Don’t Be Paralyzed by Hostage Taking in Ukraine

April 28, 2014

The Master’s degree program that I direct at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC ran a crisis simulation for our students a couple weeks ago.  Though the game dealt with the response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and covered the period from August 1990 to January 1991, its outcome has something to tell us about the Ukraine crisis today.

In 1990, Saddam’s regime took thousands of foreigners hostage.  These included citizens of numerous countries including the USSR, Vietnam, the United States, Britain, Canada, Ireland, Greece, Australia, and many others.  In real life, ultimately all who wished were allowed to leave.  In our crisis simulation, however, the student playing Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev played a brilliant spoiling role.  He kept up constant negotiations with Saddam to free the hostages in dribs and drabs.  He was always able to convince the U.S. President to postpone aggressive action so that another round of negotiations with the Iraqi dictator would not be jeopardized.  When the game ended on the eve of what had been the beginning of Operation DESERT STORM in real life, the United States still had not deployed any forces to Saudi Arabia.

What does this have to do with Ukraine?  This month in the country’s eastern city of Donetsk, pro-Russian separatists imprisoned a team of eight observers from OSCE member states Germany, Poland, Denmark, the Czech Republic, and Sweden who were in the country at the invitation of Kyiv under the provisions of a 2011 agreement.  The separatists in Donetsk said that the eight were “NATO spies” pointing to the maps they carried as proof of this outrageous claim.

The German Foreign Minister and the OSCE (probably among others) are working to free these hostages.  That is reasonable and laudable.  However, the West must remember the overall stakes in Ukraine: the fate of a major democratic country and the future trajectory of European security.  Those are the issues that should have first call on the West’s scarce diplomatic resources of high-level time and attention, carrots, and sticks.  Solve those big problems and the fate of the OSCE eight will sort itself out.  Focus too much on the eight and the Ukrainian crisis could go the way of our crisis simulation at school.


Mark Stout is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is the Director of the MA Program in Global Security Studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences in Washington, D.C.


Photo credit: Amir Farshad Ebrahimi