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.

TIME Ukraine

Putin’s Irony Curtain

Tensions Erupt In Ukranian City
Photo by Jessica Rinaldi for The Boston Globe via Getty Images DONETSK, UKRAINE - MARCH 16: Pro-Russian protesters chant outside of the Donetsk Prosecutors Building before storming into the building during a protest in Donetsk, Ukraine on March 15, 2014.

Russia uses NATO's 1999 war in Kosovo to validate it's intervention in Ukraine, challenging the West in Crimea and beyond.

Ukraine is haunted by history. The most powerful ghosts tormenting its relationship with Russia are certainly those of the estimated 7 million who died in the genocidal famine unleashed against Ukrainian peasants by Stalin from 1932-33. And looming behind the counterclaims of fascism leveled by western-oriented Ukrainians and the separatists who have seized control of Crimea are, among others, the estimated 100,000 victims–most of them Jewish, many of them women, children and the elderly–who were killed at Babi Yar outside Kiev by the Nazis and their local collaborators in 1941.

But it seems even humanitarianism can haunt Ukraine. In 1999, then-President Bill Clinton launched a 78-day air war against Serb forces controlling the largely ethnic Albanian province of Serbia called Kosovo, in the former Yugoslavia. Clinton justified the intervention because he and his NATO allies suspected the Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic was beginning a new round of genocidal ethnic cleansing like the one he had unleashed elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia eight years earlier. Russia, Serbia’s traditional ally, opposed the intervention, blocking any potential UN authorization of it. In hindsight, even the war’s supporters now admit it violated the UN charter and was illegal under international law.

Following Kosovo’s early-2008 declaration of independence, the United States formally recognized the province as a sovereign state. In an attempt to limit the example the war and Kosovo’s subsequent secession might set elsewhere, the State Department declared, “The United States considers Kosovo to be a special case that should not be seen as a precedent for other situations.”

Predictably enough, however, Russia is using the Kosovo war as a pretext for its annexation of Crimea. As Harvard’s inimitable Jack Goldsmith relates:

Russia is now invoking Kosovo—both the 1999 intervention, and Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence—in support of Crimea’s independence movement. Last week Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov proclaimed (at just before the 10-minute mark): ‘If Kosovo is a special case then Crimea is a special case; it’s just equally special.’

In fact, there is little moral equivalence between the two cases. Milosevic had unleashed the worst violence targeting an ethnic or religious group on the European continent since the Holocaust. In 1999 his forces were killing ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. And the NATO intervention was driven primarily by humanitarian concerns. All of which has led the West to declare that the war was “illegal but legitimate”.

By contrast, there is no recent history of anti-Russian genocidal violence in Ukraine. There is no credible evidence that ethnic Russians have been targeted by the government of Ukraine in the recent months of unrest there. And one only need review the public comments out of Moscow to see that Russia’s intervention is primarily strategic and nationalistic, not humanitarian.

Unfortunately, moral legitimacy doesn’t carry as much weight as it might in international affairs. And there are plenty of ancillary facts that Russian President Vladimir Putin and his government can use to muddy the waters.

For example, in an interesting 2008 debate with Jeremy Scahill, then of The Nation, the current U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power admitted with trademark frankness that in Kosovo the West was also partially driven by the strategic goal of bolstering NATO’s credibility, which was in question after its sluggish response to the wars in the Balkans and its ill-defined rationale for expansion. And while the West may point to the questionable backgrounds and legitimacy of the pro-Russian Crimeans who have taken power using dubious parliamentary procedures, many of the ethnic Albanians the U.S. backed in Kosovo were thugs—some were eventually charged and convicted of war crimes.

Now pro-Russian forces are unleashing mob-violence against Ukranians–one chilling report tells of a mob burning Ukranian language accounts of Stalin’s genocidal famine. With Russia using the Kosovo war as a pretext for its violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty, it is ironic that some who argued for the Kosovo intervention saw it as an opportunity to establish the international doctrine of humanitarian intervention (Power and current National Security Advisor Susan Rice were among the proponents of the idea, which also had the support of some neo-conservatives).

It is also ironic that the West’s strategic interest of bolstering NATO’s credibility through intervention in Kosovo may also be undermined by the events in Ukraine. In Washington it is hard to imagine the unrest in Ukraine could lead to a direct confrontation between NATO and Russia. But it may be much easier to imagine in one of the six NATO capitals that directly border Ukraine or Russia.

For those countries, the ghosts now haunting Ukraine raise another specter from the past: whether the West would abandon a treaty committing it to the defense of countries in central and eastern Europe in the face of a resurgent regional power. Fortunately, there seems to be little chance of NATO being put to that test now. But Putin’s moves in Crimea, and his use of Kosovo to justify them, certainly weaken NATO’s credibility. The long-suffering people of central and eastern Europe may well worry how many old ghosts Putin plans to raise, and whether he intends to add to them.

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