The situation in Ukraine is an ugly one. Protests, civil unrest, and police violence in recent months have cost many people their lives. Additionally, the ousting of President Viktor Yanukooveich greatly weakened the ability of Ukraine’s interim government to maintain its legitimacy both politically and financially. The country is in a difficult space where much of the population wants greater connection to Europe. There are also others, primarily from Ukraine’s large Russian population, who want closer ties to Russia. Then, just when things already looked pretty dicey, Putin got involved.
There is no doubt that the annexation of Crimea, the sponsorship of militants, and the many military exercises on Ukraine’s eastern border should be regarded as unacceptable by all nations that respect the legitimacy of the political state. A solid case can be made that Putin’s military involvement in Ukraine is a blatant disregard of national sovereignty and is in direct violation of international law. The Russian army’s movement of troops into Crimea, along with naval advances in the black sea set a very scary tone for what could happen in the region next. The United States, for its part, has been smart enough to prioritize Ukraine’s stability as the number one goal. It has offered to pledge $1 billion dollars in economic aid to the country and said that its problems can be solved diplomatically rather than with brute force. Secretary Kerry’s recent visit to Kiev was a good move to solidify that point. That being said, there have also been some mistakes.
The main mistake has unfortunately come from the White House:
“Our partners will have absolutely no choice but to join us to continue to expand upon steps we have taken in recent days in order to isolate Russia politically, diplomatically and economically.”
-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry
Although the choice of the United States and other western nations to enact economic and political isolation is perhaps the right move from a moral perspective, it may not be the best move for the stability of Ukraine. If the real goal is to protect Ukraine and maintain its sovereignty, nations are going to have to work with Russia, even if they don’t want to.
Americans easily forget that one symptom of the collapse of the Soviet Union was that millions of Russians living in Eastern Europe became citizens of non-Russian countries overnight. Many of those Russians still live in countries like Ukraine, especially near the Russian border where Crimea lies. A great deal of them are not without Soviet nostalgia, and would love greater involvement in Ukrainian affairs from Moscow. That, among many other reasons, is why no solution can be found for this current crisis without understanding how close Ukraine is to Russia—not just politically, but ethnically as well. Unlike the invasion of Georgia, much of Crimea, despite being a part of Ukraine, has a particularly large ethnic Russian population. Even with the recent recession/annexation of Crimea, Russia has no interest in fundamentally destabilizing Eastern Europe.
Image from the New York Times
This in itself does not justify Russian boots on the ground in another sovereign state. Tartars are especially likely to agree with that. It does, however, cause one to think twice about isolating Russia diplomatically and economically, such as sanctions will. It may give America the image of taking the moral high road, but it will likely do little for Ukrainians, particularly those in Crimea. Americans must admit that their own country has also used military force that other countries believed violated international law. There was hardly a large American population in Iraq or Afghanistan when the U.S. invaded those countries. Russia did not agree with those invasions, but Russia didn’t get in the way of them either. As a Chinese official once said about America’s relationship with Taiwan, “How would you feel if we pledged military support to Puerto Rico?”
Sovereignty is a tricky thing for the United States. A quick look at the history of the Middle East, or 20th century Central and South America shows that the United States, just like Russia, has militarily and economically interfered with many countries on more than one occasion. Both countries have historically made the argument that these interferences were in the interest of maintaining regional stability, be it in the Eastern Bloc or the Middle East. That is how Putin, and much of Russia, views military action in Ukraine. It doesn’t mean that these actions are justified, but it’s hard to argue objectively that all of America’s military choices have been much better. From a foreign policy perspective, it simply has not been the case, especially during the Cold War.
Perhaps most important of all, today’s crisis in Ukraine is far from the only issue where the United States needs Russian help. Russia has been a huge supporter of safely securing and shrinking nuclear stockpiles. Russia is one of America’s strongest secular allies in fighting terrorism. Despite not liking NATO, Russia has worked with NATO in war zones, Afghanistan included. They also work to keep North Korea in check. Talks with Russia just a few months ago are what persuaded Syria’s Assad to halt chemical warfare at a time when an American bombing campaign seemed imminent. The relationship between the United States and Russia saves lives.
When one really looks at where modern Russia is coming from, it starts to look quite similar to how America has behaved in the not so distant past. Domestically, as Sochi and Pussy Riot remind us, there is obviously far more corruption, far fewer civil rights, and far lower living standards in Russia than in the United States. But as far as foreign policy is concerned, particularly concerning military activity, both countries have taken the bully route more than once, and have often ignored UN concerns about national sovereignty and human rights while doing so.
The White House should not be limiting its relationship with Russia right now, but strengthening it. As history shows time and time again, the world is a much safer place when America and Russia focus on where their interests align rather than where they do not. Before Americans rush to admonish the Russians, it’s worth considering all the times when they could’ve admonished us.