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Deescalate Conflict in Ukraine


Tucker Carlson has ruthlessly mocked President Joe Biden, neocon intellectuals, war-mongering politicians, and liberal media elites who have been beating the drum for conflict with Russia over Ukraine. Carlson’s mockery appears to be hitting the mark. American rhetoric has been so intense about the imminence of a Russian invasion of Ukraine that the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, has called for President Biden to tone down his rhetoric. The American strategy in Ukraine has severely underestimated Russian concerns, capabilities, and motivation, neglected the realistic interests of Ukraine, and can be counted among one of our numerous foreign policy failures in the post-Cold War world.

When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, prospects for cooperating with the West were bright. But the economic collapse and subsequent rise of the oligarchs in Russia, along with the policies of the West that focused on incorporating many of the successor states of the Soviet Union into the EU and the NATO created an environment that led many in Russia to be skeptical about the benevolence of the unfolding new world order. The uncertainty of Russia’s eventual path led many to seek strategic gains where they might.

The expansion of NATO proceeded, and the alienation of Russia from the West followed suit.

Ukraine occupied a complex space in this new world order. Many in the country looked toward the West as a model of prosperity, and Russia as a fragment of a failed Soviet legacy. As with so many hopeful and simple visions, reality challenged Ukraine’s exodus to the West. First, substantial numbers of Ukrainians were ethnically or culturally Russian. Second, the founding of the modern state of Ukraine posed some difficult security problems for Ukraine and Russia. Would Ukraine become a nuclear-armed state? How would the Black Sea fleet be divided, and what would major naval bases’ status in the region be? What would be the relationship between an independent Ukraine and Russia?

Ukraine denuclearized in exchange for Russia’s recognition of its borders. It agreed to give Russia over eighty percent of the Black Sea Fleet and rent the Crimean naval bases to Russia for initially twenty years, renewing the lease for 32 more years in 2010 in exchange for discount pricing of Russian natural gas. Ukraine became a founding member of the Commonwealth of Independent States established by Russia to coordinate the economic and political cooperation of former members of the Soviet Union, but Ukraine never ratified the treaty.

Up until the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea, most Ukrainians held favorable attitudes toward Russia. Russia was Ukraine’s most important trading partner. In 2004, the Orange Revolution opened the door to political leaders who aspired for Ukraine to become more strongly integrated with the West. The victory of Victor Yanukovych in 2010 placed into power a leader more sympathetic to the Russian Federation, and his rejection of an agreement with the European Union in favor of a deal with Russia spurred political protests. Yanukovych responded to the riots with police, and over 100 people were killed. Various theories about the motives and identities of snipers associated with the deaths were and are bandied about.

The heavy hand of Yanukovych’s government failed to end opposition to his policies, and the Euromaidan movement, as it would later be called, succeeded in pushing him out of Western Ukraine and establishing a new government dedicated to cultivating better relations with the West at the expense of ties with Russia. Russian intransigence about Ukraine’s modest moves toward the West contributed to anti-Russian sentiments.

The Americans played a significant role in encouraging anti-Russian sentiment. The American ambassador to Ukraine, Victoria Nuland was famously caught on tape opining whom she believed should and should not be part of the new Ukrainian government, and later vulgarly dismissed the concerns of Angela Merkel about the inappropriateness of her comments. The Europeans understood the dangers of provoking the Russians better than the Americans.


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