Saturday, March 1, 2014

Russia moves into Ukraine

Per the New York Times:
As Russian armed forces effectively seized control of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula on Saturday, the Russian Parliament granted President Vladimir V. Putin the authority he sought to use military force in response to the deepening instability in Ukraine.
Raise your hand if you're surprised.

Russia has an important military base on the Black Sea in Crimea. Much of the population in eastern Ukraine is pro-Russian (though hardly all; Ukrainian and Russian sympathizers are much more intermingled throughout the country than popular accounts have suggested). Russia historically has regarded Ukraine and other bordering republics as vital to its security. Ardent Russian nationalists, like nationalists everywhere, want their country to flex its muscles on the world stage, and such nationalists are a vital domestic constituency for Putin. No doubt there are Russian military and political leaders who worry about the kind of unrest in Ukraine (and Chechnya, and Georgia, and ...) spreading to Russia if left unchecked; Putin himself is probably one of them.

Those are the pros I can think of off the top of my head. The cons? Well, let's see ... the afterglow from the Olympics wouldn't have lasted forever anyway; the NATO countries, individually and through the alliance itself, have absolutely no appetite for war and everybody knows it; Russia's seat on the U.N. Security Council ensures that no larger international response will be forthcoming; the only other great power, China, probably sympathizes with Russia, having done exactly this sort of thing in the past (Tibet, anyone?); and as the Times article points out, nobody has significant economic or political leverage over Russia anyway. Hell, Europe gets much of its natural gas from Russia.

Lots of pros, no cons. Russia's intervention was a foregone conclusion.

From a moral standpoint it's a wash, inasmuch as the U.S. — the only country that regularly gets its knickers in a knot about morality in international relations — has no leg to stand on here. Ukraine is well within what everyone knows is Russia's sphere of influence, whether we like it or not. The U.S., having for better or worse repeatedly invoked James Monroe's doctrine to keep other countries from intervening militarily in the U.S.'s so-called back yard, is rhetorically toothless to object to other "great powers" acting in their own best interests in their neighborhood.

Indeed, it boggled my mind that President Obama warned Russia that "there will be costs" to Russian military intervention in Ukraine. It's obvious the U.S. isn't just rhetorically toothless on this score, but militarily and politically, too. What on earth moved the president to speak out like that? Did he learn nothing from the fraught brinksmanship he engaged in on Syria (where Putin, be it remembered, humiliated him)? An anodyne request not to intervene would have sufficed for domestic consumption: nobody but the most arrogant and unreconstructed neocons would have demanded more. (Well, opportunistic Congressional Republicans have demanded more, but a wise leader doesn't heed self-interested blowhards.)

What will happen to Ukraine? I'm no expert, but if I had to guess I'd say partition is the best for which Ukrainian nationalists (and Europe sympathizers) can hope. I wouldn't count on even that, though. Russia wants a whole Ukraine, and it certainly doesn't want another Europe-influenced state on its border. Ukraine's economy isn't robust enough to withstand Russian pressure. If Ukrainian leaders paid any attention to the fate of Ukraine's onetime fellow Soviet state, Georgia, in 2008, they know better than to expect Western military intervention. One way or another, Russia will squash Ukraine's hopes for squirming out of the bear's grasp.

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