Monthly Archives: April 2014

Peaceful self-determination for the eastern Ukraine (too)

I had a nice lunch with my department colleagues and ex-Senator Lugar this week.  Senator Lugar is really a nice person, and has great stories (statements that apply to my department colleagues as well).  Still, a lunch with a VIP like that is not like a normal lunch where everyone kind of talks in small groups to the people next to and across the table from them.  It’s more like a friendly question and answer session with the VIP doing the answering and everyone else trying to come up with something to ask so the silences don’t get too long and awkward.

During one of those silences I asked the Senator about the Ukraine situation.  He gave an answer indicative of the complexity of the situation, but I pressed a little further in asking what was wrong with the people of Eastern Ukraine agitating for more political distance from Kiev.  He offered a common argument against allowing for greater self-determination: namely, that it would open sort of a Pandora’s Box of similar claims across the region that would cause even more conflict.

At that point decorum sort of dictated that nod and smile and not say anything else, but, while it was a fair argument, I disagreed.  The people of eastern Ukraine should not be forced into a political system they find alienating because of seemingly similar situations in places like Transnistria or because a lot of Russians live in a couple of the Baltic countries.

Trying to create and live by hard and fast norms in international relations is sometimes a noble effort.  Nobody advocates slavery or seizing overseas colonies by force anymore, not just because of the diplomatic consequence, but because people across the world have come to the understanding that these are bad things that bad people advocate.  With the case of maintaining the territorial integrity of states, however, there is always going to be the countervailing norm that suggests that people are entitled to their own destiny and self-determination.  If you read my last entry, you know that I tend to sympathize with the second (self-determination) more than the first (territorial integrity) – or at least feel that self-determination is too often overshadowed by a desire to maintain borders.

And, just as I understand why taking control of the “r”ussian-dominated Crimea was so important to Russians, it’s not hard to understand why the current Russian-leaning “terrorists” in Eastern Ukraine are forcing the issue of their own political status.  That’s not to say that I think it okay for Russia to be involved in the manner it has (as Senator Lugar pointed out, Russia signed a treaty promising not to compromise Ukraine’s territorial integrity in the mid nineties in exchange for Ukraine giving up its nuclear weapons).  What the Eastern Ukrainian militants are calling for, however, seems fair enough – namely, a referendum on the future of the region that allows for the people of the area to decide whether they want autonomy or (in some statements) independence.

Instead of advocating on behalf of the people in the region, US, EU, and Russian leaders have sought to turn Ukraine into a kind of neo-Cold War standoff.  The US and EU stand unquestionable by an unstable Ukrainian government that came to power (with some good reasons) after overthrowing a democratically-elected regime.  Russian leaders manipulate the government-dominated Russian media to spew propaganda about “Ukrainian fascists” that often sounds like its originating more from Soviet times than anything resembling modern Russia. 

Although it might put me at odds with almost everyone in the US government and most of the media, I think we should be putting pressure on the new Ukrainian government to work with the (let’s say) “separatists” to give them a greater say in the affairs of the Ukraine.  At the very least, there is probably a compromise to be reached that gives the region a lot more autonomy within a federal structure.  Unlike the faltering agreement reached this week, future negotiations should include all the interested parties and include more than vague promises to “reach out” to all Ukrainians.

In the meantime, Americans and Russians need to stop the chest-thumping and stop seeing the issue through silly one-dimensional narratives.  What’s happening is not a simple case of plucky Ukrainian Davids fighting the Russian Goliath or Ukrainian fascists persecuting helpless Russophiles. The West is not trying to dominate Russia and Putin is not Hitler.

In the end, however, the situation is a common one and we will see it again – self-determination and territorial integrity will always be at odds.  In Western countries, however, greater regional minority rights and even referendums on independence are already (or fast becoming) the norm for areas like Scotland, Quebec, or Catalonia, that might want to chart their own course in the future.  If Ukrainian leaders really want their country to look to the West, maybe they should consider adopting Western understandings of peaceful self-determination.