Why the West should let Russia have eastern Ukraine

Ukraine ought to be split in two, anyway

(Image credit: (AP Photo/Antoine E.R. Delaunay))

Putin's Russia seems to have finally launched its bona fide invasion of Ukraine. And many righteously indignant American lawmakers will surely be eager to try to stop Russia (not at any cost), or at least punish it for doing something reprehensible. Ukraine is a sovereign country, and invading sovereign countries is bad (you know, unless you are the United States).

But this thinking misses a crucial dimension of the problem.

America has a blind spot when it comes to nationhood. America's implicit theory of humans seems to be that as long as they get "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" out of their government (and low taxes and the ability to vote the bums out), they're happy. But people want another thing out of their government: nationhood.

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What this means is tricky, because each nation defines what it is for itself, often implicitly. For some nations, nationhood is tied closely to ethnicity. For some, it is tied to land. For some, it's language or culture or history. For most countries, it is a mysterious mix of all of these. America is almost unique in believing, at least officially, that its nationhood is fundamentally defined by agreement to a set of legal rules.

But nations have psyches, wants, desires, fears, destinies even — and integrity. This is why Charles de Gaulle never referred to the Soviet Union and only to Russia. To him, the Politburo was not really driven by Communist ideology but rather by simple national interest. Stalin did only what Peter the Great would have done in the same circumstances.

America's blind spot on the importance of nationhood is largely responsible for the maddeningly obvious events of the Iraq War. The problem that lay at the heart of the conception of the Iraq War was failing to understand that Iraq is not, and never has been, a nation. In the mind of the architects of the war, if they could figure out a way to get Iraq's government to work or merely to be an improvement over Saddam Hussein's regime, Iraqis would be happy — they would get life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, after all — and the venture would be a success. But Iraq was never a nation but an agglomeration of nations and peoples — Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds. The only way to hold it together was — as Saddam Hussein, no theoretician, understood quite well — the way it was actually held together: through violence and terror. Now most people understand that if "Iraq" can be held together, it will be as a legal fiction: as a very loose confederation of autonomous Kurdish, Sunni, and Shia enclaves. If only it hadn't taken a decade and unfathomable blood and treasure for American policymakers to understand one of the basic rules of the grammar of history.

All of which brings us to Ukraine. Is Ukraine a nation? Well, there is such a thing as a Ukrainian nation. The problem, as has so often been the case in Eastern Europe, is that although there is a Ukrainian nation, the borders of the state of Ukraine do not match it.

This is a gross oversimplification, but the basics go like this: Ukrainians in the western half of the country are largely Ukrainophone (rather than Russophone), pro-European, and pro-Western; Ukrainians in the eastern half of the country are largely Russophone and pro-Russian. The Crimea that Putin invaded has historically been part of Russia since the 18th century and was given to Ukraine from Russia by Kruschchev in an entirely symbolic gesture, since Ukraine was controlled by the Soviet Union. That Viktor Yanukovych was elected president in 2010 shows that the Russophile drive has real popular support in Ukraine and is not (just) a machination orchestrated from Moscow.

We have been having a "Ukraine crisis" for a decade now, since the Orange Revolution of 2004. Every winter, the battle flares up, with conflicts over gas as pretexts of this broader national struggle, with two nations yoked under one state, each with a natural leaning toward one of the two main blocs of the European continent.

The incompetence of the United States and the EU, for that decade, has been breathtaking. If the EU and NATO had enough vision and competence, they might have been able to build up institutions in Ukraine so it could stand up to Russia, or at least be decisively moored to the Western bloc. But that ship has sailed.

And, like Iraq, the crisis will continue for another decade or more until the root cause is addressed: Ukraine is two nations in one. Both sides of the story really are true. There are many Ukrainians who would be more at home in Russia, just like there are many Ukrainians who want their country to become a part of the Euro-American West.

The answer, then, seems clear: The West should come to an agreement with Russia whereby Ukraine will be split in two, with the Russian-speaking areas annexed to Russia (as they should always have been). So that this is not viewed as a concession out of fear to Russia, what remains of Ukraine should join NATO and receive official EU candidate status (it is astonishing that Turkey was granted this before Ukraine), with Ukraine membership moved to one of the top concerns of EU leadership (with Washington frequently reminding the Eurocrats, lest they forget, which they will). Ukraine's internal politics are deeply troubled, and in the other countries of Eastern Europe, EU candidacy has proven astonishingly successful at rooting out corruption and promoting rule of law, democracy, and economic growth. (We should just pray that Ukraine never adopts the euro, but that's another topic altogether.)

Before this is viewed as a straight capitulation to Russia, it should be noted that many in the Kremlin would hate such a deal. Joining even a rump Ukraine to NATO would mean the end of Russia's ambitions beyond its ethnic ken, at least for the foreseeable future. And Russian policymakers value very heavily the idea of having a buffer between Russia and NATO, which is probably one reason Russia still hasn't annexed Belarus. When Finland made a few noises about joining NATO as a response to Russian adventurism, this was viewed with disproportionate alarm in the Kremlin.

The best deals are often the ones where both parties get more than they expect in exchange for giving up more than they're willing to. This solution would be a very hard sell — in Washington, in Brussels, in Kiev, and in Moscow.

But it's still the only solution that would solve the crisis for good.

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