Can We Talk? So Far With Ukraine, the Answer Is No

Ukraine is under a “leaky” ceasefire as of last week, but the underlying problems will go unresolved until the United States, European Union and Russia stop talking past each other.

Conflict in Ukraine began with Russia’s concern that another former Soviet republic would fall into NATO’s hands. In a caricatured geopolitical rendition of “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus,” East and West find themselves talking past each other with neither willing to listen to the other in translation.

For Russia, NATO expansion represents an existential threat as NATO encroached into the former Soviet bloc and then the former USSR itself, despite promises by U.S. Secretary of State James Baker in 1990 that it would not. The U.S. and Europe see NATO as defensive. Russia sees it as encircling. NATO sees itself as a benign alliance of democracies.

Meanwhile, Russia’s answer to that, cueing singer Jim Morrison, is one of “the future’s uncertain and the end is always near.” Russia previously observed a Germany that switched from democracy to an apocalyptic fascist regime overnight. And, while that was long ago, given the massive loss of life, World War II still holds a central place in Russia’s consciousness, as did the Civil War for many decades in the United States.

Presidents Bill Clinton and later George W. Bush ignored Baker’s pledge and expanded NATO anyway. George Kennan, the dean of Cold War U.S. diplomats (and a Milwaukee native), strongly cautioned against the spread of the alliance eastward. In his last years, Kennan declared in The New York Times that “Expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era,” one likely “to restore the atmosphere of the Cold War to East-West relations, and to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking.” Such foreshadowing should have been heeded.

Vladimir Putin is no democrat, but he’s also no extremist of the Vladimir Zhirinovsky or even Alexander Dugin variety committed to gathering Russian speakers into a “Greater Russia.” But he could be if pushed. Putin sees himself as the CEO of a country run as a corporation. This should give one simultaneously both pause and relief, as it hints at his authoritarian tendencies, but also his disinterest in ruinous adventures motivated by ideology.

Putin is a pragmatist seeking to advance Russian economic and geopolitical power. He has been a partner in the war on terror and previously hinted at wanting to join NATO. Rebuffed, that rebuke proved costly as it set him on a course of independent action.

Europe and the U.S., by contrast, express their normative view that all countries are entitled to self-determination. For them, Russia’s concerns are anchored in a past that no longer exists. Moreover, East/Central Europe had its own unpleasant experience with a neighbor: the USSR. Russia needs to recognize that. Yet, if Europe and the U.S. can resist the temptation to exercise their right to admit new entrants to NATO, they might yet find an accommodation with Russia that benefits all, especially Ukraine.

As Mark Twain intoned, “history does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” At World War I’s centennial, we seem perilously close to sounding out a new history that rhymes with the years 1914-1945. Europe and the U.S. can best help by halting NATO expansion and working with Russia to develop Ukraine together.

The smart answer for Ukraine is “Finlandization,” not NATO. Caught between East and West, and once part of the Russian Empire and later an enemy of the USSR, after World War II Finland opted to develop its economy and security by engaging both East and West as a Rosetta Stone of sorts for both. The result was peace and prosperity in one of the great success stories of the 20th century.

A Ukraine that finds cooperation with both Europe and Russia might just untie its Gordian Knot and become the great success of our century.