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Editorial: Understanding the history and realities of Ukraine, Russia, and Crimea

Editorial: Understanding the history and realities of Ukraine, Russia, and Crimea

Image: Jesse Lyles (right) and Eric Yollick summited Mount Elbrus, North Caucasus Mountains, Russia, on July 20, 2014. Mount Elbrus, at 18,510 feet, is the highest point in Europe and one of the Earth’s Seven Summits. They were in that region in the midst of political and military conflict.

Eric Yollick, Editor-in-Chief, The Golden Hammer

On March 5, 2014, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger wrote an article, brilliant as always, about Russia’s relationship with Ukraine. Every American should read the article he wrote eight years ago. It follows at the end of this article.

At the time the article came out, I focused my life largely on my profession and on mountain climbing. I took the opportunity to climb the high point of Europe, Mount Elbrus, at 18,510 feet, which I summited on July 20, 2014.

I flew to Moscow and met a group with whom I climbed and traveled for the next two weeks. My friend and climbing partner, Jesse Lyles, and I visited some of the sights in Moscow, including Red Square, Lenin’s Tomb (which we thought was a bit funny), and the Kremlin. We then flew with the group to Mineralnye Vody in southwestern Russia and then drove down to Cheget right on Russia’s border with Georgia. We saw some of the richest and oldest agricultural land in the world, the origin of the Hittite culture just north of the Caucasus Mountains. We also saw a lot of tanks, military roadblocks, and Russian troops brandishing their machine guns at everyone appearing at the military checkpoints.

When we arrived in Cheget, the first thing we noticed was how the Russian military was everywhere. They were training and we often heard gunfire while we climbed in the area. We spoke to several Russian soldiers, who told us they were training for military operations around Crimea and Ukraine. Russia had annexed Crimea only four months earlier on March 18, 2014. While we were at base camp on Mount Elbrus, military forces in Eastern Ukraine shot down a passenger plane flying over Ukraine on July 17, 2014.

While it took us four days to acclimate at and above the base camp, on the summit day, we got up around 11 p.m., began climbing around 12:15 a.m., and reached the summit by a few minutes before 7 a.m. It was the worst weather in which I’ve ever climbed with driving snow and sleet almost the entire climb until we were within a few hundred feet of the summit, when the sun finally popped out.

As climbers usually do, we came down the mountain as fast as we could. We were ready for hot food and a celebration. We almost ran through the base camp, gathered our gear, and were back in the town of Cheget by dinner time, after spending five days on the mountain.

I took the opportunity to talk to many Russian people about President Vladimir Putin and Russian politics. At the time, they seemed to adore Putin. The Russians with whom I spoke almost unanimously expressed their support for his efforts to pull Crimea and Ukraine back into the Russian Federation. Their hatred for Mikhail Gorbachev seemed endless. As for American politicians, they told me many times that Ronald Reagan was “the devil” and that they loved the “realism of Ron Paul.”

At that time, the Russian people, especially in western Russia as well as in St. Petersburg (where I spent the last four days of the trip), solidly backed Putin’s effort to pull Ukraine and Crimea back into the Russian “empire.”

The following article by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger appeared in The Washington Post on March 5, 2014 under the heading, “To settle the Ukraine crisis, start at the end.” Kissinger accurately predicted where the world stands today, as the military invasion by Russia of Ukraine has become a reality.

Henry A. Kissinger was secretary of state from 1973 to 1977.

Public discussion on Ukraine is all about confrontation. But do we know where we are going? In my life, I have seen four wars begun with great enthusiasm and public support, all of which we did not know how to end and from three of which we withdrew unilaterally. The test of policy is how it ends, not how it begins.

Far too often the Ukrainian issue is posed as a showdown: whether Ukraine joins the East or the West. But if Ukraine is to survive and thrive, it must not be either side’s outpost against the other — it should function as a bridge between them.

Russia must accept that to try to force Ukraine into a satellite status, and thereby move Russia’s borders again, would doom Moscow to repeat its history of self-fulfilling cycles of reciprocal pressures with Europe and the United States.

The West must understand that, to Russia, Ukraine can never be just a foreign country. Russian history began in what was called Kievan-Rus. The Russian religion spread from there. Ukraine has been part of Russia for centuries, and their histories were intertwined before then. Some of the most important battles for Russian freedom, starting with the Battle of Poltava in 1709 , were fought on Ukrainian soil. The Black Sea Fleet — Russia’s means of projecting power in the Mediterranean — is based by long-term lease in Sevastopol, in Crimea. Even such famed dissidents as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Joseph Brodsky insisted that Ukraine was an integral part of Russian history and, indeed, of Russia.

The European Union must recognize that its bureaucratic dilatoriness and subordination of the strategic element to domestic politics in negotiating Ukraine’s relationship to Europe contributed to turning a negotiation into a crisis. Foreign policy is the art of establishing priorities.

The Ukrainians are the decisive element. They live in a country with a complex history and a polyglot composition. The Western part was incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1939 , when Stalin and Hitler divided up the spoils. Crimea, 60 percent of whose population is Russian , became part of Ukraine only in 1954 , when Nikita Khrushchev, a Ukrainian by birth, awarded it as part of the 300th-year celebration of a Russian agreement with the Cossacks. The west is largely Catholic; the east largely Russian Orthodox. The west speaks Ukrainian; the east speaks mostly Russian. Any attempt by one wing of Ukraine to dominate the other — as has been the pattern — would lead eventually to civil war or break up. To treat Ukraine as part of an East-West confrontation would scuttle for decades any prospect to bring Russia and the West — especially Russia and Europe — into a cooperative international system.

Ukraine has been independent for only 23 years; it had previously been under some kind of foreign rule since the 14th century. Not surprisingly, its leaders have not learned the art of compromise, even less of historical perspective. The politics of post-independence Ukraine clearly demonstrates that the root of the problem lies in efforts by Ukrainian politicians to impose their will on recalcitrant parts of the country, first by one faction, then by the other. That is the essence of the conflict between Viktor Yanu­kovych and his principal political rival, Yulia Tymo­shenko. They represent the two wings of Ukraine and have not been willing to share power. A wise U.S. policy toward Ukraine would seek a way for the two parts of the country to cooperate with each other. We should seek reconciliation, not the domination of a faction.

Russia and the West, and least of all the various factions in Ukraine, have not acted on this principle. Each has made the situation worse. Russia would not be able to impose a military solution without isolating itself at a time when many of its borders are already precarious. For the West, the demonization of Vladimir Putin is not a policy; it is an alibi for the absence of one.

Putin should come to realize that, whatever his grievances, a policy of military impositions would produce another Cold War. For its part, the United States needs to avoid treating Russia as an aberrant to be patiently taught rules of conduct established by Washington. Putin is a serious strategist — on the premises of Russian history. Understanding U.S. values and psychology are not his strong suits. Nor has understanding Russian history and psychology been a strong point of U.S. policymakers.

Leaders of all sides should return to examining outcomes, not compete in posturing. Here is my notion of an outcome compatible with the values and security interests of all sides:

1. Ukraine should have the right to choose freely its economic and political associations, including with Europe.

2. Ukraine should not join NATO, a position I took seven years ago, when it last came up.

3. Ukraine should be free to create any government compatible with the expressed will of its people. Wise Ukrainian leaders would then opt for a policy of reconciliation between the various parts of their country. Internationally, they should pursue a posture comparable to that of Finland. That nation leaves no doubt about its fierce independence and cooperates with the West in most fields but carefully avoids institutional hostility toward Russia.

4. It is incompatible with the rules of the existing world order for Russia to annex Crimea. But it should be possible to put Crimea’s relationship to Ukraine on a less fraught basis. To that end, Russia would recognize Ukraine’s sovereignty over Crimea. Ukraine should reinforce Crimea’s autonomy in elections held in the presence of international observers. The process would include removing any ambiguities about the status of the Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol.

These are principles, not prescriptions. People familiar with the region will know that not all of them will be palatable to all parties. The test is not absolute satisfaction but balanced dissatisfaction. If some solution based on these or comparable elements is not achieved, the drift toward confrontation will accelerate. The time for that will come soon enough.

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