WORLD AFFAIRS: When a renowned American statesman such as Henry Kissinger exhibits alarming ignorance about Ukraine, you’ve got to worry. In a March 5th op-ed in the Washington Post, Kissinger got just about everything wrong, even though, remarkably, his prescriptions for resolving the Russo-Ukrainian standoff still managed to be worthy of consideration.

Consider this passage:

The West must understand that, to Russia, Ukraine can never be just a foreign country. Russian history began in what was called Kievan-Rus. The Russian religion spread from there. Ukraine has been part of Russia for centuries, and their histories were intertwined before then. Some of the most important battles for Russian freedom, starting with the Battle of Poltava in 1709, were fought on Ukrainian soil.

Russian history did not begin only in Kyivan (or Kievan) Rus, as Kissinger says. It began in many places, including Russia. Similarly, America’s history began in England as well as in many other places. Every country’s history has multiple roots: Belarusian history also began in Kyivan Rus. Kissinger’s mistake is to advance a tidy—and anti-historical—view of history that justifies imperial Russia’s standing claims to Ukrainian territory. According to his logic, America would be justified in claiming Ontario. By the way, “what was called Kievan-Rus” was in fact a state, one of Europe’s largest at that time.

Pace Kissinger, the Russian religion did not spread from “what was called Kievan-Rus.” What spread was Orthodox Christianity and it spread from Constantinople, thanks in no small measure due to the proselyting efforts of Ss. Cyril and Methodius, both Greeks. True, Ukraine “has been part of Russia for centuries,” but it’s been no less a part of the Mongol empire, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Polish Commonwealth, the Habsburg Empire, and the Ottoman Empire. The Battle of Poltava was a battle between two empires, the Swedish and Russian, and had nothing to do with “Russian freedom” or independence. Imperial struggles never do. And if anyone lost their freedom as a result of the battle, it was the Ukrainian Cossacks under Hetman Ivan Mazepa, who sided with King Charles XII against Czar Peter I.

There’s more:

Crimea, 60 percent of whose population is Russian, became part of Ukraine only in 1954, when Nikita Khrushchev, a Ukrainian by birth, awarded it as part of the 300th-year celebration of a Russian agreement with the Cossacks. The west is largely Catholic; the east largely Russian Orthodox. The west speaks Ukrainian; the east speaks mostly Russian.

Crimea’s population was 58 percent Russian in 2001; with low birth rates and high death rates, the Russian probably comprise about 55 percent today. Crimea’s population was mostly Crimean Tatar until 1944, when Stalin deported the entire Tatar population (numbering around 200,000) to Uzbekistan in a brazen act of ethnic cleansing and genocide (about half died en route). Moreover, Crimea possessed the status of an Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (with both Crimean Tatar and Russian as official languages) until 1945, when, cleansed of the Tatars, it was converted into a Russian province and rapidly populated with Russian settlers, mostly veterans.

Khrushchev was not a Ukrainian, but an ethnic Russian born in Ukraine. The Ukrainian west is as Orthodox as it is Catholic; the east is not “Russian Orthodox,” but simply “Orthodox,” with parishes being affiliated with the Moscow Patriarchate and the Kyiv Patriarchate. The west speaks more Ukrainian than Russian, the east speaks more Russian than Ukrainian, but most people, especially in the center, are at home with both languages.

One final passage:

The politics of post-independence Ukraine clearly demonstrates that the root of the problem lies in efforts by Ukrainian politicians to impose their will on recalcitrant parts of the country, first by one faction, then by the other. That is the essence of the conflict between Viktor Yanukovych and his principal political rival, Yulia Tymoshenko. They represent the two wings of Ukraine and have not been willing to share power.

The ignorance on display here is especially alarming as it completely misrepresents the political reality in today’s Ukraine: “the two wings of Ukraine” are not equally responsible for the mess Ukraine is in. Responsibility rests squarely with Yanukovych and his criminal Party of Regions, and for Kissinger to suggest otherwise is to engage in the greatest of ethical and political obfuscations and moral equivalences.

It is nonsense to suggest that Presidents Kravchuk, Kuchma, and even Yushchenko tried to “impose their will on recalcitrant parts of the country.” Kravchuk and Kuchma always walked a fine middle line. Yushchenko adopted a more pro-western rhetoric, but never had the political will to impose on the east—or for that matter on anybody else. Yushchenko shared power with the Party of Regions, and Yanukovych himself served as Yushchenko’s prime minister from August 4, 2006 to December 18, 2007. After losing the presidential elections of 2010, Tymoshenko “shared power” with the winner, Yanukovych, who, one and a half years later, threw her into jail. And the defining conflict in recent Ukrainian politics is not that between Tymoshenko and Yanukovych but between Tymoshenko and Yushchenko.

Fortunately, Kissinger does have some sensible things to say about resolving the ongoing war:

1. Ukraine should have the right to choose freely its economic and political associations, including with Europe.

2. Ukraine should not join NATO, a position I took seven years ago, when it last came up.

3. Ukraine should be free to create any government compatible with the expressed will of its people. Wise Ukrainian leaders would then opt for a policy of reconciliation between the various parts of their country. Internationally, they should pursue a posture comparable to that of Finland. That nation leaves no doubt about its fierce independence and cooperates with the West in most fields but carefully avoids institutional hostility toward Russia.

4. It is incompatible with the rules of the existing world order for Russia to annex Crimea. But it should be possible to put Crimea’s relationship to Ukraine on a less fraught basis. To that end, Russia would recognize Ukraine’s sovereignty over Crimea. Ukraine should reinforce Crimea’s autonomy in elections held in the presence of international observers. The process would include removing any ambiguities about the status of the Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol.

All four “principles” are reasonable starting points for a discussion. Of course, they all assume that President Putin is, as Kissinger writes, “a serious strategist—on the premises of Russian history.” (That qualifier is worrisome: one could, by the same token, say that Adolf Hitler is “a serious strategist—on the premises of German history.”) If Kissinger is right, then Putin just might be convinced to come around to considering these four points. If Kissinger is wrong—and Putin’s warmongering rhetoric, continued military buildup in Crimea, and incursion into Kherson Province, north of Crimea, are not reassuring—then nothing short of a firm Western stand to contain Russia and protect Ukraine can end his imperialist assault on Ukraine and the international order.

Alexander J. Motyl's blog

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