The Ukrainian Crisis, Part III: The Deal

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James D. Hardy, Jr., PhD and Leonard J. Hochberg, PhD

In eastern Ukraine disorder bubbles on, violence expands, the subterranean power of militias and the Russian special forces grows, and the authority of the Ukrainian government evaporates.  This has been going on since March 2014, and will continue into May and beyond.  There are two geo-strategic and geo-economic problems with all this.  The first is the growing rot on the ground.  The semi-disintegration of Ukraine is not a good thing for anyone, even Russian President Vladimir Putin.  The second is the weakness and misdirection of the American response to Putin’s dismemberment of Ukraine.  The American response of sanctions is too puny to have any effect and, if stronger, would be the wrong thing.  Still, the rot in Ukraine and stupidity in America can point toward a deal that would work well enough for everyone.  


No one can return the train of time to the station of February, 2014, when Ukraine was territorially intact.  The American administration pretends it can but that silly posturing draws only sneers and snickers.  The Crimea is now Russian and will stay that way.  The five eastern oblasts where disorder and civil war is spreading may well become Russian.  They are in part (15% to 25% or so) ethnically Russian and are predominantly culturally and linguistically Russian.  They are also part of the eastern Russian industrial basin and are the location of current oil and gas exploration.  Finally, Putin clearly thinks of these provinces as properly Russian.

The over-riding geostrategic reality in eastern Ukraine is simply this: absent a world war, no one and nothing can prevent Putin from absorbing eastern Ukraine by annexation or alliance into Russia.  Eastern Ukraine is completely within the Russian sphere of influence.  Even the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 did not alter that reality.  Nothing of significance has changed it since.  The situation in eastern Ukraine is similar to that between China and Macao, or India and Goa, or Russia and Belarus.  The Russians will get what they want.[1]

A wise foreign policy begins with conceding what cannot be prevented – and then extracting what concessions are most desired.  Ukraine is split, with the south and east, from Kharkiv to Crimea going to Russia.  The western part of Ukraine is not predominantly Russian ethnically nor is it Russian speaking.  A diplomatic deal begins with that reality.  The eastern Ukraine joins Russia and the west gets to join the European Union.  Not NATO, Putin would never agree to that, but the E.U., which would provide economic assistance to get the local economy going and provide Europe with a foothold along the northern shore of the Black Sea.

Splitting Ukraine between the Russian east and the more European west is not, certainly, the first policy choice for any diplomat or president.  Tampering with political borders anywhere raises the possibility of doing so everywhere.[2]  A consequential rise in general international insecurity from such a border adjustment threatens to turn the whole world into the Balkans.  A possible deal conceding to Russia what she has already taken and bringing the rest into Europe via an agreement with the E.U. is the least worst position.  It is “Plan B.”  But a least worst position is not by definition either unreasonable nor undesirable.  In this case, a divided Ukraine – provided the border is along the civilizational fault line – between Russia and the west makes sense on every level.  It reduces tensions, encourages economic growth, takes account of real, not artificial, cultural and ethnic borders, increases the chances for Russian-European cooperation, prevents Ukrainian disintegration, and rescues America from another foreign policy blunder.  A partial win, all around.

Everybody gets something and no one gets everything.  The Russians obtain the useful international acquiescence for keeping what they already have and soon will seize.  Ukraine gains internal stability and entrance into a prosperous Europe.  Before March 2014, Ukraine was a bi-cultural country with no internal political legitimacy or administrative coherence.  With the east gone to Russia, western Ukraine can join Europe and build internally a coherent state.  Europe solidifies its eastern border and gains access to Ukraine’s natural resources.  The United States escapes (again) from an embarrassing international dilemma.  The administration is no longer committed to a policy that cannot succeed and which it cannot abandon without looking even weaker than it does now.  The administration can avoid turning snickers of derision into peels of ridicule.

Beyond all this there is the general good.  Russia gains territory and influence through this deal but there are also serious limits to the continued expansion of Russian power.  Russia is contained pretty much within the boundaries of the treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918.  Without all of Ukraine, along with Moldova and the Baltic States, Russia cannot dominate Europe.  This deal has the possibility of stopping Russian expansion within its civilization sphere.[3]  There will be no Eurasia alliance and economic system unless Russia joins the E.U., and that will require democratic reforms that will destroy the current neo-Czarist regime.  Europe will have greater strategic depth than Russia and a far more flourishing economy.  A stable political and economic settlement in Eastern Europe certainly leads to the general good.


The diplomatic world has become accustomed to the habitually supine posture of the Obama administration.  The president began his foreign policies with the international apology tour,[4] then combined this with the practice of “leading from behind” in Libya (aka following) , and culminating in the undesirable practice of drawing imaginary “red lines” in Syria, also called talking loudly while carrying no stick at all.  But the American reaction to Russian destabilization of Ukraine seems to have astonished even those allies who expect weakness from this administration.[5]  The American response to Russia over the Ukraine would be ludicrous were it not also serious.  America has sanctioned a few Russians and may go so far as to add some banks and companies.  Big wow.  And, alas, not a big surprise.

Nevertheless, in spite of initial weakness and stupidity, America still has an opportunity to gain a policy success.[6]  The deal described above works for America as well as for Europe, Russia and Ukraine.  And, even if the deal seems extreme, abandoning sanctions would be at least a modest victory, as a move toward sanity always is.  Damaging the Russian economy, which is the purpose and rationale of sanctions, is just about the last thing America should want to do.  America, as the premier status quo power in the world, needs Russia as part of the existing framework of international institutions.  America should be helping, not sanctioning, Russia.  America benefits from a strong Russian economy, especially if Russian imperial ambitions have reached relatively stable limits in the west.  A Russia closely tied into an economic and cultural relationship with the west will not necessarily be more peaceful; after all, closely connected European states went to war in 1914.  But there is more than confrontation to international politics.  Managing the peace also matters.  A more prosperous Russia tied into the western economy would be more of a status quo power and less of a revolutionary power.  That could only be a benefit to the United States, particularly given the proposed “pivot” to East Asia in response to the rise of China.

American diplomacy might wish to consider moving from sanctions to solutions.  After all, the spectacle of dissuading the Russian bear with pinpricks is so silly that even the children laugh.


The deal outlined above, with Ukraine divided along ethnic and cultural lines between Russia and Europe, could never happen, could it?  Well, maybe something along these lines has a chance of happening.[7]  It has some things going for it.  In the first place, Russia, the dominant regional power, makes solid gains in territory and influence in the Black Sea, along with international acceptance of their new position.  President Putin burnishes his domestic credentials as a defender of the Russian peoples in the near abroad.  Further, the dominant economic entity in Western Eurasia, the European Union, gains a new member, Ukraine.  Beyond that, the United States, a superpower following a weak and confused policy receives another rescue, in a situation far more serious than Syria.  Ukraine certainly abandons its eastern and largely (though not completely) pro-Russian provinces, and this is a loss, but gains in return a chance for political stability, national legitimacy, and economic prosperity, along with an entrance into Europe.[8]  Ironically, in this eventuality, defeat for Ukraine is tantamount to a victory.  Provided the Russians stop short of Odessa, the general good can still be served.

As always in diplomatic affairs, there is a caveat.  The deal makes general geopolitical sense only if Odessa[9] and the provinces between the Crimea and Moldova remain with Ukraine.  If Russia takes the entire Black Sea littoral, which has many Russian speakers but few Russian ethnics, and swallows up Moldova, this proposed deal is a non-starter.  There can then be no accommodation with Russia.  It is the Cold War once again with an Iron Curtain descending on Europe, further to the east, but no less real.  The European garrisons will move from Germany to Poland, Hungary, and the Baltics and quite likely to Georgia and Azerbaijan as well.  It is even possible that NATO will surreptitiously supply Chechen rebels in an effort to reenact the Soviet debacle in Afghanistan.  These will be terrible developments.  Russia would become more committed to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a treaty among Russia, China and several secondary powers that encompasses and extends well beyond the territory of Halford John Mackinder’s geopolitical heartland.[10]  No deal of any sort would be possible and the general framework for the Eurasian world would return to 1968.  Nothing good can come from that.

But if the Russians stop short of Odessa, the general good can still be served.  The geopolitical shatterbelt in Eastern Europe is repaired, at least most of it is (Moldova remains the exception.)  The Russian economy, a necessary Eurasian counterweight to China, has a chance to grow, and remains connected through its natural gas exports to the west.  Peace and stability in eastern Europe is clearly desirable, both in itself and when considering the continuing, one may say permanent, instability in the Arab world of the old fertile crescent.

Finally, the deal over Ukraine makes more intrinsic sense than any of the other proposals now on the table.  Serious sanctions against Russia are a nonsensical idea.  Obama will pretend to impose them, looking weaker than ever.  The Europeans, for reasons of energy if nothing else, are not going to go along.  European banks and companies cheated on the Iraqi and Iranian sanctions; imagine what they will do in this case where a lot more is at stake.  Russia is not going to back down and no one can make her do so.  American calls for Russia to leave the Crimea and remove troops far from Ukraine’s border are simply another Syrian red line.  They combine bluster with nonsense.  Ukraine’s claim that elections on May 25, 2014 will lead to political stability is utter rubbish.  

So we ask again.  If not this deal then what deal?  Or would the Obama administration prefer no deal at all and simply continue to whine on, keeping enmity and hostility alive?  This administration has a history of preferring complaint to solution.  And as we all know, the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.  Still, we suggest, just for this one case: how about giving reality a try?


[1] For an appreciation of Russian geopolitical interests, see John J. Mearsheimer, “Getting Ukraine Wrong,” The New York Times, March 13, 2014:, accessed May 5, 2014.

[2] “The New World Order,” The Economist, March 22, 2014, p. 13.

[3] James D. Hardy, Jr. and Leonard J. Hochberg, “The Ukrainian Crisis: Part II: Borderland,”, posted March 31, 2014 and accessed May 5, 2014.

[4] Nile Gardiner and Morgan Lorraine Roach, “Barack Obama’s Top 10 Apologies: How the President Has Humiliated a Superpower,” WebMemo #2466 on Europe, The Heritage Foundation, June 2, 2009:, accessed May 6, 2014.

[5] “Geopolitics: The Decline of Deterrence,” The Economist, May 3, 2014:, accessed May 4, 2014.

[6] Obama will certainly be accused of appeasement by his domestic opponents.  But, as Paul Kennedy has demonstrated from the historical record, appeasement in service of broader international goals may sometimes be not only desirable but also effective.  See Kennedy’s account of Britain’s appeasement of the United States during the 19th century in his “A Time to Appease,” The National Interest (July-August, 2010):, accessed May 4, 2014.  And, for how appeasement at Munich purchased time for the United Kingdom to prepare for war (but, as Churchill knew, at a horrifying political cost) see Edward Whiting Fox, “Munich and Peace for Our Time?” Virginia Quarterly Review XL.1 (1964).

[7] India and Pakistan were divided after World War II; Cyprus was divided into Turkish and Greek zones in 1974.  Both instances of territorial division were accompanied by population transfers.

[8] And it gains breathing space to build a true national defense that could change the cost/benefit ratio of a future would-be aggressor.  See James D. Hardy, Jr. and Leonard J. Hochberg, “The Ukrainian Crisis, Part IV: In Extremis,”, in preparation.

[9] The latest reports from Odessa suggest further Russian encroachments into Ukraine.  See Simon Denyer and Anna Nemtsova, “Pro-Russia Activists Attack Police Station in Odessa, Raising Stakes in Ukraine Crisis,” The Washington Post, posted May 4, 2014 and accessed May 5, 2014.

[10] The overarching goal of American foreign policy should be to contain China during its rise to power by detaching Russia and/or India from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and induce one or both countries to be “continental swords.”  During the Cold War, Henry Kissinger and President Richard Nixon secured Communist China as a continental sword pointed at the USSR.  For the notion of a continental sword, see Paul M. Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery (New York: Scribner’s, 1976), pp. 112 and 133.  Compare a map of Mackinder’s Heartland on pp. 78-79 in Democratic Ideals and Realty (New York: W. W. Norton, 1962 ed.) with a map of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to be found here: “Russia hopes India will soon join SCO,” Russia and India Report, November 17, 2011:, accessed May 6, 2014.