatives and Yanukovych. It would have left him as president, with less power, of a coalition reconciliation government until new elections this December. Within hours, violent street fighters aborted the agreement. Europe’s leaders and Washington did not defend their own diplomatic accord. Yanukovych fled to Russia. Minority parliamentary parties representing Maidan and, predominantly, western Ukraine—among them Svoboda, an ultranationalist movement previously anathematized by the European Parliament as incompatible with European values—formed a new government. They also revised the existing Constitution in their favor. Washington and Brussels endorsed the coup and have supported the outcome ever since. Everything that followed, from Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the spread of rebellion in southeastern Ukraine to the civil war and Kiev’s “anti-terrorist operation,” was triggered by the February coup. Putin’s actions have been mostly reactive.
Fallacy No. 5: The only way out of the crisis is for Putin to end his “aggression” and call off his agents in southeastern Ukraine.
Fact: The underlying causes of the crisis are Ukraine’s own internal divisions, not primarily Putin’s actions. The essential factor escalating the crisis since May has been Kiev’s “anti-terrorist” military campaign against its own citizens, now mainly in Luhansk and Donetsk. Putin influences and no doubt aids the Donbass “self-defenders.” Considering the pressure on him in Moscow, he is likely to continue to do so, perhaps even more directly, but he does not control them. If Kiev’s assault ends, Putin probably can compel the rebels to negotiate. But only the Obama administration can compel Kiev to stop, and it has not done so.
In short, twenty years of US policy have led to this fateful American-Russian confrontation. Putin may have contributed to it along the way, but his role during his fourteen years in power has been almost entirely reactive—indeed, it is a complaint frequently lodged against him by more hardline forces in Moscow.
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In politics as in history, there are always alternatives. The Ukrainian crisis could have at least three different outcomes. In the first, the civil war escalates and widens, drawing in Russian and possibly NATO military forces. This would be the worst outcome: a kind of latter-day Cuban missile crisis.
In the second outcome, today’s de facto partitioning of Ukraine becomes institutionalized in the form of two Ukrainian states—one allied with the West, the other with Russia—co-existing between Cold War and cold peace. This would not be the best outcome, but neither would it be the worst.
The third outcome, as well as the best one, would be the preservation of a united Ukraine. This will require good-faith negotiations between representatives of all of Ukraine’s regions, including leaders of the rebellious southeast, probably under the auspices of Washington, Moscow and the European Union, as Putin and his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, have proposed for months.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s tragedy continues to grow. Thousands of innocent people have been killed or wounded, according to a UN representative, and nearly a million others turned into refugees. It is a needless tragedy, because rational people on all sides know the general terms of peace negotiations:
§ Ukraine must become a federal or sufficiently decentralized state in order to permit its diverse regions to elect their own officials, live in accord with their local cultures, and have a say in taxation and budgetary issues, as is the case in many federal states from Canada to Germany. Such constitutional provisions will need to be ratified by a referendum or a constitutional assembly, accompanied or followed by parliamentary and presidential elections. (The rushed presidential election in May was a mistake, effectively depriving more than 40 percent of the country of their own candidates and thus a real vote.)
§ Ukraine must not be aligned with any military alliance, including NATO. (Nor must any of the other former Soviet republics now being courted by NATO.)
§ Ukraine must be governed in ways that enable it to maintain or develop economic relations with both Russia and the West. Otherwise, it will never be politically independent or economically prosperous.
§ If these principles are adopted, they should be guaranteed, along with Ukraine’s present territorial integrity, by Russia and the West, perhaps in a UN Security Council resolution.
But such negotiations cannot even begin until Kiev’s military assault on eastern Ukraine ends. Russia, Germany and France have repeatedly called for a cease-fire, but the “anti-terrorist operation” can end only where it began—in Kiev and Washington. (Though Washington and Kiev evidently remain opposed, a cease-fire proposal may result from German Chancellor Merkel’s August 23 visit to Kiev and a scheduled meeting between Putin and Ukrainian President Poroshenko in Minsk.)
Alas, there is no such leadership here in Washington. President Obama has vanished as a statesman in the Ukrainian crisis. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks publicly more like a secretary of war than as our top diplomat. The Senate is preparing even more bellicose legislation. The establishment media rely uncritically on Kiev’s propaganda and cheerlead for its policies. Unlike the scenes of devastation in Gaza, American television rarely, if ever, shows Kiev’s destruction of Luhansk, Donetsk or other Ukrainian cities, thereby arousing no public qualms or opposition.
And so we patriotic heretics remain mostly alone and often defamed. The most encouraging perspective I can offer is to remind you that positive change in history frequently begins as heresy. Or to quote the personal testimony of Mikhail Gorbachev, who once said of his struggle for change inside the even more rigidly orthodox Soviet nomenklatura: “Everything new in philosophy begins as heresy and in politics as the opinion of a minority.” As for patriotism, here is Woodrow Wilson: “the most patriotic man is sometimes the man who goes in the direction he thinks right even when he sees half of the world against him.”
Read Next: Gilbert Doctorow on how the US and Russian media are covering the Ukrainian crisis