Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein


MARCH 2014

As we watched with dismay the violence and bloodshed in Ukraine, Syria, Thailand, and Nigeria last month, it was a relief to see American, Canadian, and Mexican leaders get together for what the Washington Post dubbed “Three Amigos Summit.“

Mexico’s President Pena Nieto welcomed President Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper to Toluca, Mexico, where they celebrated twenty years of economic progress and political collaboration under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)/ They talked about the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Alberta, Canada, to Texas, a special interest of Canada. They also discussed U.S. immigration policy, a thorny issue in relations with Mexico.

Contrast this friendly Three Amigos meeting with the turmoil unfolding in Eastern Europe after massive violence and bloodshed engulfed Kiev, Ukraine’s capital. Now Russia, the European Union, and the United States are embroiled in controversy over whether Ukraine will move toward closer ties with Europe, or whether Russia will persuade it to renew cooperative relations with Moscow.

Also contrast the peace and good neighbor relations in North America with the chaos engulfing the Middle East, with Syria as the flashpoint. Last summer Egypt abandoned a one-year experience with democracy and reinstituted a military-led regime that exhibits little patience with dissent or basic human rights. Libya, which ousted a brutal dictator two years ago, has divided into semiautonomous regions run by local armed militias that have little interest in democracy or human rights.


The Obama administration resists pressure to intervene in Syria for three reasons: Congress and the public do not want American forces sent to another Middle East conflict, NATO allies are either opposed (Britain) or unable to contribute significant forces (France and Germany); and Obama‘'s national security team does not see a U.S. vital interest at stake there. Russia’s continuing support of the Assad regime is another inhibiting factor.


By most standards of international relations, Russia’s intervention in Crimea, a province of Ukraine, is a potential threat to the security of Western Europe. This may persuade European Union leaders to take the lead in pressuring Moscow to withdraw its forces and cooperate in forming a new government in Kiev. Ukraine is not a NATO member, but it aspires to join the European Union.

Ukraine’s crisis recalls one in Bosnia in 1995-96, when our European allies urged President Clinton to lead an armed intervention to end a civil war there. Clinton agreed on condition that Europe match America’s contribution of troops and share the financial costs. The Bosnia intervention gained UN Security Council approval because Russia didn’t veto it.

This time, however, Vladimir Putin dispatched his troops without U.N. approval and will push for establishment of an autonomous Crimean government, with or without ties to Ukraine. This strategic peninsula in the Black Sea is of high value to Putin because of a large Russian fleet based there. Putin seems unwilling to risk losing this key facility if a pro-western-government takes the helm in Kiev. From his standpoint, losing influence in Crimea is similar to NATO’s losing its naval base in Naples, Italy.

Ukraine is a more difficult test of U.S. foreign policy than either Bosnia was in 1995 or Syria is today. This is a country with a long border and historical ties with Russia. In many ways, Ukraine is to Russia what Canada is to the United States,: an economic and strategic partner it considers to be a vital national interest.

In dealing with the situation in Ukraine, Barack Obama has two realistic options. The first is to persuade European leaders that tough economic and diplomatic sanctions must be imposed on Moscow until it withdraws troops from Crimea and cooperates with a new Ukrainian government that plans to obtain membership in the EU. It is doubtful that EU countries, including Germany and Britain, will support tough sanctions if Russia does not move beyond Crimea.

The second option is to accept Putin’s view that Crimea is a vital strategic area and must have an autonomous government that is friendly to Moscow and agreeable to its defense needs, regardless of its legal status within the Republic of Ukraine. In return, Russia would pledge not to violate Ukraine’s independence, so long as it does not seek NATO membership or pose a security threat to Russia.

Some call this the “Finland solution“ because it resembles the way Finland maintained its internal control after World War II, when the Soviet Union used bases there in return for Finland’s neutrality during the Cold War period.

Vladimir Putin is not likely to be deterred from his actions in Crimea by economic sanctions and cancelling participation in a June G-8 meeting in Sochi. He seems intent that Crimea will remain a safe zone for Russian military forces regardless of international pressures. Declaring Ukraine a neutral country with economic ties to the EU and Russia may in the end be the best outcome for this potentially explosive situation in Eastern Europe

File last modified on Friday, 7-MAR-2014 3:57 PM EST

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