Foreign and Defense Policy, Europe and Russia

Sen. McCain and Sen. Murphy join protesters in Ukraine

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You can count on John McCain to cross the globe in order stand side-by-side with those who are working for freedom. I hope that the presence of Chris Murphy, who replaced Joe Lieberman in the Senate, indicates his interest in taking up Sen. Lieberman’s commitment to those who demand their inalienable rights.

“We are here because your peaceful process and peaceful protest is inspiring your country and inspiring the world,” McCain told protesters. “Ukraine will make Europe better and Europe will make Ukraine better.”

McCain also made an important point on NBC about why he’s in Ukraine: “We are doing what America does, and that is we support people who peacefully demonstrate for their God-given rights.” That is certainly not a vision shared by (so-called) realists who sound the alarm whenever the United States seeks to advance its interests by advancing its principles. And in this instance, the strategic argument is solid. Without a shot fired, the US can deliver an embarrassing blow to Vladimir Putin’s neo-Soviet foreign policy.

Best articulated by Nikolas Gvosdev, the realist case against giving any encouragement to the Ukraine rests on the economic liability of harnessing the US and the EU to an economic basket case, especially since Vladimir Putin may turn the screws on Kiev if it shatters his imperial dreams. Earlier, Gvosdev wrote:

Ukraine has done little to wean itself off cheap Russian energy and continues to depend on receiving gas supplies from Russia at below-market prices. A hike in prices to the rates paid by European countries, coupled with Ukraine’s bad credit, would put a tremendous financial strain on the country—or would lead to energy supplies being cut, which would be catastrophic for Ukraine’s economic production, not to mention its citizens’ quality of life.

Gvosdev also warns that European and American idealists have a habit of hinting at more economic support than they actually intend to provide. At the moment, the EU has cut off trade talks with Ukraine, but that, of course, is because it is sick and tired of Yanukovich’s duplicity. The real test will come if and when Yanukovich gets ousted.

Forbes’ Mark Adomanis is certainly right to emphasize that Ukraine’s economic foundations are extremely weak. Before the weekend, Bloomberg reported that Ukraine is on the edge of a currency crisis, since its foreign reserves are rapidly shrinking while the cost of borrowing from abroad is rapidly growing. Bloomberg also reported that Russia is trying to leverage Ukraine’s vulnerability by holding out the prospect out a 25% cut in the price of gas if Yanukovich resists popular pressure to sign an Association Agreement with the EU.

If Ukraine had a responsible leader who didn’t see the country as his family and friends’ private piggy bank, I think the IMF, EU, and US would step forward with a deal that could get Ukraine through its short-term crisis and lay the foundation for longer-term reforms. Even so, Adomanis is right to say that Ukraine is experiencing far more than a short-term crisis. It was “clobbered” by the 2008 financial crisis, losing 15% of annual GDP, a substantial portion of which it still hasn’t replaced. It is also a poor country, with half the per-capita income of Russia.

While Yanukovich wasn’t in office when the 2008 crisis hit, it certainly doesn’t help that he’s been running the country like a piggy bank. Of course, an argument could be made that the democratic reformers had their chance after the Orange Revolution in 2004-2005 and clearly made a complete mess of the country’s economics and politics – although their commitment to civil liberties and fair elections should not be undervalued.

To various extents, the realist argument is that the West should gladly allow Ukraine to become Putin’s albatross. Adomanis writes that if Russia buys Ukraine out of this crisis, “it would then be responsible for directly subsidizing the inefficient and ineffective Ukrainian economy.” Gvosdev adds, “If Ukraine, Georgia or any other of those countries [near Russia] could be brought into the Western orbit cheaply and without too much trouble, fine—but once a substantial price tag is attached, one that could then take away from other, more pressing priorities, enthusiasm diminishes.”

While I agree with Gvosdev and Adomanis that Ukraine isn’t any sort of grand geopolitical leverage point, it’s turning westward would be a visible blow to Putin’s prestige. Certainly in the Middle East, we’ve seen the damage that can be done by a confident Putin. The “loss” of Ukraine would also expose Putin to his own people as a leader whose bluster only damages Russia’s reputation. While a defeat for Putin in the Ukraine would hardly guarantee a resurgence of opposition at home, I think it would create a vulnerability that could be exploited at some future moment. That is why, from where I stand, realism means standing with the protestors in Euromaidan.

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2 thoughts on “Sen. McCain and Sen. Murphy join protesters in Ukraine

  1. In November, 2004, I had written that the Orange Revolution would falter unless it could be shown that “westward-oriented policies would generate results. And here the United States and the European Union would have to lay down clear benchmarks for facilitating Ukraine’s closer integration with the Euro-Atlantic world — and be prepared to commit real resources.” A year later, I noted “There is no substitute for determined investment if the United States is to secure the benefits of ‘regime change’ [in Ukraine].” (
    A decade ago, the United States and Europe decided Ukraine was too expensive and didn’t make the committed effort to fundamentally shift Ukraine’s orbit, which discredited the Orange Revolution in the eyes of enough of the swing voters who cast their ballots for change in 2004 and which paved the way for Yanukovych’s political resurrection in 2006. I don’t share your optimism that “the IMF, EU, and US would step forward with a deal that could get Ukraine through its short-term crisis and lay the foundation for longer-term reforms” if Ukraine were to get a change in leadership, because this didn’t happen before in the 2004-2006 period–and at a time when Russia was weaker and the U.S. and the EU were in a much stronger economic position than they are today.

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