Crimea in Crisis: Ultimatums to Surrender

Over the weekend, Russian President Vladimir Putin took steps to retain influence in Ukraine by gaining military control of the Crimean peninsula. As the pro-Russian government in Kiev gave way to Euromaidan protests, Putin had the following appeal approved by the Russian Parliament:

“In connection with the extraordinary situation that has developed in Ukraine and the threat to citizens of the Russian Federation… I hereby appeal to the Council of Federation of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation to use the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation on the territory of Ukraine until the social and political situation in that country is normalised.”

Making matters more ominous, the Russian military has issued ultimatums to Ukraine: surrender  - even Ukrainian warships in Crimea – or face “a military storm” by 9 PM EST today. How far will he go?

Let me start by saying, I don’t know what’s going to happen, and neither do any of the supposed experts I may cite herein. The purpose of this writing is to catch the reader up on developments, which are quickly unfolding. (Click here for a live blog of events)

The Crimean crisis is extremely complicated. Ukraine is a culturally, ethnically, and politically-divided country, as evident by its 2010 election. Crimea is part of Ukraine due to arbitrarily-drawn post-war borders; in truth, the Ukrainian Crimea is only 60 years old. For more on this, see the Ukraine crisis in three maps, and (of course!) Crimea’s Wikipedia page.

It seems the rather shaky arrangement Ukraine had as a quasi-European Russian satellite state was thrown off kilter by the Euromaidan upheaval, which I discussed here last week at Professor Charles King, an expert on post-Soviet politics at Georgetown University, states: ”What actually started as a kind of pro-European, pro-democratic set of demonstrations is very quickly becoming ethnicized.” Ukraine has been weakened after the Kiev upheaval, and as Mr. King notes, ”Ethnic conflicts thrive on moments when the state seems weak.”

Seizing on this weakness, Putin is attempting to maintain strategic advantage in the region: To do otherwise would put three of Russia’s warm water ports in the Black Sea, and Putin’s own legacy as the leader of the largest country in the world, in jeopardy.

This puts the rest of the world in a tough spot. Ultimately, Crimea may indeed be better off separate from the Ukraine; but simply dividing the Crimea from Ukraine carries its own perils, and allowing Russia to do so militarily destabilizes any sense of post-hegemonic global security we have enjoyed since the end of World War II.

What to Do?

Obviously, saying “This is a bad thing” and “We should do something about this bad thing” are two different statements. One can, actually, make the former without implying the latter. It didn’t take long, however, for the interventionists (on the political Left and Right) to offer suggestions. Retired Admiral Stavridis claims “NATO needs to move now” on Crimea, stating: “Action may provoke, but so does doing nothing.”

Of course, the GOP’s most vocal foreign policy strategist, Senator John McCain, issued an automatic and perfunctory statement:

“Every moment that the United States and our allies fail to respond sends the signal to President Putin that he can be even more ambitious and aggressive in his military intervention in Ukraine. There is a range of serious options at our disposal at this time without the use of military force. I call on President Obama to rally our European and NATO allies to make clear what costs Russia will face for its aggression and to impose those consequences without further delay.(emphasis mine)”

This recommended reading in the New York Times offers a litany of suggestions from a range of political players:

“Create a democratic noose around Putin’s Russia,” urged Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina. “Revisit the missile defense shield,” suggested Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida. “Cancel Sochi,” argued Representative Mike Rogers, the Michigan Republican who leads the Intelligence Committee, referring to the Group of 8 summit meeting to be hosted by President Vladimir V. Putin. Kick “him out of the G-8” altogether, said Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the Democratic whip.”

Naturally, as he occupies an office with unrivaled power on global foreign policy matters, all eyes fall on President Obama for leadership. While he takes criticisms from all sides to defuse the situation, it appears he’s playing the long game. From that same New York Times article:

“Mr. Obama offered Russia what aides called an “offramp,” a face-saving way out of the crisis, by proposing that European observers take the place of Russian forces in Crimea to guard against the supposed threats to the Russian-speaking population cited by the Kremlin as justification for its intervention.

“Mr. Obama’s aides said that they saw no evidence of such threats and considered the claim a bogus pretext, and that they wanted to call Mr. Putin’s bluff. Privately, they said they did not expect Mr. Putin to accept, and they conceded that Mr. Obama probably could not reverse the occupation of Crimea in the short term. They said they were focusing on blocking any further Russian move into eastern Ukraine that would split the country in half.

“Some regional specialists said Mr. Obama should ignore the talk-tough chorus and focus instead on defusing a crisis that could get much worse.”

The President is expected to perform this balancing act from a continent away (for a situation yet-without bloodshed): to stay engaged and maintain pressure with no incitement, yet no appeasement. He is sending Secretary of State John Kerry to Kiev to meet with the new (flailing) government there in an act of solidarity. Going further, the President would be weighing economic and diplomatic sanctions. But these come with costs of their own. For example, the G-8 ejecting Russia would be a provocative move, and could possibly further align axis powers against the West; China has already issued a statement “in agreement” with Russia’s move to annex Crimea.

We too quickly assume Obama and the West appear weak without action; I disagree with that premise. All eyes should be on the United Nations – and specifically regional players – for leadership during a crisis in their backyard. Next, the European Union has more clout in the matter than NATO, which has more clout than the United States alone. Ukraine is not a member of NATO or the EU, and for this we should be thankful, as those member nation treaties would obligate partner nations to act.

There are, of course, other forces that could serve to our advantage; as Jason Karaian points out, the markets are punishing Russia more swiftly than diplomats ever could:

“The two main Moscow stock markets, the Micex and the RTS, have fallen by more than 10% at the time of writing, in a broad-based selloff. Big Russian companies like Gazprom and Sberbank saw their share prices plunge as traders dumped their shares.”

Russia must understand, however, that the long-term economic consequences it faces due to the political damage it inflicts upon itself would be worse than any short-term economic pains it may be experiencing now. Like so many things here, that – for now – is unseen.

Perhaps it sounds callous (and a little too easy) to say “so what” during foreign dust-ups like this, but it seems applicable here. There are some things the US “could” do; but I can’t think of a single thing we “have to” do. And while hope is not a strategy, I am hoping clearer minds prevail and conflict ends without bloodshed in what  R. Nicholas Burns, a career diplomat and undersecretary of state during the Bush administration, calls: ”The most important, most difficult foreign-policy test of (Obama’s) presidency.”


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