Ukraine was a confrontation waiting to happen. Many years ago I was sitting on a bench outside Kiev airport when a passerby stopped to admire the elastic-sided Chelsea boots I habitually wore then. The rapture with which he touched the leather and kissed his fingertips told me how highly people in the Soviet Union prized accessories that might be stylish but were common enough in the West. Embarrassed and with nothing to say, I asked if he was Russian. The change was electric. The man placed both his hands, palms facing downwards on his left, and said “Russian”. He then made the same gesture to his right and said “Ukrainian”. Although aware of geographical divisions, I had not realized until then the intense passion that infused individual nationalities. I had unconsciously lumped all Soviet citizens together as Russian.
That was at the micro level whose impact on affairs of state should not be overlooked. It’s the first of three factors to bear on the crisis. What Russia calls its Near Abroad — the 14 countries that went their own way when the Soviet Union disintegrated — is the second. Not long after my Kiev encounter, Andrei Kozyrev, who became Russia’s foreign minister in 1991, gave the term currency. But it was left to Vladimir Putin to emphasize its political and economic content by using Near Abroad interchangeably with “sphere of influence”. The Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation that came into effect in 2010 under the third president and current prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, justifies intervening militarily in the Near Abroad to protect Russian minorities. This was the main reason for the Russo-Georgian war in 2008. Medvedev is on record stating he would “protect the life and dignity of Russian citizens wherever they are”. A Russian passport-holder living in Georgia or Ukraine has exactly the same legal claim on Moscow as a Russian citizen living in Russia.
Americans accuse Moscow of using the Russian-backed zones of Transnistria in Moldova and of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia as political levers to enforce compliance on foreign policy issues. There may be some basis for the further charge that Moscow regards Ukrainian independence as “a temporary phenomenon” pending reintegration. In the words of Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, if Ukrainians and the West don’t resist Putin now, he will “take over district by district, and then eventually dismember Ukraine and impose a government of his choice in Kiev”. The Commonwealth of Independent States, the Slavic Union that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn advocated and the Eurasian Customs Union all tried to salvage something of the shattered unity of the Soviet Union. So in another context was the 53-nation Commonwealth of which India is proud to be a member. A craving to underpin the Near Abroad with institutional bonds need not be equated with expansionism. At various stages in its long and tempestuous history, Russia’s sense of security has drawn on its religious, geopolitical or ideological moorings. Shorn of any other raison d’ętre, Russia has shrunk to a territorial definition with only an ethnic identity.
It’s the third factor — America’s role — that merits far greater attention. I am not talking of the Kremlin’s accusation that the United States of America has been spending $20 million a week on the people who now hold power in Kiev. Nor of various unproven allegations regarding internet facilities, US aid agencies and shadowy billionaires. But the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s relentless eastward march is established fact. The US reportedly assured Mikhail Gorbachev that Nato would not expand “one inch to the east” if he agreed to German reunification. Whether it did or not, the provocation of the Warsaw Pact disappeared in 1991. Yet, Nato’s 12 original members have spiralled to 28. Countries that either border Russia or were formerly under Russian control are now members. Georgia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia and Cyprus are waiting to join. Small wonder Russia feels hemmed in or that its Military Doctrine lists Nato’s expansion, efforts to enlarge the organization’s role (bombing Yugoslavia) and American missile defence systems in Eastern Europe as factors that “undermine global stability and violate the balance of power”.
Brzezinski singled out “the new and important space” of Ukraine as a “critically important geopolitical pivot” for the US as soon as the Soviet Union collapsed. “Without Ukraine Russia ceases to be a geopolitical power”. He probably imparted the pivot concept to Barack Obama at Columbia University. “Ukraine’s loss of independence would have immediate consequences for Central Europe,” he warned. His jeremiads should not be dismissed as only the private nightmare of an octogenarian aristocratic Polish refugee who has been called “the withered mummy of imperialism”. Bill Clinton’s defence secretary, William J. Perry, also confirmed he could not “overestimate the importance of Ukraine as an independent country to the security and stability of all in Europe”. So did the German chancellor, Helmut Kohl, in September 1996. American policymakers see the Washington-Kiev relationship as “a strategic partnership” that would help to realize America’s “manifest destiny”.
The Russian and American self-visions have always been two sides of the same coin. The nation that invented the Monroe Doctrine and enforced it for nearly two centuries can have no difficulty accepting this or understanding why Moscow feels vulnerable. Subsequent US presidents have refined Monroe’s 1823 formulation to assert the right unilaterally to intervene in small Caribbean and South American nations to stabilize their economic affairs (Theodore Roosevelt 1904) and “isolate the Communist menace” (John F. Kennedy 1962). The 1928 Clark Corollary clarified the US didn’t need to hide behind the skirts of the Monroe Doctrine: military intervention was its self-evident right. In 1954 John Foster Dulles specifically targeted the Soviet Union as violator of the Monroe Doctrine, especially in Guatemala.
With US interests extending way beyond the two Americas and Brzezinski exalting the US as the only global superpower ever, John Kerry’s declaration last November that “the era of the Monroe Doctrine is over” acquires particular significance. It could mean not that America’s exclusive watchdog role over the Americas is over but that this protective function now covers the whole world. That would be like Shakespeare’s Henry V assuring the French princess he was courting and whose father he had just defeated at Agincourt that far from being an enemy of France he loved France so much he would not give up a single French village. As Nato marches ahead 23 years after the Warsaw Pact was liquidated, we can hear echoes of Richard Nixon’s triumphant croak when the Soviet Union collapsed, “The time has come for America to reset its geopolitical compass. We have a historic opportunity to change the world.”
They might succeed too, Sunday’s Crimean referendum notwithstanding. Noam Chomsky’s lonely voice denouncing the Monroe Doctrine as a declaration of hegemony and affirmation of the right of unilateral intervention might interest a few scattered radicals without worldly ambition, if any exist. The rest needn’t be enamoured of democracy, mesmerized by human rights or afraid of Soviet oppression to go along with it. Like that Ukrainian who coveted my boots, they yearn for the comforts and conveniences of Western consumerism. Polish plumbers monopolize the trade in London only because European Union membership allows Poles and other East Europeans to travel freely and live in glamorous cities like London and Paris. Ukrainians may like Americans even less than Russians but the cry of “Yankee Go Home — And Take Me With You!”, heard in the Philippines and South Korea, Vietnam and the Dominican Republic, might also resonate in Ukraine. The Cold War isn’t back with a vengeance. It never went away.