Europe should be wary of the official “U.S. position” on Ukraine

April 10, 2014
(Published in New Europe, Brussels, April 10, 2014)
James George Jatras
Deputy Director, AIU

With the declaration this week of a “Donetsk Republic” and pro-Russian activists’ seizure of public buildings in Lugansk and Kharkov, the European Union is once again presented with the dilemma of how to respond to the still unfolding Ukraine crisis.  So far, as was the case with Crimea, the EU position seems to be one of “American lite”: mimicking Washington’s rhetorical hard line while dragging their feet on sanctions in deference to Europe’s greater exposure to possible Russian retaliation.

But qualified endorsement of tough U.S. talk while attempting to moderate actions isn’t much of a strategy.  This starts with a mistaken reading of the mood in the United States.  While it might seem reasonable to take hawkish statements by President Barack Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and various figures on Capitol Hill as definitive of “the American position” on Ukraine, the reality of American opinion is far more complex.  It is a complexity of which Europe should take note.

The “American position” as Europeans may hear it comes mostly from a relatively limited range of sources: a bipartisan, Washington-based foreign policy establishment; a group of think tanks, most of them financed directly or indirectly by the U.S. government; and publications with a mostly “inside the Beltway” audience that both reflect and reinforce government and think tank views.  

It should be remembered that last year the same closed echo chamber was overwhelmingly supportive of President Obama’s threat to launch airstrikes against Syria over claims the Assad regime had used chemical weapons.  At seemingly the last minute, Mr. Obama referred the matter to Congress, which was buried by a tsunami of public opposition.   After Afghanistan and Iraq, Americans – particularly younger voters – have had enough.

We have not yet arrived at either the prospect of military involvement or of sanctions severe enough to endanger the European economy, but it’s clear that most Americans’ attitude toward Ukraine is that it is not our problem.  While polls show some support for the kind of symbolic sanctions we’ve seen so far, Americans oppose deeper involvement leading to military intervention or military assistance to Ukraine.  Even advocates of intervention, such as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, admit (and lament) that their fellow Americans just are not with them.  Nor is this a matter of knowledge and interest: a recent poll shows that the lessAmericans knew about Ukraine, including its location, the more they favored U.S. involvement.

European self-interest would be well served by listening to recommendations from the “other America” that differs from the official line and covers the spectrum from the Left (The Nation); to Libertarianism (the CATO InstituteReason magazine), to the Right (The American Conservative), to the moderate center (The National Interest).  Particularly significant are the thoughts of some respected “gray heads,” themselves products of the Washington establishment but who advocate a different line: that Europe, Russia, and the U.S. need to cooperate and compromise in putting Ukraine back together again.

For example, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger advocates internally a “policy of reconciliation between the various parts of their country” and internationally a “posture comparable to that of Finland.”  Former National Security Council adviser to President George W. Bush Thomas Graham has suggested an outline that includes restoring regionally balanced government, power-sharing, constitutional reform, and trade ties to both the EU and Russia.   The common theme is that within Ukraine and internationally “compromise” must stop being a dirty word. 

It is underestimated the extent to which the February unconstitutional seizure of power in Kiev fractured the Ukrainian state.   All the talk of “taking Ukraine into Europe” doesn’t change the fact that an elected president was chased out of office with the participation of some violent, radical elements that in comparison make, say, Greece’s “Golden Dawn” seem tame.  (By contrast, protesters in Donetsk are rising up against an oligarch installed as governor, elected by nobody.)  Restoring a functioning country will demand insistent negotiations across the range of issues: the balance between presidential and parliamentary powers, language rights, reigning in extremists, delaying presidential elections (now scheduled for next month) to allow Ukraine’s south and east to have a fair voice, and the relative strength between the “center” and the regions in a decentralized or even federalized order that restores local confidence. 

As cooler heads can agree, Ukraine’s future viability – if it has one – depends on restoring its status as a “bridge” between Europe and Russia and its balance among its regions.  Failure to achieve that can only lead to more “Crimeas” and “Donetsks,” perhaps at some point spreading to western regions as central authority continues to break down.  Even more dangerously, the unelected “administration” in Kiev may decide that the only way to rescue the situation is a declaration of martial law and a harsh crackdown, something the legally elected Viktor Yanukovych only threatened in Kiev.  That could open the door to a level of violence we have not yet seen, with unforeseeable consequences.

“We are by far the country that would suffer the most” from a worsening of the crisis, said Mr. [Wolfgang] Ischinger, a former German ambassador to the U.S., whose observation could be applied by degrees to Europe generally.  “Not a single dollar will be lost in Arizona,” he continued, a reference to Senator John McCain, a noted advocate of strong action.  If Europeans don’t want to get trapped into a downward spiral of incendiary threats and escalating reprisals – which however much they might pain Russia will hurt Europe significantly, America hardly at all, and Ukrainians most – they would do well to listen to the “other” American voices that are more in accord with Europe’s own interests.