Khrushchev’s Folly and the Putin Doctrine Have Put a Sting on Ukraine

Whether it was wise for the European Union and NATO to embrace former Soviet republics is truly questionable.

Military vehicles surrounding a military base in Crimea.
Military vehicles surrounding a military base in the Crimean town of Belbek near Sevastopol, March 22, 2014.Reuters

The crisis that followed the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation has its roots in February 1954, when Nikita Khrushchev, as first secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, marked the 300th anniversary of Ukraine’s merger with Russia by presenting Crimea as a gift to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. What may well have been part of the power struggle among Soviet leaders after Stalin’s death is closely connected with the present crisis.

At the time, it seemed a matter of little consequence, since it involved no more than a shifting of borders within the Soviet Union. But things changed with the breakup of the USSR and Ukraine’s becoming a sovereign state that included Crimea – an area with a majority Russian population. This phenomenon stemmed from what I’ll call Khrushchev’s Folly. Not a bad deal for Ukraine, but a raw deal for many Crimeans and Vladimir Putin, the president of the Russian Federation.

Khrushchev’s Folly reminds us of Seward’s Folly, the purchase by the United States of Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million ($121 million today). The deal was negotiated by U.S. Secretary of State William Seward and was roundly criticized at the time.

Here again, the law of unintended consequences was at work. It was probably the best real-estate investment in the history of man and should rightly have been called Alexander’s Folly for Alexander II, the tsar who sold for a pittance what seemed a worthless 1.5 million arctic square kilometers. They turned out to contain immense oil deposits and eventually became the 49th state. It was certainly a better deal than the gratuitous transfer of Crimea to Ukraine.

That Putin and many of his Russian compatriots don’t like the detachment of Crimea from Russia is obvious and not unexpected. After the dismemberment of the Soviet Union, Russian leaders didn’t welcome the attempts by the European Union and NATO to extend their influence into countries once part of the Soviet Union that Russia considers part of its sphere of influence. Whether it was wise for the European Union to try to embrace these countries and for NATO, a relic of the Cold War, to recruit them is truly questionable. No doubt, it is connected to the current crisis.

Putin’s position resembles America’s Monroe Doctrine, declared by President James Monroe in 1850, which told European powers to stay out of the Western Hemisphere. The Putin Doctrine is to keep the West from gaining influence in countries he considers part of Russia’s backyard. The Monroe Doctrine worked, whereas the West isn’t prepared to adapt to the Putin Doctrine. That, in turn, has led to the Russian initiative in Crimea and the reattachment of Crimea to the Russian Federation. It’s unlikely that Western sanctions will make Putin retreat.

But that isn’t the end of the story. The West is concerned that the annexation of Crimea to the Russian Federation may not be Putin’s last word. His next step might be directed at Ukraine itself or the eastern part, which has a high proportion of Russian speakers. The West now has to choose between a war of sanctions against Putin or sitting down with him and negotiating an understanding that will take into account some of his fears and concerns.