At the G7 meeting in Italy on April 11, 2017, Rex Tillerson asked: “Why should U.S. taxpayers be interested in Ukraine?” Predictably, he monetized the issue -- “taxpayers,” not simply “Americans.” Regardless, none of the ensuing commentary got to the heart of the matter.
The overarching answer is that Ukraine’s independence in 1991 ensured the dissolution of the “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics,” saving the West from an apocalyptic trajectory. Not surprising, since Russian occupation and control of Ukraine was pivotal both to the creation of the USSR and to its continuing viability (Lenin: "if we lose Ukraine we lose our head”). Ironically, America was trying to preserve the USSR intact, with President Bush Sr. visiting Ukraine at the time, importuning it to back off. However, “when, in the course of human events . . ." Ukraine reclaimed its independence, there was no contrition inside the Beltway. Washington simply pivoted and applauded its ostensible success. President Bush declared in his State of the Union address that “by the grace of God, America won the Cold War.” And President Bush Jr. wrote that it was “one of the most stunning diplomatic achievements in history” and “a peaceful end to the Cold War.”But if that was good, then ensuring that it remains that way is not just good, but paramount. Unfortunately, we suffer from a national attention deficit disorder. President Obama had dismissed Ukraine as being a “core interest” of the U.S. Does that mean that the disintegration of the Soviet Union was a non-event? Have we inoculated ourselves against understanding the consequences of a Kremlin claw back? Will Mutual Assured Destruction reenter the lexicon, and our school children relearn “duck and cover”?
Here’s what the current Administration must absorb.
Ukraine’s independence is a sine qua non for not just American, but global security and stability. Supporting it is the safest, most effective and cheapest strategy (past Presidents of both Parties notwithstanding) to counterbalance accelerating Russian aggression. Ukrainians have traditionally harbored a sense of democracy, individualism and a drive toward civic society that any American would recognize. Ukraine is the largest country in Europe, the size of England, Germany, Hungary and Israel, combined. With a democratic and civic tradition that Russia never had, Ukraine produced Europe’s first constitution for a representative democracy, outlining the separation of powers, and the concept of checks and balances. It preceded Philadelphia by 77 years, and was years ahead of Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws. A coincidental intersection of today’s news with history and geography recalls a time even earlier, and the historian Paul of Aleppo (Syria) [circa 1654] said: “Although a stranger I felt myself at home in Ukraine. But in Muscovy my heart felt heavy, for wherever I went no one was even a little free . . . . Those who want to shorten their life by fifteen years must go to the land of Muscovy. In Ukraine I found joy in life, freedom and civilization."
Russia’s internal oppression and external marauding depend on its ability to wrap 11% of the Earth’s landmass in hermetically sealed truthlessness, unspooled now to the rest of the globe. Like Israel in the Middle East, Ukraine must anchor stability in Europe. “Russia is a whole separate world, submissive to the will, caprice, fantasy of a single man. . . . Russia moves only in the direction of her own enslavement and the enslavement of all the neighboring peoples. For this reason it would be in the interest of not only other peoples, but also her own that she be compelled to take a new path.” So wrote Pyotr Chaadavey. That was in 1854. The example of an independent, democratic Ukraine would puncture Putin’s predatory burlesque of reality, at home and abroad. We would no longer be whipsawed by Putin’s choice of time, place and circumstance. At long last, the Kremlin would have to turn inward to address the infection of democracy from a Ukrainian bacillus.
Pavel Sudoplatov and his boss understood Russia’s worst nightmare, summarized by French historian and philosopher Voltaire: “Ukrainians have always sought freedom.” Sudoplatov was Stalin’s favorite killer (as we know, Vladimir Putin has heaped hosannas on Stalin without a murmur from the “Western democracies”.) Sudoplatov was the Grand Master of the Masters, a pinup boy in the “Memory Room” of the same school where Putin matriculated—the Cheka/GPU/NKVD/KGB/FSB. He was the wunderkind of the Directorate of “mokrije djela” -- “wet deeds,” and is in the pantheon of Putin’s heroes. Sudoplatov masterminded the ice pick into the skull of Stalin’s unfriend, Leon Trotsky, AWOL in Mexico. Stalin then tasked Sudoplatov with penetrating America’s top secret Manhattan Project during WWII. He was also charged with drawing up psychological profiles of President Roosevelt and the U.S. delegation to the infamous Yalta (yes, that’s in Crimea) Conference toward the end of WWII.
But Sudoplatov’s most consequential role was his participation in what he wrote openly in his memoirs -- Moscow’s “75 year war against Ukraine.” Sudoplatov was not just a hands-on assassin, but was a key player in battling Ukraine’s resistance to Moscow’s rule. Sudoplatov wrote that that war "formally [my emphasis] ended” with world recognition of Ukraine. Odd. A 75 year war against a nation that, according to Putin “doesn’t even exist.” Putin’s statement was rather a subliminal trumpet of his mens rea.
It’s bizarre that what is of such strategic interest to the Kremlin has not been of strategic interest to the United States. We even put ourselves into harness in Moscow’s war. Three years after the “end of the Cold War” we required that Ukraine (why not Russia?) surrender the third world’s largest nuclear arsenal. Seemingly to keep nuclear arms away from terrorists, we punished the victim, with much of the arsenal and enriched uranium transferred to Russia, the original terrorist state. The trade-off was multi-lateral assurances of Ukraine’s sovereignty. Add Washington’s subsequent destruction of Ukraine’s conventional weaponry, with a junior Senator [Barack Obama] from Illinois declaring: “We need to eliminate these stockpiles for the safety of the Ukrainian people and people around the world by keeping them out of conflicts.” [Sadly, a large fraction of these weapons were smuggled by Russian/Ukrainian/Israeli mobsters to Africa and other hotspots around the world.] The largest country in the world, however, had its own rules of etiquette and invaded, occupied and annexed parts of Ukraine. The Ukrainian city of Donetsk, where Senator Obama stood, is now devastated and occupied by Russia. The largest war in Europe since WWII is now in its fourth year. Ukraine, less than 3% the size of the colossus to the North, is fighting alone. (“Sanctions”? Flaccid, mono-synaptic, and barely tethered.)
If the preceding is excused as American fecklessness, being an actual enabler has a cheerless history. We awarded diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Union in 1933, as Stalin was waging a war of starvation against Ukraine. It was the ultimate Weapon of Mass Destruction. Ever responsive to the siren call of “doing business,” the United States, as Stalin’s ultimate target, rewarded his genocide. Millions of Ukrainians were killed, one-third of them infants and children. But the viability of the Soviet Union was (with Sudoplatov’s “wet deeds”) ensured for a few more generations. And we suffered the consequences. Directly. For good measure, after WWII we joint ventured with the NKVD, the KGB’s/FSB’s predecessor, in a dragnet of the survivors who sought refuge in Europe and the U.S. It was a messy affair. The ultimate immigration policy was not a mistake. The sobriquet, “Operation Keelhaul,” says it all: we intended to punish the truth tellers who saw America as their deliverance.
On March 3, 2014, President Obama intoned that with its invasion of Ukraine, Russia “was on the wrong side of history.” Prior Administrations had already joined in a pas de deux with Russia on the dark side. If the current Administration doesn’t at long last absorb America’s “core interest” in Ukraine, furrowed brows and sonorous clichés will not conceal our complicity in jack booting the international order. Multinational and bi-lateral agreements, treaties and accords of all strips, somberly paraded at the time, will become less than so much pabulum. President Ford said of the Helsinki Accords at the time: “History will judge us not by the promises we make, but by the promises we keep.”
But there’s more. If we barter away the victim that was pivotal to the fall of the USSR, we would justly be condemned for our moral sordor and our sterilizing wash of history. Any certainty about America’s word that may have survived to that point will evaporate.
And what will friend and foe conclude about Washington’s grip on reality if it yet again squanders its most significant geopolitical asset as a counterweight to Russian predation? Putin’s unbridled contempt for America’s -- and Europe’s -- provocative pusillanimity will become even more palpable. Ditto North Korea, Iran, Syria and China. Another “Cuban Missile Crisis” today will not end as was then described by Secretary of State Dean Rusk, “We’re eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked.”
Twenty years before Mr. Tillerson’s question, a study by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace concluded: “Whether Russian led integration on the territory of the former USSR will pose a serious, long-term military challenge to the West, depends in large part on the role that Ukraine plays or is compelled to play. . . . Ukraine will do much to determine whether Europe and the world in the twenty-first century will be as bloody as they were in the twentieth.” On April 13, 2017, The Wall Street Journal ran a front-page article on Mr. Tillerson’s ensuing meeting in Moscow. Inexplicably -- no, predictably -- the piece mentioned Ukraine in all of one clause in one sentence. The author and three more contributors labored over the article.
If “U.S. taxpayers” are not interested in Ukraine, a tour of the “Memory Room” is in order. Without that, taxes will be the least of our concerns.