Bush: Overkill in the Ukraine

August 02, 1991

President Bush imprudently abandoned U.S. neutrality in internal Soviet struggles yesterday when he went to the Ukraine -- of all places -- and effusively praised President Mikhail S. Gorbachev while warning restive Soviet republics to avoid "the hopeless course of isolation."

The Ukraine, with 52 million people, one-fourth of Soviet agriculture production and one-third of its manufactures, can hardly be isolated. Nor is it wise to tie U.S. policy so closely to

TC leader, however admirable and "astounding" his achievements, who lacks popular support and probably could not win the kind of open election he has avoided so far.

In the abstract Mr. Bush may have been offering wise advice, especially if one believes the American political model is adaptable to the Soviet Union. But the reformist Gorbachev regime is dealing not with immigrant potpourri populations but with deeply rooted peoples occupying ancestral lands.

Last April 23, abandoning a lurch toward Communist orthodoxy, Mr. Gorbachev signed a new federation agreement with Boris Yeltsin's Russia and eight other republics that effectively granted them more autonomy. How much autonomy is still a matter of fundamental dispute involving taxation powers, control of foreign policy, makeup of the armed forces, regulation of commerce -- indeed many of the problems the U.S. faced in writing its Constitution 200 years ago.

American diplomats were aware of these unresolved problems when they selected the Ukraine as the site where Mr. Bush could acknowledge the increasing power of the individual republics and Washington's readiness for dealing directly with them. The Ukraine had not flatly refused to sign the April 23 agreement, as had Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Georgia, Moldavia and, till lately, Armenia. Its legislature is still embroiled in a ratification debate that will not end before September. And the Ukraine, unlike the Baltic states, is too essential and, in many places, too Russified, to be lopped off the Muscovite empire. It would be like losing one's head, according to Lenin.

Nevertheless, we believe Mr. Bush overdid it in trying to help Mr. Gorbachev keep the Soviet Union intact. Was it really necessary to pledge "the strongest possible relationship with the Soviet government of President Gorbachev?" Could he not have been more discriminating about the semantic struggle now going on between "sovereignty" and "independence" instead of identifying the latter with "isolation" and "ethnic hatreds"? No wonder the leader of the Rukh independence movement commented that "President Bush seems to have been hypnotized by Gorbachev."

We rejoice in warmer American-Soviet ties and in superpower efforts to resolve the Arab-Israel conflict and other Third World struggles. We also realize that survival of the Soviet state, economically and politically, is essential to the world peace process. But that scarcely excuses Mr. Bush's excessive rhetoric on his visit to the Ukraine.

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