Interventionism in Ukraine: The Destructive Logic of Great Power Competition

John Glaser, February 25, 2014

800px-Barack_Obama_&_Vladimir_Putin_at_Putin's_dacha_2009-07-07

The international debate over what is happening in Ukraine is a partisan one. Some criticize Russia for nefariously seeking to keep Ukraine in its orbit. These folks denounce the Ukrainian government and security forces for their corruption and violence against protesters. Others accuse the West – the U.S. and the European Union – of meddling in internal Ukrainian affairs. These folks condemn the violent thugs in the street hurling rocks and starting fires.

Both partisan groups seem to be blind to the truth of their opposite counterparts. Partisans for Russia are blind to the fact that Russia is trying to keep Ukraine in its orbit, while partisans for the West refuse to see that Washington, et al. also see influence over Ukraine as a zero-sum realpolitik competition with Russia. Furthermore, the justification for both Russian and American interests in Ukraine seem to exist only because the other power is vying for influence, instead of some kind of vital interest in Ukraine in and of itself.

As an example, take former UN Ambassador John Bolton, a raving lunatic when it comes to foreign policy, if you ask me. He has been howling for weeks about Russian attempts to “reestablish hegemony over Ukraine,” arguing further that if Russia is successful, “the fate of the other Soviet republics won’t be far behind.” He even describes this as a “great power rivalry with Russia,” even while he is apparently blind to the fact that he is advocating the U.S. to adopt the same, or an even more aggressive, approach.

It’s worth reiterating how this snowball started. Masha Lipman at the New Yorker:

Until late last year, Yanukovych was negotiating an association agreement with Europe, but then he abruptly changed his mind. Loans from European and international organizations were available only with strings attached, dependent on the implementation of reforms that mandated more transparency and thus were bound to weaken Yanukovych’s grip on power. In the meantime, Russia was threatening to make things very hard for Ukraine if it opted for a rapprochement with the European Union—and those threats were very real. Putin was promising fifteen billion dollars on the condition that Ukraine stay away from Europe. Yanukovych opted for Russia, and this caused the first wave of street protests…

So yes, this is a case of both powers competing for influence and, in the meantime, letting the Ukraine unravel. As for the U.S., we know Washington has been working largely behind the scenes to, as Jacob Heilbrunn wrote at The National Interest, “install a [Ukrainian] government that it regards as appropriate.”

As I said, this kind of meddling – along with Obama’s very public denunciations of Yanukovych’s government – might be good for great power jockeying but it is tearing the Ukraine apart. Here is James Carden, a former advisor to the US-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission at the State Department from 2011-2012:

Over the past three or four weeks, every time the Yanukovych regime has made concessions and some kind of truce was in the offing, the radical oppositionists stepped up the violence thereby leaving the regime little choice but to respond. What the opposition knows is what we now all know thanks to our incredibly indiscreet Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland; namely that the United States backs and is actively working towards the goal of supplanting Ukraine’s democratically elected president.

The magnitude of Ms. Nuland’s slip up is gradually becoming clearer and clearer. One can hardly blame the radical opposition for keeping up the pressure; after all, they have definitive proof that the United States government shares their goals. So why settle? The violence they are perpetuating has its logic; and so the crisis continues unabated.

Great power competition has been the undoing of many a weaker country caught in the middle. Even Henry Kissinger, an architect of the near total destruction of Vietnam for what every U.S. official at the time described as a vital U.S. interest, has admitted that it was largely about irrational fears of the plans of America’s great power rivals.

“Americans found it difficult to accept that a medium-sized developing nation could cultivate such a fierce commitment only for its own parochial causes,” Kissinger wrote in On China. “Hence they interpreted Vietnamese actions as symbols of a deeper design. Hanoi’s combativeness was treated as a vanguard of a Sino-Soviet coordinated conspiracy to dominate at least Asia.”

“The assessment was wrong on both grounds,” Kissinger adds. “Hanoi was not any other country’s proxy. It fought for its vision of independence…”

The lesson is obvious: to craft interventionist policies on the grounds that U.S. indifference will be some other nation’s gain is dangerous and futile. In short, stay the hell out of other people’s business.




16 Responses to “Interventionism in Ukraine: The Destructive Logic of Great Power Competition”

  1. I do not know how you can possibly say that the Ukraine is not a vital interest to Russia. Crimea is the only warm water port for Russia. It is also home of the Black Sea Fleet. If the US gets control over the Ukraine then access to Crimea is in question. That is just plain geo-politics.
    As for cultural, the Ukraine is the considered "little Russia" and Kiev the first capital of the Russian Empire.
    There is also the problem with Khrushchev giving land to the Ukraine in 1954 to counterbalance the political views of the East which fought with the NAZIs against the Soviets.
    I do not know how you can equate US and Russian interests in the Ukraine. Its just not possible. I'm not the one to break this down line by line but I doubt you have any background in Russian or CEE history.
    In a way this is similar to how people do not understand the cultural important of Kosovo to the Serbs.

  2. The tie-breaker in this competition is that Ukraine is right next to Russia. If the US tries to build military bases, station missile-defense or nuclear weapons there – it's a casus belli for Russia and will lead to WW3.
    If the attempt by EU to dominate Ukraine is only limited to dumping Euro down the economic sinkhole that is Ukraine, Russia could probably live with that – although they'd still be worried about Euro influence leaking into Russia via Ukraine. That's why Putin demanded Ukraine reject the agreement with the EU. Also, Putin – rightly so – does not trust that the EU or the US would restrain themselves from injecting military hardware there.
    It remains to be seen – now, after the coup – whether the EU will actually be giving Ukraine any significant monetary aid, or relax the onerous conditions they were demanding earlier.

  3. First, Russia essentially does not register as an international threat, while Obama’s USA is considered by an enormous margin to be the Biggest threat to world peace.

    Second, USA wants to put more missiles aimed at Russia in Ukraine.

    Third, there are many natural resources in Ukraine, and the fascists there think they like the “free” market – that means they are ripe for EU/US cheap labor exploitation.

  4. Another point not mentioned here is that Russia and Ukraine proposed three way talks with the EU after the Ukrainian government declined to sign the EU agreement to discuss establishing a relationship for Ukraine with both sides. The EU would have none of it.

  5. There's no transparency wanted by the thugs in EU. They in fact encourage corruption in the new eastern European colonies if the major production capacities, profitable services, resources and land are transferred to their cronies while the local populations are impoverished and stripped of their sovereignty and of any chance to fight back economically and politically these monsters. Almost any local despot is better than this hideous gang of murderous hypocrites.

    I'm really fed up with the western media discourse, be it MSM or even most of the internet alternative, it sounds like a broken record, getting further and further away from understanding the dire realities people living in these EU annexed countries have to endure. This lack of understanding is more a measure of bad faith than incapacity to comprehend what's going on there.

    The west simply plunders these countries, destroys their national and social cohesion, replaces national ownership with foreign corporate one, forces the active labour force to emigrate, induces a steep demographic decline. All in all it is slavery and slow genocide.

  6. Glaser is always a micron away from being an imperialist stooge.
    Why does antiwar.com continue to host this incredibly bad writer?

  7. I agree. I found this article from Glaser very obtuse to say the least.

    To somehow conflate the USA's (a country THOUSANDS of miles away with no vital interests in Ukraine other than to antagonize Russia) interest in Ukraine with that with Russia who shares borders, language cultural ties, etc., takes some serious sophistry. I get that Glaser is attempting to "balance" it out, but the truth isn't really about "balance." After all, it was Putin who proposed three way talks and said that it didn't have to be an either/or situation and that Ukraine would benefit from joining the EU AA AND the Customs Union. It WAS the EU who vetoed this and demanded that Ukraine make a civilization choice. So yes Ditz, the EU and US ARE responsible for this mess.

    So Now we have Nazi's running around in Kiev and controlling the government.

  8. This is really very bad.We want peace whole of the word.No war keep peace.

  9. I can only wonder what the reaction in Washington would be if Russia was actively destabilizing the Canadian government leading to its overthrow and planning to install missiles aimed at the USA in Canada. Imagine if Russia then warned the USA to not intervene and especially, not to send troops to Canada. Somehow, I can’t see Washington meekly accepting that situation.

  10. I thought that as a condition of EU membership, the EU was preventing Ukraine from joining the Eurasian Customs Union, in other words, that Putin's demand was predicated on the EU's condition.
    Is this incorrect?

  11. […] Interventionism in Ukraine: The Destructive Logic of Great Power Competition […]

  12. […] of Defense Chuck Hagel warned Russia not to intervene, failing to mention that (1) Washington has been intervening in Ukraine from the start, and (2) it’s really none of our business what Russia […]

  13. […] of Defense Chuck Hagel warned Russia not to intervene, failing to mention that (1) Washington has been intervening in Ukraine from the start, and (2) it’s really none of our business what Russia […]

  14. […] of Defense Chuck Hagel warned Russia not to intervene, failing to mention that (1) Washington has been intervening in Ukraine from the start, and (2) it’s really none of our business what Russia […]

  15. As I’ve written in the past, these Pentagon plans are part of the Air-Sea Battle strategy. The idea is to have enough US bases and Air Force capabilities peppered throughout the region so that China would be too surrounded to safely attack in the event of a conflict.

  16. As Ia??ve written in the past, these Pentagon plans are part of the Air-Sea Battle strategy. The idea is to have enough US bases and Air Force capabilities peppered throughout the region so that China would be too surrounded to safely attack in the event of a conflict.