Henry Kissinger, the American practitioner and philosopher of realpolitik, has observed that a resolution in the Ukrainian drama requires “not absolute satisfaction but balanced dissatisfaction.”
This is a cleverly aphoristic way of saying there needs to be compromise, which at the moment seems hard to imagine. A compromise of sorts on a series of short-term measures was recently negotiated in Geneva, but the Russians systematically broke all the elements of the agreement.
It is clear what Russian President Vladimir Putin does not want; it is less clear what he does. He does not want Ukraine to be a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization nor a member-state of the European Union. He will use all available means to prevent either from happening, including military threats, political sabotage and economic leverage.
The West seems to understand this red line and, with the exception of some states (one can never tell about Canada’s bombastic foreign policy, with its domestic political imperatives), does not intend to press for Ukraine’s inclusion in either.
Mr. Putin wants a Ukraine dependent on Russia, or at least very friendly toward it. Russia and Ukraine are tied by history and contiguous by geography. It is in Ukraine’s interest that relations with Russia be constructive, if possible. It should be in the West’s interest to understand this necessity. The idea of a Ukraine that is hostile and unco-operative toward Russia is a recipe for endemic political instability, military tension and poor economic results for Kiev.
What remains unclear, however, is whether the terms of mutual co-operation will be dictated by Russia or agreed upon by both countries. It is difficult to contemplate mutual co-operation when Russian agents are fomenting secession in eastern Ukraine, Russian military exercises take place just across the border and Russian media act as propaganda outlets for the Kremlin.
There are obviously people in Ukraine, egged on by Western voices and elements of the diaspora, who want to put maximum political distance between their country and Russia. Under these circumstances, finding a compromise will not be easy – the compromise being something along the lines of a Ukrainian government based on a fair election, a decentralization of the country, protection for the Russian language (a minority tongue), civil relations with both Russia and the West, but no membership in NATO or the EU.
Would these lines of compromise satisfy Mr. Putin? He might well have much more dangerous intentions. It remains unclear whether Crimea and Ukraine are templates for an ominous Russia foreign-policy objective, namely to incorporate into Russia parts of neighbouring countries with Russian-speaking minorities, on the irredentist grounds that only Mother Russia can protect their interests.
If so, then the territorial integrity of Moldova and the Baltic states is theoretically imperilled, as perhaps would be territories in Central Asia that were formerly part of the Soviet Union but are now found within independent countries. This policy sent Russian troops into Georgian territory, a move that in retrospect seems like a precursor to what happened in Crimea.
The large demonstrations in Moscow and other cities after the last Russian elections rattled Mr. Putin. The protesters’ presence in the streets, and the media coverage they received, seems to have enraged the Russian President, who took these events as a sign of lèse-majesté by Westernized, liberal and elitist parts of the population.
To show who was boss, and perhaps because it flowed from his own instincts, Mr. Putin declared political war on the demonstrators’ vision, turning instead to chauvinism, the image of Russia as victim, the quashing of opposition and a much more aggressive foreign policy – all of which, it must be said, has sent his popularity soaring.
This is the Russia other countries must now contend with, rather than the Russia of their dreams. Sanctions against individual Russian leaders are long on symbolism, short on effect. What Western countries need to do is to indicate that unless Russia agrees to a reasonable compromise on Ukraine and drops its irredentist behaviour, relations cannot be as they once were.
Western Europe will have to plan a long-term withdrawal of its dependence on Russian fossil fuels. Economic links will have to be weakened. A forward NATO positioning will have to be executed. Russia is too big to be ignored, but it is not so big as to be feared, given its fragile economy, aging and shrinking population and lack of true allies.