[For some thoughts on how Kiev should organize next month’s elections, click here
There is only one way the crisis in Ukraine ends well for Kiev. That way is self-restraint.
Kiev must ignore the provocations of Russia and Russian Ukrainians and focus laser-like on the most important task at hand: making a success of the elections, now scheduled for just a month away.
Ukrainian nationalists don’t need to fight. They need to organize and work like men and women possessed. They have a month to set up credible nationwide elections, despite the losses of key government buildings in Eastern Ukraine.
If they fight, they will lose, for Russia’s force in the East is overwhelming. So their chief goal must be to give Russia no pretext for invading. That means isolating and containing the Russian occupiers of government buildings, not trying to evict them, at least not forcefully.
Perhaps the occupied buildings contain electoral equipment and voter registration rolls. So what? Kiev may have to get new ballots and equipment elsewhere and organize and create new registration rolls from scratch. It’s a difficult task, but a doable one, given a month. And it’s a whole lot better than turning Ukraine into Syria.
Kiev must organize the elections with the same kind of single-minded but peaceful purpose with which we Yanks organized the Berlin Airlift. First, it must register eligible voters and organize voting precincts. Second, it must invite in (and protect) enough neutral, foreign monitors to prove to the world that the elections are free and fair. Third, it must win those elections, especially in Donetsk and Luhansk.
Military aims, if any, should be entirely subordinate to these goals. Why? Because if Kiev loses the elections, or if an invasion and/or civil war makes the elections impossible, Kiev will lose. It will lose Donetsk and Luhansk and perhaps much more. Starting a bloody Chechnya-style civil war to punish Russia will be little consolation for partition.
So the elections are everything. They, not the occupied buildings or checkpoints, are the real prize.
Let John McCain and other Western strongmen rant. McCain may be an honorable man and a Yankee war hero. But his heroism came out of being a prisoner of war. (He acted honorably and refused to be let go before his fellow prisoners.)
Besides that, he was a fighter pilot
and has been a consistent advocate for a strong “defense.” But his credentials as a military strategist, let alone a military-political thinker, are not well established, to put it mildly. He lost the 2008 election to Barack Obama in part for singing, albeit in jest, “Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran.”
No twenty-first century leader should make light of war like that. Even Putin doesn’t.
Does this means that Kiev and the West should expect the best and not prepare for the worst? Of course not. But the preparations must be low-key and not take Kiev’s eye off the ball: the elections.
I have already suggested, twice (1
), how shoulder-fired anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, stockpiled just across the Ukrainian border in Poland, could counterbalance the threat of Putin’s border-kissing tanks by threatening to make any invasion extremely costly. But like nuclear weapons, such a stockpile will be successful only if never used. McCain and his hawkish colleagues can serve best by helping to make credible the threat of arming Kiev with punishing weapons.
This is not time for idle threats or bluster, let alone “red lines.” The elections must be held. They must meet reasonable international standards. And Kiev must win.
That is the only way this crisis ends peacefully and well for Kiev. And that is the only way Ukraine stays whole, or as whole as it can be after Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Organizing Ukraine’s Elections
Why are Putin and Russia supporting Eastern Ukrainian separatists by having self-evidently well-trained and well-disciplined paramilitary groups take over provincial and city government buildings and establish unathorized checkpoints?
Isn’t that a key question? Before you can deal or even bargain sensibly with the Kremlin, shouldn’t you try to understand its motives?
Many Western commentators think the Kremlin is purposely destabilizing Ukraine in order to make it weak. There is precedent for that. Three-quarters of a century ago, Stalin robbed, starved and trampled Ukraine in his forced collectivization and the run-up to Russia’s Great Patriotic War (known to us Yanks as World War II). What Stalin did to Ukraine was close to genocide.
But what were the results? Ukraine fell easy prey to the Nazi blitzkrieg. Despite Ukraine’s having been Russia’s mother country, most Ukrainians hated the Soviet Union, Russia, Russians and Communism. (Ukraine had far fewer ethnic Russians and far fewer intermarriages in those days.) Many Ukrainians fought tragically, and to no avail, on the side of the Nazis, as the lesser of two evils. Their doing so has vestiges today, in Ukraine’s neo-Nazi extremists
Stalin’s policy of pounding neighbors into abject weakness was hardly a stunning success
. So I don’t believe for a moment that the Kremlin’s goal
is destabilization, if only because Putin is far less brutal and far smarter than Stalin. Destabilization is a means
to an end. But what’s the end?
In my view, only four possible answers make sense. First and most likely, the Kremlin wants to effect “regime change” in Donetsk and Luhansk and absorb them as it did Crimea. Maybe Odessa, too.
Second, but less likely, the Kremlin sincerely sees what happened on the Maidan as a putsch by extremists organized by the West. So it is now doing what it thinks is tit for tat in Eastern Ukraine.
Having no real understanding of democracy and bottom-up movements, except for their catastrophic Bolshevik Revolution, Russian leaders have hardly been original, or even remotely clever, in “managing” the Baltics and Eastern Europe during the Cold War, in playing energy blackmail in Ukraine and Eastern Europe, and now in trying to intimidate Kiev. The smartest thing they have done in a century is letting their vassal states go (by dissolving the Soviet Union) and trying to build a peaceful, more loosely affiliated commonwealth, with ties of common interest in economics and security.
Now Putin is having seller’s remorse. Apparently he wants the vassal states back, or at least the Russian-speaking parts of them, as vassals again, not as independent and friendly neighbors.
But annexing territories with foreign majorities
is no easy thing to do peacefully. Putin may ken democracy little, but he is
familiar with intercultural conflict, what Russians call “the nationalities problem.” And he has no solution to the unsolvable problem of peacefully annexing foreign-majority
cultures against their will. So he apes what he thinks the West has been doing. Is it possible he is starting to believe his own propaganda?
Third, the Putin and the Kremlin may have some dim understanding of popular movements and may be trying to jump-start one among Russophiles in Donetsk and Luhansk. Having trained in the KGB, Putin is doing so in the only way he knows: from the top down, using trained and experienced often-secret operatives, including paramilitary groups.
There is a big problem with this approach. Russian speakers are a minority
in Donetsk and Luhansk, and perhaps also in Odessa. Apparently, to put it mildly, Putin hasn’t thought through what to do about the recalcitrant majority.
And so we come to the last of the four possibilities, which jumps out of order in probability. Putin wants to influence or thwart the upcoming elections and convince the world, including ethnic Russians everywhere, that a majority of the people of Donetsk, Luhansk (and maybe even Odessa) love Russia and want to join it. If, as is likely, he can’t make the elections come out his way, he wants to destabilize and delegitimize them.
That’s precisely why all Ukrainian patriots should be thinking, planning, organizing and acting, in every waking moment for the next month, how best to make the elections legitimate and effective. There are three key issues.
1. Getting the ballot right.
Remember how the Russians organized their “referendum” in Crimea? In essence, the ballot had only two choices: (1) become independent or (2) join Russia. Crimeans couldn’t vote to stay part of Ukraine.
That kind of “election” was reminiscent of the moment, now close to a century ago, when the Devil captured Russia’s history. Stalin stuffed the ballot box, “defeated” the talented General Kirov, and had him shot the next day.
Crimea’s slanted election wasn’t nearly as consequential as that disastrous moment in Russian history because demographics foreordained the outcome. Ethnic Russians are nearly a two-thirds majority throughout Crimea and close to three quarters in Sevastopol, the home of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. So no harm, no foul. Crimea probably would have voted as it did even in a fair election.
But in Donetsk, Luhansk, and perhaps Odessa, the demographics are not so self-evidently decisive. Ethnic Russians are a minority there. So a real
election is both possible and necessary.
It is unlikely, if the election is fair, that a majority would vote to join Russia. But a majority might vote to secede from Ukraine and establish an independent, neutral state, if there are credible guarantees that it would remain neutral and independent. It all depends on how free and fair are the elections and what choices are given the voters. Isn’t that what democracy is all about?
So Ukraine can’t do what happened in Crimea. It can’t offer voters a false choice. It must offer them a real choice.
In my view, the ballot should have, in addition to the names of candidates for office, three broad choices for a general form of government. The first should be a centralized form of government, ruled from Kiev. The second should be a federal system in which Kiev controls foreign policy, trade, monetary policy, and national defense, and the provinces (including Donetsk, Luhansk and Odessa) control everything else. The third choice would give each province the chance to become an independent nation, perhaps oriented toward (but not absorbed by) Russia.
A fourth choice is also possible: joining Russia, province by province. But I think that the self-evident duress of Russia’s border-kissing tanks and troops makes such a choice unwise. Even in the unlikely event that annexation drew a majority of voters in any province, Russophobes in Ukraine (and worldwide) would argue that the majority had voted only to avoid an invasion.
So Russia’s military blackmail already has de-legitimized any “choice” to join Russia. The best that Russophiles in Ukraine can now hope to win in a truly free election is province-by-province independence—an outcome consistent with vast intermarriage among, and intertwining of, the national cultures of Ukraine’s Eastern provinces.
Only by offering real choices like these to every voter can the election resolve peacefully the question that Russia’s tanks and troops are now trying to decide by duress: what do the Eastern provinces really want to do? And by offering such real alternatives, Kiev can undermine attempts to boycott the elections. Real choices refute claims of illegitimacy.
2. Getting out the vote.
That brings us to the most important electoral task of all: making sure that as many people who can vote do, especially in the disputed provinces.
The Kremlin may try to organize election boycotts by Russophiles in order to de-legitimize the elections. But that didn’t work out so well for the Sunnis in Iraq, the Islamists in Egypt, or the Taliban in Afghanistan, did it? Elections are Von Clausewitz standing on his head: they are the moral equivalent of war, but without bloodshed. Even if the Kremlin loses, it would do far better to wage a good electoral campaign—as it has done several times in Russia itself—than to turn Eastern Ukraine into Syria.
There’s not much Kiev can do about boycotts except try to persuade citizens not to join them. Kiev might pay people to vote. The payments would provide a small income supplement in a turbulent, dangerous and insecure time for all Ukrainians. But there should be no punitive measures for not voting; they would only de
-legitimatize the elections.
Russia and its partisans may try to stop voting by persuasion, intimidation, and disruption. Indeed, this may be one purpose of taking over local government buildings and setting up illegal checkpoints.
But this is the Internet age. Ukrainians should be able to vote from anywhere, even abroad, by mail, over the Internet and with mobile phones. Kiev should arrange everything about the elections to make it as easy to vote as possible.
Ukraine’s leaders should devote all their thinking and acting for the next month to that end. Russian paramilitary groups may block the roads and take over local government buildings where local records, including voter registration rolls, reside. But Ukraine’s leaders can make an end run around the occupied buildings and checkpoints with voting by mail, over the Internet, or with mobile phones. There is no need for military assaults or war: the analogy to the Berlin Airlift is a good one here.
3. Insuring legitimacy.
The other side of the coin of making it easy to vote is avoiding fraud, ballot-box stuffing and double-counting. That task involves three steps.
First, every vote should be recorded on paper before being counted, to aid investigation in case of a later dispute. Electronic voting records should be printed out before being counted, whether by machine or by hand.
Second, every voting record (whether electronic or on paper) should have a unique identification number which is given to the voter immediately after voting, but which is otherwise kept secret to insure secret ballots. In the case of electronic records, the number should be encrypted with a private key known only to top election officials. If disputes or questions arise, these numbers can be used to investigate after the fact.
Finally, every voting place, including electronic voting operations, should be supervised by a group of observers with representatives of every political party and faction, especially including both Russophobes and Russofiles in Donetsk, Luhansk and Odessa.
* * *
What happens in Ukraine’s elections next month is of vital interest not just to Ukrainians and Russians (and to the ethnic Tatars who are terrified bystanders), but to the whole world. Our whole species is on trial.
Can a peaceful majority build a democracy despite the threats and intimidation of a powerful neighbor and great internal distrust? If it can, the future of our entire species—not just Ukraine—will be a lot brighter and safer.