Our Cuba: How Ukraine Nearly Pushed Us to Catastrophe

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Children under the Ukrainian Flag


Today, the crisis in Ukraine that brought the United States and Russia to a Cold War-style standoff has ended. The joint statement between the two countries and the representatives of the European Union has called for all rebels in the Donbass and eastern territories to disarm and stop the violence. The government in Kiev has also agreed to reduce tensions by offering federalized powers to regions, such as Donetsk, where rebels still hold government buildings. While not a permanent fix to the current situation, the Geneva statement issues by Secretary John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is the first step in de-escalating the crisis through diplomatic action.

These events are in many ways reminiscent of the U.S.-Soviet standoff over nuclear missiles in Cuba. What started as a violent revolution to uplift a nation, the parties sought to build relationships with great powers, in order to protect themselves from retribution. Castro’s Cuba sought the friendship of the Soviet Union, rejecting the United States that they viewed as a dangerous adversary. The mutual agreement led to escalation of a tense diplomatic conflict between the two superpowers that culminated with nuclear weapons being pointed at Washington and Moscow respectively. Finally, at the exact moment when it all could have exploded into World War III, Khrushchev backed off and Kennedy, in return, pulled back his own Turkish-based nuclear missiles from Moscow’s throat.

Ukraine played out much the same way. Kiev, under Victor Yanukovych, decided to seek closer ties with Putin’s Russia, against the wishes of half the country and the opposition to build closer relationships with Europe. The resulting protests spurred on into a revolution that overthrew the government and released Yulia Tymoshenko, the leader of Ukrainian Batkivshchyna Party. Many of us weren’t paying attention, as we likewise did not when Castro began importing conventional arms from Russia. However, we certainly turned our heads when Crimea voted to leave Ukraine and Russia annexed the state, escalating the conflict to a geopolitical battlefield. Pro-Russian seizures of government buildings in Eastern Ukraine had us believing Crimea was a dress rehearsal for a larger dismantling of the Ukrainian republic. So the last two weeks saw the government in Kiev, the rebels in Donetsk, and the two great powers, along with Europe, watching and engaging anxiously in “cold diplomacy” with each other. This does not discount the many allegations of both Washington and Moscow using agents and covert assets to fan the conflict in an effort to end the crisis in their failure.

If civil war had taken place, what would this have meant? Had the rebels and government gone to war, the conflict would have had destabilizing effects across the greater Eastern European region. Many of these countries have been nervous about Russian intentions toward the former Soviet Republics. Belarus and the Baltic states have all sought to maintain cordial relations with Moscow while, in the latter case, trying to join the more inclusive European Community. It would have empowered President Putin, who today claimed eastern Ukraine as the “New Russia,” to expand the concept to include all Russian communities throughout the region (and other former Soviet republics). The geopolitical consequences of such actions rival the challenges being faced by the ASEAN community in Southeast Asia towards China (See Rise of China and the Return of Great Power Politics).

Europe faced challenge from an unstable Ukraine: Energy shortages. Ukraine is a bridge for the Eurasian energy market, where oil and natural gas are shipped to the rest of the European Union. The breakout of hostilities would have caused great damage to the European Energy market and caused economic strain on the already strained Union. The 2009 energy shut offs by Russian energy giant Gazprom led to huge shortfalls of natural gas supplies in Europe and sending signals that Russia still has an essential role in fueling (or slowing) European economic growth. A fix to destroyed oil and natural gas pipelines would have been a harder pill to swallow for the community, many of whom are allies of the United States.

Kerry and Lavrov in Geneva

Kerry and Lavrov in Geneva

However, while it is easy to say the joint statement issued at Geneva is the end of the long crisis, it is not the solution. We have to go through a delicate de-escalation, which will require each side to give up something major in their foreign policy aims. First, the United States must accept that Ukraine is destined to never join NATO and Europe should reside itself to strengthening its own community, including the former Yugoslavian states. Furthermore, Europe needs to concentrate on energy independence, which Germany has called for very recently. Russia should be open to discussions on the future status of Ukraine and the United States needs to pursue this aim in the short-term. Finally, we should accept, as former Secretary of State Henry Kissenger mentioned, that Ukraine is a bridge state between Russia and Europe. Russian and Ukrainian history deeply intertwined, ensuring that Ukraine must take responsibility to sort out its own relationship with Russia. While Putin’s New Russia violates international norms and threatens to push us back to the brink, it can be softened as part of a new program to strengthen friendship between Kiev and Moscow. Finally, the United States should return to building a more cordial relationship with Putin, while strengthening its means of understanding our Russian friends and their intentions. We have many challenges to focus on, including the Iranian nuclear program, the Israeli – Palestinian Peace Process, and China.

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