Ukraine’s interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk will fly to Washington to meet with U.S. President Barack Obama on Wednesday to discuss “how to find a peaceful resolution to Russia’s ongoing military intervention in Crimea,” the White House announced over the weekend, a sign that the United States intends to advance its patronage of the new, West-facing government in Kiev, which Russia has decried as illegitimate.
As for what that elusive peaceful resolution could entail, the White House — along with the entirety of the U.S. diplomatic apparatus — has given little away. The U.S. insists on a diplomatic solution to Russia’s occupation of Crimea, an autonomous, mostly ethnic-Russian peninsula that belongs to Ukraine, but it has revealed very little about what shape an acceptable compromise might take.
“So far, the U.S. rhetoric has been all about condemning Russia’s actions and expressing support for the government in Ukraine, and we haven’t given much indication about what we regard as an acceptable settlement, other than reversal of everything that’s happened since [deposed President Viktor] Yanukovich fled,” said Stephen Walt, a professor of international relations at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “And that isn't likely.”
Others, including Gelb and Walt, argue that that brand of rhetoric will only exacerbate tensions surrounding Crimea. They would advise Obama to shepherd Yatsenyuk toward a power-sharing agreement, such as was dictated under the short-lived Feb. 21 deal, which Yanukovich signed just hours before fleeing Kiev. Though Russia harbors no love for Yanukovich, viewing him as weak and ineffective, a power-sharing agreement would figure as that mutually unsatisfying off-ramp that Kerry has often referred to that would allow Russia to back down in Crimea and still save face. Of course, sharing power with Yanukovich seems entirely unacceptable to Yatsenyuk and the activists who risked their lives in Kiev’s central square to depose him.
In an op-ed last week, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger indicated that a power-sharing arrangement was conceivable if the U.S. pulls the right levers in Kiev, but he underlined that reconciliation between Ukraine’s pro-Russian and West-facing factions was a job for the country’s new leaders rather than the competing foreign powers that have been pulling Ukraine apart. “That [new] nation leaves no doubt about its fierce independence and cooperates with the West in most fields but carefully avoids institutional hostility toward Russia,” Kissinger wrote, terming his solution a “balanced dissatisfaction.”
Gelb and Walt agreed with Kissinger that the foremost U.S. concern must be to ensure Ukraine’s neutrality in this renewed Cold War–style standoff. Calls for Ukraine to join NATO must cease, for example, and the U.S. must otherwise tread lightly while it serves as Ukraine’s principal backer, lest Russia suspect further encroachment. “The best the U.S. can hope for Ukraine is that it becomes a neutral buffer state, not a part of Russia’s sphere of influence but not part of ours either,” said Walt.
But he cautioned that Wednesday’s meeting might already be a misstep in that direction. “Inviting Yatsenyuk to Washington is not exactly the way to de-escalate this if you’re trying to convince Moscow that you don’t want to incorporate Ukraine into the Western sphere of influence.”
Besides, there may be subtler methods for incorporating Ukraine into the West that do not risk frigid wars of escalating rhetoric and tense stalemate. A perpetual crisis over Ukraine, after all, would “endanger essential Russian cooperation on Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, arms control and on increasingly tricky relations with China,” said Gelb.
The past week has shown that the U.S.’s range of financial weaponry, including aid for Kiev (which undercuts a potential bailout offer from Russia) and sanctions against Moscow, has failed to pierce the Kremlin’s resolve. “Ultimately, no sum of money will be sufficient to firmly anchor Ukraine in either the Eastern or the Western camp,” wrote Rebecca Friedman and Elizabeth Holland for The Christian Science Monitor.
“Enabling the country to regain its political and economic footing, with Brussels and Washington conspicuously leveraging carrots rather than sticks to set Ukraine on a course of true democratization, is the best way to welcome a stable Ukraine into the West.” After all, Friedman and Holland point out, political reform is precisely what Ukraine’s activists have called for from the beginning.