When luminary Henry Kissinger weighed in recently on the crisis in Ukraine, the entire political world seemingly took notice. Unfortunately, Mr. Kissinger makes two fatal mistakes in his analysis.
First, Mr. Kissinger insists that, "Far too often the Ukrainian issue is posed as a showdown: whether Ukraine joins the East or the West." Yet, rather ironically, he simultaneously falls into a nearly identical trap that has claimed so many commentators of late: vastly overstating the conflict in Ukraine as a showdown between East Ukraine and West Ukraine. He writes, "The West speaks Ukrainian; the East speaks mostly Russian. Any attempt by one wing of Ukraine to dominate the other ... would lead eventually to civil war or break-up."
Second, even as he insists that Ukraine mustn't move decisively towards either the West or Russia, Mr. Kissinger seems to rather firmly side with some of the most extreme positions held by Russians toward the existence of a Ukrainian state.
To the first point, Mr. Kissinger is far from alone in his analysis. Major newspapers have recently declared Ukraine "a dangerously divided nation," and a "tinderbox of divided loyalties," with some going so far as to suggest the country be partitioned outright to avoid further conflict. This narrative makes for easy, black-and-white reporting, but it does not represent reality.
Pundits too frequently ignore the fact that more than 90 percent of Ukrainians voted in united support of independence in 1991. Nearly 60 percent of Ukrainians polled last year supported EU integration, while only 24 percent opposed it. Meanwhile, in December, 69 percent of Ukrainians had "little or no confidence" in President Viktor Yanukovych, and 73 percent felt the same way about Prime Minister Mykola Azarov. The fall of the corrupt Yanukovych administration was not orchestrated by some mere faction.
Nor is the view unique to Western and Central Ukraine, as has been suggested. In a poll conducted last year, 52 percent of Ukrainians in the supposed Russian stronghold of Eastern Ukraine supported EU integration, while only 31 percent opposed it — hardly a nation on the brink of a civil war, as Mr. Kissinger and others have claimed.
Due, perhaps, to his extensive dealings with the Soviet Union during his career, Mr. Kissinger makes an unforgivable mistake in his analysis. He states, "The West must understand that, to Russia, Ukraine can never be just a foreign country. Russian history began in what was called Kievan-Rus. The Russian religion spread from there. Ukraine has been part of Russia for centuries ... ."
Hundreds of years of Ukrainian history — including many brutal years under the Soviet system that specifically targeted and killed literally millions of Ukrainians — have been marked by Russian attempts to not only subjugate Ukrainians, but to rob them of their history entirely by claiming there is no separate Ukrainian history. Instead, Ukraine is painted as a mere sidenote in the greater Russian history. In fact, in the early 1900s, the term "little Russians" would be employed to implicitly reject outright the notion of a Ukrainian national identity.
Mr. Kissinger emphasizes this point repeatedly. Vladimir Putin is a "serious strategist — on the premises of Russian history," he insists, going on to point out that "understanding Russian history" has never been an American strong point. Russian history, not Ukrainian history. Mr. Kissinger, rather symbolically, chooses the Russian spelling of "Kievan Rus," rather than the Ukrainian spelling of "Kyivan Rus," as if to hammer the point home. He later comes right out and suggests Ukraine is "an integral part of Russian history and, indeed, of Russia."
Mr. Kissinger seems to be echoing the sentiments Mr. Putin reportedly expressed to George W. Bush at a 2008 NATO summit when he said, "You have to understand, George, that Ukraine is not even a country. Part of its territory is in Eastern Europe and the greater part was given to us."
There may be a variety of views regarding the best resolution to the crisis in Ukraine. However, joining the very chorus of forces that have held down Ukrainians for hundreds of years and from whose shackles Ukrainians overwhelmingly freed themselves in 1991 and 1917 is neither "balanced," as Mr. Kissinger suggests, nor is it helpful in advancing solutions to the crisis in Ukraine.
Ben Carnes is the communications director for Rep. Trent Franks and president of the Congressional Ukrainian Association.