What Obama Should Be Saying About Ukraine and Crimea

I’ll be extracting some quotes from an article published in 1995 titled “Public support for the devolution of power in Ukraine: Regional patterns.” Written by Vicki Hesli, now a professor of political science at the University of Iowa, it appeared in a refereed academic journal, Europe-Asia Studies, vol. 47, No. 1, 1995, 91-121. I’ll mainly be drawing conclusions from the article’s content.

Hesli writes “The issue of jurisdictional division of decision-making authority between central and regional governments is one of the basic constitutional questions facing new states.” This is true. The 13 colonies faced this issue when creating the U.S. government, and it faced it again in 1860 when southern states seceded from the Union. When the Ukraine became independent over the period 1991-1996, it faced this basic constitutional question.

That question of jurisdiction has re-surfaced now in the Ukraine for several reasons. (1) Now that an elected national government has been overthrown in the Ukraine, the status of the existing Ukrainian constitution is thrown into great doubt. (2) The new Kiev interim government is not legitimate. (3) The new government is more nationalist in nature. (4) The parliament immediately took actions hostile to significant interests, such as “repealing the 2012 law allowing Russian and other languages to be used locally.”

Even in 1995, it was known to Hesli and other experts on Ukraine that it had important regional and other differences. These still exist today. She identified them as “linguistic autonomy”, industrialization, industrial organization and Russification. Hesli observed that the maintenance of the state’s sovereignty was “inextricably related to questions of state structure.” She spoke of “…federal versus unitary structures of government…” That is the basic issue many constitutions must grapple with.

Hesli hypothesized that “territorial divisions characteristic of Ukraine serve to structure not only attitudes toward the degree of independence [from Russia] that is best for Ukraine…but also attitudes toward the division of authority between the centre (Kiev) and the regional governments (oblast of autonomous republic).

Even in 1995, these same questions arising today were already present. Sanctions and F-16s are no way to deal with such issues. They belong to Ukrainians.

Ukraine has a relatively young state and one that has faced the unitary versus federal question before. That question has surfaced in the form of the language issue, among others, where nationalists have sought to bar the Russian language. Hence, as a consequence of the sea change in government in Kiev, Crimea’s response to Kiev’s drive toward a unitary state and away from federalism is quite understandable and predictable. These are questions that have never been resolved. In the same way, in the runup to America’s civil war the question of secession was not resolved and northern states on occasion spoke of secession.

None of this would be of noticeable concern to most ordinary Americans but for the meddling of the U.S. government in Ukraine. Having promoted an illegal overthrow of a democratically-elected government in Ukraine, the U.S. is now meddling in the Crimean question.

Obama is making such claims as “The proposed referendum on the future of Crimea would violate the Ukrainian constitution and violate international law. Any discussion about the future of Ukraine must include the legitimate government of Ukraine. In 2014 we are well beyond the days when borders can be redrawn over the heads of democratic leaders.” But why blame Crimea for responding when a massive violation of the constitution has already occurred in Kiev and been blessed by Obama? Why not see this Crimean response in historical perspective? Why shouldn’t the Crimean parliament seek to protect its autonomy? Isn’t submitting a referendum’s result to Kiev under the existing constitution a moot point after a virtual coup d’etat has occurred followed by immediate changes in the government’s structure and the installation of a strong right-wing presence? What is undemocratic about the action of the Crimean parliament? Who is enforcing borders or intends to enforce them over the heads of democratic leaders? Is it Kiev or Crimea?

In other words, everything that Obama said in the above quote has questionable merit. It really makes no sense in view of the history and current situation.

This Ukraine-Crimea issue goes back for years and it has only resurfaced because of the revolution, stoked, encouraged, steered and cheered on by the U.S. government.

It should be obvious, given the nature of the politics of Ukraine and its location, that the U.S. has no business (or vital interests) in Ukraine or Crimea. Moving F-16s to Poland and applying sanctions are relatively mild measures, as such matters go. Yet placed in the context of a relentless push by the U.S. to contain Russia over the past 25 years or so, they are dangerous. Much is to be lost should the bear rise up. Little is to be gained and much to be lost by poking and prodding the bear to wake up.

The incompetence of the U.S. government is monumental. It shows up in its huge stupidity. It blunders into one place after another in this wide world. For recent examples, think Vietnam, Iran, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Pakistan, and Syria. Whatever its goals are, it fails time and again to understand the history, politics, peoples, religions, geography, divisions or anything else significant about the lands it invades. The U.S. thinks it can create states. It thinks it can create states that mirror the American state.

The U.S. government’s officials may have studied political science, but they don’t understand it well enough to apply the existing body of knowledge of that discipline with good results. Listening to the tape of the Nuland conversation and the tape of the Paet-Ashton conversation, it becomes crystal clear that they are utterly clueless about midwifing a state. They talk in terms of this person or that person or gluing this thing together or bringing in the IMF or some person from civil society as health minister. They simply have no idea what is actually involved.

Hesli remarks that “Federalism is defined here as some combination of self-rule and shared rule through constitutionalised power sharing on a non-centralised basis…Each federal system must seek to determine its own equilibrium in division and sharing of powers.” The components of success, according to her reading of the “existing body of literature” of that time include the existence of a civil society, a state subordinate to the sovereign people who establish it, federalisation of the entire territory of the polity, a supportive political culture, consent of the people, and a balance between cooperation and competition. Furthermore, existing administrative  hierarchies will have centralizing tendencies that must be dealt with and ethnic nationalism will operate as a force against federalism. This is a formidable menu and surely incomplete.

In view of all this, much of which is absent, threatened or in doubt in Ukraine, is it any wonder that Crimea might decide to alter its political relations with Ukraine?

Who is Obama to pronounce a verdict about Crimea from on high? There is no evidence that he or the State Department understand what is involved or care about the peoples involved. There is no evidence that they are acting in the interests of Ukrainians. Past history tells us that the U.S. causes enormous damage to many nations it claims to be helping or freeing. How can Obama claim to know what the outcome between Ukraine and Crimea should be when federalism hinges on so many uniquely Ukrainian factors that he is in no position to gauge? Even if can to some extent gauge them, and he is entitled to an opinion, what right does he have to meddle actively in their affairs? What right did the U.S. have to support a revolution?

We can also ask how prudent it is to be meddling on Russia’s doorstep.

After the sorry record of U.S. meddling in other nations, what credibility does the U.S. government have in matters such as this that involve basic constitutional relations and state-building?

What Obama should be saying is that such matters of basic political groupings are delicate; that they depend on factors best known by those in a given country and therefore best dealt with by them without the interference of other states. He should be saying that the U.S. will offer its services for discussions and mediation if requested, making every effort to secure a peaceful outcome by which everyone benefits. He should be saying that he recognizes that Crimea has a long history with both Russia and Ukraine, and that these are in the best position to resolve their own difficulties; that the U.S. has no intention to and will not interfere in these domestic matters.