Putin has put Obama on the spot
Though events have moved quickly, it is already apparent that there is little the United States can do to get Russia to leave Crimea any time soon. The proposals from left and right for action are nowhere near sufficient to get Vladimir Putin to reverse his successful military seizure of the province’s vital security and governance installations. American military action is not in the cards. While the West notes Russia’s inconsistency in violating the principle of sovereignty, Putin even claims legal justification: the province’s prime minister asked for help, which he says is permissible under Russia’s security agreements with Kiev.
The most immediate requirement is not to push Russia out of Crimea, which may take a decade or more. Washington lacks non-military means capable of doing it, and no one is advocating war with Russia over Ukraine. But Moscow, successful in Crimea, may well be thinking of similar takeovers in other southern and eastern provinces with large Russian-speaking populations that voted for Viktor Yanukovich:
It was a serious error for the parliament in Kiev, in one of its first post-Yanukovich acts, to deprive Ukrainians in Russian-speaking areas of the privilege of using Russian in official acts.* Kiev needs to do its best to “make unity attractive,” in the phrase observed more in the breach than in the observance in Sudan.
It also needs to make sure that its military forces are not caught unawares, as the Ukrainians were in Crimea. Putting them on alert was the right thing to do, but using them in any but the most compelling circumstances would likely be a big mistake, as it would alienate Russian speakers and give Putin more excuses for intervention. For Washington, this means restraining Kiev from foolish efforts to crack down on pro-Russian civilians in the eastern and southern provinces before it has the capability to win the fights.
Beyond limiting the Russian incursion into Ukraine to Crimea, Washington needs to decide whether it is seriously committed to the independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine, including Crimea. During the Cold War, Washington regarded Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as “captive nations.” They are now NATO and European Union members. Are we prepared to spend a decade, or even several, insisting on something comparable for Crimea and perhaps other areas Russia may occupy in Ukraine? Are we prepared to expend the resources that will be needed to reverse Russia’s lightening military grab?
This is not a theoretical question: Ukraine will require billions in immediate assistance to prevent it from going belly up, and much more down the pike. We’ll need to spend a great deal to get the Ukrainian military up to snuff, and more (with European and International Monetary Fund help) to fix the longer-term problems of its miserable economy, which depends heavily on subsidized Russian natural gas. The Ukrainian political leadership is not the finest, and there is growing Ukrainian nationalism and anti-semitism that will no doubt rear its ugly head from time to time:
A commitment to Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity today will be costly, time-consuming and limit the degree to which the US will be able to cooperate with Moscow on other issues.
Failure to back Ukraine wholeheartedly at this point would also be costly, mainly to US credibility, which is already suffering due to the disastrous course of the Syrian civil war. It would raise more doubts about American fortitude, especially among the allies and friends that might have something to fear from Russia: Georgia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Azerbaijan. None of them individually counts for much in the grand scheme of things, but NATO credibility is important to American interests in many parts of the world and should not be surrendered lightly. The Alliance is already suffering a less than glorious retreat from Afghanistan. Putin has put Obama on the spot. He needs to find a way of responding that demonstrates American fortitude without getting us committed to things we will regret.
*The legislation will apparently be vetoed. Thanks to Michael Boyce at Refugees International for pointing that out.