Jackson Doughart
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The Ukraine Endgame

Prince Arthur Herald, 17 March 2014


Setting aside all of the buzzwords about the events in Ukraine, imagine that we could fast forward to some time in the reasonably-near future and see that the Crimean peninsula has separated from Ukraine and reunited either de facto or de jure with the Russian federation. (Remember that Crimea is populated in a majority by ethnic Russians who fervently oppose the revolution of this year in Kyiv.) Meanwhile, the loss of a substantial ethnic and pro-Russian population in Crimea has significantly circumscribed the political clout of the Russophones and Russophiles in Ukraine proper, making it an effective given that executive and legislative power in Ukraine’s semi-presidential system will tilt toward the interests of the ethnic-Ukrainian majority, who will thus be more or less unobstructed in pursuing closer relations to the European community, in reforming its democratic institutions, and in advancing cultural and linguistic policies that reflect its desire for ethnic and national autonomy.

What exactly would be the problem with this outcome? After all, the separation of a minority population from a relatively-new country is precisely the project that we endorsed and abetted in Kosovo fifteen years ago—also the initial subject of a referendum. And more importantly, what other options might we prefer, given our supposed desire to see the Crimean crisis resolved peacefully and definitively, i.e. without the present events being a mere episode in a fight to be resumed again in half a decade? And lastly, how better than the democratic stamp of a citizens’ referendum (endorsed by this paper in a recent editorial, which I supported but did not write) to facilitate and lend credence to the desire of Crimeans to separate themselves from the influence and sovereignty of Kyiv? Would we actually prefer to see a military confrontation involving Crimean Russians, a Ukrainian contingent, the Putin forces, and the Muslim Tatars—a very possible future alternative—instead of an orderly exchange of Crimean territory for a compensation of some kind from Russia?

What stands between many people and their potential support for pro-resolution diplomatic actions is their overwhelming priority of wanting the Putin government completely rebuked and defeated on this matter. Their central obsession is the nebulous threat of “Russian neo-imperialism”, an argument which I dismissed in my column here last week as the product of either muddled thinking or quite blatant hypocrisy. But even if one swallows the fruit of the anti-Russian campaign whole—emanating from the apparently-shocking realization for Western liberals that Mister Putin is not a “progressive”—it remains to be explained why our empty grandstanding is of any practical help in resolving the situation at hand, or why, for that matter, condemning categorically the Russian manoeuvers in Crimea will aid in combatting the alleged Kremlinist threat in the long term.

The West is behaving rather like an overconfident youth who swaggeringly enters someone else’s fight, then realizes the stupidity of his mistake, only to be too proud to step back and consider why he got involved in the first place. It’s the only way I can explain the “doubling down” character of Prime Minister Harper’s frankly ridiculous statement on Sunday in complete denunciation of the Crimean referendum’s legitimacy: “[The referendum’s] results are a reflection of nothing more than Russian military control.” Really? How does he know this? And would his opinion really be any different if Russia were to pull all of its troops out, only to have a referendum held with identical results? Surely not. “This ‘referendum’”, his statement continued, “is illegitimate, it has no legal effect, and we do not recognize its outcome.” Well, one supposes that the Kosovo referendum didn’t have “legal effect” either, but it seemed to make some impression on the Western leaders who later aided the cause of Kosovar-Albanian secession when peaceful means had been abandoned. Neither, one supposes, would the pre-Clarity Act Quebec referenda of 1980 and 1995 have had immediate or technical legal force, should the result have favoured secessionists. Call each of these things plebiscites, if you insist; but one imagines that such terminological distinctions would matter little to the government’s stance.

What we’re seeing is the succumbing of statesmanship to the influence of a serious syndrome among the populace, one that owes almost solely to the influence of sensationalized television news. People have come to see foreign countries as a kind of plasma screen upon which to project their consciences, which are informed by an oversimplified presentation of events. They see horrible images or are told horrible stories of people being shot while protesting, conclude that the demonstrators must be “good guys” and the government “bad guys”, and then join in the collective refrain that “something” ought to be done. Then figures such as the American diplomat Victoria Nuland show up in Kyiv to support those attempting to oust, by force, the democratically-elected president of a sovereign country with which all Western states have diplomatic relations. So it’s not hard to see how, soon enough, we’re knee-deep in a serious conflict.

I should note in conclusion that I am sympathetic to the desire of Ukrainians to protect the territorial integrity of their country, including Crimea, as nearly all states in the world would seek to do under similar circumstances. But the prospect of the Ukrainians unilaterally taking the peninsula back by force seems entirely out of the cards, leaving diplomatic or military pressure from the West as the sole possibility, apart from voluntary Russian withdrawal, of a return to the status quo ante. But the idea of an existing Western responsibility to guarantee absolute Ukrainian sovereignty and freedom from Russian influence is a misconception, emanating mostly from the mistake of NATO expansion to include several countries (though not Ukraine itself) that were historically in the Russian sphere—a project that was advanced in a period of Russian weakness that has now expired. Nor am I approving of the Russian intervention in Crimea; I wish that hadn’t happened. But I also wish that the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych hadn’t happened—an event whose culpability for starting this crisis has not yet been properly appreciated by Western observers.

One hopes and suspects that attentive readers and political leaders have realized by now that the Ukraine conflict is much more complicated than what they had initially thought. But just like the overzealous young man, our pride prevents us from admitting the mistake and drawing the rhetoric back. If we are to come out of the Ukraine business without a loss in credibility, however, such a means of drawing back will have to be found. And soon.





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Jackson Doughart jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com