If I were Radosław Sikorski, Poland’s foreign minister, I would not be looking forward to my next few visits to Washington. Of course, there will be smiles at the photo ops and talk of cooperation, and maybe some pleasant times with friends of his American wife Anne Appelbaum, but it is quite clear that America’s foreign policy establishment is quite upset with Sikorski, even if they are too diplomatic to say so directly. In separate Charlie Rose interviews broadcast on Friday 2 both Jessica Tuchman Mathews, President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Ian Bremmer, President of the Eurasia both agreed that it had been a terrible mistake to put Ukraine in a position where it had to choose between East and West, and they of course are not alone. Since the idea of drawing Ukraine closer to Europe through an Association Agreement was Sikorski’s baby, this is clearly about him.
That ire is understandable. Foreign policy is above all about maintaining stability and getting along, and one thing that can be said of the last six months is that Eastern Europe is far less stable, and our relations with Russia have deteriorated significantly. Because of the heightened tensions, we have finally agreed to station troops in the frontline NATO states of Poland and the Baltic republics, something we have until now avoided. Nor does it help that many among the foreign policy elite likely feel that Sikorski is quietly regarding that last decision as a triumph. Nonetheless, such thinking only reflects the extent to which our foreign policy elite has failed to understand the significance of the past six months, and would like to avoid the awful truth that approach taken towards integrating Russia and the other Soviet successor states over the past 25 years has turned into a cul de sac.
For the moment, the foreign policy elite continues to view the Ukraine crisis as a complication rather than an opportunity. This is nothing new. Ukraine has long been regarded an unwanted complication for the American foreign policy elite. Ukraine signaled the end of the Soviet Union when it declared independence just weeks after George Bush senior delivered a speech in Kiev aimed precisely at keeping the Soviet Union together and warning of suicidal nationalism. While the bloodbath many feared did not happen, Ukrainian independence raised the issue of Ukraine’s inheritance of the portion of the Soviet nuclear stockpile. That was resolved in 1994 with the Budapest Memorandum in which Ukraine voluntarily gave up its nuclear weapons, but even then Ukraine did not fade into the background as a happily pliant Russian client state. Its generally free and fair elections revealed a country that could not quite make up its mind whether to lean East or West, leading to shifts in course foreign policy experts dislike, and then there were the crises, the Orange Revolution, the gas disputes with Russia, all before the Euromaidan crisis ostensibly brought on by the push to bring Ukraine closer into the European orbit.
By contrast, Russia has been treated as stable and reliable. Of course, it had a head start as the legal successor state to the Soviet Union, and however shrunken its economic power, it remained the largest country on the map. Despite tense moments in 1993 and the 1996 elections, the leadership has generally been seen by experts as having predicable interests, which has included preserving the stability in its backyard. In the instance of the Budapest Memorandum, Russia could be seen as a force for good, but even when it did things the West did not like, such as play games with Ukraine over gas, Russia’s actions were always framed as understandable. Further, both Yeltsin and Putin have been eager to be seen as major players on the world stage, and brokers in affairs well beyond Russia’s immediate neighborhood, most notably in negotiations in the Middle East, most recently in Syria.
Of course, in 1994 no one foresaw that Russia might unilaterally abrogate the Memorandum, and the Memorandum was seen as great power politics done right. Indeed, there are likely few observers, who can honestly say that they were not optimistic about the long-term value of integrating Russia into world affairs and treating it as a potential “normal country,” which would have to go through some difficult times, but would be transformed by broader contacts with the West. Yet, what we have lived to see in our new globalized world is that our institutions are not the bulwarks of civil society and well regulated free market economy we thought them to be. They can be they can be tainted by corruption, and the biggest corrupting force is huge capital than can be used against the interests of the many. Significantly, this was not Russia’s doing, but the very fact that the west was becoming increasingly comfortable with huge income disparities meant that the bankers and other players found it easy to miss the fact that the oligarchs in the Soviet successor states had amassed their fortunes not through careful building of market share and introduction of new products in a free market, but through arbitrage that was only possible because of the lack of transparency in their economies. That wealth had to managed, and who could resist the temptation not to help these men and occasional women make use of their assets, and so we get Londynograd. Moreover, it was not difficult to assuage any guilt through the profits one made, and by telling ourselves that this wealth was an aberration resulting from the transition, but that these fortunes, like those of the American robber barons a century before would dissipate in time.
That assumption rested on the notion that a new economic transparency would gradually take hold in the Soviet successor states. It has not, and if that has not stopped a new entrepreneurial class from emerging, it is also evident that Putin has little interest in nurturing and broadening the middle class in a way where it can become more become a player in its own right. For the denizens of the foreign policy elite, however, that has remained a minor matter, and this truth, as well as the effects Russian money was having on our allies, was ignored because other more pressing concerns elsewhere, particularly in the middle east were more pressing, and having Russia’s help was accepted as essential. So we have coddled Putin, and been slow to recognize the extent that world order Putin has been pursuing is one aimed at aggrandizing Russian and complicate our ability to confront his aggression.
If convincing our European allies to confront Putin is difficult now, one can only imagine what it would have been five or ten years from now had the Ukraine crisis not cropped up. Now that the crisis has happened and it is clear that the assumptions made two decades ago have proven flawed, we should not run away from what we have discovered. Rather the time has come to reexamine our real goals are in the post-post-cold war era, and how we can use the challenges presented today to forge a new long-term stability. For to keep going and pretending that a shift has not taken place is actually likely to lead to an even greater disruption down the road. So angry as they may be now, in five to ten years, I predict the realists and the rest of America’s foreign policy elite will be thanking Sikorski for his Ukrainian policy. By pushing the association agreement with Ukraine, he has triggered events that have made it plain how false the post-cold war assumptions were. In the meantime, we may hope that Ukraine will finally be able to break the cycle of corrupt oligarchic rule that has crippled its development so far. If they succeed, we will not have helped the Ukrainians alone, Ukraine will become a model for Russians and Belarusians that there is a different way that will spread prosperity further, and that will only become more important as Putin and Belarus’s presidents get older and their infirmities cease to be the ones that can be managed with Botox, hair dye, and make-up.