Widgets Magazine


The future of Eastern Europe

Author’s note/correction: While the Budapest Memorandums on Security Assurances (1994) include promises by Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom to refrain from the use or threat of force against Ukraine’s sovereignty, they do not explicitly compel the United States to protect Ukraine’s borders, as Budapest negotiator Steven Pifer explains. The piece below implies that the United States is obligated to act, although not necessarily not by force of arms, for which the author sincerely apologizes; while the argument of the piece remains unchanged, the absence of an explicit guarantee of sovereignty is an absolutely essential point to keep in mind. You can read the text of the memorandums here.

In an op-ed running today, Raven Jiang ‘15 writes that the Stanford community — mainly Westerners — should pay close attention to the issues underlying the struggle for control of eastern Ukraine. “This is a question of history and there are no convincing answers,” Jiang contends. “There is something profoundly enlightening about actually listening to the other side of the divide.”

What Jiang has to say is valuable. It’s important to remember that the nations that are considered our rivals, or worse, enemies, have their own history, their own historical narratives and their own perspectives on how we live our lives. History is complex, and it’s tempting to agree with Jiang that “there are no convincing answers.”

Indeed, we all must pay heed to the fact that history may not judge our actions as kindly as we would like. “I cannot do fair justice to the cultural underpinnings of the Crimean crisis,” I admitted when Russia invaded the Crimean Peninsula two months ago. But even today, I wouldn’t change my stance. In part, that is because, as the above quote explains, I was not attempting to gauge the sentiments of the people within Ukraine’s borders. I was arguing that America should defend its red lines and treaty commitments, and if it could not, then avoid making these agreements in the first place.

My column was about the diplomatic ramifications of our stance in Eastern Europe — of the potential risks we face when we extend our treaty commitments into areas that we are not prepared to defend.

Two months later, what have we done?

We obligated ourselves by treaty to defend Ukraine’s borders; we have not done so in the Crimea, but so far Kiev (at least in name) controls the rest of the country. And while diplomacy in theory would mandate that all treaties are created equal, in recent weeks, now that our friends in NATO — a far more critical treaty in geopolitical terms — have spoken up, we have put boots on the ground in Poland and the Baltic States.

Mind you, the total commitment is only 600 men, a force that by itself would never be enough to defend against an actual Russian invasion. But the fact that America has placed men in Eastern Europe implies that if Russia wants to attack the nations housing them, it may have to shed American blood. If 600 American soldiers died in the fighting, the result would likely be a far greater war than Russia would be willing to accept. There’s a reason we have placed troops there and not in Ukraine: President Obama evaluates that his actions are both within the scope of his abilities and in our national interest. He made the call; we must hope that it is the right one.

But Jiang doesn’t ask whether that is true; to this point, we’ve been asking different questions. Jiang asks a fundamental question — a normative question. He questions the validity of the very attitude of the American diplomatic narrative. And now that he brings it up, I must discuss why the United States considers its commitment to Eastern Europe worthwhile.



The first thing to note is that the United States foreign policy establishment is not monolithic. After the end of the Cold War, when the American narrative had finally seen its triumph over socialism, George Kennan firmly opposed the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe. “I think it is the beginning of a new cold war,” Kennan predicted. And although he was said to have supported expansion in 1997, Henry Kissinger nevertheless opposed adding Ukraine to the alliance.

What justifies our military guarantee, then, is not necessarily geopolitics, for as we’ve seen, there are excellent geopolitical arguments against expanding our military commitments. We are in Eastern Europe in large part because of what Jiang explicitly wants to dissuade: our own assurance, born out of revolution and forged in both war and peace, that America is on the right side of history.

With all due respect to a man who has written a tremendously thoughtful piece — and, having lived abroad for many years, I know that it expresses a sentiment that many people share — I cannot agree with Jiang. I reject the fundamental yet unsaid premise of Jiang’s piece — that the fact that other peoples may disagree implies a kind of moral equivalence.

True, Jiang is not wrong when he points out that the Euromaidan movement that eventually toppled President Yanukovych was a revolt, just as the anti-government unrest in Luhansk and Donetsk also constitutes a revolt. The difference is, then, that Euromaidan — at least in principle — supports a way of life that will ultimately benefit the Ukrainian people more so than that of its discontents.

The op-ed implies but does not say that we should tread lightly regarding issues that we do not fully understand, and indeed America has frequently burned itself when it has tried to intervene with too heavy a hand (or too light of one). But the tone of the piece seems to imply that because of this fact, we should keep out of these issues entirely. Even if that is not what Jiang believes, it’s a belief that exists and that I firmly intend to dissuade.



What, then, happens to Ukraine? Do we wash our hands of the conflict?

To a certain extent, a hands-off approach seems like the best option available to us. Despite the efforts of Charles Krauthammer, we’re almost certainly not going to give Ukraine the sort of boots-on-the-ground guarantee that we have extended to NATO. If Ukraine threatens to split in a fashion that can be managed — that is, if the counter-Euromaidan revolts trigger irrevocable tensions but do not immediately devolve into a civil war — then a split will happen: Realist diplomacy isn’t just about what we should achieve but also what we can achieve, and President Obama does not seem intent on imposing an equilibrium on Ukraine that he doesn’t feel he can enforce. The American people have made their judgment that the geopolitical considerations at stake do not justify intervention; after Crimea, Obama has not drawn any more red lines. And there are clearly plenty of ways to express our distaste in more graduated terms.

But there are also times when purely advancing our national interest may run contrary to our moral character. While the rumors of anti-Semitic policies in eastern Ukraine have been greatly exaggerated, the Jewish community in Odessa has considered evacuating its children from the city. I say this not to imply that any pro-Russian Eastern Ukrainian state will bring pogroms back to Eastern Europe. But the many times that America has bombed countries or otherwise intervened for similar, primarily moral reasons — in Bosnia, in Somalia, in Libya and elsewhere — show both that we have principles beyond geopolitics, and moreover, that our moral beliefs are an important, albeit intangible, part of our power. There is a reason why even though President Obama almost certainly won’t intervene, he hasn’t ruled intervention out. I don’t know what Obama or the American collective consciousness would consider unacceptable, but there is a point where, from a moral standpoint, we will stick to our guns.

And while we may be tempted to embrace moral indifference — if not outright equivalency — the United States ultimately remains bound to the factors that created it. America is the one remaining great power that was explicitly founded in service of an idea, and we ignore our principles at our peril.


Contact Winston Shi at wshi94 “at” stanford.edu.

About Winston Shi

Winston Shi was the Managing Editor of Opinions for Volume 245 (February-June 2014). He also served as an opinions and sports columnist, a senior staff writer, and a member of the Editorial Board. A native of Thousand Oaks, California (the one place on the planet with better weather than Stanford), he graduated from Stanford in June 2016 with bachelor's and master's degrees in history. He is currently attending law school, where he preaches the greatness of Stanford football to anybody who will listen, and other people who won't.