The best thing you'll read on Ukraine, by @DaviDOAtkins

The best thing you'll read on Ukraine

by David Atkins

You can always count on American pundits to be narcissistic to the point of solipsism when it comes to foreign policy. Everything is always about America. Whatever is happening anywhere in the world is always about America--and when it's not, it's always painted in terms of good vs. evil.

As most progressives know, the world is much more complicated than that, and not everyone is as obsessed with the United States as Americans are.

In that light, Gary Brecher's superb analysis at Pando of the situation in Ukraine is a breath of fresh air. It's a moderately long, very good read that is impossible to effectively summarize here, but below is a taste:

What’s happening in Eastern Ukraine is very simple, rational, and straightforward.

Russia has what it wanted—Crimea, a Russian-majority peninsula with better beaches than the rest of Russia put together, a Russian majority, and a geography so eminently defensible that all you have to do is look at it on a map and it screams “Secede!

What’s going on in Eastern Ukraine, a very different Russian-majority region, is a sideshow, as far as Putin and his schemers are concerned. This sideshow has two audiences. The first, as Mark Ames explained in his article, “Sorry, America, Ukraine Isn’t All about You,” is a domestic one, Russia’s “silent majority. “ As Ames explained, Putin has used the violence to keep that silent majority in an angry, nationalist mood.


The other audience is Putin’s colleagues in power—in Kyiv, Brussels, and Washington. Russia has already managed to shift the focus of international attention from Crimea, which Russia really wanted and now possesses, to Eastern Ukraine. Crimea has become a classic “fait accompli,” the goal of this kind of old-school Great Power game.

Ukraine has been forced to give up any pressure on Crimea, whether military or political, in order to put out the ethnic Russian insurgency in the East. This is a real, grassroots ethnic uprising, born out of long-standing resentment of Ukrainian attempts to enforce a vindictive, petty form of Ukrainian nationalism, full of sentimentality about the wide grasslands and little Ukrainian-speaking villages, on Eastern Ukraine, which is urban, Russian, and industrial.
After Crimea showed, or seemed to show, how easy it was to secede from this vindictive Ukrainian regime and rejoin Russia, ethnic Russians in Donetsk, Sloviansk and other Eastern cities naturally attempted to duplicate the quick, easy separation Crimea accomplished.


And yet ethnic Russians, both in Putin’s constituency in Russia, and among ethnic Russian communities shut out of the Russian Federation, like the cities of Eastern Ukraine, continue to be willing to give their lives for Russia. Their grievances, their love for Russia, and their courage are real, not the creation of SpetzNaz or security-service infiltration as jingoistic American journalists like Eli Lake keep claiming.

But those noble qualities, and the lives of the people who hold them, are just expendable assets—straw dogs—to cold-eyed practitioners of Great-Power politics like Putin. They’re fighting at this moment to form a Russian secessionist republic in Eastern Ukraine, but the odds they’ll meet anything but betrayal from Moscow are very dim.

Does Putin really want to annex Eastern Ukraine? It’s not clear to me that he does. It’s very clear that the Russian state wanted Crimea, and was willing to risk war for it. It’s not so clear that Moscow will risk war for Eastern Ukraine, which does have valuable resources and major industrial installations, but lacks Crimea’s easily-sealed entry points.

The alternatives here, for Moscow, are not either outright annexation or total disengagement. It’s naïve to think that Moscow has to say a simple yes or no to the militias fighting in Russia’s name in Donetsk and Sloviansk. The history of Great-Power politics shows that in many cases, it’s much more useful to leave a disputed, ethnically-mixed area festering, giving your proxies there just enough weaponry, money, and moral support to keep them bleeding the occupying enemy.

Kashmir is the classic example in the contemporary world. Does Pakistan really want to take Kashmir, with its hopelessly messy, complex, bloody feuds, into Pakistan proper? Officially, yes; and in the minds of the millions of Pakistani nationalists, of course it does. But for the ISI, the intelligence agents who run the country, it’s much more useful to have Kashmir as a goad, an irritant, a reliable source of nationalist rage and suicide volunteers, than it would be to march in and try to govern the place.

So, despite the valid grievances of the Eastern Ukrainian Russian community, despite all the nationalist rage Putin is stirring up among nationalists in Russia proper, the Russian government may let Eastern Ukraine’s Russian militias be ground down by troops, tanks, and aircraft from Kyiv.

Not wiped out—that would be a waste of potentially useful proxies. But decimated, occupied, and humiliated. A population in that condition is as useful to a Great Power as Kashmir’s Muslims are to Pakistan.
Brecher goes on to point out that the United States did exactly the same thing to the Kurds and the Shia in Iraq when we encouraged them to rebel against Saddam Hussein, then watched in feigned helplessness as Saddam slaughtered the rebels who reasonably believed we would come to their aid.

This is how world politics actually works. The problem today is that as the world becomes increasingly connected and as our problems become global in scope, this sort of coldhearted gamesmanship is increasingly dangerous to everyone.

At a certain point the world is going to realize that nation-states cannot continue playing these sorts of games with people's lives in pursuit of "national interests." We are going to need a post-Westphalian system sooner rather than alter. Both conservative and left-libertarian pundits who imagine that only one side or one country is to blame for most of the world's ills, and who worship nation-state borders as if they were sacred lines not to be infringed by another nation-state (except for America, in neoconservative fantasyland) as a matter of near ritual impurity, are increasingly anachronistic, irrelevant, and actually damaging to the interests of long-suffering peoples worldwide.