Will The Pottery Barn Rule Ever Apply To Ukraine?

The rule that “you break it, you own it” did not seem to apply very well to Ukraine in the twentieth century, and this 21st century does not seem to be starting out too well for them either.  From the forced collectivization and starvation imposed on Ukrainian peasants by Stalin in the 1930s to the horrors of the Second World War when Ukraine was the “bloodland” (see Timothy Snyder’s book) between Hitler and Stalin, to the corruption and oligarchic bleeding of Ukraine in the twenty-some post-Soviet years, no one who broke Ukraine seemed to bother to own the project of repairing it.

The foreign policy “realism” of Kissinger et al continues to consign Ukraine to the netherworld of pawn status in the great power game.  For “realists,” what matters is that Ukraine cannot be considered a “foreign country”–from the Russian perspective, that is, which counts far more than the “unrealistic” fiction that Ukraine and its 45 million inhabitants might actually possess sovereignty that anyone is bound to respect (hat tip to Lilia Shevtsova’s excellent recent article on the “Putin Doctrine”).  And Putin has played on this assumption, thus having his cake and eating it too, by asserting, though not in these exact words, that Ukraine has no right to use violence even or especially to defend itself against Russian-sponsored violence.  The notion that anyone would suffer inconvenience to protect Ukraine–even after it gave up nuclear weapons in a 1994 agreement signed by Russia, the US, and the UK–has not stopped, for example, UK prime minister David Cameron and his wife Samantha from enjoying a weeklong Easter break at a luxury yoga retreat in the Canary Islands.  (Heaven help the Obamas if they went on a weeklong yoga retreat!)  Ukraine is looking incapable (though today the fog of war has descended, making conclusions dicey) of defending itself militarily against subversion by Russian special forces in its eastern regions.  The process of re-colonization of terrain that from an imperial Russian point of view was only “external” temporarily and accidentally seems to be going well for Putin so far, though he may not intend all the consequences that follow.  Thus far it seems the “Pottery Barn rule” (attributed to Colin Powell, but not an actual Pottery Barn policy) will not soon apply to the Ukrainians.

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