It’s no accident that John McCain introduced the issue of the Ukraine crisis into his speech at the Aipac national conference. No, he wasn’t mixing up his cue cards. Of course, McCain was using Ukraine as a club with which to beat the Obama administrations for its “feckless” (read, “anti-Israel”) foreign policy. McCain is a throwback to the days of Teddy Roosevelt and apparently wants the U.S. to exercise maximum military might around the world.
But there’s another reason why Ukraine will aid the rejectionist camp in Israel (which is virtually the entire right-wing government and almost all its ministers with the exception of Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid). As long as the U.S. is tied up in Ukraine, trying to prevent the crisis there from spinning out of control and into war, then John Kerry’s peace talks will probably not get the attention they’d received until now. Liberal Zionist analyst Aaaron David Miller put it euphemistically:
“It does give the prime minister additional room to maneuver.”
Meaning it gives Bibi yet more time to stall, obfuscate and generally wriggle out from under the pressure Obama and Kerry were bringing to bear.
Though Pres. Obama did meet yesterday with Bibi Netanyahu, there was no sense of pressure or urgency, as there had been in the President’s interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, in which he essentially warned Israel that it would become an international pariah if it continued to reject the Kerry initiative. So Ukraine is a godsend to the extremists and yet another obstacle to Palestinians who still harbor hope of a peace agreement (a group that is receding by the minute).
Putin’s territorial putsch in the Crimea echoes Israel’s history of conquering and absorbing Palestinian lands. In both cases, these two states are expansionist and seek to protect their perceived interests by dominating their own neighborhoods. Russia seems nostalgic for its imperial empire. Israel asserts a regional hegemony over its frontline state neighbors. Both states eschew diplomatic niceties when military force will do the job. Both present their enemies and the world a fait accompli and then dare them to dislodge them.
The main difference of course is that Russia is a second tier international power while Israel is a regional power with one essential superpower ally. Russia has real power on the world stage, while Israel’s power is regional at best. Russia isn’t terribly threatened by the economic sanctions the west can impose. It has vital natural resources needed by European powers like Germany.
Aside from U.S. support, Israel does not hold any such sway in the world. It can hold out only as long as the U.S. can fend off full international isolation and boycott. As Pres. Obama warned in his Atlantic interview, there will come a time when even U.S. protection won’t help.
Ukraine also poses a crisis testing the mettle of the Obama administration. While most analysts and politicians see it as a battle of wills between the west and Russia in which naked power will be matched against a western response. I think it would be more productive to view this as an opportunity to take Ukraine, which is currently a basket case, and develop a Marshall Plan-like program in which the west would help restructure Ukraine’s economic and financial system.
Stephen Cohen makes the excellent point in the above PBS interview that Russia, before this crisis, approached the west in hopes of devising precisely such a program. But the west rebuffed it. I don’t know the particulars of this alleged approach. But now that Ukraine has fallen into chaos and threatens to become a protectorate of Russia, we must find a way to exit this mess with as much grace and as little bloodshed as possible.
We simply cannot win a contest of wills or military force with Russia in its own backyard. We didn’t allow Khrushchev to plant missiles in Cuba in 1962 and there’s no reason that we should expect Putin to welcome perceived threats to his own stability on his border. We’ve got to skate around a naked military confrontation.
You now have the example of Soviet satellite states like Moldova and Belarus, and regions like Chechnya and Crimea ruled by warlords and riddled with corruption and oligarchic power. Under the former Ukrainian president, the same system held sway there. Why not gather together the key players in Ukraine and present them a plan to thoroughly revamp their political, financial and economic system so that it would reflect the European shift that so many Ukrainians were willing to die for only a week ago. Guarantees must be put in place to ensure transparency, and that funding and programs would not lapse into the former corrupt model, as they have in Afghanistan.
Make clear to Russia that such a reform effort is not a physical threat to him or his country. That it is entirely a domestic political shift, rather than an attempt to threaten Russia. From my point of view, even the issue of Crimea should be secondary to pursuing the success of this strategy. Ukraine can deal with territorial claims over Crimea at some future date (though ardent nationalists will chafe at this outcome).
Ukraine should apply and be accepted into NATO. This will add another deterrent layer to the process of reform, giving it the protective mantle of NATO should Russia have further territorial or expansionist designs. It might be possible to negotiate with Russia to put NATO membership in abeyance as long as Russia commits not to interfere in the economic and political reforms underway.
There are risks in this strategy of course. Corrupt systems generally want to remain corrupt. Entrenched oligarchs will not see a benefit in creating a new transparent system in which their opportunities may be circumscribed. There must also be buy-in from key political and social leaders. That won’t be an easy task since Ukraine is essentially a failed state currently. It may be difficult for these individuals facing an immense crisis to see their way toward an alternative that may appear so ephemeral.
But the benefits of this strategy are potentially enormous: instead of armed conflict, you use capitalism and democracy as a model for reform in the region. You present an example of a state which failed under the former system but thrived when it embraced a different set of values. You meet Russia’s naked aggression with economic reform rather than bullets. You show even Russians themselves that if they want to join the rest of the world they too can turn away from the former imperial model to one of an inter-connected world economy in which everyone can win.
In the long run, the prognosis for Russia is not good. Its resources will run dry after the massive wild West exploitation of the past two decades. Its oligarchs will strip the nation of everything of value and leave little or nothing on the carcass. When that happens, Russia’s economic elite and KGB agents-cum-presidents will not have devised an alternative economic model to transistion into a new era. This will leave Russia in desperate straits. Of course, all this will happen gradually over a period of a decade or more. But when it does, it’s imperative that the west have devised an alternative economic model that allows Russians to see where they could go if they chose.
The challenge for the west is that it must unite to come up with such a visionary plan. It must put both economic and political capital behind the project for it to work. It must be willing to roll up its sleeves and commit to a long-term project that will thoroughly reshape Ukraine and possibly other former Soviet-era states. It must counteract the tendency to put band-aids on complicated problems and walk away from them until they blow up. Do we have it in us to do this? Or do we accept the risk of a massive shooting war in Ukraine with hundreds of thousands of dead like in the former Yugoslavia or a decade long civil war as in Chechnya?