Crimea: tough options

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

One thing that I’ve been struck by with regard to the events relating to the Crimea is how little people in the US seem to care. I guess this shouldn’t be a big surprise—since when do Americans care much about foreign policy? Compared, say, to the ways in which ordinary people in the US became agitated about Kuwait in the aftermath of Iraq's invasion in 1991, American interest in Russia and the Crimea has been very tepid this week. 
The reason, I think, is because Americans take their cues on matters like this from the President. Americans cared about Iraq in 1990 because they understood that Bush was going to do something. People realize, I think, that Obama will do nothing exciting regarding the Crimea so their concentration is elsewhere.

I understand that Obama would have trouble pulling off a ‘this will not stand’ moment in the manner of George HW Bush in 1991. The situation is very different. Whether or not people supported American intervention in the crisis, it seemed pretty obvious that the Kuwaitis were not happy about Iraq’s invasion and occupation. In the Crimea, it’s another world entirely.
As I discussed in an earlier post on the Crimea, were there a plebiscite on the issue most people in the Crimea would likely choose to be part of Russia. It seems self-defeating, to say the very least, to go to war over a cause that wouldn’t have the support of most of the people most intimately involved. Indeed, people in the Crimea who prefer to be part of Russia would most certainly see American involvement in the affair as an unwanted act of aggression.

A second point relating to American involvement that I’ve heard lately is that ‘the US has no moral standing’ to denounce Russian behavior in the Crimea. While Putin’s invasion and self-serving propaganda campaign has been off-putting because it seems as if it were pulled straight out of the 1930s, America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 has been presented as an example of why the US has no right to complain.

The two invasions are worth comparing with regard to what they reveal about the concerns and priorities of Russian and American leaders. Whereas the Russians have provided only a fig leaf of camouflage for their behavior internationally (the domestic audience in Russia is a bigger concern), the United States went through more than a year of work in collecting evidence, presenting a case, taking the issue to the United Nations, working the court of public opinion in the US and internationally…and still, in the end it worked out that the evidence had been ginned up or fabricated and the supposed rationale for war was completely unjustified. So, one way of looking at this might be that Putin is just giving us a much more straightforward version of what it took Bush, Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, and herds of other American officials more than a year of obfuscation and deceit to accomplish.

So does this mean we should just shrug our shoulders and go on with our lives? I don’t think so. This is because what Putin has carried out is something that could be repeated ad infinitum in other regions of Eurasia, not to mention the rest of the world. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, from the Balkans to Central Asia there are dozens of countries where lots of folks would love to similarly change borders unilaterally. Why shouldn’t Turkey try to take Northern Cyprus? Perhaps Azerbaijan should try to re-take Nagorno-Karabakh? Maybe Hungary should try to snag part of Transylvania from Romania?

More than anything, however, this is about Russia. For every Northern Cyprus and Nagorno-Karabakh, there is a case where Russians are living, somewhere, as a minority. In the three Baltic countries, members of the EU all, many ethnic Russians have been stateless ever since these countries gained independence in 1991. Geographically, meanwhile, the Russian region of Kaliningrad is cut off from the rest of Russia by Lithuania and Latvia (or Belarus, if you go a different route).

There is also a large and concentrated Russian population living in Transnistria, a Russian-inhabited breakaway region of Moldova than has functioned more or less independently since the demise of the USSR. Kazakhstan, too, has an enormous Russian population. Leaders in these and other regions will be paying very close attention to what happens in the Crimea, as well as in eastern Ukraine, where the task of separating Ukrainians and Russians would be a bloody mess. With respect to all of these places, as well as in regard to the rights of minorities living in these countries (who could suffer at the hands of policies designed to prevent a second Crimea from happening), some kind of clear response seems necessary.  

But what to do? Threatening war is not the answer, specifically in a region that seems like it would prefer Russian rule, anyway. I personally don’t want my president beating his chest and making bellicose threats, so I can appreciate President Obama’s desire to avoid throwing gasoline on a fire that’s already burning. That being said, I think Obama’s reaction has been far too tepid. Other than his rather meek statement on the events last Friday—which basically warned Putin about the dangers of doing something that the Russian President had already carried out—it’s been all Kerry and no Obama with regard to carrying the water on this issue, and that’s definitely not a good sign as far as I’m concerned. 

What I would like is to hear Obama’s voice on this issue. Even if American options are limited, I would like to hear a clear message regarding his view on how matters pertaining to minorities, mini-republics, and border issues in Eurasia need to be handled. I want to hear him talk about the Crimean Tatars, who are the indigenous population of that region and are now facing what must seem as the worst of all nightmares. I would like to see some moral leadership, and really would have liked to see a list of punishments spelled out last Friday. The Obama administration acted like it was caught by surprise last Friday, which seems incredible given the fact that a crisis has been taking place in Ukraine for months. Rather than scrambling to make phone calls after the fact, there should have been a contingency plan in place. 

There are economic and diplomatic levers that can be employed on Putin. Russia could be kicked out of the Council of Europe (not a big deal) or the G-8 (a bigger deal). The US and Europe could also impose sanctions on Russia. Short of war, there are many measures that can be taken, although all of them could be dismissed, in one way or another, as either toothless or unhelpful. While I would be saddened to see US-Russian relations get worse, it's Russia that would lose more from a suspension in economic, educational and other links between the two countries. The EU, whose relations with Ukraine touched off the crisis in that country to begin with, needs to be on board with whatever actions the US takes. But it's hard to galvanize other leaders when you leave all of the talk to your Secretary of State.

Putin's biggest vulnerability lies in the very principle of self-determination that his government has supported in recent years in Georgia and Ukraine. If Putin thinks that the right of self-determination should be employed in those countries, then perhaps the US and EU should begin to drop signs that they feel the same way about Chechnya, Dagestan and the rest of the northern Caucasus. There are over 80 federal units in Russia, most of them including concentrations of non-Russians. Even if Russians make up a majority in many of these Russians, the question of federalism is a very big one in Russia and always will be. This is something the US could threaten to exploit if necessary.

While the Caucasus are situated on Russia's southern periphery, there are non-Russian mini-republics situated in the Russian heartland. This is the case with the Republic of Tatarstan, where roughly half of the population is non-Russian. While I believe it would be destructive to encourage separatism in any of these regions, I think that putting the separatism cop back into Putin's head would do more to restrain Putin than sanctions or kicking Russia out of international organizations. Rather than looking to break-off Russian populated regions of other countries, Putin should be more afraid of losing his own non-Russian regions.

It's good not to overreact. I realize that there are benefits to back-channel diplomacy, and perhaps the Obama administration is actually being quite forceful with Putin behind the scenes. Be that as it may, something more is needed from the US president at this time. No, we don't need war or threats of war. But we do need moral clarity and a sense that the American administration understands these issues and has a vision for what Eurasia should look like.

Until Obama starts giving the impression that this is an issue that he takes seriously, the easy thing to do will be to forget about all of this until the next crisis takes place.

And that's one approach that's definitely not recommended.


Also see:

Russia and the Politics of Citizenship

The Crimea: More Than Just a War

More Thoughts on the Crimea

Crimea on the Brink: What's Going On?

South Ossetia and the Fate of the Mini-Republics

More thoughts on South Ossetia

Obama, Russia and the Middle East

Trouble in Ukraine

Beating the War Drums Again


No comments:

Post a Comment