The pitfalls of Russia’s plan to rewrite history in Ukraine

After a series of negotiating sessions with the Russian Federation, there is growing suspicion that Putin is looking for an excuse rather than a solution. His gun remains pointed firmly at Ukraine as his cyber warriors test their malware and his spies wander throughout looking to provoke.

There is dwindling hope that diplomacy will bring stability to the troubled region. If it is to succeed, Russia will have to remove the gun and all sides will have to acknowledge the lessons of history and the dangers of violating borders.

The borders of nations in Central and Eastern Europe were drawn initially in the aftermath of World War I, and not with great precision. As Margaret MacMillan graphically describes in “Paris 1919,” the Allied victors pursued their own geopolitical needs. Their decisions on borders were made with a curious admixture of motivations: national interests, personal prejudices; a desire to punish Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire; concern that Bolshevism would exploit weakened economies; past promises made and, most telling, the need to compromise on all of the above.

The three summit leaders (President Woodrow Wilson, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George and French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau) often deferred the most difficult cases to “specialist” commissions, groups that used ethnographic studies to determine where common communities lived. Their work would not have passed peer review muster, as the borders they created left German, Polish, Hungarian, Russian and other minorities in newly formed nation-states.

Ukraine was one of those. Adjustments were made in Central and Eastern Europe after World War II, but Ukraine remained in the Soviet Union until that federated state collapsed in 1991. A 1991 referendum and two international agreements confirm the legal sovereignty of Ukraine.

Russia is one of 57 member countries of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Created initially as a forum for East-West discussions, the OSCE was formalized in 1994 to facilitate peaceful interstate relations in Europe. The immediate challenge was the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union and the creation of new sovereign states.

Acknowledging the multi-ethnic character of several states in the region, the OSCE members agreed to respect sovereign borders and the rights of minorities who lived within those borders to maintain their language and culture. While 77 percent of the people living within Ukraine identify as Ukrainians, the country has a significant Russian population (17 percent) and nine other nationalities.

The second significant agreement was the December 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances. This agreement, signed by the United States, the Russian Federation and the United Kingdom, promised, “security assurances against threats or the use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence” of Ukraine, Belarus and Khazakstan in exchange for the dismantling of their nuclear weapons.

My first visit to Ukraine was in 1992. The country was independent but still very much in alliance with the Russian Federation. I met with then Prime Minister Leonid Kuchma, a former Soviet apparatchik who greeted me by introducing himself as the official who had been in charge of targetting the United States with nuclear warheads. It was a poor attempt at humor!

Kuchma was later elected president. He, like all the former Soviet officials who served in that position, lost the support of the people when their corrupt practices became conspicuous. One could say that opposition to corruption came to unify the otherwise ethnically diverse Ukrainian people.

The Orange Revolution of 2004-05 was about corruption, as was the 2014 Maidan Revolution that ended in violence and the toppling of the pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych. It was clear that the people of Ukraine were fed up with corrupt politicians. Corruption was creating a national movement.

I was a part of the 2014 election observer mission organized by the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute. I visited a small city north of the capital Kyiv, near the Belarus border, some 200 miles from the Russian-speaking Donbass region. The mayor told us that prior to the invasion of Crimea, a dozen Russians visited his city asking questions. They pretended to be tourists, he said, but no one was fooled.

The election went smoothly and the winner, business tycoon Petro Poroshenko, seemed to capture the new mood. It didn’t last long, as allegations of corruption eventually did him in as well. In 2019, he was overwhelmingly defeated by Volodymyr Zelensky, a television comedian who satirized corrupt politicians.

Today, with the exception of the Donbass region and Russia-controlled Crimea, Ukraine is a relatively unified country despite its diversity. Zelensky is struggling to control deep-seated corruption while fighting a debilitating war with his Russian-supported Eastern provinces.

The Russians are making unrealistic demands while threatening a massive invasion of Ukraine with 100,000 troops sitting just over the border. If they invade they will undoubtedly prevail initially, but they will not find it easy to suppress a civil uprising. They will also face debilitating sanctions and a unified European and North American response including a reinforced NATO in the Baltics and elsewhere.

What then can diplomacy yield? The Russians demand that Ukraine (and Georgia) not be allowed to join NATO. On that, NATO cannot yield, but it is unclear whether Ukraine wishes to join and is highly doubtful that they would receive the required unanimous vote to join if they did. Beyond that, there are other security issues where agreement is possible: military exercises could be announced in advance and reduced in size; short and intermediate-range nuclear agreements could be revived and a variety of confidence-building measures could be discussed.

This assumes, of course, that Russia wants to stabilize the region as opposed to finding an excuse to invade Ukraine and reimpose control over increasingly restless former Soviet states.

My fear is that American hawks — those who say that the Russians will only respect military might — will see diplomacy as weakness, as solely a means to make concessions.  On the contrary, an arrangement that will save a democratic Ukraine and stabilize the European theater would be well worth the effort.

A violation of borders could encourage minorities in other nations to agitate to change borders and return to their ethnic homes. That and a Cold War between nuclear powers are poor substitutes for diplomacy. No one should want to see Europe descend once again into a series of conflicts over borders.

The ball is now in Putin’s court. Let us hope that he will appreciate the costs his nation will incur for the “privilege” of trying to control a Ukrainian society united in its opposition to corruption and its support for freedom.

J. Brian Atwood is a visiting scholar at the Watson Institute at Brown University. He served as undersecretary of State and administrator of USAID in the Clinton administration. He led the U.S. delegation to the OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting in Warsaw, Poland in September/October 2014, seven months after the Russian invasion of Crimea. 

Tags International relations Leonid Kuchma Petro Poroshenko Presidents of Ukraine Putin Russia–Ukraine relations Russo-Ukrainian War Ukraine Vladimir Putin Volodymyr Zelensky Woodrow Wilson

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