Ukraine and US Strategic Interests

Ukraine’s Quest for Mature Nation Statehood: A Roundtable

Ukraine and US Strategic Interests [“Ukraine is not New Zealand”]

Dr. Paul Wolfowitz

Transcript of the first day keynote address by Paul Wolfowitz, Dean of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, The John Hopkins University and former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, delivered during the “Ukraine’s Quest for Mature Nation Statehood: A Roundtable” conference in Washington on September 19, 2000.

Thank you. The hour is late, and I see I’ve lost a lot of my audience before I’ve started. I’m not responsible for that, but I don’t want to lose the rest of you after I do start. So I’m going to try to be brief.

I do have to give, at the outset, a certain disclaimer. As already noted, I am a foreign policy advisor for Governor Bush. I’m also, in my full-time day job, the Dean of a non-partisan academic institution. When I began the advisory process, I talked to the president of the university. We agreed, or I suppose more or less politely he told me and I agreed, that the way to square my advisory role with my non-partisan leadership role wag to be an advisor but not a spokesman for the campaign.

So I’m not here as a spokesman for the campaign. I actually only came here after being assured that I’m here in my academic capacity. I don’t believe that United States-Ukrainian relations is a partisan issue, or one that is going to feature much, for better and for worse, in the campaign. I’m giving you my personal views. But what I really want to emphasize is my own view that Ukrainian independence was a great victory for Western values, a great victory for stability in Europe. It was a great victory for the dream of a Europe whole and free. I believe it was a great strategic gain for the United States and for our NATO allies.

At the risk of sounding like I’m beginning to violate what 1 just said, I think it wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t at least relay a story about Dick Cheney, who happens to be running for Vice-President. It was my other privilege of working for four years in the Bush Administration when he was Secretary of Defense. I remember when the possibility of the breakup of the Soviet Union first appeared on the horizon-when the possibility of Ukrainian independence first appeared on the horizon.

From the beginning, Dick Cheney was a strong advocate of Ukrainian independence. Some of the cynics said, “Well, of course. What would be expected from you people in the Pentagon? You want to see the Soviet Union break up. That’s all you care about.”

Well, it’s certainly true that we didn’t view the demise of the Soviet Union as something to mourn or to feel sorry about in any way. But it went far beyond the particular view of the Pentagon. I think it related to something more fundamental. That was the aspiration of people to govern themselves. Dick’s belief was that is an aspiration that serves American interests, and something that needs to be supported.

One of the counter-arguments we encountered was the breakup of the Soviet Union will lead to war, in the space of the former Soviet Union-that the road to peace was to somehow preserve this monstrous structure created by 70 years of communism. I think the record has shown very clearly that Ukrainian independence has been a great strategic advance for the United States. It has been a great advance for the people of Ukraine. But finally and perhaps least to be expected, it has also, I think contributed to peace in the former Soviet Union, and in the whole space around Ukraine-Central Europe, as well.

I remember after the failed coup in the Soviet Union, as the Ukrainians were preparing for their referendum, there were people in the State Department who said: “Well, we shouldn’t grant recognition to Ukraine just because they vote for independence. They should earn recognition.” That was the strategy that was proposed. The strategy of earned recognition.

There were various conditions suggested. You can imagine what some of them were. The basic principle was that until Ukraine had done various things to satisfy our concerns, be they on nuclear weapons or economic reform or protection of minorities, that we shouldn’t recognize them.

It was hotly contested, and Dick Cheney’s view, as well as my own strong view, if I may claim my little share of credit here, was that this is a formula for disaster. If the Ukrainians vote for independence, we should recognize independence. If we put conditions on independence, that would prolong the process of recognition. Had we followed that course, we may not have yet recognized Ukrainian independence. Someone would have come up with new conditions, perhaps.

In any case, it would have been an invitation to those in Russia who believe that the issue of Ukrainian independence is still open. I’m going to come back to this portion at the end. Of course, there are such people in Russia, but I think their numbers would have been much greater, and their voice would have been much stronger if the United States had shown hesitation at the beginning in recognizing Ukrainian independence.

Ukraine is not New Zealand

I think it’s a great misfortune to be “strategically located.” I think if a country had a choice, it would far prefer the strategic location of New Zealand. About whom Henry Kissinger once famously said, “New Zealand is a strategic dagger, pointed at the heart of Antarctica.”

So I’m very proud of the small role I played, and of the larger role that Dick Cheney played. I think you all know that President Bush made the decision shortly before the vote. He even communicated it to Mikhail Gorbachev, who felt this was a great betrayal-the decision that if the Ukrainians voted for independence, we would recognize it. The rest is a great deal of history and a great deal of, I think, very positive history.

This group doesn’t need any lecture from me about the strategic importance of a country of nearly 50 million people. It’s one of the largest countries in Europe. Its population is greater than both Poland and the Czech Republic, combined. Nor do you need a lecture from me about Ukraine’s important strategic location. It should be emphasized, and isn’t often enough, that when those words “strategic location” roll off the lips of government officials, it’s as though this were something to be envied. I think it’s a great misfortune to be “strategically located.” I think if a country had a choice, it would far prefer the strategic location of New Zealand.

About whom Henry Kissinger once famously said, “New Zealand is a strategic dagger, pointed at the heart of Antarctica.”

It’s much nicer to be treated on your own terms, to be left alone by your neighbors, or even better not to have any neighbors.

And not to be treated as an appendage of some neighboring great power.

But that is not Ukraine’s fate, and we may be able to hope for a great deal of change in that part of the world. But we can’t hope to change that fact.

I have made very similar comments regarding Turkey. We have the fact of geography to live with, but let’s turn it to our advantage. Let’s take advantage of the fact that there are 50 million people in a strategic location who yearn to be fully a part of the West. They yearn to be fully democratic. They could, if economic reforms succeed, become a powerful engine for economic development throughout that region. I think Ukraine presents us with a great strategic opportunity.

There have, in fact, been some certainly positive developments in United StatesUkrainian relations over the last ten years. Ukraine has rid itself of all its nuclear weapons and destroyed all its old missile silos. It’s become an active partner of the Partnership for Peace, and it’s sent troops to participate in both SFOR and KFOR.

Last summer, it committed to shutting down the Chornobyl nuclear power plant. I suppose one could also count as a success that Ukraine, at the cost of hundreds of jobs, has terminated a potentially lucrative nuclear contract with the Russian Turbatom plant.

I would just say, in mentioning that one-I’m not quite sure that the real success of shutting down that sale has been at all achieved. Certainly, from the Ukrainian point of view, it’s been a very costly partial success. But I think the more important question is, where do we go in the longer term? What would a larger strategy toward Ukraine look like? I’m not going to speak long, here. I just think there are a few principles that are fundamental and that are important.

I think one is that it’s extremely important to treat Ukraine as a country that’s important on its own terms. Not to deal with Ukraine through Moscow or feel that Ukraine has to somehow provide a second place to Moscow.

I don’t know whether it’s intentional or simply an accident, but my impression is that in presidential visits to Ukraine, he’s never spent any comparable amount of time there as to what he spent in Russia. While Russia’s an extremely important country, it seems to me that we need to convey the message that Ukraine is important, in its own right.

Secondly, we clearly cannot have a Russian veto over our relations with Ukraine. We cannot let the Russians dictate to us how we deal with Ukraine.

Third, I do believe that a strong relationship with Russia is clearly something that’s important to American interests, and to the interests of developing a united, free Europe. I think that in our dealings with Russia, it’s important to keep in mind one of the central issues about Russia’s future.

“Why die for Danzig?”

The arguments that came up at the time in NATO enlargement that seemed to be echoes of an earlier era when people asked about, “Why die for Danzig?” didn’t understand that the issue wasn’t, “Why die for Danzig,” but actually was: “If you’re prepared to die for Danzig, that’s a way to avoid having to do so.”

The question of whether Russians will abandon, once and for all, that dream of reasserting, recreating the Russian Empire-I think it’s a matter of debate in Russia, to this day. I think there should be absolutely no doubt about which side of that debate the United States is on. Yet, it seems to me sometimes that there is doubt. I think that when the president of the United States compares Borys Yeltsin’s actions in the first Chechnya war to those of President Lincoln in our Civil War, 1 think he’s sending exactly the wrong message to new Russian imperialists. Equally and more recently, when he referred to the Russian attack on Grozny with the appalling description of the “liberation” of Grozny, he’s sending a message to Russia, I believe, about how they can treat Chechens. That comes dangerously close to letting them think about how they can treat people who are formally outside their borders.

Clearly, there is a very delicate issue in Russia, as in China, as in Indonesia, as in many other places about how one balances American concern for the territorial integrity of countries, with American concern of how they treat their people. But I don’t believe that we can turn a blind eye to how the Russians treat their own people, and not expect it to have harmful consequences in terms of how they think about treating their neighbors.

That brings me to a fourth point. It seems to me that the road to peace between Russia and its neighbors, specifically the road to peace between Russia and Ukraine, lies in making it as clear as we possibly can that the use of force to resolve disputes between Russia and its neighbors is simply unacceptable.

I don’t think I’m in a position today to start talking about the precise ways in which one makes these views clear. Obviously, I’m referring to much larger questions about NATO memberships and security guarantees.

One principle is quite clear to me-that is strategic ambiguity. It is not a good idea. I don’t believe, frankly, in the case of Taiwan and China, that strategic ambiguity serves a good purpose. I have written that I think that saying, “the use of force is unacceptable,” does serve a good purpose.

When I think of strategic ambiguity, I think of cases like Dean Acheson’s ambiguity about Korea 1950. Or for that manner, the ambiguity in our administration, and frankly particularly from our Arab friends, about the borders of Kuwait in 1990.

When you’re dealing with people with clearly aggressive intent, the best road to peace is to demonstrate a willingness to fight. The arguments that came up at the time in NATO enlargement that seemed to be echoes of an earlier era when people asked about, “Why die for Danzig?” didn’t understand that the issue wasn’t, “Why die for Danzig,” but actually was: “If you’re prepared to die for Danzig, that’s a way to avoid having to do so.”

It was the policy that worked for nearly 50 years, during the Cold War. American willingness and NATO willingness to defend Berlin, which seemed indefensible, prevented the kind of attack on Berlin that would have been tragic for everyone.

So in proportion to the level of danger. I personally believe it’s important to be clear. You notice I said, “in proportion to the level of danger.” What I mean is that I think it’s a mistake to assume the worst about Russia. It’s certainly a mistake to believe that a Russia that can barely muster an army to deal with Chechnya is a Russia that’s about to go on a military rampage around Europe.

I think we do have some space and some time. There is no question that the best solution to potential problems are diplomatic and political solutions. But when security issues come on the table, we should try very hard to avoid what is all too often what I think is a natural American mistake. That is the belief that the way to avoid war is to make sure that people understand your peaceful intentions. Sometimes the best way to avoid war is to make sure that people understand your willingness to fight, if necessary, and the consequences of their unpeaceful intentions.

Finally, I think the most important thing for Ukrainian independence in the near and medium term is economic reform in Ukraine, and economic development in Ukraine. It’s not been a great record over the last ten years, but it seems to me that the Yushchenko Government now has demonstrated a strong commitment to reform. Its demonstrated goodwill in the IMF investigation of the earlier misreporting of Ukrainian reserves. 1 think we have a Government in Kyiv that’s showing a new determination for reform. It seems to me that they deserve our support.

I’d just like to conclude then, by saying that the reason I accepted the invitation to come here this afternoon is because I do think Americans need to understand that a strong independent Ukraine is not just in the interest of Ukrainians or Ukrainian-Americans. I think it’s in the interest of peace and stability in all of Europe. I think it’s in the interest of the United States. I think we have a pretty good record so far in supporting that development. But we should recognize that we do it not out of charity or simple love for the Ukrainians. We do it out of our own national self-interest, as well. Thank you.