Ukraine and the Crimean peninsula are at a crossroads. Diplomats and idealists still believe there is something to discuss; realists are less sanguine. Concerned, pro-western Ukrainians have not been paranoid, but visionary: Russia is an unparalleled threat to Ukraine’s sovereignty. Unfortunately Russia’s unequal relationship with the Ukraine is not new.
The Ukraine has been controlled by the Russian bear for the better part of 225 years. Ukrainian suffering was particularly acute during the first third of the last century when the communists in Moscow “engineered two forced famines.” Patriotic Ukrainians haven’t forgotten that approximately three million Ukrainians starved to death in the second famine (1932-33).
However, frightful events from the distant past are less meaningful to the 17% of Ukrainian citizens who are ethnically Russian. As one might expect, most of these Russian-Ukrainians favor a closer relationship with Moscow, and many in Crimea want to secede. A coveted naval port, Sevastopol, has only heightened the drama.
For the last two decades the Ukraine has leased the Russian navy space in Sevastopol. Yet this arraignment has not been without controversy: in 2010 the renewal of the lease sparked a constitutional challenge. The recent flight of Ukraine’s Moscow-oriented President, Viktor Yanukovych, has brought this tempestuous arrangement to a boil.
The subsequent ascendancy of pro-western leaders in the Ukraine quickly placed Russia’s influence in the Ukraine – including Russia’s lease of the Black Sea facilities – in jeopardy. Russia’s pride and its long-term national interests demanded a swift seizure of the Crimean peninsula. And in recent days, as diplomats talked, the Russians tightened their grip on Ukrainian territory.
Recent events are not without precedent. Seventy-five years ago Germany quietly conquered Czechoslovakia – ostensibly to protect ethnic Germans. Military advantages, including the Czech arms industry, were supposedly unimportant. Russian President Vladimir Putin has followed a similar course: seize the Crimean peninsula because of its economic and military importance, and then used the safety of ethnic Russians as a tattered fig leaf.
After the Soviet Union crumbled, the United States, Great Britain, Ireland, and Russia guaranteed the Ukraine’s territorial security in exchange for Ukraine’s cache of soviet-era nuclear weapons. The Ukraine agreed, and less than twenty years later Russia holds the Crimean peninsula. Clearly the US and its allies have a duty to help the Ukraine, but how?
Russia’s rationale for retaining the Crimean peninsula is straightforward. First, the peninsula has enormous strategic value; second, Russia has two centuries of naval history on the Black Sea. Without unequivocal western solidarity, combined with debilitating sanctions and a policy of thorough international isolation, diplomatic talks will fail.
Last week, in response to threats of harsh economic sanctions, some Russian leaders began to openly discuss the possibility of economic retaliation. Many analysts believe Russia lacks the financial resources to make the hard-liner’s threats a reality. Nevertheless bare-knuckle diplomacy is already impossible. According to a recent New York Times article, Germany, Italy, Poland, Britain, and France all buy natural gas from Russia. As a result, each of these countries (except possibly Poland), are hesitant to support sanctions that would truly hurt Russia. Ukrainian sovereignty isn’t worth the price.
Measured against Russia’s economic clout and powerful geopolitical motivation, US diplomats have rubber bullets, and it is increasingly clear that these deterrents will not suffice. Consequently, the Ukraine must either accept the loss of its territory, or create a small, bloody, conflagration that will force American and European leaders to diligently ostracize Russia.
International relationships are more important to some countries than to others; unfortunately for the Ukraine, national interests steer Russian foreign policy. To Russia, the Ukraine is a small barking dog, a nuisance, a little obstacle on the path to a stronger Russia. Russia’s strategy is simple: negotiate superficially, consolidate military gains, wait for the Crimean referendum, and bet the passage of time will gracefully muffle Ukraine’s yelps. The strategy will work – just ask the Republic of Georgia.