Saturday, April 12, 2014
That's the big question this weekend, isn't it? Will Russia attack eastern Ukraine, splitting off still more territory from that country?
So, maybe Putin has completely gone off the rails, because I think that is what it would take for him to actually think that invading eastern Ukraine would be a good idea. There are, however, some other possibilities. The most likely, in my opinion, is that Putin is getting dragged into something that he may not have initially wanted.
So what's going to happen? I have no idea. My guess, however, is that: Putin wanted only Crimea; that the massing of troops was meant to foment problems in the rest of Ukraine and change the world's conversation away from Russia's occupation of Crimea; and that if Russia does get involved in eastern Ukraine, the move will constitute a deviation from the original plan. It would hardly be the first time that a 'mission accomplished' celebration was held a little too early.
Lots of people in the United States have been asking what the US and other countries should do in response to these developments. Part of the problem with looking at the Ukrainian crisis in these terms, however, is that there is an assumption within them that this crisis began over the last couple of months. In fact, the situation in Ukraine is just the latest chapter in a battle for influence that the US and Russia have been waging since the end of the Cold War. Almost all of these conflicts, moreover, have taken place on the territory of friends, neighbors, former allies, and client-states of Russia.
Think about it: since the end of the Cold War, all of the USSR's former Warsaw Pact allies in central and eastern Europe have become members of a US-based military alliance. Then, former members of the USSR (the three Baltic states) began joining NATO as well. The 'color revolutions' of the 2000s overthrew, or threatened to overthrow, a series of rulers that were close to Moscow, while former Soviet client states in Iraq and Syria became targets for American attack. When the G. W. Bush administration proposed a defense shield in the Czech Republic, ostensibly to protect Europe from Iran, Putin argued that the US and Russia build it together and base it in Azerbaijan, on Iran's northern border. Nobody took him seriously.
Well, I guess people take Putin more seriously now. But other than wondering about the wisdom of having blown off Russian security concerns for the past twenty years, it's also worth thinking about the consequences for the people living in these countries. Georgia and Ukraine have been literally torn apart by this competition. Things could get a lot worse before they get better.
The best thing the United States could do in response to this week's developments would be to keep a strong eye on American interests. Rather than fall into knee-jerk competition with Russia, we need to consider what this is all worth to the United States. This doesn't mean that the US should ignore Putin's behavior or appease it, but I think Obama has been right to keep his cool. As the US discovered in Iraq, stuff like this has a tendency to come back around and bite people in the ass. In the long run, I think that direct Russian involvement in a conflict in eastern Ukraine could end up turning into a real quagmire for Putin.
And while that might be fine for Putin, it won't be for the people in Ukraine. Regardless of their political sympathies right now, people in the region would likely suffer as a result of any move to change borders by force. First in Georgia, now in Ukraine, local populations are the big losers in US-Russian competition for influence in former Soviet space. More than anything, I think that's what we ought to be thinking about right now.
Crimea and Eastern Ukraine: Things Can Always Get Worse