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Cut the Baloney on Ukraine

| by Leslie H. Gelb
March 9, 2014

All countries must stop their lies and self-destructive posturing or pay costs they're loath to admit.

( March 14, 2014, Washington DC, Sri Lanka Guardian) Russians, Americans, Europeans, and Ukrainians plunge on toward the all-time foreign policy record for venality, lying, hypocrisy and self-destructive maneuvers. They show no shame and scant regard for consequences. At this moment, Russia is the most to blame for having transformed a very bad situation into a crisis. Top U.S. officials contribute with their daily evocation of saintly principles that the United States itself has often defied. Experts and politicians goad the White House on with demands for tough actions against Russia that they surely know will fail. Europeans continue their feckless ways. And most Ukrainian leaders of all stripes and ethnicities remain monumentally corrupt and rhetorically dishonest.

At this stage, it's going to be hard as hell to salvage matters. For there to be any chance, all parties have to stop the venal and viral vitriol. It makes compromise impossible. In the first place, that means the State Department can't publish another list of Putin's lies. (Can you believe they did that?) Russians have to cut out their nonsense as well.
This pile of garbage and ineptitude is heading in one direction-toward a long-term crisis very costly to all. There will be little or no diplomatic cooperation anywhere in the world. The economies of all will suffer. No, there won't be a war between the West and Russia, but the resulting new peace will be ugly. Every day this future looks more inevitable.

There's one chance to turn things around, but it's a long shot. All leaders involved have to tone down their "explanations" and self-justifications. They have to stop threats and sanctions for the time being. Everyone knows these actions won't go away and that diplomatic failure would soon call them forth again. And just for the moment, everyone's objective should be to help President Vladimir Putin climb down from his perilous perch. If there's to be an agreement, everyone knows what it must be: Russia proclaims and Ukraine accepts greater autonomy for Crimea within a still united Ukraine.

At this point in the turmoil, it's easy to forget that Ukraine itself is the root of the problem. Its deposed leader, Viktor Yanukovych, was a crook. What's worse is that he was a democratically elected crook. Still worse, his dual predecessors Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko (the one just let out of jail) were crooks too, and they were only three of many kleptocratic pretenders to power. Dozens were getting spectacularly wealthy while most Ukrainians struggled. It was no surprise, then, that thousands took to the Maidan in the dead of winter to protest. Even Putin acknowledged that they had good reasons to be fed up.

In February, the shootings began in the Maidan where scores were killed and wounded. And the truth of the matter is that no one has come forward with proof of whether the snipers were from Yanukovych's security forces or from right-wing Ukrainian groups or both.

Then, Yanukovych scampered off to Russia. We can only thank some celestial power that he did not seek refuge in the United States. The Ukrainians who succeeded Yanukovych in power proceeded to pass laws that would sharply disadvantage Russian citizens and speakers. Most ominously, a law permitting the use of Russian as an official language in select regions was revoked.

If anyone were close to this incipient Ukrainian nightmare months ago and in a position to head it off, it was Western European leaders. They did almost everything wrong. They enticed Yanukovych into an economic deal that would have gradually diminished Russian influence in Ukraine. That was a severe challenge to Moscow. Putin responded by forcing Yanukovych to scrap this European deal and to keep his country in the so-called "near abroad." Putin spiced the pressure with a $15 billion grant offer. (By the way, Ukraine is deeply in debt and proved itself incapable of meeting austerity plans developed by the IMF and the Europeans.) Wasn't there a single European leader knowledgeable enough to realize the need to make a joint European-Russian arrangement with Ukraine? After this Euro-Russian tug of war, the sparks ignited in Kiev and Moscow.

Predictably, the Russians did what the Russians do best: they started to grab and muscle everyone and everything in sight, and to sing out loudly their own chorus of lies. They dispatched their out-of-uniform troops to Ukrainian soil, denying the Moscow connection. (Apparently, they wanted us to believe the troops were pixies from Mars.) Evidently, they gave no heed to the political effects such lies would have in the West. Moscow also claimed that the occasional harassment of Russian speakers in Crimea and elsewhere in Ukraine amounted to Kiev inspired existential persecution. Sure, there were excesses against the Russian speakers, but there is no evidence of this being widespread or seriously threatening. Nastiest of all, Moscow either inspired or did nothing to stop the move in the Crimean Parliament to approve a referendum set for March 16th on the re-absorption of Crimea into Russia. Indeed, Russian leaders now seem to be supporting the vote. There is a short fuse and a certain explosion at the end of this piece of treachery.

Last but not least are our very own American heroes. Hillary Clinton, of course, hit the jackpot with her comparison of Putin to Hitler (never mind her clarification the next day). This egregious and dangerous pandering to American conservatives and humanitarian interventionists reflected the direction of American politics. Non-stop accusations against Putin and Russia make it increasingly difficult to pursue a sensible foreign policy course.

President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and the State Department were not to be outdone by their domestic critics. They preached obedience to constitutions, namely the Ukrainian one, when we often ignore others' constitutions ourselves. American leaders said nothing, for example, when the Union Republics in the Soviet Union established their independence without a constitutionally required vote in Moscow. As well, the Obama/Kerry clan shouted their devotion to democratic principles and free elections. But wasn't President Yanukovych chosen in a free and fair election? One heard no American protests about his victory in 2010 or his extra-legal forced departure a few weeks ago. And as for Washington's record of vigorously and rigorously upholding the territorial integrity of nations, that's also a load of baloney. President George W. Bush recognized the independence of Kosovo, a province of Serbia, despite previous commitments not to do so and strenuous Russian objections.

No experienced international hand expects the United States or Russia to practice what they preach. To be a great power with far-flung interests of different natures is to invite hypocrisy. But when our leaders, Republicans and Democrats, let their own rank baloney run away with them, serious diplomacy goes down the drain. The breakaway referendum in Crimea is a mere week away and is a gun to all heads.

As it stands today, the Russians may feel that they can get away with their power grab. They did before and with-guess who-the fearless and tough minded George W. Bush. Putin surely remembers how little Bush did to punish Moscow for its meddling in Georgia in 2008 or for its practical annexation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Bush imposed modest economic sanctions, which were soon forgotten. Doubtless, Putin recalls these salient precedents on his own borders when he thinks about Crimea. Perhaps he now reckons that once again there will be no serious consequences for his territorial lust.

At this stage, it's going to be hard as hell to salvage matters. For there to be any chance, all parties have to stop the venal and viral vitriol. It makes compromise impossible. In the first place, that means the State Department can't publish another list of Putin's lies. (Can you believe they did that?) Russians have to cut out their nonsense as well.

Second, Europeans and Americans have to stare hard at the likelihood that perpetual crisis over Ukraine will endanger essential Russian cooperation on Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, arms control, and on increasingly tricky relations with China.

Third, Putin needs to face facts about the damage he is doing to his own country's future. Doubtless, Western economic sanctions will not bring Russia to its knees, but that's not the point. They will hurt Russian economic development, and that's quite serious. And Putin should not forget his interests in cooperating with Washington to fight Islamic extremists in the Mideast and in staying close to Washington to avoid weakening his bargaining position vis-à-vis Beijing. In Moscow, these costs will loom larger in six months or a year from now than they do today.

Fourth, it's perfectly obvious what a settlement must look like, if a settlement can be reached. The solution is to establish greater autonomy for Crimea within a Ukraine that belongs neither to Europe nor to Russia. This is the Finland approach as suggested by both Zbigniew Brzezinski and Henry Kissinger.

Yes, such a package now looks ever more remote, but one thing is certain. It will be beyond reach entirely if all parties persist in their prevarications and keep closing doors.

Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy (HarperCollins, 2009), a book that shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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