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Once Again, the Helping Hand Is All Thumbs : The U.S. must back off its pledge to support Ukraine's 'territorial integrity.'

July 24, 1994|JONATHAN CLARKE | Jonathan Clarke, a member of the British diplomatic service for 20 years, is now at the Cato Institute in Washington. and

With the nation girding itself for a possible invasion of Haiti, it may seem somewhat distracting to direct attention across the Atlantic to the small territory of Crimea on the Black Sea. In fact, the inauguration of Leonid Kuchma as president of Ukraine last week brings the Administration an opportunity to extricate itself from a disaster of its own making.

As the Bosnian tragedy unfolded in 1991, many mistakes were made. One of the most serious was Western insistence on the territorial integrity of Yugoslavia at a time when the country was irretrievably falling apart. Underlying this approach was concern that disintegration in the Balkans would unleash an uncontrollable implosion in the Soviet Union. But its effect was to encourage the federal Yugoslav army, essentially the Serbs, to roll back the secession of Bosnia.

Is it too much to expect that their unhappy experience in Yugoslavia would caution American policy-makers from maladroit interventions in other, equally poisonous ethnic brews? Apparently it is. This Administration's incurable habit of wading into complex situations on the basis of facile analysis is setting the stage for a second Bosnia in Crimea.

Crimea contains 2.5 million people, 70% of whom are ethnic Russians. For 200 years after its liberation from Ottoman domination, it was part of Russia. In 1954, in a gesture of friendship to mark the 300th anniversary of Ukrainian union with Russia, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev gave Crimea to Ukraine. This year, the Crimean people, after having initially voted for separation from Russia, have in a series of plebiscites changed their minds--mainly because of the disastrous performance of the Ukrainian economy--and now wish to reaffiliate with Russia. In Kiev, the Ukrainian parliament fiercely opposes these aspirations.

After their Balkan misadventures, American policy-makers would have been well advised to stay in the background, offering their good offices as mediators if required, but studiously avoiding taking sides. This would have recognized that the core U.S. interest in Crimea is not whether it forms part of Ukraine or Russia, but that it does not cause war between them--a war that Russia would win unless the West massively supported Ukraine.

Alas, the temptation to meddle was not resisted. In May, Secretary of State Warren Christopher sent a letter to Leonid Kravchuk, then president of Ukraine, stating that "the territorial integrity of Ukraine within its present borders is something that the U.S. has consistently affirmed." How ominously Christopher's statement recalls the June, 1991, words of his predecessor, James A. Baker III: "We support the territorial integrity and preservation of the unity of Yugoslavia."

A stable and independent Ukraine certainly constitutes a strong American interest. Unfortunately, like so many other areas of the Clinton foreign policy, this interest has fallen victim to policy by sound bite--in this case, a pronouncement from former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski that Russia can be "either an empire or a democracy; it cannot be both." Like other mellifluous catch phrases about Russia ("shock versus therapy" comes to mind from the economic debate), this remark sounds good, but it reduces the complex issue of Russia's future orientation to false alternatives.

Kuchma's election changes the political equilibrium in Ukraine. Unlike his predecessor, he will emphasize economic regeneration, which in turn depends on close economic ties with Russia. This may lead him into conflict with Ukrainian nationalist elements who put strict sovereignty above economic welfare. This is where American policy needs to stand back and resist the urge of rhetorical meddling. At present, believing that the United States is on their side, Ukrainian nationalists may seek to court popularity by putting pressure on Crimea, for example by withholding foodstuffs; this in turn would inflame pro-Russian passions in Crimea, leading perhaps to an appeal for Russian intervention, as is happening in Georgia.

If this materialized, the United States would face a fearful dilemma between supporting Ukraine and confronting Russia. At some stage, this confrontation may be necessary, but Crimea is not the right issue. If Christopher is wise, he will see America's contribution being to cool passions. Rather than taking sides, he should signal to the Ukrainians, Russians and Crimeans that he will be content with any solution--including territorial transfer--that they devise, so long as it is peaceful.

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