Monday, 10 March 2014

Ukraine: beware of getting into something you can't finish

It's not often that you read a straight up-and-down, shout-out piece of wisdom. But this time that old head of power politics, Henry Kissinger (above), has managed it. Russia's recent take-over of the Crimea is a blatant act of aggrandisement and affrontery, as the 1970s Secretary of State who plotted a lot of President Nixon's moves in office knows - but what's the point of grandstanding about it? Far better to accept some of Russia's legitimate interests - all the better to seem reasonable with if Russia does go even further - while trying to talk that country down from any crazier grab at the eastern Ukraine. They're only digging themselves into a quagmire if they go further in any case, and shouting will do the people of Ukraine little good anyway.

Regular readers of 'Public Policy and the Past' will know that this blog is no fan of Kissinger's brand of chess-board diplomacy, in which men in suits push symbols around maps while real people get hurt - or killed. But this time he's onto something: partly because the United States and its allies are dealing with a rival in President Putin who sees the world in romantic statist terms, and partly because the USA and European Union are no innocent parties with messing in Ukrainian domestic politics anyway.

So Mr Kissinger's advice - Ukraine should be a bridge and a buffer zone, not a tank trap - is the best we've got right now. As we argued last week, Russia is actually self-harming on this one: hurting its own economy, losing friends, securing the hold of its enemies in Kiev, spewing chaos around its borders left, right and centre, spending what international capital it had, and generally showing what a lousy idea a bad neighbour policy really is.

The West's response may be incoherent, but that's a function of how little the Ukraine really matters to its vital interests. Here's a football analogy: Mr Putin is playing inside his own penalty area. He might clear the ball. But the balance of the game - if game it is - hasn't changed. We can accept that there are unpleasant elements among the new authorities in Ukraine; that Russia has historic interests that can't just be ignored; Russian speakers should be protected in that country; that her naval bases could be put on a more secure footing; that the region can never look to Brussels in quite the same way that (say) Prague and Budapest have come to. That might mean de facto sovereignty for the Crimea, and some cast-iron constitutional guarantees about Ukraine's minorities - as well as a pledge not to encourage a Ukrainian application to join NATO. Mr Putin may take all that and still use force. But would we really be that worse off? We would know, once and for all, exactly where we stand. Which would be in the mire, but still.

The best advice to both sides in this imbroglio is the same as the best message everyone can send to the Kremlin: think about what you're doing. Step back from the punch-up. Think about how dangerous this could become. And start to treat Ukraine like a nation, not a game of Twister.

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