Just before Russia carved up its smaller neighbor, Ukraine, and took the Crimean Peninsula for itself last month, President Obama declared that the world is not “some cold-war chessboard in which we’re in competition with Russia.”
Later, however, when Mr. Obama received a call from President Vladimir Putin to negotiate a deal over the rest of Ukraine, he sent Secretary of State John Kerry to talk with his Russian counterpart in Paris.
No deal was struck at their meeting on Sunday. But Russia had already won a big prize: No one from Ukraine was present at the talks.
Mr. Kerry later claimed the United States would not accept a deal unless “the legitimate government of Ukraine is ... at the table.” But the US’s actions spoke loudly. America had taken on the role of speaking for Ukraine about Russia’s desire to neutralize it or to even cut it up further. The meeting was an echo of the 1945 Yalta conference in which the US, Britain, and Soviet Union agreed on how to divide up Europe after World War II.
Mr. Putin’s tactics do indeed hark back to the days when big countries treated small countries like pawns, going over the heads of the people and their leaders. By placing as many as 50,000 troops on the border with Ukraine, Russia has moved its “knights” on the board of Europe. The US responded by sending war jets to NATO countries along the Russian borders.
This was a return to the type of big-power maneuver and zero-sum calculation used during the cold war and 19th-century imperialism, when George Curzon, a British lord who became viceroy of India, could declare the states of Central Asia to be “pieces on a chessboard upon which is being played out a game for the domination of the world.”
Putin called the dismantling of the Soviet empire in 1991 “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. To others, however, the collapse of communism was not a matter of geography or political power. It was simply a blossoming of individual freedom.
Just a few months before the demise of the Soviet Union, then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher gave a speech in which she proclaimed the first tenet of a true democracy: “People need to realize that they are not just pawns on a chessboard, to be moved around at the whim of politicians. They can influence their destiny by their own efforts.”
On the streets of Kiev last fall, tens of thousands of Ukrainians stood up for their desire to influence their destiny without Moscow’s meddling. Russia, however, saw their individual aspirations as an irritant in a great game over its geographic imperative, or what Putin calls Russia’s “zones of interests.”
Treating people as individuals first rather than as simply part of a country, ethnic group, race, or religion requires great effort. It is all too easy for diplomats, journalists, academics, and others to generalize and stereotype. Yet today’s young people – such as the crowds in Kiev’s Maidan – are connected less by old affinities of nation, denomination, or other groupings and more by social media and other digital inventions that help individuals navigate new identities and create new types of communities across the old boundaries.
Take, for instance, the young TV presenter Abby Martin, who worked for the Kremlin-funded RT cable network until March 3. As Russian soldiers took control of Crimea, she erupted on-air with these words: “My heart goes out to the Ukrainian people, who are now wedged as pawns in the middle of a global power chess game. They’re the real losers here.”
Ukrainians will vote May 25 to restore their broken democracy with a government that speaks for their collective destiny and sovereignty. They are not pawns. They are citizens embracing universal values that transcend empires and ideologies.