Writing in the Boston Globe about the U.S.-Russian jockeying in Ukraine, Stephen Kinzer has it exactly right:
From the moment the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the United States has relentlessly pursued a strategy of encircling Russia, just as it has with other perceived enemies like China and Iran. It has brought 12 countries in central Europe, all of them formerly allied with Moscow, into the NATO alliance. US military power is now directly on Russia’s borders.
…Some policy makers in Washington have been congratulating each other for a successful American-aided regime change operation in Ukraine. Three factors converged to produce the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych. First was his own autocratic instinct and utter lack of political skill, which led him to think he could ignore protesters. Second was the brave determination of the protesters themselves. Third was intervention by the United States and other Western countries — often spearheaded by diplomats and quasi-covert operatives who have been working for years on “democracy promotion” projects in Ukraine.
As protests mounted in Kiev last month, many in Washington found it difficult to break the old habit of shaping US policy to punish Russia. Several European leaders suggested resolving the Ukraine crisis through negotiation with Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin. This enraged the United States, which wants to isolate Putin, not accommodate him.
That is important context. If one wants to understand Russia’s calculations – an impulse entirely absent from most of the commentary coming out of Washington – one must acknowledge the provocations the U.S. has committed in continuing to fight the Cold War long after Russia’s defeat. Here again, the U.S. dismissed diplomacy in favor of sticking it to Russia.
From the beginning of the instability in Ukraine, the geo-political contest between the U.S. and its European allies on one side and Russia on the other was the underlying factor. Indeed, the protests that erupted started over the question of whether Ukraine would be integrated under Western influence or remain under Russian influence. Now, Russia is basically occupying Crimea as it tries desperately to undermine the new pro-Western regime in Kiev, while the U.S. continues to try to isolate Russia and bring Ukraine fully into its orbit.
But, as Kinzer explains, neither Russia or the United States is “powerful enough to emerge from the Ukraine/Crimea crisis with a full victory,” meaning that “any solution short of partition will have to take Russia’s interests into account. Thus far the United States has shown no interest in doing that. The likely geopolitical outcome, therefore, is a stalemate.”
There is a damn-near bipartisan consensus in Washington that something ought to be done to punish Russia further. Some call for sanctions, others for isolating Russia in the international community, and still others for some kind of provocative military action short of direct hostilities. Not only are these ridiculous, they would serve no practical purpose. How do they think Moscow will respond to sanctions? Putin would laugh. More drastic proposals for economic punishment would be no good, considering Washington’s European allies get a good bit of their energy supply from Russia through Ukraine. And any military action would be as contrary to international law as Russia’s incursions into Crimea, never mind being fantastically stupid given that it could provoke incredible carnage.
This is what seeing the world as a zero-sum strategic chessboard produces. Outside powers may profess genuine concern with the fate of Ukrainians, but they are viewing Ukraine in terms of their own interests, not the people’s. In Syria, that sort of proxy game has helped destroy a country and kill over 100,000 people.
As Anatol Lieven wrote yesterday, unless Russia and the West “find ways of withdrawing from some of the positions that they have taken…the result could very easily be civil war, Russian invasion, the partition of Ukraine, and a conflict that will haunt Europe for generations to come.”