Ukraine crisis needs a balm of gratitude

Instead of ramping up threats over Ukraine and its Crimean Peninsula, all sides need to appreciate past achievements that drew them closer as peaceful nations.

A woman holds a banner against war as she attends a rally against the breakup of Ukraine in Simferopol, Crimea, Ukraine March 9.

Threats and counterthreats. That’s the current state of play in the tense standoff between Russia and the West over the future of Ukraine and its port peninsula of Crimea.

The latest threat?

Russia says it might end international inspections of its nuclear missiles. Europe, meanwhile, gears up for sanctions if Russia supports a March 16 breakaway referendum in Crimea or continues to block an observer team from checking alleged human rights claims in Crimea.

If serious diplomacy is to take place, both sides need to move beyond threats and rebuild trust. A starting point is to acknowledge past accomplishments in creating a stable Ukraine since it became an independent state after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

In diplomacy as elsewhere in life, gratitude for past achievements can serve as a powerful reminder of not only common interests but common good, not only trade-offs but trade-ups to a favorable condition, not only back-scratching but a backing of ideas to lift all.

The Ukraine crisis is now both a power play and morality play. On the power side, Russia threatens violence in Crimea and a cutoff of gas exports to Ukraine. The West lines up travel and visa bans on Russian leaders. On the morality side, President Vladimir Putin claims he must protect ethnic Russians, help them achieve self-determination, and reinstall an illegally ousted Ukraine leader. The West sees only a violation of a nation’s sovereignty and territorial integrity by threat of force.

What each side can do instead is appreciate the past in order to go forward into a better future than sanctions and violence. Here are a few starters:

In 1991, Russia joined with the other former Soviet states in signing the Alma Ata Declaration. They agreed to “build democratic law-governed states, the relations between which will develop on the basis of mutual recognition and respect for state sovereignty and sovereign equality.” That’s a commitment worth keeping.

In 1994, Russia, Britain, and the United States signed the Budapest Memorandum that gave security guarantees to Ukraine in exchange for removing nuclear weapons on its territory. This pact set a historic precedent of a country relinquishing the most destructive instruments of hard power in exchange for the “soft power” of an alliance with democracies.

In 1997, Russia and Ukraine agreed on the stationing of a Russian Naval fleet in the Crimean ports on the Black Sea. Even after Mr. Putin came to power, he extended the agreement in 2010 for an additional 25 years. He also agreed to consult with Ukraine before major movements of Russian forces in Crimea.

Beyond these pacts, Russia, Ukraine, and the West have created almost inseparable economic ties over the past two decades. Much of the Russian economy, for example, relies on energy exports. Russia has assisted the West in Afghanistan and other trouble spots, such as Libya. The West helped Russia enter the World Trade Organization.

And the list goes on. These achievements point to the possibility of more agreements. Russia and Ukraine can, for example, agree to protect the rights of Russian speakers in Ukraine and the Russian Orthodox heritage in Ukraine. They can agree not to use threats to resolve disputes and to allow international institutions to help resolve disputes.

The basis for an end to this current crisis lies in a recognition of previous triumphs.

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