TIME Ukraine

Former U.S. Ambassador to USSR: Let Russia Take Crimea

The status of Crimea has been a distracting and complicating factor in Ukraine’s efforts to form a sense of nationhood out of disparate elements.

Once American and Western leaders have vented their anger at President Vladimir Putin for bringing the Crimea back into Russia, they should find a way to tone down the poisonous public rhetoric and concentrate on private negotiations to put the rest of Ukraine together again. The fact is, like it or not, Ukraine is almost certainly better off without Crimea than with it. Nothing weakens a nation more than holding territory whose residents prefer to belong to another country.

Though they may be difficult for all relevant parties to accept, the premises of a solution to the Ukrainian mess are clear: 1) The new constitution should provide for a federal structure of government giving at least as many rights to its provinces as American states have; 2) The Russian language must be given equal status with Ukrainian; and 3) There must be guarantees that Ukraine will not become a member of NATO, or any other military alliance that excludes Russia.

Is there any historical precedent that might suggest that a solution of this sort is feasible? Yes, absolutely. Just take a close look at Finland. After losing territory to the Soviet aggressor in 1939 and failing to regain it in the “continuation war” it fought during World War II, the Finns accepted the unjust territorial losses they had suffered, but proceeded to build one of the most successful, prosperous, and self-reliant societies on the planet today. How did they do it? First, they united the majority Finnish-speaking and minority Swedish-speaking citizens by granting equal language and cultural rights. Second, they were careful to do nothing to irritate the Soviet Union next door, even though one of its “republics” had significant numbers of Finnish-speaking Karelians. Third, they were careful not to join NATO though they eventually became a full member of the European Union without Russian objection.

It is an irony that the issue that produced the demonstrations on the Maidan in Kyiv that eventually morphed into a revolution —the association agreement with the European Union — would not have solved Ukraine’s deep problems. Nor would the Russian aid ousted Ukrainian president Yanukovich accepted have helped Ukraine solve its internal problems of economic and political division and economic failure rooted in its Soviet communist heritage. If either of these options had been followed, Ukraine would have become an economic and political liability to its ostensible benefactor.

The status of Crimea has been a distracting and complicating factor in Ukraine’s efforts to form a sense of nationhood out of disparate elements. Historically, Crimea has been Russian since the late 18th century and some of the most noted battles in Russian history occurred there, battles enshrined in the Russian sense of nationhood. Lev Tolstoy fought in the defense of Sevastopol during the Crimean War and wrote about it. (That was the war that inspired Alfred, Lord Tennyson to write “The Charge of the Light Brigade” — “Ours not to reason why; Ours but to do and die.” This would seem to be an appropriate motto for many of today’s screaming polemicists.)

As for Russia, one should be aware that President Putin’s actions have been widely popular in Russia. His standing in polls has improved noticeably. As in other countries, the image of standing up to malign foreigners pays political dividends. And in Russia, public pressure from the American president is particularly unwelcome, given the history of what Russians perceive as systematic American neglect of Russian national interests since the end of the Cold War.

The possession of Crimea will impose substantial costs on Russia. Aside from those generated by sanctions, there will be greater ones caused by paying pensions, improving infrastructure, and paying for services from Ukraine, where Crimea gets water, power, natural gas, and many other necessities. Some Russian economists have estimated that the costs of needed infrastructure improvement will exceed the scores of billion dollars spent around Sochi to prepare for the winter Olympics. Russians may soon tire both of these expenses and of other tensions flowing from the Crimean grab. Russian Crimeans, expecting an immediate improvement in their living standards, are sure to be disappointed when it doesn’t occur. Thus, in a year or so, many may consider Crimea a liability rather than asset for Russia.

The crucial problem now, however, is not Crimea and its status, however emotional both Russians and Ukrainians may feel. It is what will happen to Ukraine. Those who wish Ukraine and its citizens well must understand that only Ukrainians can solve their problems. Outsiders can hinder or help but cannot unify a fractured state. As yet, Ukrainians have not found a leader able to unify its people, but that doesn’t mean there never will be one. If there is, he or she will pay close attention of how the Finns pulled it off.

The international community can best help by keeping in touch with all the relevant parties to encourage a solution that can provide Ukrainians with an inclusive government able to conduct needed but difficult reforms, including strengthening the rule of law and establishing an independent and competent judiciary. Only then will Ukraine be able to initiate and carry out the economic reforms necessary for competitiveness in the rapidly changing world economy.

And the United States? The American government should follow the physicians’ admonition: “Above all, do no harm.” Public polemics are not helpful and should be kept at a minimum. Sanctions promised should be applied. But American diplomats should not try to lead the Western effort to deal with Russia but rather should keep in close touch with the various negotiations in progress and give diplomatic support to those that seem most promising. For the best advice, all should look to the Finns.

Jack F. Matlock Jr., ambassador to the U.S.S.R. from 1987 to 1991, is the author of Reagan and Gorbachev: How the Cold War Ended.

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