A Land on the Edge

Posted: Aug 01, 2014 1:00 PM
A Land on the Edge

In the August issue of Townhall Magazine, where this article originally appeared, Frank Dowse explains why the U.S. should care about what happens in Ukraine.

In the afterglow of the February Sochi Olympics, with the entire world watching, tens of thousands of “little green men” began pouring into sovereign Ukrainian territory from the Russian border.

These SPETSNAZ (a broad Russian term for “special purpose forces”) are first seen in Crimea, and by April, are seen throughout several major eastern Ukrainian cities. They began conducting massive covert political instability operations and clandestine military maneuvers designed to undermine Ukrainian federal government control.

By March 21, these elite Russian soldiers and their imported thug counterparts had secured the annexation of the Crimean peninsula. To date, scores of Ukrainian troops, ethnic Russian-Ukrainian militants, Russian military personnel, and civilians have been killed or wounded. Confrontations between Russian and Ukrainian forces continue inside many eastern parts of Ukraine to this day.

And the world has done virtually nothing to stop this.

How did we get here?


For many Americans, the only place they have ever heard about Ukraine was on the Parker Brothers strategy board game, Risk. But for centuries, many of Europe’s most influential personalities recognized Ukraine’s grand-strategic preeminence, including: the Phoenicians, the Romans, Ivan the Terrible, Peter and Catherine the Great, the Scandinavian and Baltic Kingdoms, the Ottoman Sultans, Napoleon, the British Monarchs, the Germanic Kaisers, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Churchill, and Khrushchev.

Not only is Kiev, the present day capital of Ukraine, recognized as the birthplace of Slavic culture, but from the ninth century on, many influential regional powers have waged bloody wars over the region. This included the Crimean War, which, during the Battle of Balaclava in 1854, inspired Lord Tennyson’s poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”

Realpolitik strategists schemed over Ukraine, the natural bridge between Europe and the Eurasian hinterlands, which also possesses premier maritime real estate in Crimea, providing vital access to the Black Sea, Bosporus Straits, and the Mediterranean Sea. Even the name, Ukrainya, means “on the edge,” where again it finds itself in today’s increasingly volatile events.


When the Soviet Union fell apart Ukraine was one of the first former republics to call for immediate independence. It promptly turned toward the West for political and governing examples as it struggled to strip the lingering shackles of the post-Soviet economic morass.

At the time of independence, Ukraine had the potential to become a strong global citizen. Sadly, its post-Soviet trajectory became mired in selfish robber baron-esque oligarchical meddling and persistent and pervasive Russian-backed (tacit and direct) destabilization efforts.

But despite the fact that the Ukrainian and Russian people share a great deal of history, culture, philology, tradition, religion, and outlooks, Ukraine, more than any other former Soviet republic, has a deep national, cultural, and ethnic pride that often transcends the similarities between the two.

The Ukrainian dusha—its spirit—rejects Russia’s propensity of casting it as the “younger, smaller” Slavic brother. And this feeling feeds Ukrainian resistance to any perceived or real Russian/ Soviet overtures to dominate, oppress, or influence Ukraine.

Post-revolutionary Russian Bolsheviks knew this all too well and swiftly punished any signs of Ukrainian independence. When Ukrainians rejected Stalin’s centralized agrarian policies in the 1930s, the Soviets responded by starving the entire region. Millions died over the course of two years and Ukrainians still refer to the tragedy as the Holodomor—death by hunger—today. This single event remains paramount in the scorched psyche that many Ukrainians project onto any revitalizing of Russian imperialism.

Less than a decade after the Holodomor, many Ukrainians greeted the Nazis as liberators from Soviet oppression when they invaded in 1941.

That arrangement didn’t last long.

German forces began widespread deportation, imprisonment, and extermination of hundreds of thousands of “noncompliant” Ukrainian undesirables, including Ukraine’s large Jewish population. As the Germans retreated, the charismatic but brutal Ukrainian leader Stepan Bandera led an anti-Soviet insurgency that killed tens of thousands of Soviet troops and political figures lasting well into the mid-1950s.

This is the raison d’e^tre behind the current Russian state-fueled propaganda and incendiary charges of neo-Nazism aimed at the Kiev-based Ukrainian government and the fiery Maidan uprising that ousted President Victor Yanukovych. Vladimir Putin himself, along with senior Russian officials, references this very conflict as proof-positive of Ukrainian “Nazi” roots.

However, it is Stalin’s sinister legacy at the root of much of the instability seen on the post-Soviet periphery as witnessed in Nagorno-Karabakh, Georgia, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Transdniester, the Baltic region, and Ukraine.

Stalin’s infamous secret police organization deported huge swathes of Ukrainians and other ethnics, including Crimean Tatars, from their ancestral lands, and implemented “Russification” of much of eastern Ukraine and Crimea. After Stalin’s death, his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, “returned” Crimea to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954. In doing so, Khrushchev, an ethnic Ukrainian, alienated millions of ethnic Russians in Crimea and throughout eastern Ukraine.

This Soviet legacy transaction is at the heart of why both regions play such an important role nationalistically and geo-strategically for Russia. The annexation of Crimea, and the de facto Russian-sponsored irregular war raging against Ukraine in the east, has apparently been sparked by a jingoistic neo-fascist ideology fueled by Putin’s aspirations of former Tsarist and Soviet hegemonic glory.


President Reagan’s epoch shifting “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” speech marked the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union. By December of 1991, Ukraine was recognized internationally as an independent nation.

But the Soviet Union had the largest conventional arsenal in the world and much of it resided within newly independent Ukraine. This included a massive strategic and tactical land, air, and sea-based nuclear arsenal with all the command and control measures intact.

As a nascent state desperate to be accepted and supported by the international community, Ukraine understood its precarious situation. While holding on to the weapons might have been impressive to neighbors, they knew it would also be geo-strategically destabilizing.

With the Cold War over, the general consensus was that an independent and cooperative Ukraine seeking democracy and goodwill neither wanted nor could sustain a massive nuclear arsenal.

There were pragmatic concerns of “loose-nuke” scenarios and Ukraine’s inability to properly guard, maintain, and dismantle its immense nuclear infrastructure. To assist with this burden, and to sooth Ukrainian fears of any future encroachment on its security, the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, and Ukraine agreed to dismantle Ukraine’s gargantuan strategic and tactical nuclear arsenals.

In 1994, in exchange for Ukraine’s acquiescence as the fourth largest nuclear force in the world, Ukraine would be guaranteed by the other signatories its territorial integrity as defined and recognized by international law. This was to become what is known as the Budapest Agreement. Of particular note is Article One, which reads as follows:

“The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America reaffirm their commitment to Ukraine ... to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine.”

And that promise lasted almost 20 years until Putin ordered his special forces into the Crimean peninsula.


One cannot overestimate the national pride “gut-punch” Russia felt after the Soviet Union fell. Nearly every single nation that was formerly under the Soviet sphere within the Warsaw Pact construct—from the Baltic nations to the north, all the way to Bulgaria in the south—sought NATO membership as soon as they could. Especially wound- ing to Russian pride was the first round acceptance into NATO of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—three former Soviet states. Russian strategic planners saw this as a perceived windfall for NATO.

Putin wants nothing more than to reverse history. And not just back to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Not only does Putin have his eyes set on all of the former-Soviet states, but he also has made comments suggesting interest in lands previously held by the Russian Empire, including Poland, Finland, and parts of Asia.

Ukraine is just the latest step in Putin’s campaign to revive Russia’s past glory. And he has been laying the groundwork for this incursion for years.

Over the past decade, Putin has extended political, economic, and social control in Kiev, weakening the country’s core civic institutions. Russian control is even stronger in many of the major Russian-leaning, eastern industrial-based cities such as Donetsk and Dnepropetrovsk.

But Putin’s puppet in Kiev, former-President Victor Yanokovych, miscalculated when he decided not to allow Ukraine to participate in funding arrangements with the European Union this spring. A violent, fiery display of Ukrainian defiance in Kiev, dubbed Euromaidan, reverberated to Moscow.

Putin, the former KGB colonel and self-crafted Tsar-like figure, was not going to idle while Ukraine was slipping further into the perceived clutches of Western economic influence and prosperity.

Once the Russian president de facto seized Crimea with virtually no significant military, diplomatic, or economic counters from the U.S., NATO, or EU, he was emboldened to continue his adventurism into Ukraine proper.

He knows Berlin is economically tethered to Russian gas, and London is financially tethered to Russian investment. Without direct German or British support for real economic sanctions, Russia is free to proceed knowing very little will be done to stop them.


The de facto abdication of Crimea by the U.S. and NATO, and the ongoing destabilizing insurgency from irregular Russian forces and surrogate elements raging in eastern Ukraine, is already seen by Ukrainians as a betrayal by NATO, and, most notably, the U.S.

Both U.S. allies and belligerents are watching. Neither the White House nor the American people are prepared to risk open war with Russia over Ukraine.

The parallels drawn from the unwillingness by Germany and Britain to implement real punishing and effective sanctions on Russia remind many security observers and historians of the specter of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact between Hitler and Stalin and the subsequent invasion of Poland in 1939.

Feckless gestures and meaningless and ineffective “sanctions” without U.S. leadership and EU buy-in only appear to empower the new Russian neo- imperialists. This is reminiscent of an earlier momentous lapse in international security fortitude: the 1938 Munich Agreement with “peace for our time.”

America’s most important geo-strategic relationship is our Atlantic relationship as codified in NATO. As Gov. Romney rightfully argued, Russia now threatens that very nature of our most important security alliance.

U.S. policy toward Ukraine over the last 20 years has been an ineffectual tight rope act. The U.S., and NATO, while diplomatically espousing greater cooperation leading to more meaningful economic and broader security arrange- ments with Ukraine, in reality placated the country resulting in the now abysmally recognized “reset” with Moscow. At no time have Russian hegemons demonstrated any intent to cooperate on their real political, economic, and security designs for Ukraine.

We cannot continue to support the Ukrainian people with only teleprompter-deep rhetoric. If the U.S. fails to lead here and now, it places our NATO relationship in further disrepute and could possibly strain our bilateral constructs with those nations closest to the emerging threat.

Specifically, the reactions and perceptions of NATO allies Poland, Hungary, the Baltic nations, and the Czech Republic should play into any immediate calculus. They, like Ukraine, have been on this “edge” before. Soviet aggression and oppression is fresh in their psyches as well, and they empathize with their Slavic and regional brothers and sisters as to the real and present danger a neo-imperial Russia presents to European stability and security.

Regurgitated exercises and conferences with all the protocol trappings and cordial diplomatic puffery betray real progress. What Ukraine needs right now is a strategic U.S.-led concerted military, intelligence, and logistical support plan that empowers the key NATO players identified above to take the operational lead that know, share, and understand the immediate needs of the Ukrainian government against greater Russian military incursion. Viewed by some as possibly provocative itself, Putin has aptly demonstrated that doing nothing is perhaps more provocative, and we see what that has wrought thus far.

NATO must increase militarily viable activity. Lighting fires around the enemy to make them think they are surrounded in the form of tourist-style ship visits and militarily insignificant engagement activities cannot continue. NATO has received a wake-up call in the form of a bellowing Russian growl just down the canyon. The U.S. must re-engage with the NATO Council to force a gut check of members to meet their percentage of GNP military budget goals.

At no time has NATO had a greater pre-kinetic and unpredictable threat to its stated purpose: collective defense. A serious analysis of potential aspirant invitations could be considered to dem- onstrate NATO’s commitment to that collective defense; offering member aspirant status to Moldova, Armenia, Georgia, or Azerbaijan could be considered, for example. Sweden has made recent diplomatic overtures in consideration of a NATO seat.


While Ukraine clearly remains “on the edge” of perhaps a regional or pan-European conflagration with Russia, the U.S., NATO, and the EU cannot remain on the sidelines. The closest NATO ally in this current crisis is in fact the Turks. They are no doubt keeping a keen eye on the events with their Turkic brethren in Crimea, and increased Russian naval and land-based deployments just 250 miles across the Black Sea.

Given the military and political history between both Russia and Turkey that’s steeped in suspicion and hegemonic rivalry, the U.S., or NATO writ large for that matter, may not get the choice to remain on the sidelines if a collective response is triggered between a potential hostile military engagement between them. At that point, no one gets to just sit on the edge. •

Frank Dowse is a retired U.S. Marine Corps officer currently working with Naval Special Warfare Command (SEALs).