No, it’s not the Cold War: Ukraine and the paradigm shift

Interesting times.

Have you felt the paradigm shift?  It’s happening all around us.  But I’m not sure most Western pundits have realized what they’re sensing (or perhaps even begun to sense it yet).

George Will’s column from the past week has stood out in my mind.  He’s by no means the only one, but he’s been one of the most categorical, putting the Ukrainian crisis in the terms of the Cold War.  “Ukraine’s ferment,” he suggests, “is an emphatic, albeit redundant, refutation of Marxism.”

I don’t think I’m alone in recognizing that that formula has been overtaken by events.  For more than half the world’s peoples, a refutation of Marxism is redundant today.  It’s not, moreover, a motivating factor that looks to the future.

A refutation of Marxism would be misdirected if aimed at Russia and the eastern Ukrainians, in any case.  The statues of Lenin being toppled in Ukraine over the last 48 hours are emblems of Russian conquest.  Marxism may have been the organizing ideology in the vanguard of the last Russian conquest. But Russian conquest, or at least Russian domination, has been a perennial threat to the peoples of Eastern Europe, and is not less distasteful to Ukraine for being less “Marxist.”

Still, that isn’t precisely where the paradigm shift lies.  It’s located, rather, in the melancholy fact that what the western Ukrainians aspire to – membership in a liberal Europe – is no longer a powerful, surging, forward-looking alternative to being held in chains from the East.  Western Europe is debt-addled, self-absorbed, and geopolitically inert.  More than that, it has sentenced itself to live under a form of “soft” collectivism and forced intellectual homogenization that has been slowly paralyzing its energies as surely as Soviet Marxism ever did.

The “Europe” that Ukrainians want to align themselves with is largely imaginary today.  Europe has lucked out for the time being, in that the Ukrainians themselves have managed to scare off their erstwhile president.  In the short run, the EU need do no more than extend Ukraine a line of credit and hold some meetings.  But the long run will come soon enough.  And in the long run, “Europe” won’t necessarily be there to stand up for the Ukrainians, in their fight to avoid being subsumed in an old-style network of devious, corrupt Russian dependencies.

The United States of 2014 has succumbed to the same inertia: our policies and diplomacy under the current president are as limp and ineffectual as those of Europe.  Brave Ukrainians have handed themselves to the West as a prize.  But it’s the question of our time whether we can keep it.

Practically speaking, of course, Viktor Yanukovych’s goose is cooked; he cannot be restored to power with any semblance of viability as a national-unity leader.  But Russia will look for, and is likely to find, a means of re-imposing unity on Ukraine under a Russian-oriented government.

Putin won’t fear to use military power if he has to, with the Olympics over.  I believe he’ll look for a way to do as much as possible without making active use of the military.  He has a sense now of exercising international leadership, in a way Russian leaders didn’t before, when American presidents were proactive and projected an aura of credibility and authority.  There is no one filling that role at present; no primary locus of geopolitical leadership other than Russia’s to triangulate against.  Putin will be setting a tone for strategic interest in Ukraine, and I think he sees that it will be better for his reputation, and the future of Russian diplomacy, if he can achieve the outcome he wants without having to roll tanks into Ukraine and suppress an uprising.

Map via Wall Street Journal
Map via Wall Street Journal

That doesn’t mean he won’t use the military.  If he deployed it in such a way as to checkmate whatever government is formed in Kiev, and make an armed confrontation pointless, he might at least put a good face on Russian intervention.  Perhaps he can make it seem as if there’s more accommodation of western Ukrainians and the “Euromaidan” movement than there really is.  He’ll couch that in such terms that he can set up a narrative: that it’s recalcitrant western Ukrainians who are the problem for peace, and not the Russians or eastern Ukrainians, who are only trying to “restore” it.

I may be misreading Putin.  It’s possible that he will strike quickly and hard, rather than maneuvering to induce Ukraine to fall to Russia from within.  The latter approach could take 1-3 years.

But the one thing we won’t see is Russia simply adjusting to a new reality in Ukraine.  Putin, and indeed many other Russians, would consider that an unacceptable blow to Russian security.

Poland has already expressed effective support for the newly proclaimed government in Kiev, announcing that Yanukovych’s ouster does not constitute a coup, and endorsing the Ukrainian opposition’s demand that the long-suspended 2004 constitution be signed into law.  It’s natural and inevitable for Poland to make policy comments on events in her region.  But Russia will find it intolerable.  If Putin can’t turn developments in Ukraine in Russia’s favor, the Russians will interpret every move from Eastern Europe as the build-up of a coalition against them.


Momentum? (Image credit: Sergei Chuzavkov, AP)
Momentum? (Image credit: Sergei Chuzavkov, AP)

The U.S. and EU are out of position to stop Russia from intervening in Ukraine.  We don’t have the means to protect the Ukrainians’ power of choice against a concerted onslaught from Russia and a client base in eastern Ukraine.  Russia has a significant head start: besides her historical ties to and interest in Ukraine, she has been pursuing the “Finlandization” of Ukraine over the last decade, with economic extortion and back-alley involvement in Ukrainian politics.

No outcome is dictated by fate, however.  The big question is whether the EU, in particular, can muster the necessary urgency and determination about extending Western liberalism.  What we’re seeing in Ukraine is not an ending – not the last gasp of the Cold War – but a beginning: the first major confrontation since 1914 in a world without dominant American power.

Yet today isn’t “1914 all over again,” for two reasons. One is that the West is paralyzed by a serious mismatch between its peoples’ genius and their governments’ plodding regulatory utopianism.  As dysfunctional as Western polities may have been in 1914, they were well-oiled machines compared to the conditions of 2014.  Government in the West has become almost literally a form of collective insanity today.  In important ways, it serves primarily to indenture and discourage the people, rather than protecting their interests and guaranteeing a reliable environment in which to produce and create.

The other reason is that in 2014, there is no looming prospect of a great competition of political-economic ideas.  Whatever crises there are, the modern-day “Bolsheviks” who seek to exploit them will not be card-carrying universalist ideologues.  In the Muslim world, there will continue to be attempts at seizing power – like Mohammed Morsi’s in Egypt – by Islamist ideologues.  But nowhere around the globe has the stage been set for that dynamic to cross over into crises in non-Muslim nations.  The invasive profile of “international socialism” a century ago is not replicated in any revolutionary phenomenon of today.  The future we face in 2014 is not less dangerous for that, but it is a different one.

In key ways, it involves the revival of a much older East-West dynamic.  It’s about geography, ethnicity, suspicion of neighbors, access to waterways, fear of being surrounded or held hostage.  It’s also about a difference in the basic profile of social expectations and political ideas between East and West.  That difference has been palpable and irreconcilable since long before the Western Enlightenment.

But the West is in a trough today, on the sine wave of energy and vision: it knows what it doesn’t want, but it’s far less clear on what it does want.  It’s impossible to exercise meaningful leadership from that position.  The kind of vision without which the people perish is hard to come by.  One of the most important elements lacking in Western vision today is a concept of how to make common cause with Russia, while not giving up on the rights and welfare of Russia’s neighbors.  It should not be out of the question, in that regard, to consider adaptation for NATO and the EU; the only thing that should be out of the question is being jerked around by Russian faits accomplis where the U.S. or EU has a security interest.

Will the disintegration of the Pax Americana drive the West to sharpen its game again?  We’re about the find out.  The long detour of the Cold War may shape some of the questions about our geopolitical circumstances today.  But it does not hold the answers.  Here comes the future.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard online. She also writes for the new blog Liberty Unyielding.

Note for new commenters: Welcome! There is a one-time “approval” process that keeps down the spam. There may be a delay in the posting if your first comment, but once you’re “approved,” you can join the fray at will.


17 thoughts on “No, it’s not the Cold War: Ukraine and the paradigm shift”

  1. It all depends on what track the West now chooses to follow in dealing with the Continent’s current premier economic basket case, Ukraine. The ticking time bomb is now in its lap.

    If the decision is Russia shall be excluded from the solution in Ukraine, and the western radical, Russia despising, elements of the Ukraine are allowed to continue imposing their policies on the whole of the country, either overtly or silently, then there will be problems. Decent Ukrainians longing for a future closer to the West are to be commended, but make no mistake, it’s the radical nationalists (with definite Nazi elements included) of the western regions that currently control the reins of power behind the scenes. They are as bad (worse) as eastern thugs. And, the corrupt oligarchy, a product of both Europhile and Russophile political tendencies, will continue to be just that, corrupt. Lest we forget, Tymoshenko’s term in office was every bit as corrupt as Yanukovych.

    If Russia concludes (correctly or not) that the West is hellbent on hardliner expansion all the way to the suburbs of Moscow, regardless of any compromises that may be offered, then there will be even larger problems.

    Sly Brzezinski mentioned “Finlandization” of Ukraine in a brief FT opinion piece in exchange for her acquiescence to Ukraine’s entrance in the Western camp. Russia (from her perspective) saw how much Western promises are worth with the expansion of NATO. And, Ukraine certainly ain’t Finland from the Russian perspective. If his intentions were sincere, the natural step would have been to extend the invitation to Russia to the same EU club as well, as long as Russia fulfilled the same criteria for membership set for Ukraine. Moscow is no less democratic and corrupt than today’s Kiev is. So again, it begs the question, why, twenty-five years after the end of the Cold War is Russia still being isolated, contained, and driven into Beijing’s arms?

    I’m (still) afraid we’ll be talking much about this topic. I (still) insist that
    we are scratching each others eyes out and are blind to the fact that the only winners here are the Chinese and the Islamic lunatics.

    For a good example of the Russian perspective. here’s a link to Lukyanov’s take (in case you missed it)

    1. Given the EU and Obama administration’s ideological leanings, there is no other ‘track’ that the West can explore other than what it has already been offered; economic incentives and hollow, verbal warnings to Putin’s Russia that it allow Ukraine its self-determination.

      There is no possibility of working out a more cooperative agreement between Putin and the EU/Obama administration regarding the Ukraine because Russia views the necessity that the Ukraine remain within Russia’s ‘orbit’ as absolutely essential to its national security.

      Russia will not accept any arrangement but one that clearly establishes the Ukraine in actuality as being a Russian province. From Russia’s perspective, geo-dynamically the only perspective that counts, it doesn’t matter whether a Ukrainian gov. is corrupt or not, what does matter is whether it is loyal to mother Russia.

      As to why NATO membership has never been offered to Russia, that was considered and discussed during Yeltsin’s time and the determination was made to wait until democracy was firmly established in Russia before such an offer could be made. The prudence of such an approach was confirmed as Putin seized dictatorial control of Russia.

      As to why, twenty-five years after the end of the Cold War, that Russia is still being isolated, contained, and driven into Beijing’s arms… it is because a nuclear armed Russia is ruled by former communist thugs. Who are the natural allies of the Chicoms. As long as the rule of law in Russia is absent, its behavior sets itself outside membership in the West.

      1. The near future is a particularly dangerous time for Russia in that their surrounding former satrapies have the opportunity to explore changes in their own relationships with the Kremlin. The Chinese, far from being allies in politics or spirit with the Russians, are also contemplating the advantages they might gain from Russian preoccupation with the distant fringes of Europe. It’s impossible to predict how Russia’s rulers will respond to the Ukrainian issue but they’ll certainly consider every possibility before committing themselves.

  2. On its face, the Ukranian Revolution was more a pocket rebellion with widespread urban support, unlike events in France in 1789 when Committees of the Revolution sprang forth in the provinces.

    There are no big mottos to drive this Revolution other than a distaste for Russian dictatorships. There will be no export in a Europe ripe for change. Or is there.

    This Revolution had to have some help from us. For what is bad for Russia is good for us, a distraction for Putin from the home runs he has hit in Syria and Iran. And that may be the point of our help.

    If we wish to have longer impacts, we need leaders who can say, “tear down this wall.” Other than Clint, do we have a single war hero to step up to the plate who will not be pelted and then drawn and quartered? If there is someone waiting in the wings, now would be a good time to get ready to run.

    1. Welcome, Northern Light. Now that you’re “approved,” your comments should appear automatically. Hope you’ll be moved to make more!

      I don’t see evidence of US involvement in the Euromaidan protests, at least not in the way some websites are implying. Barack Obama hasn’t engaged in any activities that would be even remotely related to such a thing.

      You’re quite right, meanwhile, that we can have no positive long-term effect while this president is in office. Unfortunately, with our passivity and growing weakness, we’re likely to have a negative long-term effect by default.

  3. There is another dimension (out of many) to this.

    If there is even the slightest hint that the Ukraine will be receiving a more favorable, and/or lenient, economic/financial rescue package from the IMF/EU than the PIIGS – there will be a popular uproar (or worse, a revolt) from Lisbon all the way to Nicosia….

  4. ckla — I don’t think Russia will try to play the gas card (other than possibly with Ukraine herself). The truth for most of Europe is that Russia does NOT have them over a barrel, gas-wise. Europe gets most of its gas from North Africa now, and Algeria has every intention of cultivating the bonanza she’s been enjoying because of the turmoil in Libya.

    Other than Ukraine, Poland might have to worry somewhat about Russia’s finger on the spigot. But at this geopolitical juncture, Germany would immediately start the gas trucks running to help Poland out. Ten years ago, Russia could freeze a Pole by tightening the gas spigot, but things have actually changed since then. It would raise prices, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, if the Russians tried a gas attack. But helping their weaker neighbors withstand such an attack is something the Western Big 3 would, in fact, step to the plate on.

    GB — on Russia and NATO, I have felt for some time that what NATO needs to do is signal to Russia the potential for a shift in posture on what “security” means for the Atlantic nations. This would mean “de-hardening” the Cold War position of NATO, but it wouldn’t mean dismantling NATO and running after Russian-designed security structures.

    The process, or method, would be a tacit “negotiation” with Russia on establishing a new basis for relations. Nothing would happen unless concessions were mutual. Everything would be linked. There are three main dimensions that I see: the status of Eastern Europe and the Caucasus; the interests of the different parties in the Middle East and Africa; and the basis for managing strategic/nuclear weapons. Bargaining would be as honest, tough, and fair as we could make it. The US would give nothing away, and would not expect Russia to.

    There is a very real sense in which the crisis in Ukraine has had to erupt as much because the postures of Europe, NATO, and the US have settled into sclerosis as because Russia is ruled by an old-style autocrat. Especially in the last 5 years, Europe and the US have both been embarrassingly narcissistic and irresponsible. We don’t expect better of Russia, but we should certainly expect better of ourselves.

    My vision is not for a hardened face-off between the Atlantic nations and Russia, in which Ukraine has to be moated off from one side or the other. The medium-term goal we should want, in my view, is a quiescent sector of Europe in which Ukraine is unmenaced, and the other major parties with stakes in regional stability — Russia, Turkey, Greece; in a larger sense, CIS/CSTO, EU, and NATO — have confidence in processes and forums for representing their interests.

    It is such a bad pattern, for Russia and the West to be at loggerheads on the same old line of confrontation. Turkey is struggling right now with what her future will be, and the outcome in Turkey is so critical. It will reverberate for decades, whichever way it goes. The last thing we need is either Turkey or Russia feeling under the gun and like they need to develop a hardened attitude about the other nations in the region.

    There’s a lot more to say, but I must cut it off here and get some work done. 🙂 I have a feeling we’ll have plenty of reason to continue this discussion in the coming days.

    1. Opticon,

      I have no disagreement with your suggested proscription of what the West’s approach to Russia should be. That said, such an approach could only work from a position of strength and moral firmness and clarity. Both are of course entirely lacking in both the EU and with Obama and his supporters. Thugs like Putin are only willing to sincerely negotiate (as much as they congenitally can do so) when in a position of weakness.

  5. Crimea seceding from the Ukraine to the Russian Federation is now a plausible scenario.

    Friends, associates, and relatives inform me that withdrawing capital from banks across the Ukraine has become difficult to impossible.

    1. Crimea seceding from the Ukraine would be far from enough for Putin. Nothing trumps Russia’s primary concern regarding Ukraine. it is the natural corridor for invasion of Russia. The unfounded paranoia of invasion doesn’t lessen that fear. Secondarily, it is Russia’s breadbasket, making it not only a matter of security but its loss would create a potential threat. What Stalin did to Ukraine, an independent Ukraine could do to Russia. Thirdly, there is nothing either Obama or the EU will do if Putin decides invasion is indicated. Eastern Ukraine is essentially Russian. Partition of Ukraine is not an option for Putin because it wouldn’t prevent invasion. These are basics and they are not going to change or be ameliorated by reason or verbal promises.

      1. Yet GB, contemplating the broader global issues, admittedly on a more utopian level, the populations of the West and Russia need each other, now, more than ever. Go the extra mile, open the door for eventual Russian membership in the EU in conjunction with the Ukraine. Both camps (EU + Russia) highly compliment each other. Especially, if viewed under the prism of the current global competition. This conceivable correlation of Russian and the Western forces hasn’t aligned (it it has ever truly occurred) in quite a while, maybe a millennium. Why miss the opportunity? At the very least, the offer itself would go a long way to diffuse the situation.

        1. PS

          Two addenda. Turkey has been granted a track to membership, albeit, at a snails pace. Even though, she can hardly be classified as Western or democratic. And, there is a movement gaining momentum to grant Russian citizenship to all Ukrainian nationals who can present sufficient evidence that they are of at least partial Russian ethnic descent. If it succeeds, what are you going to do with these people? They will make up over 20m of the Ukrainian state’s population. What precedent will that set for Latvia (for example) whose Russian population exceeds 25% of the total inhabitants of that NATO state?

          I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, The Russia of Tolstoy, Chekhov,, LGBT Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky (amongst others) is LESS Western than Suleiman the Magnificent’s and Kemal Ataturk’s Turkey?

  6. There’s something else I couldn’t resist mentioning about the upcoming turmoil in Ukraine. If, the powers that be, insist on being left back in the fifth grade schoolyard, that is.

    It’s well known the that the final arbiters (for the time being), in terms of domestic Ukrainian politics, are the kleptocrat oligarchs.

    It’s going to be a real pleasure watching Right Sector and Tyahnybok having to kowtow to the Putin colluding gas princess, or, the Odessan Jewish confectionery magnate, or, the Tartar industrialist backed candidate, If one of them ends up running Ukraine — all thanks to the bodies of Lvov’s drunken, indolent, vicious, SS collaborating, Stepan Banderaist fascists.

    Yes. This is all about freedom, liberty, and the rule of law….

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: