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Lets say that Russia proceeds and formally annexes Crimea and perhaps goes ahead and slices off the most Russified eastern portions of Ukraine. Setting aside relations with the US, that will undoubtedly spawn a new and darker era in relations with the rest of Europe and a post-partition Ukraine that is hyper-European in its posture both because of renewed Russian aggression and a transformed composition of Ukrainian and Russian percentages of the population. That's a bad development for everyone, not least Ukraine obviously. It would reintroduce militarized borders into Europe for the first time in 25 years after a generation in which the aim has been to keep often arbitrarily drawn borders in place and focus on making them less important through economic and political integration. But it's hard to see how it's not a worse development for Russia.
Putin's main aim in Ukraine has been to secure its entry to his Euroasian Union, a counter agglomeration to the European Union, based on autocratic post-Soviet regimes stretching from Europe into Asia. Putin has made it clear that the value of the whole enterprise hinges on Ukraine being in, not out. After coming close to securing a Ukraine permanently aligned with Russia, Russia settles for slice Russified Ukraine at the expense of a permanently hostile post-partition Ukraine basically forever. Yes, Putin's mentality (and let's be fair, Russia's) is that it is better to be feared than loved. But the Sochi games are a good example of his willingness to spend vast resources to be, if not loved, than admired as a great power peer state on the global stage. Russian businesses that operate in Europe would also suffer across the board.
There is of course the possibility that Putin's aim is to grab chits on the ground that could later be traded for a Finlandization of all of Ukraine or some international agreement akin to Austria's status after World War II. If history is any example (and I mean here not Russian or even European history but history in general) states usually have a less clear idea of what they want or what they can get than we imagine from the outside. This is always a point that is extremely important to bear in mind.
Much as people carp about the insufficiency of President Obama's response, the entirety of this crisis is governed by the fact that the US has no viable military options and Russia does. (A good example for the United States of why it is important to cultivate sources of strength other than purely military ones.) We know that; Putin knows that. It is difficult to overstate the ease with which Russia can take possession of the Crimean Peninsula since, in effect, it already has possession. It's the home to Russia's Black Sea Fleet. And the peninsula is riddled with Russian military installations, as part of an uneasy post-Soviet accommodation in which Ukraine leases Soviet-era bases to Russia.
I don't agree with the suggestion of this piece in the Telegraph - that it may better for Ukraine to agree to a partition on diplomatic terms rather than face military occupation. But it's right that the post-Soviet history of Ukraine has been marked by neither the country's east nor west being able to successfully or sustainedly unite the country.
The crux of current crisis, or the central issues at stake, is not which slabs of land, in the abstract, should be part of Ukraine or Russia but that borders shouldn't be changed by force or the threat of force. Crimea's current status is the result of a Russian invasion almost a quarter of a millennium ago and a totally arbitrary reassignment of the region from the Russia SSR to the Ukraine SSR in 1954. If history were our guide, the people with the bigger beef or demand for recompense aren't the people in Kiev but the Tatars, Greeks and other ethnic minorities (what's left of them) who were expelled en masse from Crimea after World War II.
But the wise course of the post-Cold War Era has been to recognize that history has too many cross-cutting injustices and historic claims to let it be a guide. We take the borders as we find them and try to find future justice and equity within them - often by diminishing their importance. The great exception to this rule - or in some ways its greatest confirmation - is the partition of the former Czechoslovakia since it was done entirely by mutual consent of the parties involved, the geopolitical equivalent of an amicable divorce.
There is of course the possibility that Putin may have in mind the occupation of most or all of Ukraine. But this is difficult to envision. Not only would the international response be ferocious. More importantly, recent events have shown that sustaining and normalizing such an occupation in the vast portions of the country where ethnic Ukrainians predominate would be difficult and debilitating.
The real levers Obama or more specifically the US and Europe have are the ability to make the price of a Russian land grab some version of international pariah status, through a mix of economic and diplomatic exclusion. Europe's dependence on Russian natural gas and oil significantly complicates that option. But the combined economic might of the US and the EU is vast in comparison to Russia's. There are numerous areas of military cooperation, participation in international institutions, venues where Russia enjoys observer status, where the US and the EU can put the screws to Russia. The US should also be sending visible signals that the participation in Europe of countries like Poland is permanent. Indeed, we are treaty-bound to that proposition. These are powerful tools. Let's hope it's used wisely.