One of the underlying problems in the Ukraine crisis is that the US and Russia are playing with different rule-books. The US philosophy is to compete hard. From their point of view all forms of competition short of military are fair play. It is thus fair play for them to use their economic muscle to pour billions into Ukraine to subvert it into accepting Western liberal values. It is fair game to gently support and coax along a popular ‘uprising’ – if the result suits them. It is fair game to insist on the principle that all nations can choose which clubs they belong to even knowing what a sensitive point this might be for a neighbouring country. But from the Russian point of view all this, as it relates to Ukraine, is illicit. The Kremlin is not playing this game. They wanted to carry out a negotiation in terms of international diplomacy as regards Ukraine – which included, of course, their view, that they have legitimate interests in what happens in Ukraine. Of course Russia was running its own influence campaign in Ukraine e.g. the offer of a loan to Yanukovych just prior to the Maidan ‘revolution’. But, in general, they do not play the same game as the US. They do not have the same attitude as the US about spreading their system by muscular campaigns aimed at changing the values of the target country.
One of the problems seems to be that the US has a fundamentalist attitude towards their own playbook. They act as if this playbook is the only valid system. If other people don’t play by this rulebook, too bad. The US will play anyway and you will lose. This isn’t very sensitive. The US system is not an absolute. They would do better to recognise this and know that there are moments when not to apply it. (In his book, The Great Delusion – Liberal Dreams and International Realities, John Mearsheimer, argues that there is a contradiction in the liberal system here; it is in fact a tenet of liberalism that there is no single and absolute ‘right way’; this is why liberalism preaches tolerance. But, then, he asks – why do liberals insist that liberalism itself is some kind of an absolute?).
In short, the point I want to make, is that the US and Russian ‘systems’ are different and, in general terms, in such a situation, it might be better to meet and agree some common rules rather than simply go ahead and play according to your rules, because “they are right”. This is the case, pragmatically, even if you are sure that your rules are better. To use an analogy; if one side plays US football and the other side plays soccer if both sides take to the field without changing their game it is going to be messy. It would be better to meet in advance and agree, for this game specifically, a set of rules which both sides agree to play by.
Jeffrey Sachs makes the point that historically relations between the US and Russia have been quite good. For example, Russia aided the US in their war of Independence from Britain. And, of course they were allies in WWII. The problem is that they do have different ideologies; as long as their Empires did not come into direct contact there was no problem. The problem has been that, in Ukraine, there is now direct contact and their interests are colliding. The US is, as always, expanding and attempting to bring other countries into its worldwide political-economic system. Russia is, as always, (according to Sachs), concerned about what is happening in bordering countries and how this affects their own defence and security interests. Again, this line of thought points towards the conclusion that, in order to avoid conflict, Ukraine should have been considered as a special case.