Russia Needs to Recognise the Independence of Ukraine

By David Marples**, Visegrad Insight

Should the Western world and specifically its most powerful entity, the United States of America, abandon its support for Ukraine and acknowledge Russian hegemony over its western neighbours?
In September 2019, US diplomat John Evans wrote an eloquent article for National Interest that I found intriguing. Entitled “Understanding Vladimir Putin,” it argues that Putin is a normal Russian politician representing what long have been Russian interests. It considers that the expansion of NATO eastward after the collapse of the USSR was a disastrous policy and that the offer to Ukraine and Georgia to begin the process to join the alliance in 2008 was even worse.

The author believes—correctly, I think— that it is a mistake to perceive Putin as the root of all United States’ problems with Russia. Earlier, he outlines his perceptions of Putin during his time as a diplomat in St. Petersburg. His comments here are relevant and important. His later comments, however, are more perturbing.

Russian red line

On Ukraine, he writes that “We must reckon with the fact that Crimea will not return to Ukrainian jurisdiction, and that Ukraine’s joining NATO would cross a Russian red line.”

Concerning Russia’s occupation of Crimea, he states that:

Russia holds the power cards, and physical possession is at least nine-tenths of international law. Moscow will simply refuse to discuss the question of Crimea’s return to Ukrainian jurisdiction, but Russia needs cooperation on such issues as transportation and securing the water supply, while Ukraine needs cooperation on navigation and other matters; thus, there is something to talk about.

On the Donbas specifically, he asks: “Is some form of federalisation such an improper concept for a country so enormously diverse as Ukraine? It works for Canada, with its historically deep division, and for the United States and the Russian Federation. It ought at least to be considered.”

In this regard, he supports the efforts of the French and German presidents in reviving the Minsk Protocols and likewise the efforts of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky in seeking to reach some agreement with Russia.

Independent existence

I have heard similar arguments before, including at a panel at American Society for Slavic, Eurasian, and East European Studies (ASEEES) in Washington, DC in 2016, when one speaker argued that Ukraine did not have the right to conduct a foreign policy that was separate from Russia because it would result in conflict.

Others, including scholars such as John Mearsheimer and Stephen B. Cohen, have stated that it is not in the interests of the United States to support Ukraine in its conflict with Russia.

In this regard, it follows that President Barack Obama was correct in refusing to send destructive weapons to Ukraine in 2014-16, and, conversely, President Donald Trump was mistaken in doing so—ironically Trump is often depicted as being too close to Putin but in this instance, his actions speak louder than his words.

Two questions that I would ask John and others are the following: does Ukraine have the right to independent existence within the borders universally accepted in 1991? Should the United States, Russia and the United Kingdom adhere to the agreement (Memorandum on Security Assurances in Connection with Ukraine’s Accession to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons) they made in Budapest to guarantee these same borders after Ukraine gave up its Soviet-era nuclear weapons to Russia in 1994?

Dangers of suicidal nationalism

At this time, a state that had been in existence for less than three years rendered itself vulnerable to predatory neighbours on the assurance that other, more powerful states would protect it. One should recall the first two clauses of the Memorandum:

  1. The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America reaffirm their commitment to Ukraine, in accordance with the principles of the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine;
  2. The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America reaffirm their obligation to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine, and that none of their weapons will ever be used against Ukraine except in self-defence or otherwise in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations;

Perhaps that decision was an unusual one because previously, US policy had been notable for its support of the positions of Soviet and Russian leaders Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, and President George H.W. Bush had warned Ukraine of the dangers of “suicidal nationalism” during a 1991 speech in Kyiv. But as far as nuclear disarmament was concerned it set an important precedent.

Ukraine had nothing to do with decisions of NATO to bomb Belgrade in 1999—which was mentioned in John’s article—and its support for the NATO Membership Action Plan in 2008 emanated from an unpopular president, Viktor Yushchenko, rather than its population, which at that time opposed it strongly.

Policy realignment

Calls for the realignment of US policy on Ukraine and Russia, which essentially is what this article is advocating, with the evident support of Ambassador Matlock, Mearsheimer, and others, is tantamount to recognising the legitimacy of Russia’s appeals for influence over former Soviet territories, in an empire that was always held together by force or the threat of force.

It also implies that Russia was the successor state of the Soviet Union, which to me seems an equally erroneous conclusion. The Soviet Union collapsed like a house struck by an earthquake, not least because parts of that house no longer considered themselves part of the structure. They formed new entities according to the will of their populations and for the most part on a democratic basis, led by Russia and with the general support of the West.

Yet, some US statespersons appear to believe it is permissible for Russia – if not to resurrect the house – to take some form of control or hegemony over these new states, which in some cases like Ukraine have moved well away from Russia over the past three decades. Mearsheimer makes the comparison between the US Monroe Doctrine in its Canadian and Mexican context with justified Russian hegemony over Ukraine.

The occupation of Crimea and the fomentation of a protracted war in the Donbas may have had some local support, but there is no evidence whatsoever even in the most war-torn areas of the east that a majority of the population would wish or prefer to live under Russian rule.

And if one takes these conclusions further, would one really expect Ukraine to survive by giving up more territory or making concessions to the aggressor?

Either the US needs to recognise the territorial integrity of the states that were part of the USSR but remain outside EU borders or else acceded to a renewed world order that gives Russia free rein to use its powerful army to determine the future of eastern Europe. Might is right, in other words, which is very close to what John Evans is stating about the future of Crimea.

If the United States supports the next phase of the Minsk Accords that began with the new talks in Paris—though it is not taking part— then it is logical to stress that there can be no new elections, no new structure for the Donbas, without full Ukrainian control over its original borders. There is also no reason why Ukraine should accept the loss of Crimea or for that matter why the UN should not protest the abuses of Tatar rights by the Russian authorities and the nuclear buildup now taking place on occupied territory.

Which is the correct map of Europe: that of 1945 or that of 1991?

Lastly, I do not disagree with the comment that it is naïve to regard Putin as the whole problem, and the Russian leader’s attitudes and positions are flexible and never constant. On the other hand, he reflects a deep belief among some in the country that historically, culturally, and ethnically, there is no difference between Russia and Ukraine (or for that matter, Belarus). He has said as much on many occasions. Moreover, Putin has almost complete authority over decision-making in Russia.

When the leader of Russia, a leading military power, does not recognise the independence of neighbouring states then, if ignored by the rest of the world, the consequences are, if not inevitable, then highly probable. Ukraine and Belarus, as independent states, would cease to exist.

**A historian and Distinguished University Professor at the Department of History & Classics, University of Alberta as well as an expert at iSANS – the International Strategic Action Network for Security.