- - Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Russians have an interesting way of explaining why we should back them in Syria. They say that nearly every country in the Middle East is run by a dictator. If you remove that person, it upsets a delicate balance which, in some cases, has been in place for decades. Chaos results, if you then put your “own” people in power because they tell you how much they love you; once in office, “they will look at you with their butt.”

That seems to be our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, while we have left Libya in a state of anarchy. Hence, as deplorable as President Bashar Assad is, Russia may be right about keeping him in power. Syria comprises so many different ethnic groups and religions that the United States seems to be repeating the same mistake of picking winners and losers. We may also be repeating this mistake in Ukraine.

Efforts in the West to incorporate Ukraine within Western Europe, while potentially extending NATO further into Eastern Europe, sets off alarm bells and even panic in Moscow. The New York Times reported in February that the Obama administration wants to quadruple defense spending in Central and Eastern Europe. This came as what U.S. policymakers saw as a reasonable response to Russian aggression in Ukraine and Moscow’s annexation of Crimea. But from the Russian point of view, their actions were in themselves a response to NATO and the United States, which Russian policymakers believe were behind an anti-Russian coup in Kiev. Following the coup, Russia acted to protect its huge naval base in Crimea and ethnic Russians in Western Ukraine.

The two sides will no doubt argue for years as to who threatened who first, but the upshot has been a downward spiral in relations between Moscow, Western Europe and the United States that is in no one’s long-term interests. As both sides engage in tit-for-tat jabs at each other, reasonable people on both sides are asking how far they will take all this in a world where both still possess deadly nuclear arsenals.

As in Syria, the West little understands Ukraine and the chaos there. Russian and non-Russian citizens of Ukraine have good historical reasons to distrust and dislike each other, and each has reason to fear the consequences of domination by the other. A street in Kiev was recently named after Stepan Bandera, the new regime’s national hero. This Western Ukrainian nationalist is hated by Eastern Ukrainians for assisting the Nazis during the Second World War. In 1941, he declared an independent Ukraine, which he hoped (in vain) could coexist with the National-Socialist Greater Germany. His followers participated in the ethnic cleansing of Poles and Jews in Western Ukraine.

Though wealthy in natural resources, the country is today an economic basket case. The monthly pension of one of my friend’s mother, a respected ophthalmologist who worked until she was 72, was recently cut to $60. The elderly have been forced into poverty. The situation is so dire that many young girls in Ukraine become prostitutes to survive, and the country has replaced Thailand as a major European destination for sex tourism. What a horrible contrast to the year 988 A.D. when Vladimir the Great baptized the proud Kievan Rus people in the Dnieper River, bringing Christianity to Kiev and eventually Moscow.

NATO will celebrate its 70th birthday in 2019. Its original intent was to protect against a resurgence of Germany and to stymie the Communist bear. Times change and so must NATO. The United States and a new NATO must turn to de-escalating tensions with Russia. This means ending the sanctions against Russia and creating a security agreement for Eastern Europe and the Baltics that requires both NATO and Russia to pull back forces to nonthreatening locations and to discontinue military exercises.

As for Ukraine, it is not in the strategic interest of the United States to maintain tensions in that country in the hope that someday it will flip to the NATO column. Russia has deep economic, historical and spiritual ties to Ukraine. With the death toll in Eastern Ukraine reaching 9,000, it is inconceivable that Eastern Ukraine could reconcile with the current government. Similar to the breakup of Yugoslavia, a partitioned Ukraine may be the only way to solve this predicament. Then the United States, Russia and the rest of the world can focus on investment in and the development of Ukraine’s economy.

• Jerome Israel is a former senior executive at the National Security Agency and the FBI.

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