Ukraine: What’s Next?

The Kremlin perceives President Obama’s post-modern confusion in the foreign policy field and self-confessed lack of strategy as a general symptom of the ongoing emasculation of the West. That perception feeds neatly into Moscow’s propaganda campaign about the United States as the home not of the free and the brave, but the enfeebled and the gay. Let’s prove him wrong.  Weakness is a recipe for aggression.


By Marek Jan Chodakiewicz l September 23, 2014

The parliament in Kyiv has just signed a bill granting autonomy to Lukhansk and Donetsk regions in the southeast of Ukraine as Russian President Vladimir Putin indicated was his wish. To sweeten the deal the Ukrainian legislature also voted to associate its nation with the European Union. This suggests a return to the traditional policy of subservience to Russia and cooperation with the West, a fence-straddling posture pursued by Kyiv since independence nearly 25 years ago. Putin got what he wanted, while the West remains rudderless under the Obama administration.

Ukraine’s legacy of freedom has been a mixed one. Externally, the Ukrainians have tugged at the leash binding them to Moscow. Occasionally, they would appear at a cusp of winning more room to maneuver but then the Kremlin noose would tighten again, as is the case with the most recent crisis. The West meanwhile has engaged gingerly with Ukraine mostly for energy policy reasons to assure smooth transit of gas and oil from the Russian Federation. Internally, although the realm is mired in pathological corruption, with the oligarchs paralyzing parasitically the Ukrainian political and economic system, a stupendous cultural and national restoration has bloomed in western parts and made serious inroads in the center and east of the country. As a result, even many Russian speakers consider themselves Ukrainian now, and they have taken up arms to prove it. Conversely, others, in the east, fight to prevent themselves to be submerged in the Ukrainian nationhood.

The latest Ukrainian imbroglio is an instructive case study of crisis management. Moscow took advantage of an ultimately failed, if spirited Ukrainian attempt to free itself from Russia’s overlordship and moved to reintegrate its empire. Not pleased with indirect control, which was badly compromised during the Maidan nationalist revolution in Kyiv, the Kremlin first seized Crimea and then fomented and capitalized on a separatist rebellion in the south-east of the nation. Initially, it appeared that Putin would be satiated with the peninsula. Here he considered the Kaliningrad solution, where a sea coast enclave exists as an integral part of the Russian Federation, albeit with its borders abutting Poland and Lithuania. The Kaliningrad region remains viable and unchallenged even though it lacks direct access to Russia.  This could have possibly been the status of Crimea, for a spell at least.

However, Putin changed his mind because there was no firm Western reaction to his expansionism and because the Ukrainian government put up hardly any resistance to Moscow’s Crimean adventure. Neither the West nor Kyiv progressed beyond mere words and gestures. Since imperialism is often a question of opportunity, Putin has resorted to another tested option. Since the Ukrainians failed to see his magnanimity in seizing just Crimea and failed cravenly to beg for him to keep it, but, instead, annoyed him with their impotent protestations, the Russian president resolved to implement the Transnistria solution. There would be a de facto independent state within Ukraine. Now Kyiv is saddled with two Muscovite client statelets on its extremities: Moldova’s Transnistria and Donetsk-Lukhansk, the latter abutting the Russian Federation.

Is this the end? Not necessarily. Please keep in mind that to secure Crimea fully one needs a land bridge. The peninsula depends on the mainland for energy, water, and other supplies. Troubles around the contested port city of Mariupol will be a good indicator whether the ceasefire holds. Separatist demonstrations in Kharkiv, Odessa and elsewhere in north-eastern Ukraine would be another. Putin also has the South Ossetian solution up his sleeve. Once part of Georgia, South Ossetia became incorporated into the Russian Federation following a brief war between Moscow and Tibilisi in August 2009. And the West did nothing. It is doubtful that the reaction will be different if Lukhansk and Donetsk regions are incorporated into the Russian Motherland.

However, at this stage of the great game of reintegrating the empire, it seems that the Kremlin has received what it wants, if there are no more excuses to improve on the achievement. The Ukrainians need to know their place, so as not to annoy Moscow any further. And that depends on whether the government of President Poroshenko and Premier Yatsyniuk is capable of reigning in the radical nationalists who are armed and livid at the betrayal of their cause. They want to continue fighting, a rather hopeless attitude. The durability of the Transnistrian solution also depends on the West’s willingness to deter the Kremlin’s future aggression. Here is a laundry list of what we can do:

  • Establish bases in the Baltics, Romania, Bulgaria, and Poland;
  • Arm Ukraine with conventional weapons and train its security and armed forces purged of the post-Soviet brass;
  • Establish and boost satellite TV programs to beam Western propaganda into the post-Soviet zone, in particular in Russian;
  • Counter the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign in the West;
  • Freeze (gradually and selectively) all private and public assets of Russian origin in Western banks and financial institutions;
  • Transfer to Poland enriched uranium for a nuclear device (like we did for Japan in the 1960s when China was at its most belligerent); and,
  • Supply Europe with U.S. gas and oil.

This plan should have been implemented right after Putin occupied Crimea. He might not have budged from the peninsula. But he would have known that we meant business. For the only thing that he reads loud and clear is resolve. The Kremlin perceives President Obama’s post-modern confusion in the foreign policy field and self-confessed lack of strategy as a general symptom of the ongoing emasculation of the West. That perception feeds neatly into Moscow’s propaganda campaign about the United States as the home not of the free and the brave, but the enfeebled and the gay. Let’s prove him wrong.  Weakness is a receipt for aggression.


Marek Jan Chodakiewicz is a Professor of History at the Institute of World Politics, A Graduate School of National Security and International Affairs in Washington, DC, where he also holds the Kościuszko Chair in Polish Studies. Professor Chodakiewicz is author of Intermarium: The Land between the Black and Baltic Seas. He is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.