Ukrainian servicemen unload anti-tank missiles provided by the US to Ukraine at Kyiv’s airport Boryspil. AFP
The over-hyped Ukraine crisis could be resolved with one simple word: neutrality. If Ukraine were to choose neutrality over Nato and the Western powers were to agree on inclusive Europe-wide security arrangements, Russian troops, tanks and weaponry could go back to base.
Neutrality has been the policy of Ireland since before the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922 and kept Ireland as a country out of World War II — although Irish soldiers fought in the British army — and the Cold War that followed. The current government argues that Ireland has adopted a policy of “military neutrality” not political neutrality. This could easily suit Ukraine which claims the freedom to choose political independence and democracy but does not have to join Nato to achieve this objective.
Nato and the Western powers have made it difficult for Ukraine to secure freedom of choice unless it also has the right to enter Nato which has, in theory, opened membership to all comers.
In practice, all members must vote in favour of an applicant.
Ukraine declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, opened relations with Nato in 1992 and applied for membership in 2008. However, this was shelved when Viktor Yanukovych won the presidency and insisted that the country should adopt “non-alignment.”
It is significant that he chose “non-alignment,” a political term defining where a country stands between two or more antagonists in war or peace. During the Cold War, “non-alignment” provided a Third Way for mainly emerging Third World Countries to avoid getting sucked into the confrontation between the Western and Soviet blocs.
“Neutrality” is a legal term meaning refusal to be embroiled in a war or conflict situation on one side or another. When World War I erupted in Europe in 1914 the US declared its “neutrality.” President Wooddrow Wilson said that the US must be “impartial in thought as well as in action” although it leaned towards the Allies rather than Germany. Its invasion of Belgium and sinking of merchant and passenger ships propelled the US into the war on the Allied side in 1917.
Determined not to become involved in other European or Asian wars, the US adopted a series of “neutrality acts during the 1930s and again adopted “neutrality” when Nazi Germany invaded its neighbours in 1939-40. The US remained neutral until December 8th, 1941, when Japan, Germany’s ally, attacked Pearl Harbour in Hawaii. The US was not alone in declaring “neutrality:” there were nine states in Europe, seven in this region, and two in the Americas.
During Ukraine’s 2014 uprising, Yanukovich fled the country and the interim government retained non-alignment. However, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine’s Donbas region and annexation of the strategic Crimean Peninsula, the newly elected Ukrainian government decided to pursue Nato membership. In 2019 the Ukranian constitution was amended to authorise this effort as well as apply for European Union membership, ringing alarm bells in Moscow. Having grown up and served in the Soviet intelligence apparatus during the Cold War, Russian President Vladimir Putin sees Ukraine’s defection as a serious threat to Russia since Nato weaponry and military personnel could be based on its long border. This is totally unacceptable to the Russian leadership just as the deployment of Russian troops along the Canadian border would be flatly rejected by the US.
Writing on tomdispatch.com Rajan Menon points out that the current crisis has its origins in a Clinton administration blunder in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union and defection of its satellite states: “During that decade, Russia was on its knees. Its economy had shrunk by nearly 40 per cent, while unemployment was surging and inflation skyrocketing...The Russian military was a mess. Instead of seizing the opportunity to create a new European order that included Russia, President Bill Clinton and his foreign policy team squandered it by deciding to expand Nato threateningly toward that country’s borders.” This policy, he said, “guaranteed that Europe would once be again be divided” while Russia would be “excluded and progressively alienated.”
This is, unfortunately, what has happened. Clinton and his successors did not consider the alternatives to expanding Nato at Russia’s expense. Politicians rarely consider the predictable consequences or the unintended consequences of their actions and policies. Their priority is survival from one election to another.
US President Joe Biden’s first year in office has not been a great success. His overall approval rating stands between 41-39 per cent. His failure to secure the adoption of his $2.2 billion Build Back Better infrastructure bill has been a major blow to his presidency and pride, particularly since he could not even convince a recalcitrant senator from his own party to back the bill. Biden’s disastrous decision to go ahead with Donald Trump’s deal with the Taliban for US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the US chaotic pull-out undermined domestic and foreign confidence in both Biden and the US. He has also suffered from an inability to eradicate COVID and return US citizens to normal life, curb inflationary pressures, and prevent Republican states from passing legislation that discriminates against black and brown voters.
Hyping the crisis in Ukraine provides Biden with an opportunity to focus the attention of the US public on the Russian build-up and play the part of a war leader by sending 6,000 troops to Nato members although if fighting did erupt Nato’s forces would not be a match for the 130,000 Russia has deployed Biden may even don a bomber jacket during a visit to a US military base before troops embark on planes for Europe to counter Russian pressure on Ukraine.
Fifty-three per cent of US citizens argue that Biden should stay out of Ukraine, 43 per cent support involvement while four per cent supports Russia, according to a CBSNews/YouGov poll conducted between February 8th-11th. As long as he avoids getting the US involved in warfare, Biden should benefit from the drama.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is quite happy about the distraction the Ukraine crisis provides from the Brexit debacle, his mishandling of COVID, and the 16 or more parties at his residence/office that broke isolation/quarantine laws during 2020. The crisis also gives him the opportunity to demonstrate he can be a responsible politician and war leader.
French President Emmanuel Macron is playing the peacemaker rather than the war monger.
His visit to Moscow where he met Putin has not appeared to cool the climate but it was a good try. Macron plans to keep trying and may even succeed, giving a boost to his prospects for re-election in the April presidential poll.
The Ukraine flap also provide respite for Putin who has endured several failures on the domestic front. If he achieved relief from Nato’s potential encirclement of his country he will be seen as a hero by many Russians.
Finally, for Nato’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, the build-up has demonstrated the relevance of the Western alliance which had been humiliated by the Taliban victory and the messy US-led flight from Afghanistan.
While Biden, Johnson, and Stoltenberg keep up the verbal assault on Putin, who says he does not want war, the only win-win outcome for all involved is a negotiated solution and an exit from the crisis mode.