[This is the latest in a series of essays on the fast-moving crisis in Ukraine. For a suggestion for a better kind of diplomacy, click here. For other earlier essays (in inverse chronological order), click here, here, here, here, here or here. For a 2009 essay on why NATO has outlived is usefulness vis-a-vis Russia, click here.
Minority rule is not a good thing. It’s not a good thing in our Senate, where it has neutered the world’s supposed sole remaining superpower for over a decade. It’s less of a good thing in Syria, where it has reduced a once stable, secular and nominally modern Arab nation to mass graves and rubble.
Minority rule is not even a good thing when it makes a violent transition to majority rule. Just look at Zimbabwe. It has neutered, badly oppressed and driven away its successful white farmers, who, for all their many faults, tried to bring the country a semblance of modern efficiency. Zimbabwe today is what South Africa would have become without Nelson Mandela.
So when Vladimir Putin hints about a Russian takeover in Eastern Ukraine, he must be stopped. There, not in Crimea, is where the West and China should draw the line.
Why so? Because Russians are a minority
in Eastern Ukraine, while they are a clear and dominant majority in Crimea. They are nearly three-quarters in Sevastopol, the home of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Yet not a single recognized region in Eastern Ukraine has a majority of Russians, although they are close in two of eight.
Sunday’s referendum in Crimea was, of course, a farce. It gave voters two options only: (1) for Crimea to become an independent nation, like the Lone Star State not long after the Alamo, or (2) for Crimea to become part of Russia. There was no obvious third option: to remain part of Ukraine, whether or not with greater autonomy.
In other words, the referendum was an uncontrolled experiment, a travesty. It was an exercise in Russian propaganda and duress, not democracy.
But the electoral farce doesn’t really matter. Crimea’s demography is clear: Russians have a majority there, and a dominant majority in the big cities.
Furthermore, many of the Russians who live in Crimea are from Russian military families and their progeny. Like military families everywhere, they don’t think much beyond flag and language. In the majority, and given a chance to govern themselves, they will be a force for stability. Forced to suffer what they view as “foreign” minority
rule, they could quickly turn Crimea into Syria.
But in Eastern Ukraine, the shoe is on the other foot. Russians, not Ukrainians, are the minority. For Russia to try to force Ukrainians there to suffer minority Russian rule would be nothing less than bald imperialism from the bloody last century. That approach could well produce a Slavic Syria. So Eastern Ukraine is where the West should draw the line.
Of course the line must include credible threats of massive, crippling general sanctions. But sanctions must not be all.
The West and China must also try to act as neutral brokers. They must lean on Ukraine’s new leaders to give Eastern Ukraine a suitable amount of autonomy, with substantial accommodation to Russian speakers where they are a substantial minority. The world must lean on Ukraine’s untested leaders just as hard as our President and John Kerry are leaning on Netanyahu to stop the illegal expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Global markets rebounded a bit yesterday, apparently thinking that the danger has passed. Not so. Russia’s absorption of Crimea was practically inevitable. Demographics made it so.
But the demographics and the politics of Eastern Ukraine are as different from those in Crimea as day from night. There is nothing inevitable about Russian absorption of Eastern Ukraine—at least nothing more inevitable than the Syrian people’s acceptance of continuing tyranny by Assad’s minority Alawites.
So Eastern Ukraine is a test that the West and China must not fail.
Angela Merkel is a friend of Russia and a brilliant leader. She has made a political miracle of her own: ridding Germany of the last vestiges of its Nazi past and completing its conversion into an appropriately contrite, rational and admirable nation.
So when she tells us that she thinks Vladimir Putin is living in his own little world, we all must listen up. We must get his, his advisers’ and his people’s attention now. We must jog Putin out of his imperial daydreams. Or else we will endorse a bloodbath and a return to the bloody last century in a critical part of Europe.
The West—indeed, the entire world, including China—must speak with one voice. Now is the time to pull out all the stops, with credible threats of crippling sanctions and hard bargaining with Ukraine’s untested leadership, using all the sticks and carrots available. Eastern Ukraine is worth bargaining hard for, so that NATO, Europe and even China won’t have to fight for it (or to face the consequences of its unwilling absorption) later. One Syria caused by catastrophic Russian foreign-policy blunders is enough.