Bothness Through the Lens of Ukraine

Security experts, diplomats, statecraft wonks, and pundits galore will serve up technical, historical and strategic reasons why the Crimean crisis of early March 2014 arose. On one hand President Putin was thuggish, ordering the occupation of Crimea under wobbly pretenses at best, using that so-19th century implement—force, to get his way. Putin put the “crime” in Crimea.

On the other hand, the West pushed too far. The Crimean Peninsula is a historically Russian enclave, a place that even the best-known Soviet dissident, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, argued shouldn’t have been cleaved from Russia when Khrushchev did so in 1954. Ukraine is the Slavic breadbasket. It is the birthplace of Kievan Rus. No Russian leader would ever survive another day in office if he did not act as if Ukraine was the reddest of redlines. 

Remember that before the street violence on the Euromaidan/Independence Square  (Maidan Nezalezhnosti) that erupted in February of 2014, which precipitated the fall of Putin’s ally, President Viktor Yanukovych, Putin was eager for tripartite talks. That is, he wanted to bring to the table the U.S. and E.U. alongside Russia, and of course the Ukrainians, to discuss Ukraine.

Even if Putin doubted the sincerity of the Europeans, or the gumption of Obama, there were no Kremlin illusions regarding the latent power of NATO, and the prospective pain of financial and economic retaliation in the form of Western sanctions (it turns out they might have in fact underestimated the pain local consumers would feel, given such a large percentage of consumer goods are imported).

Nonetheless, even a calculating and callused KGB judo-expert like Putin isn’t immune from getting rattled. He witnessed the rolling expansion of NATO over the last couple of decades to include many of the Soviet Union's former satellite countries. Maybe this was one step too many. All the cookies that Victoria Nuland, the Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, gave out to the anti-Yanukovych protesters, and the wreath that John Kerry laid for the fallen protesters, indeed might have just been one bridge too far.

Putin is realpolitik guy—he knows Ukraine has many reasons to draw closer to the West. Access to the half-billion strong EU market is a no-brainer. But the single-mindedness of Western Ukraine to taunt Russia, to flirt with disbanding with Russia (or the “Rusosphere”) got the wrong peoples' back's up. NATO is one thing, but the underlying intent rolled into the Stepan Bandera banners strewn all across Western Ukraine is another. Bandera, of course, was a Ukrainian Nationalist hailed by the right, but by aiding and abetting the Nazis during the War is despised by Russian-sympathetic Ukrainians (nominally those in the eastern parts of the country).

When I think of bothness I think of Blaise Pascal's famous maxim:

"We do not display greatness by going to one extreme, but in touching both at once, and filling all the intervening space."

Was the pickle that Yanukovych was too singularly Russian, while the Euromaidan protesters and the gallery of prospective Presidential candidates behind them were too singularly European?

What do we make of Ukraine? (There is of course a levels of analysis problem--bothness applies to individual persons, but here we are trying to apply it to a state in this thought experiment.)

Based on domestic political calculations, or derived from Soviet empire withdrawal, or some prickly Napoleon complex, Putin invaded Crimea. Remember the “little green men.”

In doing so, he forced the West’s hand. Much to Putin’s chagrin, his calculus that no Western country including America could or would do very much about this unilateral move paid off. At least in Crimea. That was 2014 though. Today, Ukraine proper is a much more fraught issue. Putin has a painful strategic calculus ahead of him—good for Putin is the more menacing ISIS looks, the more the West needs his assistance; however, with oil prices hitting new lows (today the price per barrel of oil [$37] sunk to 2009 lows) his largesse (whether domestically, or on bankrolling guys like Assad) is curtailed. 

It will be interesting to see how and whether the West builds consensus. Maybe as this crisis heats up, the West, a term that is admittedly beset with contradictions defies all of that and does get together. Maybe the West fractures and as we have seen now with France, the compelling motivator for some states is addressing ISIS, not taming the Ukraine situation. For our purposes, where we are considering the idea of bothness, the “why? question doesn’t much matter.” There is Russia. There is the West. But what is often forgotten in the discussion (of the Ukraine Crisis) is Ukraine itself. The very fact that a flashpoint can flare up so viciously is concerning and is a reminder as to why bothness is rare—why bothness is not always easy.

Ukraine somehow lost its shot at bothness. It is grossly underreported but we are witnessing a slow-burning, internecine civil war--happening on the doorstep of an economically hobbled, nuclear Russian bear. Of course, as my NYU professor (and Russian Historian and author of many books) Stephen F. Cohen would say: "moderates are the first to lose in a revolution." Yes, absolutely. Bothness doesn't survive war. 

But was there something Ukraine could have done? Not having to choose is the pinnacle. That is the masterclass, something Ukraine has already lost.

The interesting question for me is whether or not Ukraine self-inflicted this crisis? And furthermore: would a policy of bothness, akin to Finland's (aiming to have simultaneously good relations with the West and Russia) might have delayed, or even prevented this crisis from ever happening?