It is important to understand the stakes and Russia’s determination to move forward in the Crimea. I think the West is gravely miscalculating Russia because Vladimir Putin views Ukraine as vital to its security. For the Russian Federation, an independent Ukraine is a source of extreme unease because it is an historical path of invasion, the soft underbelly of Russia. Ukraine is a place that armies can live off the harvests and stay warm in the depths of Russian winter. The world saw how mild it is by the Black Sea during the Sochi Olympics. Where else in Russia were temperatures balmy?
Ukraine is a place with a huge coastline – 2300 miles of it, 300 miles longer than America’s Atlantic coast. Invading armies can be supplied by sea quite easily. No other Russian region except Saint Petersburg and Vladivostok has this feature. Ukraine has many port facilities. It is where Russia’s main fleet is berthed. And Ukraine is the 3rd leading exporter of grain. When Europe overtly pulled Ukraine into its orbit, Russian unease became grim resolve. Russia cannot and will not allow Ukraine to escape its control and become part of Europe. To do so is, in Russian eyes, tantamount to national suicide. Some say, “only kooky nuts would believe a flaccid Europe would invade Russia.” But Europe has a history of flipping from flaccid to warlike rather rapidly. Take a look at any map of the last 1,000 years.
The United States does not understand Putin’s own calculations. America did not lose 14% of its population in the First World War. America’s heartland has not lived under siege multiple times, nor have we burned our own cities to stop invaders, dying in the countryside of starvation and cold. Nor is the United States the nation that solely won the Second World War in Europe, though that is part of our national narrative. Germany lost for a number of reasons, partly because of the United States but also because of the huge Russian losses and Hitler’s miscalculations. If the German army had not been stopped at Stalingrad, we might have fought to a stalemate over England, but with Caucasian oil and the resources of Russia, only atom bombs would have defeated the Third Reich. The German army failed primarily because it was starved for oil.
Russia has been invading and occupying the Caucasus, province by province, for 24 years. But in Crimea, the change was authorized by plebiscite. Whether that plebiscite was fair and free is something I could see focusing on. But regardless of whether there is a plebiscite or not, or whether it was fair or not, there are major issues to consider. The whole episode is realpolitik. There would have been no mass vote on Ukraine joining NATO, which is the realpolitik stance America advocated – a stance aimed directly at Russia. One can question the realpolitik on both sides.
How would we respond to China telling us what to do vis-à-vis Texas? Or Mexico? Our record in Central and South America is not exactly clean when it comes to our national security concerns. Putin holds virtually all the cards. He is operating in his backyard and this is territory that was part of Russia for centuries - all of the Ukraine. Putin has much of Europe over a barrel with gas supplies.
The “weak democrats” and “weak Obama” PR shtick Republicans are playing with Ukraine is an exact mirror image of the game the Russian right wing is playing in Russia. We need to realize that in Russia, we are building up Putin by opposing him - particularly in an ineffectual way. Most of the world won’t care about our sanctions on a few Pooh-Bahs. Those gentlemen will be welcome in far too many places. And even if those bigwigs get stuck in Russia for the rest of their lives, Russia is larger than the United States and all of Europe – combined. You can explore Russia for a lifetime and not know it all.
I think Crimea is the wrong battle to get in the middle of. It strengthens Putin and the “Bring back the Cold War!” hard-liner crowd in Russia. We brought Putin to power by bombing Belgrade during the Kosovo war. Russians responded to our bombing of Belgrade the way the United States would have responded to Russia bombing London. Serbia has that significance for Russians. With our opposition to Russia’s interest in Ukraine, we have brought the hardest of the hard-liners back to popularity. We are taking a high-horse position while Russia gives asylum to Edward Snowden who revealed to the world that America is a liar that spies on everyone. That is how Russians see it.
My proposal is that the United States should explain the Russian position to the American public. We should work something out with Russia to assuage their fears of invasion by Europe. If we want to get the best outcome for the Ukrainian people, slouching towards war, whether cold or hot, is not going to obtain that for them. By pressing for Ukraine to become part of Europe, we are sentencing Ukraine’s people to civil war or war with Russia – more blood spilled on that blood-soaked land. In addition, we need to take a longer view here. By respecting the Crimean plebiscite and only questioning how accurate it was, we would aid international precedent that can act as a bulwark against other kinds of annexation. This could be used in dealing with Russia later in another situation.
For all these reasons, I think our national policy on Ukraine is wrong-headed, shortsighted and foolish. Let’s be more intelligent about it.