Unusual Perspectives on the Ukrainian Crisis

We constantly hear the mainstream American reaction to the Ukrainian crisis, with a number of authors even comparing Putin’s actions in the Crimea to Hitler’s takeover of Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland. My goal, both in today’s post and Sunday’s is to provide alternative perspectives so that you can then draw your own conclusions.

An interesting perspective appeared in today’s New York Times in an OpEd entitled “What Putin Wants.” Although its author heads a think tank supported by the Russian military-industrial complex and therefore brings a certain bias to the table, he makes some points worth considering:

Mr. Putin’s aim is not a de jure separation of Crimea from the rest of Ukraine. …   Russia has a strong interest in nominally retaining Crimea as part of Ukraine … [because it guarantees] almost a million “pro-Russian” votes in Ukrainian elections, ensuring the dominance of the pro-Russian eastern half of the country over the nationalist western half. [The Crimea was part of Russia until 1954, when Khrushchev “gave” it to Ukraine, and most of its population is Russian.]

If the Ukrainian nationalists had been smarter and more farsighted, they themselves would have advocated a renunciation of claims to Crimea in order to remove this needle in their side, but their desire for a Greater Ukraine has trumped sober political calculations.

Mr. Putin is a more farsighted and coldblooded calculator. He will therefore strive to keep Crimea as part of Ukraine … Western governments, meanwhile, brought a crisis upon themselves by supporting the seizure of power by forces that were manifestly unrepresentative of the full political spectrum of Ukraine and its various regions. …

The net result of yet another Ukrainian revolution will be de facto Russian control of Crimea, and a Kiev government commercially and personally bound to Mr. Putin. … The losers will be those simpletons of international politics — including the United States — who mistook the clashes of some Ukrainian neo-Nazis with Mr. Yanukovych’s police force for the dawning of democracy and the beginning of a Ukrainian Spring.

Another, very different perspective is provided by the University of Chicago’s Prof. John Mearsheimer. As background, I should note that Mearsheimer believes that the world becomes safer as more nations obtain nuclear weapons, and refers to them as “weapons of peace.” In 1993, he therefore saw it as a mistake when Ukraine agreed to give up the huge nuclear arsenal – then the world’s third largest – which it had inherited from the Soviet Union. Back then he wrote:

The conventional wisdom about Ukraine’s nuclear weapons is wrong. In fact, as soon as it declared independence, Ukraine should have been quietly encouraged to fashion its own nuclear deterrent. … A nuclear Ukraine makes sense … [because] it is imperative to maintain peace between Russia and Ukraine.

Mearsheimer continued that train of thought this past Monday, in a Global Security Network posting which quoted from an email he had sent:

If Ukraine had a real nuclear deterrent, the Russians would not be threatening to invade it. … [Also] I doubt whether we [the U.S.] would have been so anxious to foster a coup. One treads very lightly – to put it mildly – when threatening the survival of a nuclear-armed state, or even the regime in charge of it.

While I don’t subscribe to Mearsheimer’s nuclear optimism, I believe he is right that nations tread much more cautiously when dealing with nuclear-armed adversaries. However, my conclusion is very different: that we should tread much more cautiously even with non-nuclear-armed nations since, otherwise, we unwittingly encourage them to seek nuclear weapons.

Martin Hellman

About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, for almost 30 years, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." Its soon to open website explains: https://anewmap.com.
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5 Responses to Unusual Perspectives on the Ukrainian Crisis

  1. peteybee says:

    interesting perspectives!

  2. CS says:

    “However, my conclusion is very different: that we should tread much more cautiously even with non-nuclear-armed nations since, otherwise, we unwittingly encourage them to seek nuclear weapons.”

    This element is particularly unfortunate with Ukraine because it was promised territorial integrity and security by Russia and the U.S. in exchange for giving up its nuclear weapons in the Budapest Memorandum. This is reminiscent of the old Libyan regime, which gave up its nuclear program under US pressure only to see the U.S. enable its successful overthrow.

    Promises of security for nuclear disarmament seem to be of limited value, which makes it hard to make deals with places like North Korea.

  3. Nuclear Risk says:

    CS, you make an important point. North Korea has even pointed to Gaddafi’s fate – after Pres. Bush promised that his “good behavior” in giving up his WMD program would be rewarded – as proof that they were right to pursue nuclear weapons.
    This reinforces the need for us to tread more lightly everywhere in the world, and only use military force when our vital interests (not just our perceived vital interests) are threatened. And, if we start early enough, I believe we might never have to use military force, at least in the kind of world we now face. Even Hitler might have been stopped without military force if we’d started in 1919 instead of 1939 – he probably never would have come to power!

    • notcatweasel says:

      Well, imagine if the US had supported the various socialist republics in the former German Empire as they struggled to come to terms with the national disaster the Kaiser had brought on them. Instead, the socialist republics were crushed and the activists who had attempted to create new legal and economic structures to deal with the Kaiser’s unholy mess, were murdered or imprisoned or exiled – Ret Marut later known as B Traven the novelist, was one such, forced into exile from the socialist republic of Bavaria, which he had attempted to set up.

      Again, imagine if the obscenely punitive reparations forced on the Weimar Republic had not been permitted, and it allowed to start to make a recovery from the Kaiser’s mess.

      The Kaiser was forced from office by a revolt in the Kriegsmarine that spread to the Army; it’s not dissimilar from the “People Power” revolt in the Phillipines that forced Marcos from power. And it was the punitive aspects of the disarmament program forced on the Weimar Republic by the Treaty of Versailles that led to German-Soviet rapprochement – which strengthened the Junkers class who were Hitler’s most fervent supporters.

  4. notcatweasel says:

    Well, firstly, the comparison that spring to mind when Russian forces began moving in to Crimea was the US into Grenada in 1983. Now I see that it’s rather more complicated. My admiration for Putin’s brinkmanship goes up considerably.

    Interesting that Pukhov lays part of the blame on the “Greater Ukraine” nationalists. I’ve read Israeli peace activists blaming many of their nation’s woes (including the Occupation) on the “Greater Israeli” nationalism, and one perceptively blames the various civil wars in Lebanon on the “Greater Lebanon” choice made by the Maronites when France split the Lebanon off from Syria.

    I think we can take it for granted that this crisis, no matter who comes out on top, will mark the beginning of the end of US suzerainty in Europe.

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