Exemplary bravery has placed the Ukrainian people on the cusp of achieving, for real, the independence it had gained from the Soviet Union’s breakup in 1992 mostly as a formality. Should they succeed, they will do the world a major geopolitical favor, as well as earn freedom for themselves. Securing this independence, though, will require undoing Stalin’s longest-lasting legacy to Ukraine: borders that he drew as a “poison pill.”
The uncontested dominance of Western and central Ukraine’s streets by fighters who are the tearful toast of a grateful nation, the Moscow-puppet president’s eastward flight for his life after being abandoned by the army commanders as well as by much of his party, the abandonment of the capital by members of Parliament from the Eastern regions, the hero’s welcome that the nation accorded to opposition leader Yulia Timoshenko on her release from prison, all suggest that bringing Ukraine back under Russia’s heel by force majeure is now out of the question.
Unfortunately for the Ukrainians and for the rest of us, it may yet be possible for Russia to maneuver the situation to preserve long-term options for subverting Ukraine. For this, Russia would need the West’s collaboration to maintain the current borders. American diplomacy should give the opposite.
Stalin drew the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic’s borders to place a strong minority of ethnic Russians into the same jurisdiction as ethnic Ukrainians. He did this to prevent a disruptively Ukrainian identity within the Soviet Union. If Ukraine ever tried to revolt, Moscow could always use strife between ethnic Ukrainians on the country’s Western side and ethnic Russians on the Eastern end to bring it to heel. In fact, ever since Ukraine declared independence in 1991, Russia has fomented strife to try reabsorbing the country. Ukrainian-speaking Ukrainian Catholics want an independent Ukraine. Russian speaking Russian-Orthodox Ukrainians want one tied to Moscow. There is no reconciling the two.
In short, saving Ukraine from its Stalinist legacy will have to mean splitting the country.
That would require, first of all, convincing the Ukrainian speakers to sacrifice impossible dreams of grandeur to the reality that amputation is essential to saving themselves. It also will require holding off Moscow’s full-court press to preserve the borders, and with them the capacity to meddle in the future.
To this end, Russia is opposing Russo-Ukrainians’ desire simply to join Russia. Instead, the Putin regime is making none-to-veiled threats to scare the West into helping convince the Ukrainian people to accept something like a “coalition government of national unity.” This would give Moscow the chance to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
America’s interest comes down to geopolitics 101. So long as Ukraine is independent, Russia remains one European power among others. The moment Russia reabsorbs Ukraine, it becomes the center of an empire able to overawe Europe and to project power around the world. Russia’s current regime aims at restoring as much of the Soviet Union as possible. For America, few things would be worse. Ukraine’s independence is the key to making sure these things do not happen. Period.
For Eastern and Central Europe, the stakes are direct and vital. Russian reabsorption of Ukraine would put into question the Baltic states’ independence, as well as that of Bulgaria and Romania. It would instantly expose the bluff that NATO’s 1996 admission of these countries always was. Poland itself is back into its historic bind. Geopolitical common sense should move the West to support the formation of an unambiguously Western-oriented Ukraine.
Unfortunately, Western diplomacy is moving once again to accommodate what is Russia’s top foreign policy priority. However, after last week’s events, Russia no longer has the option of crushing Ukraine’s independence by violence. Its Ukrainian allies have been routed, and Russia does not come close to having any of what it would take to occupy Ukraine. Diplomacy is all Vladimir Putin has left. In that, he once again is showing his superiority over the incompetent, small people who pretend to govern the West.
Thus, German chancellor Angela Merkel needed only one phone call from Mr. Putin publicly to second his wish that Ukraine’s “territorial integrity must be respected.” Susan Rice, who assured the world that a video had been responsible for the murder of a U.S. ambassador in Benghazi, opined officially, “It’s not in the interests of Ukraine or of Russia or of Europe or of the United States to see the country split” — perhaps in ignorance that this means U.S. support for Stalin’s legacy, perhaps not. Instead, she proposed the U.S. default prescription: a “coalition government of national unity.” As ever, a guarantee of chaos.
It is difficult indeed to misread the geopolitical stakes in Ukraine, or to ignore the area’s history. The current crop of Western leaders is doing just that, though. Mr. Putin is a semi-literate thug rather than a statesman. Still, he is proving to be head and shoulders more worthy of respect than they.
If Ukraine manages to free itself from Russia, if the world’s geopolitical map becomes less menacing for all, it will be only thanks to some ordinary Ukrainians who, mindful of the many millions of their fellow citizens murdered by Russians in living memory, are fighting for their own freedom.
Angelo M. Codevilla is professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University and author of the forthcoming To Make Peace Among Ourselves And With All Nations (Hoover Institution Press).