A Pain in Ukraine 2

It's our fault that Russia could threaten the Ukraine.

In 1938, England's Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain complained about his country being dragged into a war "because of a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing."  Of course, one of the parties to that quarrel was Adolf Hitler and history has pretty much decided that squashing Hitler would have been better done sooner than later, but Mr. Chamberlain didn't get that at the time.

Chamberlain wasn't the only person to make this complaint.  Hardly a year goes by when Americans don't wonder just why we care who's killing whom in Kuwait, Iraq, Vietnam, Cambodia, Sudan, Palestine, or dozens of other places.  This week's example is the Ukraine, and in the first article in this series we briefly discussed what and where it is, and why it matters, at least to Russia.

That still doesn't address why it matters to us, and to find that out, we have to look back at the breakup of the Soviet Union.

It's now generally recognized that Ronald Reagan defeated the Soviet Union by spending it into bankruptcy.  Through military buildups both real and imaginary, Reagan presented a stronger American than the USSR could afford to match.  Oh, they tried - but in 1989, the people had had enough and refused to give up any more butter for guns they didn't much care for anyway.

It turned out that the USSR wasn't anything like as wealthy as they'd let on.  As usual, our spies were completely wrong in almost everything they thought about our enemies.  Despite their relative poverty, the USSR had an enormous military with a whole lot of dangerous hardware, most particularly enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world ten times over.

To Nuke or Not To Nuke

When the USSR fell apart, President Bush had one deep, overriding concern: that those thousands and thousands of nuclear missiles not wind up all over the world being sold to the lowest bidder.  His administration spent a great deal of money and diplomatic effort ensuring that all those nukes remained the property of exactly one country, Russia, and locked up as best as they could finagle.

That presented a challenge, because a great many of the nukes weren't in Russia.  They were on Soviet bases in East Germany, in Poland, in Kazakhstan... and, yes, the Ukraine.

Now if you're a small nation who hasn't had a country of its own for a thousand years, and suddenly the superpower that's occupied and oppressed you falls apart and lets you go, you're going to want to make good and sure they don't come back and conquer you again when they get their act back together - particularly since, in almost every case, that had happened plenty of times before.

What's the very best way to make sure nobody invades you?  Have a handful of nukes, of course, so at the very least you can turn their cities into glass on your way out.

You can easily imagine that President Bush had to be very, very, very persuasive in order to get all the little countries to give back the Russian nukes they'd inherited.  It's one of the unsung victories of modern American diplomacy that he succeeded 100%: not one of the ex-Soviet countries kept any nuclear weapons save for the largest, Russia.  As far as we know, none of those nukes even went astray - if Osama bin Laden had gotten his mitts on one, odds are we'd have found out about it by now the hard way.

There was a steep diplomatic price for this triumph: before they handed over their nuclear weapons, the Ukrainian government required all the Great Powers to sign a treaty guaranteeing the territorial integrity of the Ukraine.  In other words, the United States, NATO, and thus most of Western Europe is obligated to go to war if anybody (read, Russia) tries to carve a chunk off of the Ukraine.  As we saw in the first article in this series, by treaty, the Crimea is part of the Ukraine and covered by this guarantee.

At the time Russia was in no position to object too strongly, but they did demand that at least their navy not be made homeless.  So the Ukraine was obliged to lease the Crimean naval bases back to the Russians, much like the United States has naval bases in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and lots of other places.

Fair enough, the Russians got to keep what they had to have, the Ukraine got its independence, and George Bush got to sleep at night without worrying about all those stray nukes floating around.

Peace - For A While

Fast forward to today: Russia's President Putin has decided that a leased naval base is not enough; he wants the entire Crimea back no matter what.  He thought he was going to get it via the corrupt Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, but the Ukrainian people rose up and threw him out last month.

It's generally recognized that the Russian army has now occupied the Crimea although they've taken off their uniform badges to pretend to be anonymous.  The new Ukrainian government is loudly pointing to that treaty and demanding that the rest of the world Do Something.

So does that mean we're about to finally go to war with Russia?  Not necessarily: the treaty contains the usual diplomatic weasel-words.  NATO and the other Great Powers "guranteed" Ukraine's territory, which can be taken to mean only that we'll respect it - as in, we won't invade it ourselves, which was never going to happen anyway.  Russia, of course, has broken the treaty, but that doesn't necessarily mean we have to go to war with them on the Ukraine's behalf.

Before you breathe a big sigh of relief, though, let's think back to poor Prime Minister Chamberlain.  He didn't go to war against Hitler in 1938.  Was that really a good idea?  The verdict of history seems to be that it was really stupid: he should have gone to war then and there and got rid of Hitler when he had the chance, before the Nazis got even stronger.

Putin is no Hitler, and he's not likely to invade England much less the United States.  Still, we shouldn't be too cavalier about just letting him have what he wants.  We'll see why in the next article in this series.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Petrarch or other articles on Foreign Affairs.
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