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A Wrong Decisions 23 Years Ago Haunt Us In the Ukraine and Russia Today [234*1]

Updated on May 6, 2015

We Had a Choice and Chose Not to Take It

THE CURRENT EVENTS IN THE UKRAINE AND RUSSIA HIGHLIGHT decisions made decades earlier thaI may have gone wrong. In 1946, President Truman chose to make our greatest enemies our greatest allies. General Macarthur, during the Japanese Occupation, and the Marshall Plan after WW II were responsible, by and large, for rebuilding Japan and Europe (including West Germany), respectively, and turning them into the greatest allies and trading partners in American history. In 1992, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, President H.W. Bush and then President Clinton had the same choice to make ... they failed to make it.

Today, we are paying the price for that failure. Most of the blame, I believe, seems to rest with President Clinton and the Congresses during his two terms. While he talked a wonderful game, in hindsight, it is clear, he and his advisors didn't understand the problem. I happened to be going through Air War College in 1991 - 1992 and we had several seminars on international affairs, with, obviously, a focus on Russia. It was clear from the experts we listened to and the studies we accomplished what the wrong things to do were and, without fail, President Bush and President Clinton, along with their foreign policy teams seemed hell bent on doing every one of them.

What it amounted to, if any of you saw the Music Man, you will recognize this phrase, they "didn't understand the territory": they didn't understand the Russian psyche or history and took exactly the wrong approach. As a consequence and very predictably, a Putin like character is in charge of Russia again. It may have happened anyway, but America certainly took on the role of enablers.


A Little Russian History

IT MAY SEEM STRANGE, BUT DRIVING SOVIET AND NOW RUSSIAN foreign policy is paranoia. No, I am not being mean or divisive but, instead realistic. The territory that comprises most of what is historic Russia is constructed such that it invites invasion; meaning there are few natural barriers to protect it from attack. And, invaded they were; from the Mongols from the East in 1283 up to the German's from the West in 1939. In addition, there were uncountable internal wars of one sort or another; Rus' society has been unbelievably violent and oppressed, and it has left its imprint on their psyche. It is very understandable to see why they are extremely distrustful of outsiders and, I suspect, of one another.

American foreign policy has never been mindful of that; we have always been heavy-handed in our attitude toward Russia in our diplomacy leading to predictable and unfavorable results, much to our bafflement. Even President Clinton, in 1993, who seemed to have a grasp of the situation, wasn't able to pass that understanding on to his staff and Cabinet. Further, Congress clearly never took the time to understand what it could take to make our former foe a good ally. All of their and the Executive actions of the Bush 41, Clinton, and Bush 43 administrations all but guaranteed the sort of reaction we are seeing from Vladimir Putin today. If fact, it was the approach we took in those 18 years that helped Putin regain power.

I am not saying, of course, that Putin wouldn't have ended up on top anyway, or responding to the Ukrainian situation the way he currently is in spite of our wisest efforts. But, I am saying, the probability of what we are facing today would be much less reduced had prior administrations and Congress', mainly during the Clinton era, been mindful of Russian history and mindset, and had acted accordingly. It is not rocket science, it is common sense.


Crimea, Ukraine

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Ukrainian History

ONE MIGHT BE ABLE TO ARGUE THAT WHAT IS MODERN UKRAINE today began back in around 880 BCE with the Kievan Rus' (I am referencing a Wikipedia article with my own twist) centered around today's Kiev. From here was founded the greatest Eastern Slav state that prevailed from 880 to about 1132 BCE and became the national identity of modern day Ukrainians and Russians.

From 1200 on, Kievan Rus' lost their identity, never to regain it again unless you consider the Soviet Union's consolidation of much of what used to be Kievan Rus' territory to look like today's Ukraine as being a kind of resurrection (they were/are Christian after all). The Ukraine officially became an independent nation on August 24, 1991.

In the map to the right you can bring up a terrain view of modern Ukraine with the Crimea at the bottom and a few city names as well, you will need to uncheck "terrain" in the Map drop-down box. If you size it such that you can see both the 'A' and 'B' pins with Odesa (which, on 3/6/14 are having pro-Russian protests) near the bottom left and Kharkiv near the upper right, then you are in a position to see the Ukrainian ethnic-divide. In a very loose way, on the East -Northeast side of a line roughly drawn between Odessa and Kharkiv, you have Ukranian-speaking Ukrainians and on West-Southwest side are mainly Russian-speaking Ukrainians; and that is part of the conundrum.


A Crisis in the Making

  • 880 BCE: Kievan Rus' founded around modern day Kiev
  • 1132: Kievan Rus' empire disintegrated
  • 1939: After centuries of slicing and dicing of Ukraine, the attack by Germany and Russia on Poland finally reunited most of the Ukraine together again, for the Bolsheviks had give Western Ukraine to Poland, an independent state
  • 1954: Kruschev gives Crimea to the Ukraine
  • August 24, 1991: Ukraine gained independence
  • 1996: Ukraine passed its second constitution changing the governmental structure into a semi-presidential republic form which concentrates power in the hand of the executive
  • 2004:Viktor Yanukovych, was declared the winner of the presidential elections. The Supreme Court of Ukraine later ruled this election invalid due to fraud. This resulted in the peaceful Orange Revolution, bringing Viktor Yushchenko into power
  • 2010: Viktor Yanukovych was elected President again
  • November 21, 2014: Viktor Yanukovych announces abandonment of economic agreement that would strengthen ties with the European Union and seeks closer cooperation with Moscow. Protesters take to the streets.
  • December 1, 2013: A protest attracts about 300,000 people at Kiev's Independence Square. Activists seize Kiev City Hall.
  • January 22, 2014: The first protest deaths. Two die after being hit with live ammunition and the third after a fall during a confrontation between police and demonstrators manning barricades.
  • January 28, 2014: The prime minister resigns and the parliament repeals harsh anti-protest laws.
  • February 18, 2014: Street clashes erupt, leaving at least 26 dead and hundreds injured.
  • February 22, 2014: Yanukovych flees the country after a political coup. Opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko is released from prison.
  • February 24, 2014: Ukraine's interim government and president, Oleksandr Turchinov, issues a warrant for the arrest of Yanukovych.
  • February 25, 2014: Pro-Russian protesters take a stand in Crimea. Yanukovych's former chief of staff is wounded by gunfire and hospitalized.
  • February 26, 2014: Amid clashing protesters in Crimea, Putin orders military exercises in western Russia. Secretary of State John Kerry vows $1 billion in loan aid to Ukraine.
  • February 27, 2014: Yanukovych surfaces in Russia, appearing for the first time since fleeing Ukraine. Russian jets are on standby in case of combat.
  • February 28, 2014: Armed men in Russian military uniforms take control of key airports in Crimea. Russian marines surround a Ukraine coast guard base in Sevastopol. Obama warns "there will be costs" for Russian military intervention in Ukraine.
  • March 3, 2014: Kerry travels to Ukraine.
  • March 4, 2014: In Kiev, Kerry offers the $1 billion loan guarantee and technical experts to help recover assets, referring to the billions reported to have been funneled out of the country by Yanukovych. Putin says he has no intention to "fight the Ukrainian people."
  • March 5, 2014: A special U.N. envoy cuts short its mission in Crimea after a group of armed men order them to leave the region, according to U.N. officials.
  • March 6, 2014: Obama seeks visa restrictions and economic sanctions on Russians who have been involved in military action in Ukraine. The House Foreign Relations Committee calls on Obama to enact financial and trade sanctions against Russia. Crimea Parliament votes to become an autonomous region associated with Russia; a referendum is scheduled in ten days
  • March 17, 2014: The referendum was held with 90+% voting to join Russian. Of course it was only the Russian-speaking Crimean's who voted; the ethnic Tartars and Ukrainians boycotted the referendum since it was illegal.
  • March 22, 2014: The Russians confiscated (stole) a Ukrainian submarine and overran a Ukrainian military base located in the Crimea. Assuming the Ukrainians cannot get these assets back from the Russians, then they should unilaterally lower any monetary debt they owe Russian by the replacement value of these assets.

On The Move

THE UKRAINE IS AN ETHNICALLY AND LANGUAGE DIVIDED COUNTRY, but not by nationality. Whether they are Russian-speaking or Ukrainian-speaking, they are nevertheless Ukrainian. As free-lance photographer and Christian Ministry worker Maia Mikhaluk said in a March 4, 2014 CNN Opinion piece

"Over our 22 years of Ukrainian independence, fears of language or ethnic persecution have never come true. But they were kept alive by Russian propaganda. We understand that Putin is trying to escalate tension and provoke civil war in Ukraine right now. He can't afford for a free Ukraine to succeed: His own people might get an idea that it's possible to overthrow a tyrant and build a prosperous country."

American's can relate to this kind of intense propaganda put out against President Obama's stimulus and Affordable Care Act in America; it has the same purpose. As mentioned earlier, President Putin has a vision of a "Greater" Russian and has been laying a very oppressive propaganda campaign on the citizens of Eastern Ukraine via the State-controlled Russian media outlets.

The Crimea, on the other hand, appears to be another story altogether. It was never part of the Kievan Rus' empire nor was it part of the original Ukraine cobbled together by the Soviet Union. In a little twist of irony, it was February, 60 years ago, that Nikita Khrushchev handed the Crimea over to the Ukraine. The Crimea is also home to Russia's only warm-water naval port and, as a consequence, of extreme strategic and national importance. I would think it is so important, President Putin would go to war over the potential loss of it.

It is the Crimea where most of the action has taken place so far. Putin either sent in Russian troops from the outside, or, more likely, used troops from bases they already have in the Crimea to take over the local airports and to patrol. These "local militia", as Putin calls them. who have no identify features on them have kept the Ukrainian military locked in their bases for fear of a larger Russian invasion.

To date, that has been the extent of military action in the Ukraine itself although Russian troops have been demonstrating along the Eastern border of Ukraine for a week now.


FOR ITS PART, THE WEST, MEANING EUROPE AND THE U.S. has been trying to get ahead of this rapidly developing situation which came way out of left field. It appears the U.S. and Germany, who has the closest working relationship with Putin, are taking the lead. The rest of Europe is trying to get its act together, which is no easy task given the number of different national interests which must be coordinated. It would be like trying to get the 50 States of America to agree on something if we still had the Articles of Confederation in place; it's what the theme song from Man of La Mancha is all about.

And if we think we have a tough row to hoe, it is nothing compared to what the new Ukrainian government has to face; I do not envy them their job. The only thing I hope is they take what Maia Mikhaluk said in her CNN opinion piece to heart as they try to lead their diverse country:

"My kids speak Ukrainian in school and with many of their friends, and we speak Russian at home. When my son's fourth-grade teacher talks to me, she speaks Ukrainian. I respond in Russian. We don't even notice that our conversation is in two languages."

It is certainly a tough thing to do in times of peace and an order of magnitude harder to do when things are stressful. We in America have nothing to hold up to that ideal either, at least not anymore, if you listen to rhetoric spewing out on the Internet, cable, and talk radio. But to survive as a new nation (and for America to survive as an old one), it would be best to pay attention to what Maia means.

She also has a succinct way of wrapping up the issues with eastern Ukraine and the Crimea and what she thinks these Ukrainians truly want:

"Many people in Crimea and eastern Ukraine don't want the protection of Russian President Vladimir Putin. But there are some who are afraid of forced Ukrainization because they have been fed propaganda by Russian TV channels for years. The purpose is to convince Ukrainians that we are divided, not one country, and that the safest course of action for Russian-speaking areas is to break away and join Russia.

These ideas have been cultivated since I was a child. I remember when I lived in Donetsk in the '90s, how scared we were that a candidate from western Ukraine would win an election and force us to speak Ukrainian. But when I moved out of the area of aggressive Russian information, I quickly realized I can speak Russian in Kiev or Lviv and no one will ever be upset with me!"

I can see this taking place in the Crimea, which is 60% Russian-speaking and 40% Ukrainian; who we haven't actually heard from much so far. Are the Crimeans reasonably afraid of the Ukrainian government or afraid simply because of Russian propaganda? It would seem to me that would be goal #1 of the Ukrainian gov't as well as Europe, NATO, and the U.S. I should be seeing/hearing about a massive propaganda campaign coming from the North and the West to counter Putin's influence, but I don't.

I don't think you are going to persuade Putin to do squat; but you might take away his base by bringing the Russian Ukrainians back to Ukraine.

What To Do With the Crimea

I DON'T REALLY KNOW, BUT HAVE SOME THOUGHTS. Hopefully some of my international readers will as well and will share them with us. But, at the moment, I see it this way given the information I have -- if the referendum in the Crimea, which I agree is illegal, strongly supports an autonomous status linked with Russia, then I don't think the Ukrainian government should fight very hard to oppose their wishes.

The Ukrainian government has, of course, the legal right to do so, it is their territory after all sice the Soviet Union ceded it to them, but is the fight worth it? They are going to have enough trouble consolidating what they have. Their natural resources elsewhere in the country far outstrip the tourism that would be lost with the Crimea. They also have other ports along the Black Sea from which base their Navy and commerce; probably not as nice as the Crimea, but doable. For that, they give up a massive headache.

On the other hand, if the vote is close, then all bets are off in my opinion.

3/17/2014: Now that 97% of the Russian-speaking citizens who went to the polls to vote in the illegal, Russia-sponsored referendum opted to join the Russian Federation. One would expect that number since the Ukrainians and Tartars living in Crimea boycotted the vote.

Since only 58% of the Crimean population is actually Russian, what will the 12% Tartars and 25% Ukrainians do? It wasn't that long ago, 1944, when the Soviet Union forcibly removed all Tartars to Eastern Russia from Crimea to punish a small segment that supported Nazi Germany in WWII. It wouldn't be surprising the Tartar population that migrated back are now terrified of a repeat performance or at least the beginning of persecution by their Russian masters. Likewise, since the Crimean Ukrainians didn't play along with the invasion from Russia and its hostile takeover of their land, what will be their fate? Will 37% of the Crimean population rise up in revolt?

The Next Chapter - Eastern Ukrain

DATELINE-4/10/2014: AS EXPECTED, V. PUTIN HAS SET HIS SIGHTS ON THE EASTERN UKRAINE. His version of the CIA, Spetsnaz, but as an arm of the Russian military rather than a civilian agency, are actively inside eastern Ukraine fomenting revolution. So far three cities have had buildings taken over by pro-Russian "protesters" demanding a Crimea-style referendum; one was taken back by Ukrainian forces.

One Thing America Must Do!!

ONCE UPON A TIME IT WAS A NO-BRAINER that in times of real crisis, like this one, that Americans, and especially Congressmen and women, knew instinctually was to. as former Secretary of Defence Robert Gates put it, "Speak With One Voice" and that voice is the sitting President's. It seems that today, many, but fortunately not all, members of the Republican establishment need to go back to kindergarten to learn this golden rule of foreign crisis.

Once the crisis is over, then they can come back to current conservative political practice of Obama-bashing which is easier to do than passing laws. But until then, the rule their mothers taught them must be practiced that "if you don't have something good to say (regarding the situation in the Ukraine), don't say anything" to which I will add that in the case of foreign policy crises, "to do so only makes you a propagandist for the enemy".


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© 2014 Scott Belford


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    • My Esoteric profile imageAUTHOR

      Scott Belford 

      5 years ago from Keystone Heights, FL

      Thanks for that wonderful first-hand background MizBejjabers! To answer your question, I don't think so, at least not all of it. I suspect once and if this settles down and the new Ukrainian government can gain some staying power, NATO is going to push to bring them into its ranks. There is more or less a standing invitation right now, as I understand it. If they do, that will bring on another crisis, I bet.

    • MizBejabbers profile image

      Doris James MizBejabbers 

      5 years ago from Beautiful South

      Does anyone really understand the Russian psyche? I visited the Soviet Union during the New Year holidays of 1989-1990, which was the time of Perestrokya. I was working on a minor in history and half of that minor was Russian and Soviet history. Gorbachev was the leader then, and the people were beginning to transition from communism to getting back to their old religions. Some of their churches were being restored from communist headquarters to their fabulous religious glory. A Russian told me that Gorbachev was a Christian in secret.

      The people that I talked with were confused. They wanted the financial security (guaranteed jobs) that they had under communism and the freedom we Americans had under democracy. I told several Russian students with whom our intellectual group met that they couldn’t have it both ways and would have to make up their minds which was more important to them. The Russian merchants we encountered all feared a takeover by the Russian mafia. This has definitely occurred as reported by recent media coverage, which offers evidence that Russian mafia may be controlling Russia. It is also rumored that Putin and the KGB are part of Russian mafia because this corruption is overlooked. What does this have to do with the attempted takeover of Ukraine. Maybe nothing, this is just some background.

      I tell you this because I think the current problem started during Perestroyka, and we have to lay some of the blame on President Reagan. (But we can go back to post-WWII) While he and Gorbachev were playing at buddy-buddy, their wives were in mortal combat to see which first lady was the greatest. I think this spilled over in pillow talk to their husbands, especially that of egotistical Nancy Reagan. Gorbachev didn’t last much longer after Reagan went out of office, and Putin is a much stronger leader. Note I didn’t say better, just more tyrannical. And the United States is stuck dealing with him.

      I don’t disagree with your analysis of the situation. In fact I think it is a good one. You mentioned natural resources in Ukraine outstripping tourism moneys that would be lost with Crimea. I’ve heard it said that Russia can’t afford to lose Ukraine because it needs to own the natural gas in that country. Could we say that if Crimea goes with Russia, Ukraine will be next?

    • My Esoteric profile imageAUTHOR

      Scott Belford 

      5 years ago from Keystone Heights, FL

      I appreciate you reading and your thoughts, @Kathleen. I don't know, to answer you question. I am certain the Republicans, and not necessarily the Conservatives this time, would be more inclined to pick the wrong policy when faced with what Bush 41 and Clinton were because, as a whole, their mindset is more short-term and inward looking. But clearly, Clinton's administration and the Congresses he had didn't do any better.

      I don't know if it has to do with the youth and experience of the senior staff and cabinet surrounding the President and Congressmen; Truman had plenty of that around him and Congress was full of experienced statesmen who just came out of war, unlike today whose members are, by and large, neither.

      It has been one of America's greatest weaknesses throughout history to try make the world look like us, rather than simply help them obtain a government that fits their history and culture but alleviates the oppression and despotism they were living under.

      For example, a set of lectures I listened to made a convincing case that to throw the Russian people directly into democracy and freedom was and is a mistake, they simply don't understand it or the mechanism of it because they have never in their history experienced it ... as a People. What happened on a couple occasions earlier, and again in 1991 was the West said "here, you have your freedom now and a 'democracy', deal with it". The People really didn't have a clue, experience, or the infrasture to do so, so the thugs took over.

    • Kathleen Cochran profile image

      Kathleen Cochran 

      5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Thanks for this tutorial from someone familiar with the historical significance and background. Unintended consequences seem to be the hallmark of US foreign policy for the past generation. Do you think with the trend towards the world becoming flat (ref: Thomas Friedman) we will do a better job in the future of understanding other cultures instead of thinking everyone in the world thinks like us?

    • Hackslap profile image


      5 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      Very well researched article .. I've been following the Ukrainian crises since it erupted and its still anyone's guess how it would play out ..


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