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Are We Starting Another Cold War over Russian Actions in Ukraine?

Tensions continue escalating in Ukraine. On 2 May, two Ukrainian helicopters were shot down as Ukrainian forces moved forward on the outskirts of the eastern Ukrainian city of Slovyansk, held by pro-Russian rebels. That same day, in the Black Sea port city of Odessa, dozens of people died due to clashes between Ukrainian-unity demonstrators and pro-Russian opponents. Russian and U.S. government officials blamed each other for escalating the crisis. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a key player in negotiations to defuse the crisis, met with President Obama at the White House, and they warned of new sanctions against Russia.

Meanwhile, historian Stephen Cohen and Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel claim that “the White House declared a new Cold War on Russia—and that, in a grave failure of representative democracy, there was scarcely a public word of debate, much less opposition, from the American political or media establishment.”

Is there a new Cold War? Did we start it? Both points are arguable. Less debatable is their statement: “Both sides in the confrontation, the West and Russia, have legitimate grievances,” and that “twenty years of NATO’s eastward expansion has caused Russia to feel cornered.” They are also correct that much of the U.S. media and most political leaders have been one-sided in blaming the increased tensions on Vladimir Putin’s “aggression,” on his desire “to re-create as much of the old Soviet empire as he can,” or perhaps on his wish to increase his domestic popularity. And they are right to ask, “Does it mean there is nothing credible enough to discuss in Moscow’s side of the story?”

In a March 2014 PBS interview Cohen blamed U.S. media for ignoring Russian national interests on its borders, “as though we don’t care what happens in Canada and Mexico.” Similarly, I remember thinking in 1962 of the incongruity during the Cuban Missile Crisis of U.S. citizens being offended at Soviet missiles in Cuba, but accepting as completely normal our missiles deployed in Turkey aimed across the Black Sea at Soviet territory.

But recognizing Soviet suspicions—for example, that the West wants to bring Ukraine into NATO—and national interests does not mean condoning Russian interference on Ukrainian territory. To say that the United States has often intervened, overtly and covertly, in Latin America does not make such big-power bullying right. As I have written previously, countries abutting a major power’s borders, whether those of Russia or the United States, also have their security concerns and the right—whether exercised wisely or not—to join whatever alliances they wish. Furthermore, the fact that many ethnic Russians live in Ukraine does not give Russia any right to intercede militarily if these minorities are treated unfairly. Would Mexico have the right to send troops to Texas if Mexican-Americans there were being wronged?

One might legitimately claim that the Cohen-vanden Heuvel essay understates Putin’s responsibility for the new U.S.-Russian tensions, but it is correct in suggesting that the recent worsening of relations stems from more complex causes than mainstream media have indicated.

For decades a deep political divide has existed within Ukraine itself—think of the U.S. north and south on the eve of our Civil War. The main division is between a more pro-West western Ukraine and a more pro-Russian eastern Ukraine. According to the 2001 Ukrainian Census, in western regions less than 5 percent of the people were ethnic Russians; in a few of the most eastern regions almost 40 percent were. In Crimea, which has seceded from Ukraine to join Russia, ethnic Russians comprise over half the population. Other remaining portions of southern Ukraine, such as Odessa, have a smaller percentage of ethnic Russians than in eastern Ukraine, but more than in western Ukraine.

The situation, however, is more complex than ethnicity, for many ethnic Ukrainians speak Russian as their primary language. In Odessa, for example, where ethnic Ukrainians outnumber ethnic Russians by about a 2 to 1 margin, more people speak Russian than Ukrainian. Intermarriage between the two ethnic groups has also frequently occurred in various parts of Ukraine.

Regardless of these complexities, the different regions have displayed striking political differences throughout the almost quarter century of Ukrainian independence. In 1996, before Putin had risen to political prominence, historian Hiroaki Kuromiya wrote: “The Donbas [in eastern Ukraine] continues to pose the most serious regional political challenge to Kiev. Donbas political mafias are widely suspected of the recent assassination attempt in Kiev on the Ukrainian prime minister, who intended to curtail their political power. . . . What has defined Donbas politics was (and still is) a fierce spirit of freedom and independence.” Two years later, in his Donbas: A Ukrainian-Russian Borderland, 1870s-1990s, Kuromiya repeated this last sentence. The Donbas area is the center of the current rebel seizures of cities such as Slovyansk and Donetsk.

In the 2004 Ukrainian presidential election Viktor Yanukovych, backed by Putin, ran against Viktor Yushchenko, whose second wife had been born in Chicago and worked in the Reagan White House. After Yanukovych was declared victorious, protesters took to the streets of Kyiv (Kiev) accurately claiming that results had been improperly tabulated. The Ukrainian Supreme Court agreed and called for a new election, which Yushchenko won. The victors referred to their successful challenge as the Orange Revolution. In a 2007 article Michael McFaul, who later served two years as President Obama’s ambassador to Moscow, viewed the election as a “contentious struggle for power between a semi-autocratic regime and a democratic opposition, in which the opposition had enough power to . . . prevail.”

In April 2005, Yushchenko spoke before the U.S. Congress and was vigorously applauded. Officials in the Bush administration, especially Vice-President Dick Cheney, viewed the Orange Revolution as a victory for the administration’s goal of spreading freedom around the world. Although McFaul recognized that U.S. influence on the Orange Revolution was limited, he added: “Given the extremely precarious distribution of power, however, these imported inputs from the West were consequential in tipping the balance in favor of the democratic challengers.” (As the Yushchenko government advanced, charges of corruption against it increased.) Angela Stent director of Georgetown’s Center for Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies, wrote in The Limits of Partnership : U.S.-Russian Relations in the Twenty-first Century: “A consensus emerged in Russia that the West—and especially the United States—had engineered the entire revolution.”

Many eastern Ukrainian citizens also viewed the Orange Revolution with skepticism. One 2006 essay cited a poll that indicated a majority of Donbas citizens considered “the Orange Revolution a coup d’etat, either organized with Western support or prepared by political opposition.”

In 2010, the Donbas helped Yanukovych get elected as Ukrainian president. In February 2014, however, new protests by democratic and right-wing non-democratic protestors in Kyiv drove him from power, setting off the latest unrest in southern and eastern Ukraine. Again, Putin and many others in Russia believe, as they did a decade ago, that the United States helped a more pro-Western government, albeit a provisional one, come to power.

Thus, the most basic Ukrainian problem is not Russian interference in Ukrainian affairs—which no doubt exists—but the absence of a strong national consensus among Ukrainians. What strengthening may result from proposed constitutional reforms and a new presidential election scheduled for 25 May, provided they occur, is unknown.

The Cohen-vanden Heuvel essay mentioned above is correct in suggesting that we need more U.S. national debate about appropriate responses to the Ukrainian crisis. And Angela Stent is correct to insist that both the USA and Russia need to assess each other more realistically and focus on those “concrete areas where the two countries can and must work together.” In a recent Washington Post essay, she identified “Iran, Syria, transit to and from Afghanistan, and the Arctic” as a few of these areas.

As for the present crisis, U.S. politicians and citizens need to be better informed. A good starting point is Johnson’s Russia List, which presents a daily compilation of articles, essays, and other pieces, which offer the most diverse viewpoints on the Ukrainian troubles and the diplomacy surrounding them. And, we need more political imagination—on all sides. Some political agreements involving major powers and a weaker country can be a win-win-win for all involved. In 1955, the four countries that occupied Austria agreed to pull out provided Austria remained neutral. Austria agreed. A win for Austria. A win for the Soviet Union. And a win for the three Western occupying powers, the USA, the UK, and France.