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The Crisis in Ukraine

Robert D. English gave a lecture on 1 December in the President’s Lecture Series at the University of Montana: “Ukraine, Russia, and the West: Crisis, Causes, and Consequences.” He is the Director of the School of International Relations at the University of Southern California and the author, among other books, of Russia and the Idea of the West: Gorbachev, Intellectuals, and the End of the Cold War (2000). His “Mikhail Gorbachev: A Political Biography” is nearing completion. He comments frequently on contemporary Russian affairs and has participated prominently in the national debate on the crisis in Ukraine.

Professor English began his lecture by setting the Ukraine crisis in its historical context, including the infrequently remarked upon—insofar as the Western media are concerned—American role in the affairs of that star-crossed country. The crisis itself boils down to a question of whether Russia by itself or the United States through NATO will control Ukraine. He described Ukraine as an economic basket case at the level of the Republic of the Sudan, with no hope whatsoever of developing a viable national economy in the absence of massive external assistance. For many years, Russia has been providing such assistance in the form of cheap energy. He pegged the Russian annual investment in Ukraine at 15-20 billion dollars. He doubted that Western Europe, now teetering on the edge of its third recession since 2008, would be able to play a significant role in assisting Ukraine economically. Nor could the United States, weighed down by its own war-induced economic problems, be expected actually to do anything decisive in alleviating the economic emergency in Ukraine.

The obvious solution for the crisis in Ukraine is for Russia and the West to join forces in assisting that country. Such international assistance would require compromise, including permanent neutrality for Ukraine and regional autonomy for the ethnic Russians in the east. Then Russia and the West should join forces in stabilizing the entire region.

Unfortunately, as Professor English acknowledged, the alluring simplicity of the obvious solution recedes like a desert mirage in the historical context of the crisis. While repeatedly criticizing Putin and saying that he had no illusions about him, Professor English also thought that the American role in the crisis deserved censure, starting with the expansion of NATO toward the borders of Russia after the Cold War. America had broken a promise to Gorbachev to prevent such an expansion.

At this point in the lecture a listener might have been allowed to wonder what the American reaction would have been to the presence of Russian military bases along the Mexican or Canadian borders. Actually, one does not have to wonder about such a hypothetical situation. The Cuban missile crisis of 1962 furnishes a concrete lesson of how America did react to just this kind of case. We were then prepared to risk nuclear war to prevent such an outrage to our national security. Putin’s reaction actually seems quite restrained by comparison.

Without mentioning the particulars of Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland’s revelations about America’s investment for its own strategic purposes of five billion dollars in the campaign to oust the legally elected president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, Professor English did mention her name. He restricted his comments about Nuland to her political relations with extreme right-wing elements in Washington’s subversive meddling agenda in Ukraine. 

At the mention of the Right Sector and the other radical nationalist groups involved in the overthrow of the Yanukovych government, a gentleman apparently from Ukraine vehemently interrupted the speaker. In broken English, he accused him of lying to the audience about the role played by alleged extreme nationalists in the overthrow of Yanukovych. Professor English stood accused in the lecture hall of being an apologist for Putin. In the face of such obstreperousness, it would have done no good for him to point out the anti-Russian actions in Ukraine of the new American-backed government, one-quarter of which was made up of appointees from the radical right—a comment that he made to me after the lecture. In the twenty-eight years that I have coordinated the President’s Lecture Series, we never have had to call the police to one of our events, but we did last night, following a second and even more prolonged interruption by the same gentleman. In the historical record of our lecture series, Ukraine now vies with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, hitherto the most fiercely contentious topic we have presented to our audiences. 

Professor English showed remarkable composure on the stage and resumed his explanation of why it would be necessary, in understanding the Ukraine crisis, to be free of illusions about both Russia and the United States. The intensity of the anti-Putin propaganda barrage in the West has spread far and wide the fame of his manifold character flaws, but Professor English thought that we might be suffering from a deficiency of knowledge about our own imperfections. For any trusting souls in the audience who with a wide-eyed innocence might have been wondering how anyone could harbor suspicions about the aggressive intentions of NATO, presuming that this officially defensive organization exists only to protect member states from outside attack, he recalled its 1999 bombing campaign against Serbia, Russia’s ally. This air offensive against a nation that posed no threat to any NATO member raises legitimate concerns about what a Ukraine border bristling with the West’s armaments might mean for the Russians.

The issue of basic U.S. competence as a factor in Russia’s Ukraine calculations also came up in the lecture. From Afghanistan and Iraq to Libya and Syria the American foreign policy record does not inspire confidence. We add parenthetically here as an aside to the comments of Professor English, that the United States appears still to be the beneficiary of the divine protection noted by Bismarck in his aphoristic distillation of American history: “There is a Providence that protects idiots, drunkards, and the United States of America.” Russia has not been so fortunate. It cannot rely on transcendent forces for survival. For all anyone might know there could have been some high-minded intentions in the thinking of American war-planners about democracy and freedom in those other wars and attempted wars, but the appallingly inept execution of them has left a mess wherever we’ve stepped foot. For Russia, this time the mess would be on its Ukrainian doorstep, a consequence that Putin would be wise to prevent.

The problem with Putin for Professor English is that no more than American leaders the Russian president himself fails to inspire confidence. He said that Putin’s policies in eastern Ukraine were not truthful. He also said that no one can admire what Putin is doing. This plague-on-both-your-houses approach to the crisis makes him a moderate in the debate on Ukraine: the truth of the case lies somewhere in the middle between Russia and the United States, we learned from him. Perhaps, he concluded, a Gorbachev and a Reagan will come forward with a compromise plan for peace. Such a resolution would work, however, only if both sides honored it. One side had a problem in the honor department following the Gorbachev-Reagan deal, an observation that makes Professor English something less than a mathematically precise centrist.

Richard Drake
2 December 2014

Published inNotebook

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