- Ukraine Between Russia and the West: Buffer or Flashpoint?
The conflict in Ukraine that began in early 2014 produced the worst crisis between Russia and the West since the end of the Cold War. In its wake, foreign policy mavens have engaged in contentious debates over Ukraine’s future and the West’s choices. During the Obama administration, the West imposed sanctions on Russia, viewing its annexation of Crimea and material support for rebel forces in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region as violations of the basic norms of post-Cold War international relations. This approach to Russia was based on a consensus within Europe and between Europe and the United States.
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But things changed in 2016. Donald Trump was elected U.S. president, bringing to the office a disdain for the American establishment’s liberal internationalist foreign policy. Major transformations were also underway in Europe: Brexit, disarray in the European Union, and the rise of nationalist and populist parties, which held in common with Trump a more positive view of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Because of these changes, the West may shift gears and seek an accommodation with Russia over Ukraine’s status. As such, intermittent discussions in the West about the feasibility and desirability of Ukraine becoming a buffer state have acquired added significance, notwithstanding that such talk has always made Ukrainians uneasy due to their aspirations to be part of the West—politically, economically, and militarily.
Buffer zones separate more powerful states without being aligned with or controlled by them. Austria, following the conclusion of the 1955 Austrian State Treaty, offers one example of a successful buffer state, Switzerland since the 19th century another. States that have endured as buffers generally have internal cohesion and have reached a national consensus that avoiding formal alliances serves the national interest, defined minimally as territorial integrity and self-determination. Some—Switzerland, for example—have had military prowess and a terrain sufficient to deter would-be conquerors. Yet a buffer lasts only so long as the powerful states party to the deal have stakes in maintaining it or lack the capacity to wreck it.
It is not far-fetched to think about Ukraine—a country whose name derives from the Slavic word for “borderland”—as a possible buffer zone. For at least the past 400 years, Ukraine has been contested by or divided between Russia and rival powers. Throughout, aspiring Ukrainian leaders struggled to forge a unifying national identity and join disparate Ukrainian-populated lands into a single polity with independence and sovereignty. On at least two occasions—in the mid-17th century and during World War I and the immediate aftermath—a fledgling Ukrainian state, which arose more from unforeseen geopolitical circumstances than by design, existed briefly as a buffer between Russian and its adversaries. Today, Ukraine finds itself in similar circumstances.
To many observers—and even more so to many Ukrainians themselves—referring to Ukraine as a possible buffer zone reeks of retrograde realpolitik. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has derided Putin’s proclivity for power politics and spheres of influence as “old thinking.” Her put-down reflected the common belief in the West that the end of the Cold War had cast balance-of-power-based statecraft onto history’s ash heap, along with great powers’ claims to special spheres of influence, buffer zones, and the like. The new international order featured, in theory if not always in reality, respect for legal principles, people’s freedom to decide their own fate, and universal human rights. This forward-looking, optimistic vision shaped how the West responded to Russian [End Page 108] conduct in Ukraine since 2014, though this was not a view the Russians shared.
Ukrainians, particularly in the central and western regions, seek a future as part of the West and, ideally, as members of the European Union and NATO. In a June 2016 public opinion poll conducted by Rating Group Ukraine for the International Republican Institute, 54 percent of Ukrainians said they aspired to join the EU, while just 15 percent chose the Customs Union (CU) comprising...