Op-ed — by Roger Cohen
A Pro-Russian separatist missile launcher vehicle rides on Feb. 9, 2015 in Uglegorsk, 6 kms southwest of Debaltseve.
MUNICH — The most difficult thing for a communist, it has been observed, is to predict the past. I was reminded of this as I listened to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in full Soviet mode at the Munich Security Conference, suggesting that after World War II it was “the Soviet Union that was against splitting Germany.”
People laughed; they guffawed. Germans recall the Soviet clamp on the east of the country and the Berlin Wall. But in a way Lavrov was right: The Soviet Union would have been quite happy to swallow all of Germany, given the chance.
Today, in similar fashion, President Vladimir Putin’s Russia would be quite happy to absorb all of Ukraine, which it views as an extension of the motherland, an upstart deluded by the West into imagining independent statehood.
Lavrov’s performance here reflected the alternate universe in which the Russian spaceship has docked almost a quarter-century after the collapse of the Soviet Union. George Orwell’s doublethink scarcely begins to describe his assertions.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea was, he insisted, a popular uprising, the people “invoking the right of self-determination” as per the United Nations Charter. Ukrainians were engaged in an orgy of “nationalistic violence” characterized by ethnic purges directed against Jews and Russians. The United States was driven by an insatiable desire for global dominance and, in Ukraine, had orchestrated the “coup d’état” last year that led to the ousting of President Viktor Yanukovych. Europe post-1989 had turned its back on building “the common European house,” declining the prospect of a “free economic zone” from Lisbon to Vladivostok in favor of the expansion of NATO eastward to the doorstep of mother Russia.
Dream on, Sergei.
In fact, the Russian annexation of Crimea tore up by forceful means “the territorial integrity” and “political independence” of Ukraine, in direct violation of Article 2 of the United Nations Charter. It also shredded Russia’s formal commitment under the Budapest Memorandum of 1994 to respect Ukraine’s international borders. The “nationalistic violence” that has again raised issues of war and peace in Europe stems not from Kiev but from Moscow, where Putin has cultivated a preposterous fable of encirclement, humiliation and Western depredation to generate hysteria and buttress Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine.
Similarly, the fascism Lavrov purports to locate in Ukraine through allusions to attacks against Jews and other ethnic groups can in fact be far more persuasively identified back home. Putin has reminded humankind that the idiom fascism knows best is untruth so grotesque it begets unreason. The Russian leader has invoked history the better to turn it into farce. He has persevered in the nonsense that all the Russian forces and matériel in eastern Ukraine are figments of the world’s imagination.
Lavrov’s “coup” in Ukraine was nothing of the sort: It was a popular uprising against a corrupt Russian puppet strong-armed into turning his country away from closer association with the West. Ukrainians are not nuts. They find the allure of Warsaw or Berlin greater than that of sunny Minsk. When they hear “common European house” they translate it as “Soviet imperium.”
Two plus two equals five was a Soviet slogan. It was deployed in 1931 in support of the notion that Stalin’s five-year plan could be completed in four. Two plus two equals five is still the “truth” emanating from Moscow. This is worth recalling in all negotiations over Ukraine.
There was much talk here of a possible Franco-German engineered cease-fire; of there being “no military solution” to the Ukrainian conflict (except, of course, the one Putin has in mind); of the advisability or not for the West of sending weapons to support the Ukrainian government (Chancellor Angela Merkel is opposed); and of the need to be resolute, at least in word.
Resolute-schmesolute: It’s time to get real over Putin. He has not poured tanks and multiple-launch rocket systems over the Ukrainian border because he is about to settle for anything less than a weak Ukraine, sapped by low-level conflict in the Donetsk region, a country with its very own pro-Russian enclave à la Abkhazia or Transnistria, firmly within the Russian sphere of influence: the symbol of his definitive strategic turn away from closer cooperation with the West toward the confrontation that shores him up as oil prices and the currency plunge. He will not let Ukraine go.
There is a language Moscow understands: antitank missiles, battlefield radars, reconnaissance drones. Bolster the Ukrainian Army with them and other arms. Change Putin’s cost-benefit analysis. There are risks but no policy is risk-free. Recall that Ukraine gave up more than 1,800 nuclear warheads in exchange for that bogus commitment from Russia back in 1994 to respect its sovereignty and borders. Surely it has thereby earned the right to something more than night-vision goggles. The West’s current Ukraine diplomacy is long on illusion and short on realism. Two plus two equals four, in war and peace.
International affairs and diplomacy.