Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Abandoning Friends

By David G. Young

Washington DC, September 22, 2009 --  

Ukraine's independence may be the ultimate casualty of America's military pullback from Eastern Europe.

America's cancellation of plans to install a missile interceptor system in Poland and the Czech Republic is wise on practical counts, but an enormous sacrifice as a symbol of American power. The system, which would have been designed to shoot down a couple of far-fetched missiles from Iran, but worthless against a massive Russian strike, was terribly cost-ineffective. The system served little more than to be an irritant to relations between America and Russia.

But that's exactly what made the system so valuable -- Russia hated it. The system was being deployed by the former enemy NATO alliance in former Soviet satellite states, and could theoretically be expanded to become a modest defense against Russia. It was a symbol of NATO's eastward expansion and defiance of Russia's domination of the region.

Now that symbol is gone. And it's not Poland and the Czech Republic that should be worried -- it's Ukraine that should be shaking in its boots.

Ukraine watched warily as Russian troops invaded Georgia last August. Home to millions of ethnic Russians (mostly located near the Russian border), Ukraine is also the base for Russia's Black Sea fleet, which was left behind when the Soviet Union collapsed. Russia's leadership despises Ukraine's Western-oriented president, Viktor Yushchenko, who has aggressively pursued NATO membership, and has said there is no chance that Ukraine will renew the lease on the Russian naval base when it expires in 2017.1

Russia's leadership has made frightening statements about Ukraine. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin reportedly told President Bush during a NATO summit that Ukraine is "not even a state".2 Last month, on the anniversary of the war in Georgia, President Dmitry Medvedev wrote an open letter chastising the Ukrainian president (for offenses including supplying arms to Georgia) and accompanied it with a video of him standing before Russian warships in the sea between Russia and Ukraine.3

Some, including Ukraine's President Yushchenko, claim that Russia was behind his 2004 assassination attempt via dioxin poisoning.4 And given Russia's heavy-handed meddling in Ukraine's 2004 elections, it is a likely bet that the country will be greatly involved in the coming election cycle, too.

Happily for Russia, Ukrainian President Yushchenko's flagging popularity makes his re-election highly unlikely. Unhappily for Russia, his replacement could likely be the even more nationalist and anti-Russian Yulia Tymoshenko, who wrote a Foreign Policy article last year about containing Russia.5

If a conflict between Russia and Ukraine is sparked by the election, it will probably begin in the Crimean peninsula. Khrushchev transferred this wedge of land to Ukraine during Soviet times, when such transfers meant little. It's home to both the Russian navy base and a large majority of people who see themselves as Russian, not Ukrainian. Should things not go Russia's way in the election, this territory and the neighboring Russian-speaking areas of eastern Ukraine could be easily goaded by Russia to simply secede, inviting Russian forces to assist them in a replay of Russia's 2008 invasion of Georgia.

Except with the Obama administration signaling deference to Russia with the cancellation of the missile interceptor system, there is little reason to think Russia will be as gentle as it was in Georgia. Last year, the Bush administration rightfully gave strong support to Georgia during the war, putting American warships into port in Georgia while Russian troops where still occupying other parts of the country.6 This support may have prevented even more brutal action by Russia, which did not enter the capital, and did not depose Georgia's Western-oriented leader.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration appears unlikely to give similar support this time. If America abandons the friendly, Western-oriented fringes of the former Soviet Union to Russian authoritarianism, millions of people will lose their newfound freedoms and have little hope of joining the community of modern, developed nations. Avoiding this fate requires a new and more forceful symbol of American commitment to the independence of the region.

Related Web Columns:

The Reign of the Petro Bully, August 19, 2008


1. New York Times, Russia and Ukraine in Intensifying Standoff, August 27, 2009

2. Economist, Dear Viktor, you're dead, love Dmitry, August 20, 2009

3. Economist, Ibid.

4. The Times, Viktor Yushchenko points finger at Russia over poison that scarred him, September 11, 2007

5. Foreign Affairs, Containing Russia, June 2007

6. Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, U.S. Warship Delivers Humanitarian Aid to Georgia, While Russian Troops Remain, August 24, 2008