Monday, March 03, 2014

Ukraine: the price of internal division

Guest blog by Mr Jack Matlock, former U.S. ambassador to Czechoslovakia (1981-83) and USSR (1987-91)

With all of the reports coming out of Ukraine, Moscow, Washington, and European capitals, the mutual accusations, the knee-jerk speculation, and—not least—the hysterical language of some observers, bordering on the apocalyptic, it is difficult to keep in mind the long-term implications of what is happening. Nevertheless, I believe that nobody can understand the likely outcomes of what is happening unless they bear in mind the historical, geographic, political and psychological factors at play in these dramatic events. The view of most of the media, whether Russian or Western, seems to be that one side or the other is going to “win” or “lose” Ukraine.

I believe that is fundamentally mistaken. If I were Ukrainian I would echo the immortal words of the late Walt Kelly’s Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” The fact is, Ukraine is a state but not yet a nation. In the 22-plus years of its independence, it has not yet found a leader who can unite its citizens in a shared concept of Ukrainian identity. Yes, Russia has interfered, but it is not Russian interference that has created Ukrainian disunity but rather the haphazard way the country was assembled from parts that were not always mutually compatible. To the flaw at the inception of an independent Ukraine, one must add the baleful effects of the Soviet Communist heritage both Russia and Ukraine have inherited.

A second mistake people make is to assume that when a given government adopts a particular policy that policy is in the true interest of that country. In fact, as often as not, policies made in the heat of emotion, by leaders who feel personally challenged by opponents, are more likely to be counterproductive than supportive of a country’s true interest. Political leaders are not computers weighing costs and benefits or risks and rewards in objective fashion. They are human beings endowed with their full share of human weaknesses, including especially vanity, pride and the felt necessity of maintaining appearances, whatever the reality.

Some Basics
  1. The current territory of the Ukrainian state was assembled, not by Ukrainians themselves but by outsiders, and took its present form following the end of World War II. To think of it as a traditional or primordial whole is absurd. This applies a fortiori to the two most recent additions to Ukraine—that of some eastern portions of interwar Poland and Czechoslovakia, annexed by Stalin at the end of the war, and the largely Russian-speaking Crimea, which was transferred from the RSFSR well after the war, when Nikita Khrushchev controlled the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Since all constituent parts of the USSR were ruled from Moscow, it seemed at the time a paper transfer of no practical significance. (Even then, the city of Sevastopol, the headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet, was subordinated directly to Moscow, not Kiev.) Up to then, the Crimea had been considered an integral part of Russia since Catherine “the Great” conquered it in the 18th century.

  2. The lumping together of people with strikingly different historical experience and comfortable in different (though closely related) languages, underlies the current divisions. That division, however, is not clear-cut as it was, for example, between the Czech lands and Slovakia, which made a civilized divorce practical. If one takes Galicia and adjoining provinces in the west on the one hand and the Donbas and Crimea in the east and south on the other as exemplars of the extremes, the areas in between are mixed, proportions gradually shifting from one tradition to the other. There is no clear dividing line, and Kyiv/Kiev would be claimed by both.

  3. Because of its history, geographical location, and both natural and constructed economic ties, there is no way Ukraine will ever be a prosperous, healthy, or united country unless it has a friendly (or, at the very least, non-antagonistic) relationship with Russia.

  4. Russia, as any other country would be, is extremely sensitive about foreign military activity adjacent to its borders. It has signaled repeatedly that it will stop at nothing to prevent NATO membership for Ukraine. (In fact, most Ukrainians do not want it.) Nevertheless, Ukrainian membership in NATO was an avowed objective of the Bush-Cheney administration and one that has not been categorically excluded by the Obama Administration.

  5. A wise Russian leadership (something one can no more assume that one can a wise U.S. or European leadership) could tolerate a Ukraine that modernizes its political and economic systems in cooperation with the European Union so long as (1) this is not seen as having an anti-Russian basis; (2) Russian-speaking citizens are granted social, cultural and linquistic equality with Ukrainians, and (3) most important of all, that the gradual economic integration with Europe will not lead to Ukraine becoming a member of NATO.

  6. So far, Ukrainian nationalists in the west have been willing to concede none of these conditions, and the United States has, by its policies, either encouraged or condoned attitudes and policies that have made them anathema to Moscow. This may be grossly unfair, but it is a fact.
So where does this leave us? Some random thoughts:
  1. It has been a mistake for all the parties, those in Ukraine and those outside, to treat this crisis as a contest for control of Ukraine.

  2. Obama’s “warning” to Putin was ill-advised. Whatever slim hope that Moscow might avoid overt military intervention in Ukraine disappeared when Obama in effect threw down a gauntlet and challenged him. This was not just a mistake of political judgment—it was a failure to understand human psychology—unless, of course, he actually wanted a Russian intervention, which is hard for me to believe.

  3. At this moment it is not clear, at least to me, what the ultimate Russian intent is. I do not believe it is in Russia’s interest to split Ukraine, though they may want to detach the Crimea from it—and if they did, they would probably have the support of the majority of Crimean residents. But they may simply wish to bolster the hand of their friends in Eastern Ukraine in negotiations over the new power structure. At the very least, they are signaling that they will not be deterred by the United States from doing what they consider necessary to secure their interests in the neighborhood.

  4. Ukraine is already shattered de facto, with different groups in command of the various provinces. If there is any hope of putting it together again, there must be cooperation of all parties in forming a coalition at least minimally acceptable to Russia and the Russian-speaking Ukrainian citizens in the East and South. A federation with governors elected locally and not appointed by a winner-take-all president or prime minister would be essential. Real autonomy for Crimea will also be required.

  5. Many important questions remain. One relates to the principle of “territorial integrity.” Yes, that is important, but it is not the only principle to consider. Russians would argue, with some substance in the argument, that the U.S. is interested in territorial integrity only when its interests are served. American governments have a record of ignoring it when convenient, as when it and its NATO allies violated Serbian territorial integrity by creating and then recognizing an independent Kosovo. Also, by supporting the separation of South Sudan from Sudan, Eritrea from Ethiopia, and East Timor from Indonesia.
So far as violating sovereignty is concerned, Russia would point out that the U.S. invaded Panama to arrest Noriega, invaded Grenada to prevent American citizens from being taken hostage (even though they had not been taken hostage), invaded Iraq on spurious grounds that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, targets people in other countries with drones, etc., etc. In other words, for the U.S. to preach about respect for sovereignty and preservation of territorial integrity to a Russian president can seem a claim to special rights not allowed others.

Written on Saturday, March 1st

LM: Thanks to Hon Ambassador Mr Jack Matlock for the permission. More thoughts on JackMatlock.COM.


  1. Nice post. At the end, a real big error: East Timor was never part of Indonesia. It was a portuguese colony until 1975, and was invaded by indonesia 3 days after its independence, by request of the US to Indonesia. It's mostly catholic and has portuguese as it's language.

  2. It's really pretty frightening that the "detail" that Ukraine is - importantly - not a NATO member is being overlooked in this way. With this sloppy attitude, one may equally claim that the whole world is NATO and start violent reactions - military-based or otherwise - in any other situation and place.

    But why here? It seems totally obvious that while Ukraine - and Russia - are extremely far from being the paradise, the support for chaos and conflicts of this type only make things worse. Things over there have already deteriorated since November dramatically. Why? Is that really the intent to harm all these people and the international relations in the whole world?

    In principle, Russia is just planning - not in fact realizing yet because Crimea liberated itself from the new Kiev government largely by itself - to revert some counterproductive changes in Ukraine that began by meddling of some Western countries into the Ukrainian internal affairs (anger that an EU offer was - legitimately - rejected by the government; support for violent activists who didn't like this decision, either). This is a reversal that, under normal circumstances, could very well be done by the United Nations or something like that. Except that it won't be because certain members of the Security Council would obviously veto interventions meant to restore the rule of law in Ukraine. So Russia simply does it itself.

    Fawning over Obama is a "must", like presenting Putin as a Hitler. But it's not just about their being unfair and biased; it is als about their misunderstanding how Putin - and pretty much everyone - in Russia or Ukraine is thinking, what they care about, and so on. Comparisons of a leader with the fascists may be the "ultimate tool" to do politics in the contemporary U.S. but it just doesn't play any role in Russia. People who support Putin have much more rational reasons to do so. They want to see a flourishing, strengthening Russia - yes, a Russia that resuscitates some features they liked about the USSR, too. Saying that he's like a Hitler just doesn't play any constructive role in Russia. It's silly.

    Putin would arguably never win presidential elections in the U.S. ;-) but Obama wouldn't win in Russia, either. The nations are just thinking different and I have very mixed feelings about whose thinking is more reasonable, more peaceful, and/or more justified by the important facts. At any rate, these different large nations simply have to co-exist. Russia may be intervening into Ukrainian internal affairs but it's surely not intervening into the U.S. internal affairs so it's wrong for the U.S. to react as if they were existentially threatened. Unless, of course, the U.S. officials have thought that Ukraine has belonged to NATO for years i.e. unless unlimited ignorance of geography is the main theme that determines the U.S. foreign policy.

  3. I am of same opinion as far as the analysis goes.
    Ukraine as defined in its actual borders is an artificial construct combining several little consistent parts that have language, religion, culture and history differences that span centuries.
    The life duration of this artificial construct (22 years) was much to small to significantly increase homogeneity and create new cultural and historical unifications.
    This process typically lasts generations - at least 3 for obvious reasons.
    Everything we see today is the result of these large non homogeneities.
    As I agree and won't redo what the US Ambassador wrote (btw he should say that strongly to Obama who obviously understands nothing unless he secretly wants a war with Russia in which case he's exactly on the right track), I wanted to give my own prediction about the short term future.
    Angela Merkel is speaking with Putin and Angela Merkel is an East German.
    Both words are important. "East" because she knows what geopolitics is about. And "German" because each German's family has been physically involved in negociations, trade and war with Russians over the last 1000 years from what follows that they know and understand Russians and their history and culture not only from books but from experience.
    For example Stalin is reported having said to his inner circle in 1939 "Hitler is a great politician. The only difference between him and me is that he really believes what he is saying in public."
    Because Putin knows that she knows, he probably trusts her to understand what is really at stake. From trust stems respect.
    I also believe that Putin doesn't trust Obama and discounts minor countries like France or UK.
    As for Angela she is certainly not willing to pay or to go to war for West Ukrainian dreams of grandeur.
    Objectively both Angela and Vladimir are on the same or very similar frequency.
    So what will happen in my prediction is that Germany (with EU in its wake) and Russia will agree about some "international conference".
    USA will be necessarily present but will not have a leading role nor will puppets like Barroso or some other EU apparatchik.
    Besides some words like "cooperation and peace" the conference will be mostly about Crimea.
    Angela Merkel surely knows that Russia is not interested by the economically and strategically weak West Ukraine where Russia can compromise about anything and present it as a sign of goodwill and peaceful cooperation.
    This kind of compromise is anyway painless for Russia because they hold them by the balls with Gazprom.
    The same is of course not the case for Crimea where not only a crushing majority of the population is Russian and favors Russia but it is the main and only point of military strategical interest of Russia in Ukraine.
    So the conference will agree on some special status for Crimea with an increased autonomy from the Kiev government whatever color it has or will have.
    Crimea will stay "ukrainian" so that the "territorial integrity" is safe but in name only.
    A nice refinement could be that the parties agree that Crimea will hold a selfdetermination referendum in 10 years or so.
    Long enough that Russia establishes brotherly relations with the Crimean people and short enough to avoid interferences.
    Whether Crimea really goes independent or associates with Russia (like the Kaliningrad enclave) is a long term issue where I would make no bets.

  4. Good thoughts and hopes, Tom. Angela could be sane and wise in some way, and I had hopes when I heard about the call for the first time. Still, she has argued that Putin lives in another world and has lost the plot:

    So I am not sure whether her contacts with him will continue at all. Merkel is a successful politician for the near-good weather and educated East Germans may be familiar with certain things. But I still agree with Klaus that Merkel is lacking any ideological compass

    So I hope she won't send the Bundeswehr guys somewhere near the Ukrainian-Russian borders, e.g. to Volgograd ;-), because they could be confused about the directions.

  5. Lubos,

    Thanks for posting this essay by Ambassador Matlock.

    Now, the problem is: how can anyone get leaders on both sides to read the essay and take it seriously?

    The scary thing is that, while Moscow might be willing to acknowledge Matlock's points and take them as a basis for peaceful and productive negotiations, I fear that the leaders of my own country are hell-bent on pursuing a path leading to disaster.

    Are Obama and his advisors truly and utterly ignorant? Or, even worse, do they really want to destroy Western civilization with another World War?

    What can I and my fellow Americans do? I think tomorrow I better send an email to my Senators and Congressman recommending the Matlock essay, and I suppose I should call the White House switchboard and have myself counted as being on the side of peace.

    But what else should we be doing, everyone?

    My kids and I are currently reading Joll and Martel's book on the origins of WW I. Please, please, let this not be a repeat of the insanity of exactly one hundred years ago that led to so many holocausts in the 20th century!

    Thanks again, Lubos, and Ambassador Matlock.

    Dave Miller in Sacramento

  6. Lubos wrote to Ambassador Matlock:
    >You were apparently quite a key person behind Reagan's attitude to the
    Soviet bloc before it led to the end of the Cold War. It seems to me
    that despite his hawkish image, Reagan was really rather peaceful and
    his achievements with the USSR were better than originally planned.

    Lubos, I want to second your point here about Reagan, a point that is commonly obfuscated by both the Left and the Right here in the USA. I was in my mid-20s when Reagan took office and keenly followed his policies, both foreign and domestic.

    Every indication is that Reagan was truly sickened by the thought of millions of people dying in a conflict between the Soviet Union and the West and truly wanted peace. And, it became clear that while Reagan rightly hated the evils of Communism, he did not hate the Russian people or the Soviet leadership when he realized they truly wanted reform.

    True Reaganites want peace. A few Republicans (e.g., Senator Rand Paul) grasp this. Let us hope that enough do.


  7. On a related note, something meaningful from CNN (!) by Prof. S. Cohen:

  8. Right, it's meaningful - unfortunately, the host labels it as a "contrarian point of view". This has become so popular in the U.S. recently, am I wrong? Is that because the climate alarmists promoted this adjective?

    A few hours ago, Scott Aaronson said

    that Richard Lipton - a top computer scientist in the world - had to have a "contrarian streak", just to weak the fact that Lipton said exactly the same things about P=NP and the lesson for this conjecture brought by the new results on the Erdös discrepancy theorem.

    It reminds me of the labels like "antisocialist" etc. used to impose group think during communism. How do they even decide that a Princeton professor emeritus who has been the expert in these very issues is "contrarian"?

    The U.S. media are increasingly imposing a mindless group think on the society.

  9. I find the situation frightening in the extreme, especially since my daughter lives in Troisdorf.

    It is the delusion and arrogance, the assumption of moral and military superiority that demands submission and obedience. This is a recipe for war.

  10. Lubos, thank for your reply.

    Ok. It's a matter of viewpoint. Where you see that Timor seceded from Indonesia, I see that Timor recovered a freedom that was their right, and that Timor was only part of indonesia for a while, after indonesia invaded it (1975-1999). It really doesn't compare with the portuguese presence there, 1580?-1975.

    The quasi-uniformity you see with a mostly muslim indonesia is quite broken in a mostly catholic Timor, which never followed the dutch influence. I also understood, then, the geopolitical logic of stiffling a communist regime in the area, cold war and Vietnam and all - but that didn't make it nicer, especially as it was followed by a genocidal holodomor-type policy. I keep regarding indonesia as an agressor, invading country on behalf of the USA and according to dr Kissinger's doctrine (Dr Kissinger visited indonesia 2 days before the invasion - hint,hint). In order for me to change my mind, history must change.

    But anyway, yes, The US is only interested in territorial integrity when it's in her interest, as anyone else; regarding Timor, the question would have been if that territorial integrity wasn't violated in 1975, by the indonesian invasion; instead of the continuously questioned, fabricated indonesian integrity which you find violated in 1999 by Timor's liberation, negotiated with Portugal and preceded by a UN-sponsored referendum and reinstating what indonesia undid by violence in 1975. So, I reject the view that the territorial integrity of a recent invader deserves preservation.

    The 1999 referendum was the result of decades of lobbying the UN and other countries by Portugal, which included having to deal even with indonesia itself. I'm sure Clinton may have given some help at the end. After all, in 1999, who cared about communist expansion?

    But hey, this all is old stuff. Again, thnks for your reply.

  11. I suspect I was still unclear :-) We may be saying almost the same with different words.

  12. Troisdorf, Germany? ;-) Why is that exactly a dangerous place?

  13. But Matlock has specifically refuted the idea that Reagan was responsible for the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union:

  14. Like Lubos I am slightly confused - Troisdorf is next to Bonn in the very far West of Germany. Any further west and you'd find yourself in France ;-)

  15. An update from German news magazine Der Spiegel today:

    The fascist Svoboda party has placed some of its members in the new government in Kiev: several cabinet ministers, a vice premier, and prosecutor-general Oleg Makhnitzkiy.

    A co-founder of the "Social-National Party of Ukraine", Svoboda's predecessor, is now the Secretary of the Ukrainian Security and Defense Council, a guy named Andrey Parubi. Now he is with Julia Timoshenko's Fatherland Party.

    And the bullies from the "Right Sector" are everywhere threatening and physically intimidating government officials. This was not supposed to happen. Under the deal signed with the three EU foreign ministers, all irregular fighting units were supposed to be disarmed within 48 hours. They're still walking around with kalashnikovs strapped to their waists.

  16. I know about Matlock - and about the claim on the fall of communism itself. After all, Klaus would often emphasize that the collapse of communism was from within, and so on.

    That's why I used a more careful formulation about the victory in the Cold War, but maybe not careful enough.

  17. Maybe Bob is already waiting for the Red Army in Berlin. ;-)

    This time, they may be in New York before Berlin, however! ;-)

  18. The Right Sector also promises a heroic Kampf gegen dem Russischen Untermenschen. I don't want to see a conflict in general - but on the other hand, I would like to know whether their courage would really survive the first appearance of the Russian army units. ;-)

  19. Strangely absent from this discussion is the US invasion of Haiti in 1994 that restored a liberation-theologian president Aristide.

  20. Maybe Bob remembers the cold war plan 'Seven days to River Rhine' :-)

    The new plan is '7 hours to River Dnieper' :-)

  21. voodoo president as well...?

  22. Actually this is the American interpretation of Merkel's view, which is a bit one sided to make it seem more in line with the US view.

    German sources use terms that suggest she knows "living in another world" is a symmetric relationship as you have pointed out.