Ukraine, O, Ukraine!


Some situations are so complicated that you almost find yourself standing mute before them. Certainly the invasion of Ukraine is one such problem. At one level it's simple--this is a crime of aggression, and Russia can be taken to the ICJ for it (as it has been), and Putin can be prosecuted by the ICC. Simple, boom.

That having been agreed upon, there are layers and layers here that must still be acknowledged. I'm old enough to remember--as a professional in the field--the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the independence of Ukraine. I remember the security guarantees given to Ukraine to persuade it to give back its nukes to Russia. And I also remember the devastation wrought upon the then-new country of Russia by Western economic "experts" who destroyed the Russian economy instead. And I remember that it was the West that decided Putin was the man to lead Russia after Boris Yeltsin turned out to be a drunken fiasco, and the West that paved Putin's ascent to power.

I remember more. I remember the promises given to Gorbachev by James Baker, speaking for George H.W. Bush, that NATO would not move closer to Russia's borders. I remember when NATO created the NATO-Russia Partnership that would allow Russia to become an observer state to NATO, but not to have full membership or a vote in the organization. And I remember that Partnership's demise.

I remember Bush41's amazing slate of stand-downs as articulated in the INF Treaty, in Open Skies, in so many other quiet gestures, such as taking nuclear weapons off LOW alert. Bush41 must be turning over in his grave to consider how his carefully laid groundwork to ensure the Cold War with Russia would be finally laid to rest was capriciously destroyed by children (including one of his own children).

The hubris of the Clinton Administration and the Bush43 Administration and the Obama Administration with regard to Russia is something else that cannot be forgotten. Clinton broke the promise not to move NATO further east. Bush43 went further, and was also the first to start talking about possible NATO membership for nations like Georgia and Ukraine. The Obama Administration, for all its talk about a "re-set" with Russia, brazenly interfered in the Ukrainian election of 2014 on a level that recalled the bad old days of banana republics.

Russia was wrong to invade, and Ukraine has been heroically punching above its weight in the fighting of this first week of the invasion. But this conflict was avoidable--and it is the West that holds responsibility for being reckless with regard to Russia, with the Ukrainians paying the price for the West's recklessness.

Maybe it was too much to expect those who came after George H.W. Bush to have his acute sense of vision, which was based on years of experience in the world of foreign policy (which none of his successors had). The ones who came after were too busy revelling in their "unipolar moment" to notice that they were planting some weeds that would one day grow to choke the real peace that Bush41 was so intent on creating between Russia and the West.

But such is the arrogance of men.

George Kennan, the architect of containment, prophesied in 1998 (during the Clinton Administration) what would happen if NATO were enlarged eastward--this is Thomas Friedman's recounting:

"His voice is a bit frail now, but the mind, even at age 94, is as sharp as ever. So when I reached George Kennan by phone to get his reaction to the Senate's ratification of NATO expansion it was no surprise to find that the man who was the architect of America's successful containment of the Soviet Union and one of the great American statesmen of the 20th century was ready with an answer.

''I think it is the beginning of a new cold war,'' said Mr. Kennan from his Princeton home. ''I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else. This expansion would make the Founding Fathers of this country turn over in their graves. We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way. [NATO expansion] was simply a light-hearted action by a Senate that has no real interest in foreign affairs.''

''What bothers me is how superficial and ill informed the whole Senate debate was,'' added Mr. Kennan, who was present at the creation of NATO and whose anonymous 1947 article in the journal Foreign Affairs, signed ''X,'' defined America's cold-war containment policy for 40 years. ''I was particularly bothered by the references to Russia as a country dying to attack Western Europe. Don't people understand? Our differences in the cold war were with the Soviet Communist regime. And now we are turning our backs on the very people who mounted the greatest bloodless revolution in history to remove that Soviet regime.

''And Russia's democracy is as far advanced, if not farther, as any of these countries we've just signed up to defend from Russia,'' said Mr. Kennan, who joined the State Department in 1926 and was U.S. Ambassador to Moscow in 1952. ''It shows so little understanding of Russian history and Soviet history. Of course there is going to be a bad reaction from Russia, and then [the NATO expanders] will say that we always told you that is how the Russians are -- but this is just wrong.''

Western-Russian relations did not have to take this path. What regrettable hubris . . .

As to what happens from here, Putin doesn't have to take all of Ukraine to neutralize what he sees as the threat to Russia. All he has to do is take enough pockets of Ukraine to ensure the Ukrainian government will never rule over a completely contiguous country again. This was the playbook in Georgia.

The real question right now is that of Kyiv. Kievan Rus was the birthplace of the Russian people, and Putin's stated motivations of "blood and soil" suggest he would want it to become part of Russia. But Kyiv is also the capital of Ukraine, and will be a bear to hold. In Georgia, one of the rump territories held by Russia extends to within striking distance of the capital, and has been used to actually launch that type of strike when Russia wants to punish Georgia and its leaders. Maybe Putin will take the city of Kyiv, only to leave it after installing a more sympathetic government. Only time will tell.

I'm rooting for the Ukrainians in all of this. I'm not rooting for either NATO or Russia.