COLUMN: Guest column: Ukraine, Russia and ourselves

The author of this week’s column, Patrick J. Flood, is a retired U.S. Foreign Service officer with careyextensive experience in eastern Europe and with east-west relations and international human rights affairs. Following his Department of State career, he taught at universities in Hungary and Ukraine as well as in the U.S. Here are some of his views on east Europe today, reprinted with his permission:

When Ukraine gained independence in 1991, its borders were those set by the Soviets when they ruled the country. For reasons not known to me—perhaps only for the convenience of not having to negotiate new borders—they were left unchanged at that time.

The frontiers thus enclosed two peoples, ethnic Ukrainians in the west and center and ethnic Russians in the east and in Crimea.

And several small minorities, but Russians and Ukrainians account for around 95 percent of the population.

The two peoples have been in a state of constant rivalry and intermittent friction since independence, making it difficult to form a broad base of loyalty to a single Ukrainian state. Neither group is prepared to see the other rule over them, at least in a unitary, centralized state.

Ukraine became independent with no democratic political tradition, no recognizable democratic political parties and a ruined economy. Ever since, Ukrainians in all ethnic groups have been asking themselves, “What is Ukraine? What should be our vision for the future? Who can help us achieve it?”

Together with the deep ethnic and regional rivalry, the fact that they have not agreed on the answers is not surprising and helps explain the turmoil we have witnessed in recent months.

I conclude that, as to U.S. and European and Russian policy, everyone involved in or with Ukraine needs to take care not to overplay their hands.

For the U.S., our only real interest is in preventing the situation from degenerating into open warfare in Ukraine and in forestalling any widening of the conflict. We have some capacity to influence matters toward a peaceful and acceptable conclusion, but policy statements and private discussions need to take fully into account a slight misstep could spark an explosion and chain reaction. So far, we have been prudent, most of the time. We should remain open to solutions that with which the two groups in Ukraine can live, and it should be for the two groups to sort out the constitutional questions. We should avoid demanding the two halves form a single, centralized unitary state. If they were to develop into separate states, as did the Czech and Slovak peoples, or form an internal federation with considerable local autonomy, that is their affair.

What matters most in any arrangement are guarantees of fair treatment and respect for the human rights of people in all ethnic groups. We should provide substantial economic aid to both regions within Ukraine.

Crimea is a separate matter. Unique features distinguish Crimea from all the other territories. First, according to the most recent Ukrainian government census in 2001, Russians are an absolute majority in Crimea, which does not appear to be true of any of the other provinces. Second, Russia, and later the U.S.S.R., ruled Crimea from 1783 until Ukraine became independent in 1991. Third, Khrushchev’s gift of Crimea to Ukraine in 1954 changed nothing in terms of who ruled the peninsula since Ukraine itself, like the whole U.S.S.R., was always totally governed from Moscow.

The empty gesture of a Soviet communist dictator was certainly illegitimate and hardly qualifies as a valid, legal transfer of jurisdiction binding successor states, and we should not dignify it by giving it any importance.

Whatever anyone thinks about Russia’s method of returning Crimea to Russia, it seems that the people who live on the peninsula are pretty happy with the result. Crimea is Russian’s responsibility now, and Russia should be providing any economic aid it needs. Of course, the U.S. and other countries reserve the right to criticize and press for an end of any human rights violations that may occur.

The current pro-Russian actions in eastern Ukraine could lead to a wider conflict, but are probably aimed at improving the chances for greater internal autonomy rather than annexation to Russia. It is clearly a time when all interested states should be pressing for calm.