Why is US president Barack Obama using so much bluster to warn Russian president Vladimir Putin against what appears to be a likely military action in Crimea?
If your answer to the question involves broad references to ‘appeasement,’ the 1930s, American exceptionalism or to NATO, you should probably re-examine the premises of that answer. In the debate over Ukraine — and now, Crimea — empty talk by US commentators about the vital US interests in Ukraine could do more harm than good. If you’re using ‘national interest’ according to the standard, IR theory definition, it draws from the realist concept that a country acts in international affairs in accordance with its self-interest.
But what is the US interest in whether Crimea is administered from Russian or Ukrainian authority? Ukraine itself lies an ocean and a continent away from the United States. It’s on the periphery of the European Union, and though it may one day be an EU member-state, Russian interference in Ukraine barely ranks among European security threats, though EU leaders should for obvious reasons be much more engaged on developments in Ukraine than US policymakers. European policymakers have a strong stake in Ukraine’s future success.
To argue that the United States has a vital interest in Crimea is to argue that Russia has a vital interest in Puerto Rico.
While there’s a role for the United States to respond to Russian aggression, it’s certainly no reason to start calling for a new Cold War or to start arguing that Obama is somehow powerless to rein in Putin. It’s not a matter of whether US warships, for example, could halt Russian advances in Crimea, it’s a matter of whether it’s worth spending US dollars and risking US lives to do so.
Crimea isn’t your everyday oblast. It has always been a ‘special’ region straddling Russia and Ukraine with a unique history tied to both countries. When Ukraine became an independent country in 1991, Crimea decided to proclaim itself an independent republic in 1992. It ultimately chose to remain part of Ukraine as an ‘autonomous republic,’ with its own constitution and regional parliament, and it’s the only region of Ukraine where ethnic Russians constitute a majority of the local population, around 58% of Crimea’s total 2 million residents. Last week’s anti-Kiev, pro-Moscow demonstrations weren’t the first time Crimeans have clashed with Ukraine’s central government, though.
It’s an essentially random twist of history that Crimea was even part of Ukraine at the time of the Soviet Union’s dissolution. The Soviet leadership transferred Crimea from the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic only in 1954, perhaps as a gesture of goodwill to mark Ukrainian-Russian friendship, but more likely in line with Soviet policy that scrambled traditional ethnic lines within the various Soviet republics. Adding Crimea to Ukraine made Ukraine more ‘Russian,’ and the peninsula became a hugely popular destination as a Black Sea beach resort for Soviet citizens throughout the mid-20th century. Crimea’s 1954 transfer, however, obscures Josef Stalin’s darker legacy there, the Sürgün, the forceful transfer of Crimean Tatars to Uzbekistan in central Asia, on the basis of highly exaggerated claims of Tatar-Nazi collaboration during World War II. It was an exodus that left almost half of the nearly 200,000 Tatars expelled from Crimea dead, mostly from starvation. Since Ukrainian independence, Tatars have returned to Crimea in large numbers, and they currently comprise around 12% of Crimea’s population. Understandably, Crimea’s Tatars are content to live under Ukrainian control, putting them at odds with recent pleas from ethnic Russians for Russian intervention.
Russian president Vladimir Putin’s response has been chiefly to bring the entire region to a state of war by hinting that Russian forces will occupy Crimea the same way that Russian forces entered South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two Russian-majority regions of Georgia, in 2008 after then-president Mikheil Saakashvili tried to secure the two regions with Georgian forces — and the mistaken hope of NATO support. Russian troops and pro-Russian Crimean protesters now control key government buildings in Crimea, and an impending Russian occupation is giving Ukraine’s new interim government its first test. Earlier this week, Arseniy Yatsenyuk became Ukraine’s new prime minister, who hopes to lead the battered country into a newly scheduled presidential election on May 25, with additional parliamentary elections likely to follow. Yatsenyuk is a senior leader in the center-right ‘All Ukrainian Union — Fatherland’ party (Всеукраїнське об’єднання “Батьківщина), the party of former presidential candidate Yulia Tymoshenko, who was recently released after over two years in prison on politically motivated charges. Yatsenyuk served as an economy minister and foreign minister between 2005 and 2007, and he’s somewhat of a technocratic economist with none of the populist charm of Tymoshenko or the newer face of Ukraine’s pro-European opposition, heavyweight boxing champion Vitaliy Klychko, the latter now a frontrunner to become Ukraine’s next president.
The Russian response is in many ways a retro-style Cold War reaction to having miscalculated in its misplaced support for deposed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, who fled Kiev last week after his government killed nearly 90 protesters in the now world-famous Maidan.
Russia’s gambit isn’t without risk. Timothy Snyder at Foreign Policy argues that Russia’s ethnicity-based argument for Crimea’s potential occupation could open eastern Siberia to claims by China, given the rising number of ethnic Han Chinese populating the resource-rich expanse neighboring China, Mongolia and central Asia. If Putin permanently asserts Russian control over Crimea, he could find that he faces a Tatar challenge not unlike Russia’s difficulties with local rebels in Chechnya and Dagestan in the North Caucasus since the 1990s. It’s far from clear that a Russian move into Crimea makes sense, even from a pro-Moscow perspective that genuinely believes Crimea’s ethnic Russians will now face discrimination or persecution. Unlike the Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, however, Crimea features only a very narrow ethnic Russian majority.
Ultimately, there’s little that the United States, the European Union or even the Ukrainian armed forces can do to reverse Putin’s military adventurism in the short term, notwithstanding the alarmist talk of a second, 21st century Cold War. US secretary of state John Kerry today is already discussing international repercussions to punish Russian aggression in Ukraine, including the ejection of Russia from the G-8 (making it, once again, the G-7), initiate economic sanctions and isolate Russia’s economy. Moscow’s opponents will also point to the 1994 agreement whereby Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Belarus agreed to give up their nuclear arsenals in exchange for a guarantee from both Russia and the United States that they would respect and protect their territorial integrity. Nonetheless, if Putin wants Crimea, he’ll have Crimea.
Instead, the US focus should be supporting the European Union’s efforts to bring stability to the rest of Ukraine, which remains in peril of sovereign default. Russia’s misadventures in Crimea — and the threat that it could try to assume control of other Russian-speaking regions in Ukraine, including Yanukovych’s Donetsk oblast, is only accelerating the Ukrainian economic crisis, which according to an alarming report from the International Institute of Finance, is more serious than just about anyone previously believed:
The already acute financial pressures appear to have intensified further in recent weeks, with bank deposits falling sharply, the government out of funding and foreign exchange reserves likely to have tanked to as low as $12 billion by late February. The political change in Kiev has increased odds that Ukraine would receive the urgent financial assistance needed soon enough to avert default.
Russian banks would, by far, suffer the most in the event of a Ukrainian default, with up to $28 billion in exposure. That gives European leaders some amount of economic leverage with Putin now that Ukraine is unlikely to see any more of the $15 billion loan Putin pledged to the Yanukovych government last November.
While the International Monetary Fund is likely to provide the Yatsenyuk government with up to $20 billion in financing to shore up the county’s finances, it is almost certain that IMF and European leaders will require major reforms in exchange for the loans, including an end to Ukraine’s massive corruption and substantial liberalization — since 1992, no economy in the former Soviet sphere of influence has performed more poorly than Ukraine‘s, with annual annual GDP growth of just 1.7%.
Photo credit to Darko Vojinovic / AP.