Ex-White House Adviser Proposes Neutral “Finlandized” Ukraine

April 29, 2009

James George Jatras
Deputy Director, American Institute in Ukraine

Kiev, April 29, 2009 – Soon after the Barack Obama Administration took office, Vice President Joseph Biden proposed hitting the “reset button” in relations with Russia, and observers since have been looking for evidence that the proposal was one of substance, not just rhetoric. Early indications were not promising. On March 5, at the Foreign Ministerial meeting in preparation for the Strasbourg-Kehl NATO summit, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reiterated the United States’ “firm commitment” to moving Ukraine and Georgia toward NATO membership. Later in the month, President Obama, while not mentioning Ukraine by name, affirmed his belief in the “need to send a clear signal throughout Europe that we are going to continue to abide by the central belief that countries who seek and aspire to join NATO are able to join NATO.”

While President Obama indicated deployment of a missile system in Poland and the Czech Republic would proceed only if its technical feasibility if confirmed, the decision to deploy has not itself been rescinded. Even of late serious concerns remain. Most notable is Washington’s persistence in plans for the “Cooperative Longbow 09/Cooperative Lancer 09” military exercise next month in Georgia.

Realism About to Break Out in Washington?

Before any policy shift can be expected in Washington, it almost always is preceded by an intellectual shift in the “expert community” from which actors in the apparat of government take their cues. From that perspective, there may be signs of a coming reassessment. In particular, there are welcome signals that despite Washington’s reaffirmation of its predecessor’s policies realism is beginning to prevail with respect to the most volatile point of discord: Ukraine.

The most notable recent example is found in recommendations made in a report by one of Washington’s most respected authorities on issues relating to the former USSR. Authored by Thomas Graham, Special Assistant to former President George W. Bush and Senior Director for Russia on the National Security Council staff, the report, “Resurgent Russia and U.S. Purposes,” outlines exactly what the U.S. should be doing if genuinely seeking to hit Vice President’s Biden’s “reset button.”

The key recommendation with respect to Ukraine is the same as that called for by the American Institute in Ukraine in our previous paper (“Ukraine Outside of NATO: Is There a Better Alternative?”, April 15) suggesting that Ukraine should seek, in place of NATO membership, a place in a security structure that does not lead to a new division and polarization in Europe:

The starting point might be consid¬eration of institutionalizing a form of Ukrainian neutrality, or “Finlandizing” Ukraine, to ease Russian concerns about Ukraine’s joining a potentially anti-Russian security organization, while giving Ukraine adequate security guar¬antees until a broader European security architecture is elaborated.

For those not familiar with the term, “Finlandization” refers to the special, friendly relationship Finland had with the USSR while remaining fully a part of the democratic West. Finland, of course, despite having been a self-governing part of Russia before the Revolution, had far fewer ethnic, linguistic, and historical links to the Soviet Union than Ukraine has to Russia.

Graham’s reference to “a broader European security architecture” is key. As elaborated in the April 15 AIU paper:

Ukraine can place itself as a unique catalyst helping to unite the continent in a security structure that will protect not only Ukraine’s needs but all of Europe’s. Rather than becoming an object of a new East-West divide Ukraine can be a bridge helping to create a more secure, prosperous, and unified Europe.

It also should be noted that Graham calls for the U.S. to “abandon support for clearly anti-Russian undertakings of marginal value (such as GUAM, a loose arrangement linking Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Moldova, seen as something of a counterweight to the Commonwealth of Independent States).” One of the more pointless initiatives from Washington during the post-Cold War period – even more so since Uzbekistan pulled out in 2005, turning the short-lived acronym GUUAM back into its original name – Ukraine would do well to rethink its affiliation.

A Move in the Right Direction

At the risk of seeming too sanguine, AIU hopes there are those in the Obama Administration ready to take the path suggested by Graham to replace the provocative course of the Bush Administration. (Paradoxically, that is the same Administration in which Graham himself served, though it is known his was a much-needed, and unfortunately not sufficiently heeded, voice of pragmatism at the White House.) Moreover, the Graham recommendations are congruent with those of the March report “The Right Direction for U.S. Policy toward Russia” issued by the Commission on U.S. Policy toward Russia. The Commission, a prestigious bipartisan group headed by former Senators Gary Hart (Democrat, Colorado) and Chuck Hagel (Republican, Nebraska), and of which Graham is also a member, advised:

Washington should not expect that it can attempt to create its own sphere of influence on Russia’s borders while simultaneously seeking a constructive relationship with Russia. … We do not believe that the United States has a compelling security interest in expediting NATO membership for either Ukraine or Georgia at this time. … [Ukraine’s] membership in the alliance could decrease rather than increase Europe’s overall security given the realities on the ground …

It is no doubt premature to suggest that such thinking is about to prevail in Washington. At the same time, the fact that the case for a more realistic approach to Ukraine is being made by such well-regarded authorities is grounds for cautious optimism.

James George Jatras is a principal in a public advocacy firm based in Washington, DC. Prior to entering the private sector he was senior foreign policy adviser to the Republican leadership of the United States Senate. He earlier was an American Foreign Service Officer, where among other assignments he served in the (then) Office of Soviet Union Affairs. In addition to his work with AIU he director of the American Council for Kosovo (www.savekosovo.org).