As we begin the year 2015, we are hearing echoes of a century ago. Many people are asking themselves why we should concern ourselves with “a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing” – and I will discuss that further in a future posting.
But what is actually at stake here right now?
Obviously, the future of a free, independent, and democratic Ukraine;
As well as the future of a still hoped for free, democratic, and independent Russia;
And probably the as yet unsought future of Belarus;
And quite possibly the freedom, independence, and peaceful future of small states in the Central Asia, the Caucasus, the Balkans, Easternmost Europe, and the Baltic Littoral.
When I left Russia in 2000, after four years of living and working there – as I later came to put it, in the late-Yeltsin/early Putin years – Russian friends explained that ‘we’ll get another chance at democracy in 20 years. For some time now I’ve consoled myself with that thought, but it’s a comforting thought that has now worn thin and threadbare.
Putin’s actions in Russia’s near-abroad and his domination of the various media in Russia have created a situation in which a besieged Russian population sees itself surrounded by enemies frequently acting at the behest of a hegemonic United States. We are now the wolf howling at their door for many Russians who know little or nothing of anything beyond this narrative. Even if we are able to peacefully resolve our conflicting ambitions on behalf of Ukraine and its people, we may well lose at least another generation of Russians who will buy in to Putin’s narrative.
Putin must be intelligent enough to realize that in an actual war with a US-led Western coalition, Russia would lose much of its hard won restored military might (such as it is) and quite possibly Putin would lose power. It is hard to be certain exactly what his generals and intelligence chiefs are telling him, though it is worth remembering that many of them are graduates of the same schools who turned out a group of general officers who told Brezhnev that they could easily take control of Afghanistan. It would be a costly and bloody victory for the West regardless and it would cement Russia’s position in impoverished opposition for a century and devastate Ukraine and any other country that ‘hosted’ such a conflict.
So for the best interests of the West, Ukraine, and that still hoped for democratic Russia and its many neighbors – how do resolve this ongoing dispute?
The answer given to us by history is that we convince Putin, his generals, and his intelligence chiefs, that the US and the West will fight them for the future of Ukraine. We need to make it clear that collectively, including Ukraine, are willing to risk just as much and probably more than Putin is willing to risk – and he appears in fact to be risking almost everything – in order to prevent Putin from achieving his goal of blocking the emergence of a free, independent, democratic Ukraine integrated into Europe.
Whether we end up in actual conflict with Putin’s Russia, this contest will one way or the other define the 21st Century for much if not all of the world – whether shaped once again by a ‘far away quarrel” or shaped by a peacefully resolved contest of wills in which ‘the West’ awoke and demonstrated its resolve.