There will be costs: Applying U.S. intervention principles from Ukraine to North America

By Carter Page - 04 March 2014
There will be costs: Applying U.S. intervention principles from Ukraine to North

Carter Page imagines the American reaction if a world power tried playing a similar Ukraine crisis scenario in its own back yard and gives those working behind the scenes a warning.

On Friday, February 28th, President Obama noted that “there will be costs” for Russian intervention in Ukraine.  With the United States already having instigated revolution throughout the country over recent months in part through the proactive assistance of opposition groups, it is worthwhile considering an analogous cost-benefit analysis of such a scenario if North America were similarly set off by external powers.  Having spent last week in Moscow, I took the opportunity to discuss recent developments with several Russian thought leaders and officials.  Based on these conversations, it is clear that the continued doctrine of U.S. foreign intervention remains central to the attention of many throughout the country as they consider the situation on their border to the South. 

As has been well documented in this YouTube video, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland and U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt played active roles in orchestrating the revolution which transpired over recent months.  While the U.S. response to the disclosure of this phone call has focused on whether governments should follow the American practice of listening to the conversations of foreign leaders, from a realist foreign policy perspective it is also worthwhile reconsidering the substance of their discussion. 

A range of commentators have recently opined on Russia’s actions following the 2014 Ukrainian revolution, but the earlier role of the U.S. in fomenting the current situation makes it worthwhile to also consider the origins on the current crisis in the first place.  Given the secessionist movements in Canada, a country which shares a 5,525 mile long border with the U.S., this example may offer particular relevance in light of the current domino effect seen in Ukraine and the Crimea.  Similar to the fire now sparked under leading Crimeans, the Parti Québécois which has been an advocate of such tendencies considers language and cultural similarities with France as a primary justification for their movement. 

Let’s consider what such an analogous scene would sound like in an American context:

Senior Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Official:  I don’t think [Canadian Politician X] should go into the government.  I don't think it's necessary, I don't think it's a good idea.

Russian Ambassador to Canada:  Yeah. I guess... in terms of him not going into the government, just let him stay out and do his political homework and stuff. I'm just thinking in terms of the sort of process moving ahead we want to keep the moderate democrats together. The problem is going to be [Canadian Politician Y] and his guys and I'm sure that's part of what Prime Minister Stephen Harper is calculating on all this. 

Senior Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Official:  I think [Canadian Politician Z] is the guy who's got the economic experience, the governing experience. He's the... what he needs is [Canadian Politician X] and [Canadian Politician Y] on the outside. He needs to be talking to them four times a week, you know. I just think [Politician X] going in... he's going to be at that level working for [Politician Z], it's just not going to work.

Russian Ambassador to Canada: Yeah, no, I think that's right. OK. Good. Do you want us to try and set up a call with him as the next step?

Senior Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Official:  My understanding from that call - but you tell me - was that the big three [Canadian Politicians X, Y, and Z] were going into their own meeting and that [Politician Z] was going to offer in that context a... three-plus-one conversation or three-plus-two with you. Is that not how you understood it?

Russian Ambassador to Canada: No. I think... I mean that's what he proposed but I think, just knowing the dynamic that's been with them where [Politician X] has been the top dog, he's going to take a while to show up for whatever meeting they've got and he's probably talking to his guys at this point, so I think you reaching out directly to him helps with the personality management among the three and it gives you also a chance to move fast on all this stuff and put us behind it before they all sit down and he explains why he doesn't like it. 

Senior Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Official:  OK, good. I'm happy. Why don't you reach out to him and see if he wants to talk before or after.

Russian Ambassador to Canada:  OK, will do. Thanks.

Senior Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Official:  OK... one more wrinkle for you. I can't remember if I told you this, or if I only told Moscow this, that when I talked to the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs this morning, he had a new name for the UN guy - did I write you that this morning?

Russian Ambassador to Canada:  Yeah I saw that.

Senior Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Official:  He's now gotten both the UN guy and [UN Secretary General] Ban Ki-moon to agree that he could come in to Ottawa on Monday or Tuesday. So that would be great, I think, to help glue this thing and to have the UN help glue it and, you know, F*** the EU.

Senior Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Official:  No, exactly. And I think we've got to do something to make it stick together because you can be pretty sure that if it does start to gain altitude, the Americans will be working behind the scenes to try to torpedo it. And again the fact that this is out there right now, I'm still trying to figure out in my mind why Stephen Harper (garbled) that. In the meantime there's a faction meeting going on right now and I'm sure there's a lively argument going on in that group at this point. But anyway we could land jelly side up on this one if we move fast. So let me work on [Politician X] and if you can just keep... we want to try to get somebody with an international personality to come out here and help to midwife this thing. The other issue is some kind of outreach to Stephen Harper but we probably regroup on that tomorrow as we see how things start to fall into place. 

As outrageous as it may seem to imagine such a conversation in a Canadian context, fact was indeed stranger than fiction with the U.S.’s activities in the Ukraine. 

Although Canada is slightly smaller than Ukraine in terms of the population living across the U.S. border, Ukraine is similarly important to Russia in terms of trade and other aspects of its relationship.  From a U.S. perspective, Washington would likely come down hard if Russia precipitated in such a destabilizing revolution in Canada.  Potentially much harder than Russia is responding now.

Given Victoria Nuland’s experience with the prior conflict in Iraq where separatist tendencies have now resulted as a collateral outcome of U.S. intervention, she has unique insights that may help her guide American foreign policy in Europe.  From a cost assessment standpoint, that prior endeavor’s price tag which she helped lead may have had costs in excess of $2 trillion.  Yet as a way of improving U.S. foreign policy in future scenarios, there may be advantages of not instigating revolutions and resultant separatist tendencies like this in the first place.  From Baghdad to Maidan and beyond, be careful what you wish for.


Carter W. Page is the Founder and Managing Partner of Global Energy Capital LLC, a New York-based financial institution and investment fund focused on energy investments worldwide. This post first appeared on the Center for National Policy.

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