September 23, 2020

Why Ukraine Matters

Guest Column
By Jack Segal | Dec. 7, 2019

Amidst the clamor of the House impeachment hearings, an unexpected group of heroes emerged. State Department Foreign Service Officers (FSO) and White House experts demonstrated the quality of people who anonymously manage our foreign policy in Washington and who represent our country in more than 160 diplomatic missions. 

Through their calm demeanor, their depth of knowledge and most of all, their patriotism, these diplomats and experts who had been unknown to the American public (and, it seems, the president), described their day-to-day work that underlies America’s foreign policy.

Marie (“Masha”) Yovanovitch, our former ambassador to Ukraine, was forced out. Her “crime”? She was carrying out our long-standing policy of pressuring Ukraine to tackle the endemic corruption that has strangled that country since independence. She and current interim Ambassador Bill Taylor provided detailed accounts on what happened over the past year as Ambassador Kurt Volker, EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland and Energy Secretary Rick Perry tried to refocus our policy on White House political aims.

The “three amigos” manufactured a parallel U.S. strategy to remove Ambassador Yovanovitch and to pressure Ukraine to investigate the alleged corrupt acts of former Vice President Joe Biden, his son, Hunter, and Burisma in Ukraine. Vital U.S. military aid for Ukraine was halted temporarily as leverage against Ukrainian President Zelenskiy until Zelenskiy delivered on these blatantly political demands. While U.S. military aid was at the center of the impeachment debate, the political drama around that aid unfortunately diverts the American people from the real stakes for the U.S. in Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has, since 2014, orchestrated a broad-based effort to weaken Ukraine, bring it back under Russian control and prevent it from ever joining NATO or the European Union. To that end, Putin instigated a supposedly Ukrainian-led separatist movement in eastern Ukraine and Crimea.

While we might want instinctively to respond to Russian aggression, U.S. interests in Ukraine and our involvement in Ukraine’s war with Russia need to be carefully modulated.

The main reason President Barack Obama declined to provide defensive weapons to Ukraine (only blankets and MREs) was to avoid suggesting to the Ukrainians that our aid was tantamount to a U.S. security guarantee against Russian aggression.

While President Donald Trump has now begun to provide anti-tank weapons and badly needed training to Ukraine’s army, he wisely has not hinted at a broader commitment to Ukraine’s defense. That is prudent policy. We have imposed sanctions on Russia for its aggression and Putin desperately wants those lifted. But we don’t have to place ourselves between Russia and Ukraine. 

Today, about six million of Ukraine’s 44 million people live in separatist-controlled provinces and Crimea. After orchestrating the “separatist” movement, Russia engaged with the previous Ukrainian government to negotiate a settlement aimed at recognizing Russia’s absorption of Crimea and granting autonomy to the separatist region.

 The political negotiations between Russia and Ukraine — known as the Minsk Process — were led by France, Germany and Belarus. That process failed, but it did create a mechanism that now seems ripe for revival since the election of comedian-turned-president Volodymyr Zelensky.

Zelensky is walking a political tightrope. He must try to keep President Trump on his side while opening a dialogue with Russia’s Putin.  Zelensky also must satisfy the demands of millions of younger Ukrainians who originally took to the streets in 2014’s Revolution of Dignity, calling for closer ties with Europe. That generation has lived their entire lives as citizens of an independent Ukraine. They are not going to be easily persuaded to cede influence over any part of their country to Russia.

One promising sign is that recent surveys conducted in the separatist region show a wide range of attitudes among the six million Ukrainians caught in the war zone. Unlike bloody ethnic conflicts in the Balkans, the divisions within Ukraine’s separatist regions are not sharply drawn. Some people want more autonomy and they want Russian as their official language. Few define themselves solely as Russian. Most want friendly ties and free access to the rest of Ukraine. 

That’s enough latitude for diplomats to find a solution to this conflict – one that has already killed more than 13,000 Ukrainians (and the 298 passengers and crew of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17). What would not be helpful is any further bumbling interventions by the “three amigos.” Professional diplomats have demonstrated their ability to navigate through the complexities of Ukrainian-Russian relations without getting the U.S. trapped in the middle. We need to let them continue to do that job unhindered. 

What should be done: First, we should support and praise Germany’s and France’s leadership of the Minsk 2 process aimed at a negotiated settlement. Both Ukrainian and separatist troops need to withdraw from the front lines, probably with the help of European peacekeepers to create a buffer zone and stop the ongoing violence.

President Putin is likely to have some tough demands. He can increase economic pressure against Ukraine by manipulating natural gas and oil shipments that are crucial to Ukraine’s economy. He may try to force Zelensky to agree that Ukraine will not seek membership in NATO. 

This would not be welcomed by young Ukrainians who see their future as a part of Europe and NATO. It may also be strongly opposed by the Ukraine lobby in the U.S., congressional hawks and by “experts” who want to use Ukraine to antagonize Putin.

But the U.S. has other important goals in this conflict. A stable Ukraine, even in Russia’s shadow, might over time naturally gravitate toward a position between Europe and Russia that could serve everyone’s interests. To get out from under our sanctions, President Trump needs to make clear to Putin that any settlement requires Russian withdrawal from Ukraine’s territory — nor should the U.S. further complicate this dangerous situation with extraneous political demands on Ukraine.

Ukraine’s Zelensky needs time to institute the reforms needed to get out from under Ukraine’s stifling corruption. Allowing Russia and Ukraine to find a way to get along might ultimately demonstrate to Russia that an independent and democratic Ukraine is not a threat to Russia. Beyond that, if Zelensky and Putin can agree on some form of a solution, the U.S. should not stand in the way.
Jack Segal is the former U.S. Department of State director for Ukraine (1996-97) and National Security and Defense Council director for Ukraine (1998-99). He teaches diplomacy to graduate students at Norwich University in Vermont and lectures at Northwestern Michigan College, Ferris State University and Rhein/Waal University in Germany.


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