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Yale 62

Ukraine, from a Diplomat’s Perspective

By Stephen W. Buck

(Regarding the ‘First Thursday’ Y62 Coffee Hour we will host next week on March 3rd) When Tim Hall asked me to speak on the Ukraine crisis I immediately deferred, saying my field was the Middle East/Arab world, not Ukraine and eastern Europe. Then I remembered my senior thesis, on the German hyper inflation and its consequences. The German middle class, many on fixed pensions, were wiped out. They wanted revenge, and Hitler was the answer. Now we have Putin recounting that during the siege of Leningrad, his mother was almost put into a mass grave, his father suffered injuries that affected him for his whole life, and his brother died of diphtheria. So Putin takes the break-up of the USSR and supposed threats to the fatherland personally.

Austria – Instead of having to pay reparations and other punitive measures imposed on Germany after WW1, Austria was a very different scenario. The US and USSR spent ten years of negotiations over Austria resulting in a detailed agreement making Austria neutral, even having this included in Austria’s constitution. I’m not arguing making all of eastern Europe neutral. But that said, there could have been an agreement for phases, with the countries closest to Russia being near neutral and those farther away less so. My point is that no one needed to be surprised at Putin’s revanchist feelings and actions, particularly because of the campaign for NATO expansion.

Diplomacy – Situated between Sweden and Russia, Finland fought two wars with Russia in WW 2, resulting in casualties in the hundreds of thousands on both sides. After WW 2 Finland acted as a neutral country, taking particular attention to Russian sensibilities. It went so far as holding a second election when the Russians didn’t like the results of the first election.  Finland signed a friendship treaty with Russia in 1948 and turned down assistance from the Marshall plan so as to not annoy Russia. The current Finnish President has repeatedly emphasized that Finland is politically aligned with the EU, but militarily unaligned, yet it retains the option to join NATO at any given time.

When the Soviet Union collapsed some urged converting NATO from a mutual defense pact into a mutual non-aggression treaty with Russia joining it. Nothing came of this idea. Jack Matlock, our last Ambassador to Russia, has argued there would have been no basis for the present crisis if there had been no expansion of NATO following the end of the Cold War, or if the expansion had occurred in harmony with building a security structure in Europe that included Russia. He wrote “Was this crisis predictable? Absolutely. NATO expansion was the most profound strategic blunder made since the end of the Cold War.” In testimony he wrote in 1997 he said NATO expansion “could well encourage a chain of events that could produce the most serious security threat to this nation since the Soviet Union collapsed.”

An off ramp? – There is a treaty – the Minsk peace accord, signed by Russia and the Ukraine in February, 2015. Later there was the Minsk 2 agreement, involving a number of required actions, including prisoner exchange. Conflict continued, with 14,000 people dead.

Consequences – Critics say the accord would enable Moscow to reassert its dominance. Ukrainians say the agreement would be a trojan horse to reverse its pro Western shift. The Capitulation Resistance movement in Ukraine has threatened to hold large demonstrations and any agreement would have to pass in parliament, with the outcome uncertain. The head of Ukraine’s security council has said that fulfilling the Minsk Agreement would lead to Ukraine’s “destruction.”

Sanctions– Pres. Biden has warned over and over again that there would be “massive” consequences should Russia invade Ukraine. So far they have hardly been “massive,” targeting Russian banks but not Russia’s elite and Putin. More importantly the analysis I’ve read indicates that Putin will not stop because of sanctions. This is explained by the concept of “issue salience,” meaning the more importance of a government to an issue in question, the less likely it will give in to any pressure.  Putin considers Ukraine central to Russia’s national security so no amount of economic sanctions are likely to work.  On an implementation level European countries have tried taxing assets and found that it was just too difficult.  Ironically, one of the havens for “off shore income” is South Dakota. An investigative reporter described   South Dakota as “one of the world’s leading secrecy jurisdictions… where the rich and powerful from around the world set up confidential or shady trusts.”

U.S. politics – There was a time when there was broad consensus that politics stopped at the water’s edge. No more. Former President Trump has said that Russia’s recognition of two break away enclaves was a “smart move” and many Republicans have followed suit. Most importantly, President Biden’s saying we would not be drawn directly into the conflict eliminates any strategic ambiguity, in essence leaving a yellow/green light to Putin. The 3 rich families whose assets have been seized are very low on the list of more than 100 oligarchs who have not been touched. At his Feb. 24 news conference President Biden said there was no decision at this time on sanctioning Putin. He repeatedly said the effect of sanctions would take time and that the U.S would not be directly involved in the conflict in Ukraine. This is cold solace for those camped in metro stations to survive bombing.

BONUS: A link to Yale Professor Tim Snyder’s OpEd in the Boston Globe on the current dilemma: “Putin’s Hitler-like tricks and tactics in Ukraine”

We welcome your comments below.

8 comments to Ukraine, from a Diplomat’s Perspective

  • Larry Price

    Ambassador Matlock is quoted to the effect that “NATO expansion was the most profound strategic blunder made since the end of the Cold War.” I cannot tell whether that is done approvingly or not. It should be noted that there has been very little talk about Ukraine joining NATO. In any case, Ambassador Matlock seems to be blaming the victim for the crime. Ukraine is an independent country with a right of self defense. It is a strange sort of reasoning to think that is provocative.

  • Bill Weber

    If one looks at the map of western Europe, Russia (formerly the USSR) is surrounded on the west by both Nato and USA installations of a military nature. I also recall missel installations and military “exercises” held on the Western borders with Russia.

    So Steve’s comments on Nato’s encroachments to Russia help explain some of Putin’s attitude toward Ukraine.

  • Ken Merkey

    It should be noted that the Obama administration refused to provide military aid to Ukraine. Under Trump we once again started providing military aid.

  • William Stork

    I have been asked to add a Comment, and I want to begin with a compliment to Steve Buck, for his fine work in setting the stage for our March coffee hour discussion but also for his superlative efforts on the Y62 Communications Team.
    My Hong Kong location makes me aware of the position of China in the developing geopolitical rearrangements, somewhat more in evidence following the Putin-Xi summit at the Beijing Olympics. China too is similarly feeling constrained by the US and its allies in the Asia-Pacific theatre, but despite the evidence of weakness by the US and the west in the run-up to the invasion, I do not feel that at this time Xi is emboldened to make any real move on Taiwan.
    As I look back into my autographed biography of George Kennan by Yale professor John Lewis Gaddis, the architect of the U.S. strategic policy of containment following WW2 remarked with worried concern that the continued expansion of Nato would eventually pose a threat to Russia, one that would provoke a response. This is the basis for Amb. Matlock’s comments.
    While the U.S. has never urged or advocated for Ukraine to become a part of Nato, the U.S. continued to provide aid. Obama did so, but only withheld ‘lethal military aid’ at the time of Russia’s march into Crimea. Other types of military aid were delivered. One needs to remember that at that time Ukraine’s president was Petro Poroshenko, who wanted Javelin missiles, but the U.S. and allies were worried that in so doing it would escalate Russia’s activities. Poroshenko’s term ended in 2019. In the last year of Obama’s administration, lethal military aid was approved, but did not include the Javelins. Military aid though was withheld during the Trump administration, but this has now been seen as an attempt to pressure Ukraine to investigate the activities of Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden. During the Trump administration the Javelin missiles were delivered to Ukraine.
    Do sanctions work? Well, they didn’t work as a deterrent. One fact that has been overlooked is Biden’s reluctance to move forward on individual sanction items without the concurrence of European allies. We can note that after Germany’s decertification of Nord Storm 2, the allies have reversed positions on US interest in removing Russian banks from the SWIFT international financial network and by freezing the assets that the Russian banks have in the west. The personal sanction of Putin is a ceremonial step, but the sanction and freeze of assets of Russian oligarchs is not, and now – at the end of February – we are beginning to see results that promise future extreme difficulties for the Russian economy and its ability to pay for its current warfare. Of significance also are the number of nations who are closing off their airspace to Russian aviation. It is looking that more and more countries are looking for ways to retaliate, in whatever forms that seem practicable.

    • Stephen Buck

      Thanks for your kind words Bill and for all that detailed and useful information about US supplies to Ukraine,



  • Larry Price

    I continue to be dismayed by the attempts to justify Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a legitimate response to efforts to expand NATO. That invasion had nothing to do with NATO. Putin has been quite clear that he views the break-up of the Soviet Union as one of the great tragedies of the 20th century, and that it was his life mission to restore the beta version of the Soviet Union. He saw Ukraine drifting more and more out of the Russian orbit and decided to correct that. That is why there was an invasion, not because of any pique that Latvia is now a member of NATO.

    I find interesting Bill Stork’s comment that Xi is unlikely to make any real move on Taiwan. Xi is right to be hesitant. Conquering an off-shore island is not an easy matter. (Just check with Napoleon and Hitler on that one.) Success is not guaranteed. Xi’s grasp of power is not totally secure, and a failed invasion could sorely test that grasp. Better to stay home.

    The same consideration applies to Putin. The Russians have several significant advantages: they have total control of the air and they are better equipped. But the Ukrainian army is not a joke. It has 250,000 men, and they are pretty good. Comrade Putin has seen to it that they got a lot of practice the last eight years. And the defense always enjoys a tactical advantage. There is a real risk that the Russian attack bogs down, which is the same as a defeat. Putin is an autocrat whose grasp of power is also not totally secure. And a failed invasion would test that grasp.

    Two weeks ago, I would have bet any of you that there would be no invasion. (I would have asked for odds; I am not totally delusional.) The rational course for Putin would have been to huff and puff and posture so as to gain some advantage, and then apply for the Nobel Peace Prize. Instead he has risked it all. I cannot explain it.

  • Stephen Buck

    Thank you Larry. I was not advocating justifying Putin’s invasion, but rather trying to get a grip on what drives Putin’s obsession about Ukraine.