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Ukraine’s Indifference Meets West’s Indifference

What, if anything, will President Obama’s policy toward Ukraine be?

His October 22nd foreign policy debate with Governor Mitt Romney may hold some clues. Naturally, you wouldn’t expect either debater to focus on Ukraine, but it’s still striking just how little attention was paid to Ukraine’s neighborhood—Europe and Russia.

Neither Obama nor Romney mentioned Europe or the European Union, even once. Ditto for Germany. France, the United Kingdom, and Poland got one mention apiece, but only in passing, while Greece got two, but only as a metaphor for a fate that needs to be avoided. Russia was mentioned ten times, mostly in the below exchange:

OBAMA: Governor Romney, I’m glad that you recognize that al-Qaeda is a threat, because a few months ago when you were asked what’s the biggest geopolitical threat facing America, you said Russia, not al-Qaeda; you said Russia, and the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because, you know, the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.

But Governor, when it comes to our foreign policy, you seem to want to import the foreign policies of the 1980s, just like the social policies of the 1950s and the economic policies of the 1920s…. You indicated that we shouldn’t be passing nuclear treaties with Russia despite the fact that 71 senators, Democrats and Republicans, voted for it….

ROMNEY: …First of all, Russia I indicated is a geopolitical foe….  It’s a geopolitical foe, and I said in the same—in the same paragraph I said, and Iran is the greatest national security threat we face. Russia does continue to battle us in the UN time and time again. I have clear eyes on this. I’m not going to wear rose-colored glasses when it comes to Russia, or Mr. Putin. And I’m certainly not going to say to him, I’ll give you more flexibility after the election. After the election, he’ll get more backbone.

Beats me what all this Russia talk amounts to. Perhaps the most we can conclude is that incoherently expressed sentiments may amount to an incoherent policy.

In any case, if the debate is anything like an approximate guide to the foreign policy priorities of the new president, then it’s clear that those are overwhelmingly centered on the Middle East and China. The Middle East was mentioned 23 times, Iran 47, Israel 34, Syria 28, Iraq 22, Afghanistan 21, and Egypt 11. China got 32 mentions.

To be sure, the obsession with the Middle East makes all sorts of sense, both for domestic- and foreign-policy reasons. There is a terrorist threat. The possibility of Iran’s getting the bomb is distressing. Wars are still being waged in Iraq and Afghanistan. Israel’s security is under threat. The Arab Spring has turned out to be more of a winter. Still, you’d think that the possibility of the euro’s collapse or the European Union’s transformation into either a superstate or a super mess would be of some interest to the United States. And you’d also think that Russia, what with all its nukes and oil and gas and Putinist chest-beating, would deserve to be more than a pretext for an incoherent exchange.

Ukraine’s absence is hardly surprising, of course, but it should serve as a reminder to Ukrainian policymakers of their country’s complete and total irrelevance to American, and by extension Western, foreign policy. And the Ukrainians have no one to blame for this sad state but themselves.

Ukraine would matter to the world in general and to the West in particular if it lived up to its economic and political potential. A powerful Ukrainian economy would attract attention. A robust democracy and a clear pro-Western foreign policy would also attract attention. But when thievery replaces economic reform, political repression replaces democracy, and foreign-policy obtuseness replaces foreign-policy astuteness, it’s small wonder that no serious Western country cares about Ukraine. You’ve got to want to matter to the West in order to matter to the West. But the regime of Viktor Yanukovych is far more interested in self-enrichment and coupon-clipping than in statesmanship and good government.

Although the West began experiencing “Ukraine fatigue” in the last years of Orange rule—thanks in no small part to President Viktor Yushchenko’s incomprehensible inability to distinguish between policy making and hating Yulia Tymoshenko—fatigue was at least premised on a recognition of Ukraine as a country that wasn’t living up to its potential. What we see at present is “Ukraine indifference.” And that won’t change as long as the Yanukovych regime suffers from “West indifference” and continues to believe that corruption and authoritarianism are a substitute for legitimacy and democracy.

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