Ukrainians would have better luck reading tea leaves than recent U.S. actions to discern President Trump’s intentions for their country. Fears of an immediate embrace by the new administration of Putin hardly materialized. Following a dramatic spike in violence in Eastern Ukraine, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley offered a firm condemnation of Russian aggression. A joint meeting between Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini maintained a united line on sanctions and demanded full Russian compliance with the Minsk II agreement. With National Security Advisor Mike Flynn’s resignation, the leading advocate of warmer relations with Russia is out the door. Facing a press fixated on his campaign’s Kremlin contacts, a potential Senate investigation, and a deeply skeptical intelligence community, Trump’s ability to hand Putin a clear victory in Ukraine may be severely limited.
But Ukrainians oriented to the West can hardly rest easily. Haley’s words could end up as hollow as the speeches of her predecessor Samantha Powers, whose searing Security Council condemnations of Putin and Assad masked Obama’s ultimate indifference to the Syrian crisis. During a recent primetime interview, Trump’s response to questions of the Russian regime’s murder of journalists—“you think our country is so innocent?”—made him sound like a postmodern leftist French intellectual rather than the leader of the party of Reagan. The New York Times recently uncovered a joint peace proposal reaching the White House created by major Trump business associates and Ukrainian opposition lawmaker Andriy Artemenko. The plan would allegedly end the Russian presence in the Donbas, assure Ukrainian sovereignty over its eastern border, provide sanctions relief, and facilitate a national referendum in Ukraine to determine whether to lease Crimea to Russia “for a term of 50 or 100 years.”
Such a “peace deal” would almost certainly demoralize Maidan revolutionaries, bitterly divide the ostensibly pro-Western political parties, and facilitate a revival of Russophile forces, now repackaged as the Opposition Bloc following the collapse of disgraced president Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions.
What could a “grand bargain” on Ukraine look like for the author of The Art of the Deal? Some writers have resurrected talk from 2014 of a “Finland” solution for Ukraine, whereby the country avoids membership in NATO and the European Union while Russia respects its territorial integrity. Famed historian Niall Ferguson argued for this compromise in pieces for The American Interest and Foreign Policy. Likewise, Henry Kissinger, in an interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, proposed Ukraine act “as a bridge between NATO and Russia,” neither a “satellite” of Putin nor “an extension of the Western security system.” Even Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s former national security advisor and long-time hawk on most questions of Russia, argued for “the Finnish model” in a 2014 editorial for the Financial Times. The National Interest’s Douglas Macgregor and The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Tayler echo similar proposals.
A neutral Ukraine, acting as a bridge between the Western and Eurasian worlds, holds serious merit. It rightly makes clear to Ukraine that it must seek liberal democracy for its own sake, not simply to win lucrative EU or NATO membership. The Pew Research Center’s 2015 polling shows lukewarm support for Ukrainian membership in these institutions in European countries. Recent years should amply instruct European elites of the folly in pursuing ambitious political projects lacking any popular consensus at home. The turn toward illiberalism in Hungary and Poland surely requires a stricter EU ascension process; such accompanying demands would require decades of Ukrainian economic and political development.
A non-aligned Ukraine would be a more realistic acknowledgment of the country’s continuing struggle with internal demons: corruption, weak protections for civil liberties, and the crippling power of oligarchs. The “Finland model” for Ukraine could contain the Kremlin’s revanchist ambitions without humiliating Putin and empowering even more dangerous reactionary elements within the regime.
The “Finlandization” of Ukraine is not wrong in its aspirations, but rather in its assumption that Moscow will ever see this as a deal. The promise for a neutral Ukraine imagines a willingness by Russia to fairly honor agreements that do advance its national interest. This faith should manifestly be discarded in seeing the Russian response to the Minsk II agreement. As the McCain Institute’s David J. Kramer points out, Minsk II was a “terribly flawed deal” that was far more of a victory for Russia than Ukraine. Putin hardly returned the favor to his Western diplomatic partners: a Congressional Research Service’s January 2017 report makes clear that Russia’s separatist proxies in Eastern Ukraine continue to circumvent the agreement through “daily ceasefire violations,” constant obstruction of monitoring by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe , and refusal to relinquish their control of the Russia-Ukraine border. Even an agreement one observer called a “significant tactical victory” for Putin could not be executed in good faith by the Kremlin.
Second, we should recall that Cold War Finland , even with its declaration of neutrality , was a vibrant liberal democracy. The ideological foundations and domestic considerations of Russian statecraft make it impossible for the Kremlin to voluntarily accept a similar evolution for Ukraine. Putin’s maneuvers since his return to the presidency in 2012 show that his grievance is not with NATO enlargement, but the very existence of a confident and prosperous West.
The Kremlin’s bankrolling of the European far right and interference in the U.S. election convey Moscow’s endgame: cement the legitimacy of Putinism within Russia by making the image of a decadent, divided, and stagnant West into a reality. A successful Ukraine in the Russian-speaking world, regardless of its neutrality, inevitably challenges Putin’s kleptocracy. It would make hollow the repeated claims of Putin and his philosophical cheerleaders—think Patriarch Kirill and Aleksandr Dugin—of liberal democracy’s incompatibility with Russian and Orthodox culture and civilization. Ultimately, the “Finlandization” of Ukraine would be a disastrous loss for Russian foreign and domestic policy, and we should not expect the Kremlin to embrace this compromise absent extremely firm demands for it by the West.
Finally, it helps to understand how Finland achieved its neutrality. Its independence was not the result of magnanimity by Josef Stalin but of humiliating setbacks for the Soviet military. Although losing substantial territory in the Winter War of 1940, the outnumbered Finnish army’s resistance against Russia made clear to Moscow the impossibility of transforming its neighbor into a communist satellite state. Finland’s achievement of self-determination in the Cold War recalls George Kennan’s insight that changing Russian behavior can only come through “the adroit and vigilant application of counterforce.”
In the end, a non-aligned Ukraine will arise not through deal-making but through a firm policy of containment against Russia, one even more vigorous than anything on display by the West since the Maidan Revolution. Whether Trump—or frankly the people of Europe and the United States—will offer such a commitment to Ukraine remains to be seen. Despite the murder of 193 fellow citizens by Russian separatists in the MH17 plane crash, the Dutch people opted for appeasement by rejecting an EU trade deal with Ukraine in an April referendum. Two of the three leading candidates in the French presidential campaign are sympathetic to Putin. Concern for Ukraine is thin in the German business community, and the Social Democratic Party, whose prospects for victory in the September parliamentary elections, are rising. In a sign of Trumpism’s staying power, 37 percent of Republican voters view Putin favorably (as of December 2016), compared to 10 percent in July 2014.
This lack of moral clarity indeed confirms C.S. Lewis’s prophecy in The Abolition of Man. In a disenchanted age waiting for our Churchill or De Gaulle, liberalism creates “men without chests,” lacking the vigor and self-respect to defend that very way of life. Indeed, this paradox may very well prove to be the destructive Hegelian “internal contradiction” of our regime. Those tempted for an easy exit on the question of Ukraine should heed Senator John McCain’s moving words at the Munich Security Conference: We, the community of Western nations, “cannot give up on ourselves and on each other. That is the definition of decadence. And that is how world orders really do decline and fall.”
Image: National Museum of the History of the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945). Kiev, Ukraine. Photo by Bert Kaufmann.
David Jimenez is an English Teaching Assistant in Romania for the Fulbright Program, where he teaches courses in English and American Studies at Ovidius University of Constanta for the academic year 2016–2017. He is a 2016 graduate of Bowdoin College, where he completed his BA in history. His WordPress blog, “‘Polar Bear in the Balkans,” features his writing on both travel and ideas. He is also a contributing opinion writer for Revista 22, a leading Romanian news weekly, where an edited version of this essay first appeared.