March 28, 2014

The Solution to Crimea Lies Through Finland

The Solution to Crimea Lies Through Finland

You have to hand it to History. She has a very well developed sense of irony.* Exactly 160 years ago today the Crimean War began.

Yes, yes, the war began between Russia and the Ottoman Empire several months earlier, in October 1853. But it was on March 27 and 28, 1854, that France and Britain declared war on Russia, turning a war between neighbors into a global conflagration. (It ought to be called a World War, since fighting was far from limited to Crimea, extending to the Baltic, Caucasus, Pacific, and even the White Sea, where the British bombarded Solovki.)

The Crimean conflict was a very complicated war. Ostensibly it was about settling the borders between the Russian and Ottoman empires, but it was also about control over the holy sites in Jerusalem, about coming to grips with the “sick man” of Europe (the declining Ottoman Empire), about “checking Russian expansion,” and about control of the Black Sea. Read the short or the long version and you will quickly learn how critical a turning point the Crimean War was in world history (leading to important military and medical advances, the end of serfdom in Russia, the Russian sale of Alaska to the US, the fall of a few governments, etc.). And you will also see some startling parallels to the present day, plus how the outlines of the current crisis have their roots in 1854.

But I digress.

While it is useful for the current crisis over Crimea and Ukraine to understand history, solving the crisis is more likely through analogy. But first we must understand the motivations of the actors involved.

There has been no shortage of ink spilled to explain Kremlin motivations and actions in Ukraine, but to my mind just one passes the Occam’s Razor test. It was succinctly expressed by Michael Totten (who gets extra points for citing George Kennan):

“What [Putin] most fears is that Ukraine might join NATO, removing yet another buffer state between himself and the West and kiboshing his plans for the Eurasian Union.... The Crimean referendum—whether it was free and fair or rigged is no matter—creates a disputed territory conflict that will never be resolved in Ukraine’s favor. It will freeze and fester indefinitely. There isn’t a chance that NATO would accept a member that has a disputed territory conflict with Russia. No chance at all. Ukraine is as isolated as it could possibly be from the West without getting re-absorbed into Russia entirely.


“Putin did the same thing to Georgia in 2008 when he lopped off the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and he did it for the same reason.


“A similar dynamic fell into his lap in Moldova, the poor and battered country east of Romania. The far eastern Slavic region of (Latin) Moldova declared independence after the Soviet period and calls itself Transnistria....


“That’s not one, not two, but three times Russia has pulled this stunt since the end of the Cold War. Putin is doing it to Ukraine because it worked in Moldova and Georgia.”

As to the Endgame, Totten is equally direct: “There is no exit plan. Russia is not going to pull out of these countries, nor will anyone force Russia out. It’s not worth a world war—not even close.”

Ok, so if we assume that summarizes Putin’s actions and motivations, what about the West? Well, while some (say, for instance, the Kremlin) may assert based on intercepted phone calls, that the US was behind events in Ukraine, the facts show the opposite to be true: the tail was wagging the dog. Ukraine was a homegrown grassroots movement that the US and Europe sought to take advantage of for their own ends: supporting democracy and dismantling and demilitarizing the remnants of the Soviet empire in Europe. 

So, given all that, how do we fix this? How do we step back from the brink and return to a situation in which international borders are accepted, and people are given the right to determine their own futures, where everyone gets enough of what they want so we can all live in peace?

I believe the road lies through Finland.

After a long history of wars and border disputes with Russia, of being used repeatedly as a pawn in larger struggles, Finland realized that it could only survive as a sovereign democracy in the shadow of a superpower through a strategy of rigorous neutrality and non-alignment. It signed an agreement in 1948 with the Soviet Union where it pledged such neutrality and foreswore NATO and the Marshall Plan. In the process it was never impressed into the Warsaw Pact.

Some in the west derided this strategy, and “Finlandization” became a synonym for appeasement in some circles. But the reality is that it worked. Finland skillfully traversed the Cold War via a treacherous tightrope, emerging as a resilient democracy and one of the most prosperous countries in the world, with an enviable education system and a superb track record in human rights. In 2010, Newsweek magazine, using a variety of matrixes, called Finland “the best country in the world.”

Who would not wish for the same for Ukraine?

So here’s the proposal:

  1. The West accepts Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Yes, Russia’s actions there were wrong according to all international norms. But the fact is that, if Ukrainian constitutional processes for secession had been followed, Crimea would probably have gotten to the same place, just more slowly and peacefully.
  2. Russia removes all troops massing along Ukraine’s borders and pledges to respect, in perpetuity, Ukraine’s sovereignty (renouncing further annexations), signing a bilateral treaty with Ukraine that is a modern equivalent to the Soviet-Finnish treaty of 1948. For its part, Ukraine agrees to explicitly reaffirm its commitment to protecting the rights of all linguistic, ethnic and other minorities.
  3. Ukraine renounces any intention to join NATO and NATO in turn agrees not to make any overtures to Ukraine.
  4. The US, EU and Russia establish a Tripartite Council, to be chaired by the Finnish Foreign Minister, that will be tasked with helping Ukraine out of its current economic morass, overseeing free and fair elections, and ensuring a fully demilitarized, independent, democratic and non-aligned Ukraine in perpetuity. Through this Council, Ukraine will be given unique economic status, eventually granted membership to both the EU and Putin’s Eurasian Union.

As any solution, it requires concessions from all sides, but it accepts the things we cannot change, gets all involved most of what they want, and gets us to the place we all know this has to go: to a free, non-aligned Ukraine.

And there is no reason a similar plan could not be implemented for Georgia and Moldova.

* Why is History feminine? Simple. Because, like a majestic sailing ship, she is far more attractive and intelligent than all the men who think that they have her figured out, that they can manipulate her for their own ends.

Oh, and to pile on yet another irony, it was almost exactly 231 years ago today, on April 8, 1783, that Catherine II ("the Great") issued a decree annexing Crimea to the Russian empire.

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