Carl Leubsdorf: Obama must pick a side: Ukraine or Russia

One of the high points in President George H.W. Bush’s largely successful foreign policy was his handling of that tumultuous period in the late 1980s and early 1990s when the Soviet Union collapsed and its former components emerged as independent states. His steady hand and restrained attitude helped to make it a peaceful evolution.

But his one notable exception – his confusing 1991 support for both Ukrainian independence and close ties with the Soviet Union – echoes today in Soviet President Vladimir Putin’s callous, provocative challenge to Ukraine’s independence that began with a weekend military takeover of its Crimea region.

It was a speech Bush gave on Aug. 1, 1991, to the Ukrainian parliament which, because of his effort to support two ultimately contradictory goals, became known as his “chicken Kiev” speech. More than a decade later, Bush said he had been misunderstood.

In his speech, Bush called the need to choose between the two goals “a false choice.” But he heaped praise on the last Soviet president, noting that “President Gorbachev has achieved astonishing things and his policies of glasnost and perestroika and democratization point toward the goals of freedom, democracy and economic liberty.”

Therefore, he continued, “We will maintain the strongest possible relationship with the Soviet government of President Gorbachev, but we also appreciate the new realities of life and therefore, as a federation ourselves, we want good relations, improved relations with the republics.”

While supporting Ukraine’s bid for independence, Bush warned that “America will not support those who seek independence in order to replace a far-off tyrant with a local despotism. They will not aid those who promote a suicidal nationalism based upon ethnic hatred.”

The “suicidal nationalism” line prompted all of us in the cavernous hall to take note. Whether deliberate or not, he seemed to be denigrating independence efforts in Ukraine as a “suicidal nationalism” that was undercutting Gorbachev’s efforts to hold the Soviet Union together.

If that was his message, it was ignored. Four months later, Ukrainians voted overwhelmingly for independence, giving a final push that dismembered the Soviet Union. Within weeks, Gorbachev had resigned, and a new Russia headed by Boris Yeltsin emerged to take its place.

But the historic strains between Russians and Ukrainians, exacerbated by the latter country’s large proportion of ethnic Russians, have continued. It’s one of the underlying factors that Putin is seeking to leverage to his advantage in the fraudulent claim by Ukraine’s Russians that he is protecting their interests.

But to show how little things change, one of President Barack Obama’s challenges now is to take a firm stand in favor of Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity – and against Putin’s invasion – but to achieve some results without closing all doors for a peaceful resolution to the dispute.

It’s obvious the United States and its allies can’t intervene militarily: Ukraine is not a part of NATO and the last thing America needs is a military confrontation against a nuclear-armed Russia. But they need to take strong economic measures that will have an impact on Putin and the hardly healthy Russian economy.

Withdrawing from planning meetings for the scheduled G-8 meeting in Sochi – or even kicking Russia out of the G-8 – may seem like a small thing, and Russian officials derided it as more damaging to the West. But Russia’s admission to the organization of leading industrial democracies was a major step in its effort for international recognition as one of them.

Meanwhile, a strong economic embargo would also help pressure Putin, provided the Europeans – including Germany’s Angela Merkel – would for once put actions behind their words.

Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit Tuesday to Kiev is an important show of support for the struggling new Ukrainian government, given questions about its legitimacy as a nonelected body the parliament created after forcing the ouster of the country’s elected, pro-Moscow president. So is the presence of nearby naval power, including ironically the nuclear carrier USS George H.W. Bush.

Nearly 23 years ago, the president for whom it’s named created some confusion by supporting both Ukrainian independence and Soviet primacy. Now, Putin’s heavy-handed actions have made it imperative that this American president make it quite clear on which side he stands.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. His email address is carl.p.leubsdorf@gmail.com.

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