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21 May, 2018  ▪  Anna Korbut

The orbit of sovereignty

The Ukrainian Week asks American think-tankers and diplomats three questions: 1. Is Ukraine seen as part of Russia’s sphere of influence in the US? 2. Why a part of the American establishment believes that Ukraine should be attributed to Russia’s orbit? 3. What can Ukraine do to counter this approach?

 John Herbst, Director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, US Ambassador to Ukraine from 2003 to 2006

Since the emergence of independent Ukraine, the US has never considered its policy towards Ukraine as subordinate to its policy towards Russia. Washington has always supported the full sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine and the other nations to emerge from the Soviet Union. Our support for a sovereign Ukraine has led to major tensions in our relationship with Russia both during the Orange Revolution and since the Revolution of Dignity. At the same time, the US, in formulating its policy towards Ukraine, must take into account the possible Russian reaction. While that accounting may influence, it does not undercut Washington’s support for an independent and secure Ukraine.

As to what explains the thinking of some parts of the US establishment that Ukraine should be attributed to Russia’s orbit of influence, and what can Ukraine do to counter that thinking, the short answer is simple: ignorance. There are at least two sources for this ignorance. First, most Americans have learned about Ukraine as a function of learning about Russia. The Russian history courses taught in most American colleges reflect the Russian imperial view of history: which sees a straight line from “Kievan Rus” to Muscovy to the Russian Empire and to the Soviet Union. In that reading of history Ukraine “belongs” to Russia. Very few Americans are familiar with Ukrainian history as an independent story. This failing is evident in the great American statesman/scholar Henry Kissinger.

The second source is related to, but distinct from the first. It is a misreading of Russia’s role in the world today. The great prosperity and the relative security that we enjoy today is the result of the world system that the West built at the end of World War II: the liberal international order. The basic rules of that order are that all states have the right to full sovereignty and territorial integrity; that disagreements should be settled by negotiations and/or international law, not force or arms; and that nations have the right to choose their own friends and allies. With its wars against Georgia and now Ukraine, the Kremlin is directly challenging this order. Kremlin apologists think that Moscow’s aggressive policies are only a result of its desire to maintain its traditional control in its neighborhood – including traditional control over Ukraine. They ignore Moscow’s stated intention to overturn the rules of international order and its subversive activities in regard to NATO and the EU. They also ignore the fact that since the demise of the Soviet Union and the appearance of Russia as a new state, the security services of that state never ceased to see the West as an adversary. In short, it takes a lot of ignoring to support policies subordinating Ukraine to the whims of Moscow.

 Steven Pifer, Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence, Center on the US and Europe, Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative, Brookings Institution; US Ambassador to Ukraine from 1998 to 2000

It is understandable that Russia takes an interest in what happens in Ukraine, in the same way that the United States takes an interest in what happens in Canada.  That said, Russia's right to take an interest in what happens in neighboring countries does not translate to a Russian right to assert a sphere of influence over Ukraine.  Ukraine is an independent state with a right -- recognized at one time by Moscow -- to make its own sovereign decisions about its foreign policy orientation and associations.  The U.S. government has consistently supported that right since Ukraine regained independence in 1991.

The view that Ukraine should be attributed to a Russian sphere of influence is held by only a small part of the U.S. foreign policy community. One does not see that attitude among the ranks of U.S. officials who work on Ukraine and Russia. So Kyiv may not have to worry much about countering that attitude.

Those outside the government who argue the point usually say that the United States needs Russian cooperation on other major issues and thus should accept Moscow's assertion of a sphere of influence in its region. There certainly are major issues on which U.S.-Russian cooperation could benefit both countries, but that should not come at the expense of Ukraine.

Others argue that the West has somehow provoked Russia by the enlargement of institutions such as the European Union and NATO. Those who make that argument misunderstand what drove the decisions to enlarge and overlook the not insignificant efforts made by the West to alleviate Russian concerns.

 Charles Kupchan, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), special assistant to the president and senior director for European affairs on the staff of the National Security Council in the Obama administration from 2014 to 2017

The Maidan revolution marked Ukraine’s decision to look West and distance itself from Russia’s sphere of influence. It was precisely because Russia feared this outcome that it seized Crimea and supported a separatist insurgency in Donbas; the Kremlin was seeking to block Ukraine from orienting itself toward European and Atlantic institutions and values.  But by intervening in Ukraine, Russia has only strengthened the determination of Ukrainians to leave the Kremlin’s orbit. In the long run, Vladimir Putin’s effort to keep Ukraine in the Russian fold will backfire as Ukrainians continue to struggle to exercise their autonomy. 

The United States, along with its EU partners, supports Ukraine’s ability to chart its own future.  At the same, there is no military solution to Russia’s interference in Ukraine’s affairs.  Like it or not, Ukraine is Russia’s neighbor and Russia wields military superiority.  Accordingly, Ukraine’s best option is to proceed with political and economic reform, continue to fight corruption, and strengthen liberal institutions and values – in short, to ensure the country emerges as a political and economic success story. Political and economic reform represents the best way to ensure that Ukraine leaves behind the Russian legacy of corruption and patronage. Ukraine cannot move away from Russia in geographic terms, but it can and must do so in political and economic terms.

As it seeks to strengthen its political institutions and exercise full sovereignty and freedom of geopolitical choice, Kyiv should continue to look for diplomatic avenues to deescalate tensions with Moscow. The Minsk negotiations may be stalled for now, but they continue to represent the best vehicle for restoring Ukrainian sovereignty over Donbas and facilitating the withdrawal of Russian troops and weaponry.  In the meantime, the United States and its partners will continue to support Ukraine and use their good offices to facilitate dialogue between Moscow and Kyiv.   

 Janusz Bugajski, senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) and co-author with Margarita Assenova of Eurasian Disunion: Russia’s Vulnerable Flanks (Jamestown Foundation, DC)

There are several perspectives by past and current policy makers in the US on Russia. In addition to the "value based" and “realpolitik” positions, a third position has significant support both in Congress and the administration. I would call it “interest based.” In other words, if Russia is an adversary of the US (as stated in America's new national security strategy) then denying Russia control over strategically important countries such as Ukraine is in America’s national interest as it undermines Moscow’s neo-imperial aspirations.

There are some policy people in Washington who calculate that Ukraine belongs in Russia’s sphere of influence -- I would divide them into three groups. First, are those who believe that Europe should be taking the lead role in Ukraine and that US resources and focus are too thinly stretched. If Europe is unable to do so then Russia should step in. Second, are the Russia-appeasers, who think that the US needs cooperative relations with Russia regardless of the position of smaller countries such as Ukraine. And third are those who, regardless of what they actually believe, benefit in some way from Kremlin-connected money or favors, whether for business, research, or personal profit.

Ukrainian officials, politicians, and activists need to demonstrate and convince US policy makers and analysts that the war in Ukraine is important for European security. As a consequence, if Europe’s security is undermined by Russia’s expansionism and revisionism then sooner or later the US will be pulled into a wider regional war. It is more rational to thwart Moscow’s ambitions at an early stage by helping Ukraine stymie the aggressor and defend its territorial integrity than be faced with a spreading conflict fueled by Russia’s sense of success and perceived Western weakness.

 Melinda Haring, editor of the UkraineAlert blog, a biweekly publication of the Atlantic Council; fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute; term member of the Council on Foreign Relations

In some circles, yes. Realists tend to view Ukraine as part of Russia’s sphere of interest, but they are thankfully small in number. Most foreign policy professionals in the United States recognize Ukraine as an independent country that gets to determine its own future.  

For far too long, Ukraine was subsumed into Russian and Soviet history departments in the United States. More scholarship, journalism, and books for a general reader are needed to show that Ukraine has its own distinct history that is separate from Soviet and Russian history.

Ukraine should also focus on telling more stories to international audiences about its European aspirations, its enormous success in technology, and its ongoing attempts to free itself from the Russian yoke. This is a storyline that will appeal to many Americans. And Ukraine needs to kick its reform drive into full gear. The more that Ukraine reforms, the easier it is for Ukraine’s friends in the United States to argue that Ukraine wants nothing to do with the post-Soviet world and has created a completely new identity.

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