America is trapped. It cannot abandon its current policy toward Ukraine without appearing to offer Russia an undeserved victory, yet it also cannot continue its current policy because it enhances internal divisions that stoke popular frustration and anger toward America.
It is also worth asking whether such a policy is morally justifiable, given that it has resulted in the gutting of Ukrainian industry, and the country’s descent into the ranks of Europe’s poorest nations. This decline has been accompanied by a devastating loss of population and an annual exodus, before the current pandemic, of nine million Ukrainians seeking seasonal work abroad. As Ukrainian political analyst Ruslan Bortnik points out, more than half of Ukraine’s 2021 budget is slated to pay off external creditors, while the percentage going to social services has fallen by half in the past six years.
It is these harsh realities that have led to the resurgence of pro-Russian parties in Ukraine, despite all the support that the West has given to those in Ukraine who oppose better ties with Russia.
Now, as a result, the West is trapped. It cannot abandon its current policy toward Ukraine without appearing to offer Russia an undeserved victory, yet it also cannot continue its current policy because it enhances internal divisions that stoke popular frustration and anger toward the West, the ultimate beneficiary of which would again be Russia. This conundrum is further exacerbated by the fact that reabsorbing the rebel-held portions of Donbass back into Ukraine would further shift political sympathies in the country toward improving relations with Russia, all more so if Crimea were to return to Ukraine.
In this convoluted situation, it may make sense for America to step back and avoid the temptation to take sides in political, cultural, and religious debates for temporary foreign policy advantage. This was the approach that George Kennan advised taking toward Russia after its liberation from communism. “Let them work out their internal problems in their own manner,” Kennan wrote, for “the ways by which people advance towards dignity and enlightenment in government are things that constitute the deepest and most intimate processes of national life. There is nothing less understandable to foreigners, nothing in which foreign influence can do less good.”
The advocates of Western interventions in Ukrainian affairs will probably object that this leaves the playing field entirely to Russia. I would hope that Ukraine is more than just a playing field for foreign interests and suggest that it is high time to trust in the good sense of all Ukrainians, including those who see their Russian cultural heritage as fully compatible with a Ukrainian civic identity. Treating the latter as potential traitors, a “Fifth Column,” as many Ukrainian and Western officials are, sadly, still wont to do, can only undermine their sense of attachment to Ukraine, to the point that no amount of Western support will suffice to restore it.
Published at nationalinterest.org