Ukraine’s Geopolitical Crisis

Russian tanks and troops descend upon the Crimean peninsula. The Ukrainian interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk describes the situation as a “red alert” and “a declaration of war.” NATO calls an emergency meeting. The UN Security Council convenes to assess the situation. President Obama gets on the phone with allies in Europe and even speaks with Russian President Vladimir Putin for 90 minutes. The list of leaders and organizations scrambling to initiate emergency meetings and direct diplomatic dialogues suggest that the events unfolding in Ukraine reveal a struggle driven by more than internal forces. Ukrainians know that their own destiny is out of their hands. Instead, the calculations made by major geopolitical actors will weigh heavily on Ukraine’s future.
What Caused the Crisis?
Russian President Vladimir Putin must be considered the key decision-maker in terms of impact. In late 2013, Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, accepted Putin’s offer for Russia to buy $15 billion worth of Ukrainian bonds, leading Ukraine to suspend its talks with the EU. The country’s finances have been in shambles and the mass purchasing of bonds was needed to alleviate the problems associated with its inadequate currency reserves. In a strategic sense, it was either the EU or Russia who could provide this financial support, and Putin successfully won the bidding war. Support from the EU could have put Ukraine on the path to partnership and even membership, but Putin put an abrupt end to it.
Protests ensued as a large portion of the population, in favor of Ukrainian integration into the EU, mobilized. Protesters called for Yanukovych’s removal from power, the country was on the break of civil war, and finally the Ukrainian parliament determined Yanukovych was unable to serve the country any longer. He was ousted from power and fled the country for Russia. Most recently, Russian troops have invaded Crimea on the grounds of a supposed humanitarian crisis for Russians living in Ukraine. One senior U.S. official said the Russians have “complete operational control of the Crimean Peninsula.”
Strategic Interests
Crimea represents a region unique in its history and demographics. It serves as an important base for the Russian navy, as it provides strategic access to the Black Sea. The Soviet Union controlled the territory, but ceded it to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialistic Republic in 1954. Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, Crimea briefly had autonomous status in 1991 until Ukraine regained the territory in 1992. Many Russians live or vacation in Crimea, and no other territory within Ukraine has a larger ethnic Russian population. Russia claims that its intervention in Crimea is to protect ethnic Russians from oppression, but it is quite dubious whether these are legitimate concerns.
While it could be argued that Russian strategic interests might lead any Russian president to take the course Putin has carried out, Putin’s worldview has clearly influenced how Russia plays its hand. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger pointed out on CNN that “Putin thinks that the dissolution of the Soviet Union was a great historical disaster.” His outlook undoubtedly was shaped by his service in the KGB during the Cold War. Regaining the power of the Soviet Union had and controlling large former Soviet-owned regions such as Ukraine figures prominently in his calculation.
The Role of the United States
In light of Putin’s aggression, the question remains whether President Obama’s foreign policy deals effectively with crises like Ukraine or not. Harvard history professor Niall Ferguson warns in the Wall Street Journal that the Federal Reserve’s taper of its quantitative easing program is not nearly as consequential as Obama’s “geopolitical taper” in which the United States retreats from the world and its role as global policeman. U.S. inaction, Ferguson argues, has resulted in a world of disorder and disaster. For example, he cites the fact that more deaths have taken place in the greater Middle East under Obama than under George W. Bush’s leadership.
CNN anchor Fareed Zakaria, on the other hand, likens Obama’s scaled back foreign policy approach to that of Dwight Eisenhower by suggesting that it is natural that the United States draws back its military operations as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan come to a close. Eisenhower reduced American foreign military operations after the American intervention in Korea, and a similar process may be taking place today.  Yet while Zakaria may try to justify the Obama administration’s scaled back approach as a seemingly smart strategy for a new world, calling Obama the new Eisenhower ignores some important historical context. Notably, Eisenhower had to deal with a strong Soviet Union that represented a serious challenger to the U.S. as a superpower. It was a bipolar world.
Today, although America’s superpower status is increasingly in question, Russia may not even be considered a great power; rather, it is more like a regional power. Putin plays his hand well, but this does not change the fact of Russia’s diminishing dominance since the end of the Cold War. Obama’s margin of error in foreign policy is not as small as Eisenhower’s was. Eisenhower, if making a miscalculation, very seriously faced the specter of world destruction by nuclear war. That scenario, while still possible, is much less likely today. The Russian Federation is not the Soviet Union.
Since Obama has more room to maneuver, should America flex its muscle more assertively? Ferguson’s “geopolitical taper” thesis may provide a useful framework for understanding Obama’s hesitant foreign policy, but it would be unwise to believe the administration of President George W. Bush and its very proactive military approach managed global crises more effectively. Surely the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are not templates for successful intervention. Military cavalierism is not the answer.
Of course, if the United States does not react decisively towards Putin to rebuke his aggression, a green light will be given to other leaders such as Chinese President Xi Jinping to annex contentious territories such as the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands without regard to what U.S. leaders say or do. While it is certainly inaccurate to equate Obama’s actions with the appeasement practiced towards Adolph Hitler and his territorial seizures (as many pundits and politicians often enjoy doing), it is imperative for a superpower and its allies to make it absolutely clear that such acts of aggression are irresponsible and unacceptable in the international system. The U.S. must impose costs on Putin to show he miscalculated.
The Right Course of Action
Obama rightly considers the first line of defense to be diplomacy. The problem is that diplomacy can easily turn into empty statements and hollow promises. As columnist David Ignatius wrote in the Washington Post, Obama should react to Russia’s aggression “without specifying too clearly what the U.S. ladder of escalation might be.” Drawing red lines is not something that has worked well for Obama in the past. In fact it was the Syria debacle and Obama’s “red line” on chemical weapons that most recently empowered Putin on the world stage. After Obama drew this limit on chemical weapons and threatened American airstrikes on Syria, Putin was able to project himself as the more skilled and powerful arbiter of the situation by successfully proposing a deal to remove or destroy Syria’s chemical weapons. The result was a weakened image of America.
In this situation, however, Putin is not the peacemaker, but instead the aggressor. The crisis in Ukraine is wholly of his own making. Like Syria, Ukraine presents no easy options, but this time direct actions must be taken against Putin.
Firstly, Russia’s membership in the G8 should certainly be suspended as a clear message that such conduct cannot be tolerated. The G7 added Russia to form the G8 to signal that after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia would act responsibly on the international stage – clearly it has not worked out that way.
Secondly, economic sanctions targeted particularly against corrupt and oligarchic Russian officials would weaken Putin’s power base and hurt the already vulnerable Russian economy. Russia’s ability to continue projecting military power would be severely hurt by a dwindling economic base – just look at what happened to the Soviet Union.
Thirdly, NATO must play a crucial role. It should recognize the special partnership it has with Ukraine and coordinate security objectives with the interim government in Kiev by providing strategic support from both an intelligence and military standpoint. Membership in NATO could also be offered to Ukraine in solidarity with the government’s efforts to resist Russian aggression. If needed, military action would best be taken by NATO rather than by the U.S. unilaterally. Legitimacy is a key element the U.S. can have that the Russians cannot, and it is something NATO can provide.
Direct military action against Russia poses the most risks of any option. It is a sobering thought that the centennial of World War I occurs this year, and should serve as a dark reminder of the disastrous results of rapid and ill-conceived military escalation. Calamity can certainly be avoided if the U.S., the EU, and NATO exercise the right diplomatic moves and create legitimate security guarantees. Careful strategic calculation will make all the difference.
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