Cold War haunts Ukrainian crisis

The crisis in Ukraine is all the more dangerous and difficult to resolve because it is haunted by perceptions and policies left over from decades of Cold War conflict between Russia and the West. Western pundits sarcastically cite President Putin’s view that the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century,” but fail to recognize that American gloating over the USSR’s collapse as a “great victory” for the West is also a simplistic illusion. The truth is we all were losers in the Cold War and we all could be losers if the Ukrainian crisis escalates.

A basic characteristic of the Cold War was that both sides viewed it as a “zero-sum conflict,” i.e. any gain for the Russia was a loss for the U.S. and the West, and any gain for the U.S. and Western Europe was a loss for Russia. That view is decidedly unhelpful in the current crisis where Ukraine’s historic connection to Russia needs to be acknowledged and respected; and both Russian and Western interests need to be taken into account and at least partially satisfied.

A second defining characteristic of the Cold War was that when a new crisis arose between them, Russia and the United States tended to see each other as directly, if not decisively, involved in causing it. This Cold War habit leads President Putin to have an exaggerated view of the U.S. and European Union role in fomenting and supporting the Ukrainian uprising; and it leads the U.S. and European Union to view Russia’s action in Crimea as the problem and, as a consequence, to not relate critically to the diverse popular forces, including extreme rightwing nationalists, involved in the recent uprising and to underestimate the deep divide among Ukrainians between those who lean toward Russia and those who lean toward Europe.

The most delusional and dangerous characteristic of the Cold War was that both sides tended to view it as a conflict of “good versus evil,” fueling confrontation even when both sides’ best interests may have been in cooperation. It was enlightening last week to hear Charlie Rose’s interview with Henry Kissinger, who was refreshingly critical of old Cold War thinking. Kissinger said that both sides in the current crisis need to stop making moralistic pronouncements about “lessons of history” and move away from confrontational rhetoric and reactions toward carefully prepared diplomatic dialogue and conciliation.

Kissinger believes a peaceful resolution of the Ukrainian conflict is possible, but only if both Russia and the U.S./European Union understand the costly consequences and dangers of their side trying to get all that it wants. In Kissinger’s view, the outline of a realistic resolution of the conflict would include: a united Ukraine that is free to join any association it chooses; a clearer commitment that Ukraine would not join NATO; in a political pattern similar to Finland, Ukraine would be independent but maintain a special relationship with Russia; Crimea would gain enhanced autonomy status; and the presence of the Russian naval base in Sevastopol would be normalized and guaranteed by a substantially longer term lease. Achieving an agreement like this will take tough negotiations, including pressure by the U.S. and European Union on the new government of Ukraine to accept necessary compromises. Clearly, a democratic government that can lead a united Ukraine would have to be broadly inclusive, really, not rhetorically, reflect the conflicting Ukrainian popular, political forces, and be sensitive to Russian and Western interests.

A crucial element missing from Kissinger’s vision of a solution is the role of desperately needed economic aid to address Ukraine’s corruption-ridden, sick economy. For months leading up to the crisis, there was a tug-of-war between competing aid offers by the European Union/International Monetary Fund and Russia, with each side promising an estimated 15 to 30 billion dollars over several years. Instead of continuing this retro Cold War competition, in which the party that provides the aid seeks to lock-in the loyalty of Ukraine to its side, there ought to be a negotiated agreement for the two sides to cooperate in providing economic aid with agreed conditions that Ukraine make necessary reforms to control corruption and build transparency.

Events this week, including the referendum in Crimea and Russian moves toward formally annexing the territory, as well as U.S. and E.U. moves ratcheting up rhetoric and sanctions do not bode well for a peaceful resolution of the crisis. Hopefully, there are high level secret talks going on to move toward the kind of compromise solution Kissinger advocated. In addition to saving Ukrainians from more violence, an outcome involving compromise would encourage further U.S.-Russian cooperation in negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program and in international efforts to end the catastrophic civil war in Syria.

From 1972 to 1982, Ron Young served as National Peace Education Secretary of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker education and service agency. This op-ed represents Ron’s personal views, not those of the National Interreligious Leadership Initiative for Peace, for which he currently serves as Consultant.

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