History Repeating Itself in Ukraine

History Repeating Itself in Ukraine

US NEWS & WORLD REPORT 03/07/13
By Michael Shank and Kimairis Toogood

When it comes to the conflict in Ukraine, the Republic of Georgia must feel like history is close to repeating itself. Georgia lost 20 percent of its sovereign territory to de facto Russian control in 2008 and now Ukraine may well lose Crimea and a significant percentage of its sovereign territory in eastern Ukraine to Russia. Either way, a significant military breach of sovereignty is looming. It is, therefore, necessary for U.S. policymakers to apply the lessons from their ineffective diplomatic efforts with Russia in the days and weeks before the Russo-Georgian conflict in 2008, and consider using a more behind-the-scenes strategy to facilitate a resolution.

The argument Russia made in the case of Georgia is as unbelievable as the current story about Ukraine: that it is the responsibility of the Russian government to defend vulnerable populations in countries sharing territorial borders. While the Russo-Georgian conflict’s causes remain contested, the results are very clear. The multi-day violent conflict resulted in the reduction of the sovereign territory of Georgia due to the Russian-facilitated secession of two of Georgia’s formerly autonomous regions: Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Russia validated its interference with the sovereign territory of Georgia by using the argument that its military engagement protected ethnic Russians and other minorities living in Abkhazia and South Ossetia from former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s poor treatment, and it’s doing the same in Ukraine. But multilateral organizations that contain Russian, Ukrainian and American presence, such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, noted that as of early 2014 no such violations of minorities had been reported in Crimea — evidence directly challenging Russian President Vladimir Putin’s claim. And Putin’s argument sound disingenuous to ethnic and national minorities living within Russia’s own sovereign borders.

More believable are the words Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Vitaly Churkin said during a Security Council meeting earlier this month: Russia is prepared to protect its interests in the region from “radicals.” It is clear that Russia’s definition of radicals is leaders of regimes that are pro-Western, such as the new interim government representatives in Kiev. It seems to have little to do with protecting the defenseless after all.

Russia’s military posture now on Ukraine is eerily similar to the military action authorized in 2008, yet our policymakers do not seem to be applying lessons to change the outcome. For instance, former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s approach of comparing Putin’s line of reasoning with that of Adolph Hitler in the 1930s during a recent speaking engagement is not at all a strategy that will facilitate amicable resolution with Putin. The multilateral talks in Paris with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, which continue to include current interim government representatives in Ukraine, much to the disturbance of Russia’s foreign minister, also fall short. U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s decision, furthermore, to halt joint military U.S.-Russia exercises, while shoring up the military presence in Poland, will also be seen as an aggressive strategy similar to that of Saakashvili in 2008 in Georgia.

In order to prevent a repeat of history in the region, the Obama administration, with the support of the U.S. Congress, should consider diplomatically challenging Russia’s position on defending minorities in order to move the negotiation away from issues of identity and towards issues of interests. The White House should also consider using its political acumen to channel negotiations through German Chancellor Angela Merkel instead of Kerry, given the deficiency of negotiating leverage that the U.S. maintains compared with the Germans in the eyes of Putin and the Russian administration. Lastly, the U.S. should consider halting the shoring-up of troops on the border between Poland and Ukraine while diplomatic options are being explored due to it presenting an inconsistent message to the Russian administration.

Do this, and the international community may be able to de-escalate what is quickly becoming a combustible situation. The U.S. missed an opportunity to do so six years ago in Georgia, but it doesn’t have to miss another opportunity this time in Ukraine.