Rethinking the West’s Approach to Ukraine

By Nicolai Petro

The West’s approach to achieving peace in Ukraine has focused on Russia’s role … while ignoring domestic factors because they are consistent with the broader US policy of portraying Russia as a destabilizing actor in world affairs. 

It is also in keeping with the dominant approach to international relations—Realism—which sees domestic actors as irrelevant when considering a nation’s foreign policy. This view is a myth, left over from the 1950s, the Golden Era of U.S. foreign policy when senator Arthur Vandenberg, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, famously put it “politics stops at the water’s edge.” It is telling that Joe Biden, who remembers that era, called on Ukrainian political leaders in his speech to the parliament on December 9, 2015, to put aside their “parochial differences” and think about the common good.

But this has not occurred, and we have not stopped to ask why.

It is because we insist on seeing Ukraine through the prism of Russia, rather than through the complex realities of Ukraine. This has prevented the emergence of any policy toward the country, other than to see it separated from Russia. It has even unwittingly led the U.S. to support Western Ukrainian demands for an ethnically and culturally  monolithic Ukraine, against Eastern and Southern Ukrainian demands for cultural pluralism. 

This choice, so profoundly at odds with American values, has been justified on the grounds of U.S. national security.

This leads me to three uncomfortable conclusions about the prospects for peace.

1.  The top priority for the United States will continue to be preventing any mutually beneficial relationship between Ukraine and Russia, regardless of their political systems. This follows directly from the statements of senior officials, from Zbigniew Brzezinski to Hillary Clinton, that rapprochement among the states of the FSU is tantamount to reconstituting the Soviet Union. 

2.  It means that any politician who considers such a rapprochement as in the best interests of his country, will be labeled a threat to US national security and sanctioned, as has occurred with the head of Ukraine’s leading opposition party, Victor Medvedchuk. 

3.  It means that Ukraine, which is split roughly 60-40 into discrete political, cultural, and geographic regions, will continue to be a pawn in this larger geopolitical struggle.

I therefore conclude that the crisis in Ukraine cannot be solved without a broader settlement between Russia and Ukraine, which in turn must be part of a broader settlement between Russia and the West. In other words, ending the conflict in Donbass (and Crimea) requires a new agreement on the post-Cold War era.

 Such an agreement would need to focus on:

1.  Guarantees for the security and sovereignty all of post-Soviet territory, including Russia and Ukraine, formulated in a pan-European  security agreement;

2.  Guarantees of the free flow of trade, investment, and labor throughout the same region, so as to provide equal opportunities for economic growth to all;

3.  Guarantees of the free flow of people, information, and cultures throughout the region, in order to build mutual cultural awareness and trust.

I still believe what I said a decade ago,  “Is Ideological Competition in Europe Necessary?” [https://www.e-ir.info/?p=6633], That peace requires a re-conceptualization of Europe and European institutions so that they include all the former Soviet states, rather than a selected few. But, since there are no signs of such a re-conceptualization among current political elites, it will have to be inspired by visionaries who realize that the current approach of excommunicating Russia from the Church of European Values will lead to war, just as surely as the values conflicts of the 17th century led to the Thirty Years’ War (1618 to 1648).

Avoiding this outcome requires standing against current intellectual trends, and arguing for peace over the many voices in every country that would prioritize virtue. Of course, the virtuous never want war; all they want is the triumph of righteousness, which is precisely the mindset that leads many who are opposed to war into accepting it as a regrettable necessity.

Those who believe that Russia ought to be accepted into the European family without preliminary penance, and are willing to deal with it as it is, warts and all, must therefore be willing to endure endless accusations of dishonesty, corruption, immorality, and even treason, for the construction of a new world order on the only principle that can ensure lasting peace — the principle of moral sovereignty.

Nicolai N. Petro is Professor of Political Science at the University of Rhode Island and a Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Studies at the University of Bologna, Italy. He is a member of the Board of ACURA (American Committee for US-Russia Accord).

This article was published on May 5 by the American Committee for US-Russia Accord and was forwarded to the PeaceWorker by the Center for Citizen Initiatives.

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