Consequences and False Dominoes: The Crisis in and over Ukraine

Tarik Cyril Amar

Origins: Elections have Consequences

Ukraine has turned from “borderland” to “on the edge,” the scene of a frightening act of collective brinksmanship. How did we get here? Clearly, the trigger (but not more) for the current Ukrainian crisis was last November’s sudden decision of the by now ousted Ukrainian president and kleptocrat-in-chief Viktor Yanukovych to reject an EU Association Agreement and to prefer a deal with Russia. Perhaps the last opportunity to avoid a full Russian invasion of Ukraine – now already a fait accompli in Crimea and an increasing threat for (eastern) Ukraine – was the Sikorski-Steinmeier-Fabius deal reached and then abandoned at the end of the Maidan Revolution in February: the last potential “off-ramp” was deliberately missed by both the former Ukrainian president and his Maidan opponents.

 But regarding what Ukrainian democracy can learn for the future, February 2010, though little mentioned, matters most: independent Ukraine’s last presidential elections before the current crisis. Yanukovych won not because of his own strong support but due to widespread frustration with preceding “Orange” rule. Yet Ukraine then was a democracy with real pluralism and real elections. But too many Ukrainians decided that the gains made after the Orange Revolution of 2004 were secure or irrelevant. They were helped in these anti-politics by fractious and egotistical politicians and some of the same intellectuals now lecturing the West about its duties. Back then they were calling for a politics of no compromise or evoking the panacea of civil society, while disdaining the state and its powers and risks.

If Ukrainian democracy will get a second chance, then under conditions of severe crisis: frustration must not defeat patience again. Here is a challenge for Ukraine’s (and not only) intelligentsia, harder than blaming Russia or hectoring the West: to explain at home that the state matters, that there are lesser and greater evils, that the distinction is worth voting about, and that a curse-on-all-their-houses is a suicidal approach even to the politics (and politicians) of Ukraine.

Escalations: Invasions have Consequences

Russia has made choices too. Even after Yanukovych’s ouster, it has had options short of brute force for influencing Ukraine. Judging by its success after the Orange Revolution, its prospects were good to deploy energy politics (facilitated by Ukraine’s habit of guzzling and not paying), media and trade influence, and the venality of much of Ukraine’s political elite (local and central). Yet Russia has chosen the one option certain to antagonize the West, reinvigorate NATO, lead to European energy diversification, tilt Ukrainian politics west, and solidify large parts of Ukrainian society (though not all of it) against outside aggression. It has also left the West no choice but economic sanctions because both hypothetical alternatives (doing nothing or the use of military force) are politically and ethically impossible. Russia, moreover, is widely seen as severely infringing international law and the European status quo and of stoking unrest in Ukraine, with a risk of large-scale civil and international war.

Russia will pay, economically and politically, for its new, unnecessarily confrontational Ukraine policy. The exact price tag will depend on the real outcome of the Geneva agreement. Yet because Russia is now tied into a globalized economy, the costs of sanctions and, more importantly, the general loss of business confidence and cooperation, will be borne by the West too. This might last for a while. Expectations that economic pressure will work quickly are mistaken: Russia is likely to show resilience. Moreover, its current government will use western pressure to explain problems at home. This may not work forever, but it is rash to count on it failing quickly.

Potential Escalations: Consequences will have Consequences

Bleak as things are, drawing the wrong consequences from the current fiasco can make them much worse. Offering Ukraine a NATO perspective now, and for the foreseeable future, means inviting full-scale war to it. Values are much invoked. Here’s a simple value to note: It’s not solidarity to set up a country for a war that would devastate it. Also unhelpful: public calls for a Ukrainian reverse “Vietnam” to make Russia pay in blood by providing Ukraine with military aid short of intervention. If any Ukrainians, in Ukraine and abroad, consider Cold War re-enactors their natural allies, they should think again: fantasies of Ukraine as a reverse “Vietnam” are as cruelly realpolitik as anything Russia has to offer. They also show what the invocations of Ukraine’s place in “Europe” are worth to some grand global strategists. (Poland, a NATO member, might also wonder about its role in such fantasies: refugee camps and counter/insurgency bases?)

Dominoes Don’t Help

One response by western commentators is to reinvent the domino theory: If the West fails to resist Russia over Ukraine, this argument goes, then the international order or Europe must crumble; ultimately, Russia’s relapse into bad old habits, if unchecked, must lead to a new dark age of might-makes-right. In reality, the international order, fortunately or unfortunately, has proven robust enough to survive severe and also long-lasting infringements. It is true that Russia’s take-over of Crimea is special because Russia has been explicit and official about expanding its territory at the cost of others. Moreover, the implications of Russia’s threat to eastern Ukraine are even worse: while no justification for Russian actions, Crimea’s (and Sevastopol’s) special status in Ukraine provided prior lines on the map to limit the Crimea crisis. In the case of a full-scale attack on eastern Ukraine, regional administrative (oblast) borders might or might not provide such lines. Finally, Russia’s spin narrative (the need to protect ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking populations abroad) is very scary because it is arbitrary and unreal, could be applied again, and would be a highly disruptive principle if it were to spread. Yet it is still counterproductive to treat Ukraine as a vicarious battlefield in which to defend western civilization against an onslaught from a Eurasianist East because there are still ways pragmatically to contain both Russia’s new reach to “protect” and what it will mean for the international order.

 Red Lines and Shifting Baselines

With the Geneva agreement providing some hope but also running into some trouble, what can be done? First of all, it was to be expected that its implementation would be difficult and interpretations of its meaning differ. Obituaries are clearly premature. Geneva may fail. But the alacrity with which some western commentators are claiming or predicting failure smacks of putting their own belligerent mood regarding Russia and the West over what’s best for Ukraine. Secondly, Ukraine needs to disarm private militias, including those claiming allegiance to the revolution; it also needs constitutional reform, even if Russia tries to misuse both concepts. Disarming private militias does not infringe on Ukraine’s sovereignty in any way (and is a mostly symbolic act anyhow). Russia’s idea of “federalization” is not acceptable, but decentralization is urgently needed. This provides room for compromise and Ukraine’s supporters should impress this fact on its government.

Secondly, fetishizing the language issue absurdly contradicts Ukraine’s national interest: it is de facto bilingual anyhow. Russian should be given official status as a state language. If the government or other actors, including from abroad, want to support the Ukrainian language, they should do just that instead of being phobic about Russian. Fortunately, the government has – finally – shown some readiness for these compromises. In general, no matter the probably underwhelming or counterproductive outcome of its currently suspended operations in eastern Ukraine, it will have to settle for compromises its leaders will find hard to accept or to explain to their electorate. If they are patriots, both shouldn’t stop them, but if they are populists, they will sacrifice Ukraine to their ambitions, while blaming the West.

Ukraine’s western backers, meanwhile, have rightly chosen a combination of graded economic measures, restraint, and diplomacy. Yet the news might easily get grimmer again. Then we will hear more trending accusations of appeasement and betrayal. But we are neither in an interwar, nor in a Cold War, but in a post-Cold-War world: Ironically, western expectations are skewed by how successful the West has already been. Confused by short memory and shifting baselines, the western public should take stock of reality: since the end of the Soviet Union both NATO and the EU have expanded at the rate of almost one new member every two years, mostly into the former Soviet bloc. Much has been reached rapidly. It needs to be consolidated calmly – not risked in a fit of false analogies, mistaking Putin for Hitler and the present for Munich 1938. Consolidation means that defensive tripwire forces from the “old” NATO members have to be stationed permanently with the current “new” members in Eastern Europe. This would serve stability: ambiguity about NATO commitment is the last thing we – including Ukraine and Russia – need.

In sum, what is needed is a strategy likely to frustrate anybody still psychologically tied to the Cold War, be it on the “hawk” or the “dove” side: practicing and insisting on restraint in and over Ukraine, while at the same time shoring up NATO’s credibility among its members in Eastern Europe. Such a strategy promises no quick fixes, it looks much less exciting on CNN than calls for the Vietnamization of Ukraine, it invites unfounded but popular accusations of appeasement as well as of being provocative toward Russia, it sits badly with public opinion in at least one key player, Germany, and it will cost plenty of money. What it has to offer, however, is substantial: the best chance for stabilization and peace Ukraine still has (the alternative is not World War Three, but a regional war or a drawn-out local insurgency, both devastating in their own ways); a reduction of global tension with Russia, so that cooperation can continue and develop again despite serious disagreement; and, perhaps, most importantly, time. And, please, no mistaking fervor, preferably publicly displayed, for commitment: none of this implies betraying Ukraine; it’s actually the best chance left to save it.

The author is assistant professor of history at Columbia University.



Distinguished University Professor, University of Alberta


  1. mark

    I agree totally. The profoundnnes and wiseness of this words are undoutably. Thanck you for your article proffesor

  2. Dear Sir,

    I am romanian and we had to suffer a lot in the past because of the communist regime imposed to us by the former Soviet Union so I can not be blamed for being a simpatizer of the russians but I think that you have it backwards and Russia is not the agressor in this case. As much as the biased western media is trying to spin the truth in order to blame Russia, the facts are pointing in a different direction.
    Peace and love!

    Calin Badea

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