Commentary / World

Stepping back from the edge

by William Pfaff

What has the past year of war inside Ukraine been about? The night of the coup or putsch in Kiev, a member of the Ukrainian Parliament called for a law prohibiting the use of the Russian language in Ukraine — a supremely stupid act, quickly repudiated by his fellows. But was this what the Ukrainian-language majority sought, and for which it had obtained the support of the United States government? Certainly not.

On the other hand, was the war the debut of a Russian offensive, as Washington claimed, meant to produce the annexation to modern Russia Crimea and other territories that once belonged to Imperial Russia at the height of its extent and power? A certain number of people in Washington think that this is what Russian President Vladimir Putin intended, even though this would seem a large and extraordinarily dangerous undertaking in the face of NATO opposition.

A Russian acquaintance of mine has argued that the American-promoted coup in Kiev in February 2014, overturning the government of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, was really aimed at Putin. It was meant to provide for Russia the example of a liberal and pro-Western government, inspiring an eventual new democratic “Maidan” uprising by the Russian people, deposing Putin and led — why not? — by the late Boris Nemtsov. This suggestion occurred in a conversation several years ago.

The immense demonstration inspired in Moscow by Nemtsov’s murder suggests that he would have been a plausible candidate to lead such an uprising, but the opinion mostly expressed in Moscow now is that he had lost favor. But then, when since the revolution of 1917-18 have the people changed the course of Russian events? And that was not a popular movement by the “masses” but a violent seizure of power by a revolutionary cabal of intellectuals.

Countries on Russia’s margins now fear a conspiracy on the part of minorities of Russian loyalists in one or more Baltic states, possibly with the assistance of those little green men who appeared in Crimea and the Russian-speaking east of Ukraine to help overturn Ukrainian institutions and install new pro-Russian authorities.

Polish and Baltic leaders seem convinced that Putin remains combative, and they are anxious over the parlous possibilities suggested by their national histories and situation on the Baltic. All were occupied and controlled successively by the Red Army and the Nazis during most of World War II. And after the war they experienced decades of totalitarian occupation by the Soviet Union.

Their pre-20th century experience is intertwined with the Russian Empire as well. Estonia and parts of Latvia passed from Swedish domination to Russian in the early 18th century. The rest of Latvia, Lithuania and much of and Poland went to the Russian Empire later in that century. (It is not widely known in the English-speaking nations that the Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth once ruled an empire from the Baltic to the Black Sea, including what are today the Baltic states, Poland, Belarus, Ukraine and parts of Russia.)

The fortunes of all were settled in the mid-20th century by the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in 1939, by which Poland was split between Germany and the Soviet Union, and the Baltic states were awarded to the latter. For the Baltics, this meant sizable population transfers from Russia for industrial and political reasons. Today a third of Latvia’s population remains Russian-speaking and half is native Latvian. Estonia is nearly 70 percent Estonian and more than a quarter Russian. Lithuania is over 80 percent Lithuanian with Russian and Polish minorities.

But what real gain would the seizure of a Baltic nation give Putin, other than to test, and possibly discredit, the NATO Article 5 guarantee of all NATO states’ independence?

Perhaps that guarantee would not be discredited. Article 5 is not necessarily atomic. The Baltic (and Polish) democrats must count on rescue by conventional means. Would the 173rd Airborne Brigade, already assigned to the region to train existing national forces, be enough to frighten off the Russians? It is an admirable unit, but at a disadvantage of size versus the Russian Army, and the Baltic states are not located where Western forces could readily be reinforced, even if the political will existed to do so — which may be doubted.

NATO Poland is close, and quixotic, and it bears a terrific grudge against Russia. It is geographically buttressed by Germany, but Germany has already made it clear that it will not fight for Ukraine, and therefore not for Latvia, Lithuania or Estonia. The German Army is, in any case, not since 1945 a war-fighting army. The U.S. Army is, but with the U.S. Army comes the nuclear threat, and the American Congress, though filled with bluster as it is, might draw the line at that. Even the Bush dynasty might.

The Ukraine ceasefire negotiated last month, after the intervention of German and French leaders, and the talks in Belarus that followed, with Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko participating, seems to be holding. The front between the Ukrainian Army and the Russian-supported insurgents who hold part of eastern Ukraine has gone quiet and arrangements continue to make it permanent.

The turbulence and foolhardy adventures visible on both sides have for the present stopped. They should stop for good before something really bad happens.

There is a solution, which is to leave well enough alone. The U.S. should state that NATO will accept no new member. Brussels should propose that Ukraine join both the European Union and the Central Asian trade community that Putin has initiated, and all sanctions should be ended.

Based in Paris, American journalist William Pfaff frequently writes on foreign affairs. © 2015 Tribune Content Agency

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