They say truth is the first casualty of war. In the escalating conflict in Ukraine, we’ve seen nuance and complexity—the stuff of which real history is made—ignored, marginalized in favor of us-versus-them bluster and nationalistic posturing. This is a dangerous sort of “dialogue” to witness. As each side continues to willfully misinterpret the other, a vacuum is forming in the diplomatic space where reality, comprehension and cooperation ought to be, and as tension continues to mount, so too does the risk of war. Make no mistake about it, we are on the verge of civil war in Ukraine, and possibly the start of an even larger conflagration—perhaps even a proxy war between the United States and Russia.
“Misinformation, propaganda and incitement to hatred need to be urgently countered,” urges a UN human rights report. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights elaborates, “Facts on the ground need to be established to help reduce the risk of radically different narratives being exploited for political ends. People need a reliable point of view to counter what has been widespread misinformation and also speech that aims to incite hatred on national, religious or racial grounds.”
And what might that “reliable point of view” convey to us? What might we learn from a sober reflection on recent and not-so-recent history? First, that every actor bears some responsibility for today’s crisis. Starting with the Clinton administration in the nineties, Stephen F. Cohen has written here, “the US-led West has unrelentingly moved its military, political and economic power ever closer to post-Soviet Russia.” Since 1999, NATO has expanded eastwards to include much of the former Warsaw Pact, including the three former Baltic Republics that directly border Russia. Given that, we shouldn’t be surprised when Putin reads recent history as two decades in which the US has been “trying to drive us into some kind of corner.” And for its part, the EU has been unable to imagine an independent, nonaligned Ukraine, rejecting Putin’s “tripartite” arrangement offered to Ukraine last November and demanding that a junior-partner Kiev look to either Brussels or Moscow for stability—but not neither and not both.
Sadly, too much of the US media has decided to push the Cold War Redux angle of the story, trotting out hawkish analysts and using the time-honored tradition of invoking the A-word (“appeasement”) to stigmatize anyone who sees things slightly more sanely. As a result, American viewers and readers are not only getting but one side of the story, they’re also getting the most extreme and least nuanced version of that side. This is dangerous. History tells us Ukraine is a deeply divided country. The West cannot shut Russia out via escalating, “crippling” sanctions, even as the White House and a cross-partisan coalition of hawks call for such. (It is reckless folly that hawks like John McCain call for the West to arm Ukrainians.)
A political, economic or cultural severance between Ukraine and Russia would be devastating, especially for the Ukrainian working class. More than one-quarter of Ukrainian exports head to Russia, and more than one-quarter of Ukrainian imports come from Russia. To use this relationship as a political football is to risk plunging the Ukrainian economy into crisis, with most of the effects of that crisis then falling on working Ukrainians.
As four-party talks begin on Thursday in Geneva, it is to be hoped that the emphasis is on diplomacy and cooperation; the drumbeat of war will only make it more difficult for a territorially unified, viable Ukraine to emerge. Nor can we accept a “solution” that is imposed upon Ukrainians by Europeans or Americans. The $27 billion lifeline given to Ukraine by the IMF, for example, comes with the attached strings of onerous austerity measures. (It is ordinary Ukrainians, for example, who will suffer the most under the new austerity measures as the floating national currency is likely to push up inflation, while spike in domestic gas prices will impact every household. Under the IMF conditions Kiev has to cut the budget deficit, increase retail energy tariffs and shift to a flexible exchange rate.) Amid the bluffing, pandering and posturing, it’s easy to forget that the lives, and livelihoods, of some forty million Ukrainians are at stake—and that these are the people in whose interests the US, EU and Russia are obliged to act.
It would be in the security interests of all if the four-party talks proceeded with negotiation roughly along lines of a stripped-down version of what Russia proposed a month ago: an end to NATO expansion to Ukraine and former Soviet republics; an agreement for a new federal constitution, agreed to by both East and West and with Ukraine remaining one state; and maintenance of the trading-partner relationship between Ukraine and Russia, regardless of which way—if any—Ukrainians decide to “lean.” And one proposal is also worth considering: bringing in UN peacekeepers during Ukraine’s next election (in which Ukrainians vote for Parliament and president, not just president as is currently planned).
These are times when we need fewer assertions, fewer definitive answers. We need more diplomacy, not less. The opportunity costs we’d pay for an armed Ukrainian adventure—failure to stem the arms race, failure to resolve the crisis in Syria, failure to engage Iran on nuclear issues—are too great. It’s important to recognize that the future of nations is rarely, if ever, determined by the intervention of outside actors. It’s not necessary for the US/NATO/EU to line up Ukraine as “one of us”; the same goes for Russia. Ukraine should be an independent player, nonaligned and not burdened by onerous conditions or threats made by outsiders who’ve chosen Ukraine as the place to wage an East-versus-West proxy battle.