Risk!…(Leaves the Board)
Being this site’s inherent and most qualified expert on all things Ukraine, I knew editor Drew would have a fair amount to say regarding Russia’s recent invasion of the country. His assessment of the situation is level-headed in an otherwise frenzied media storm, and comes with solid European historical background. There are only a few points I care to add.
National borders that carry international recognition as the lynchpins of sovereignty developed in a somewhat arbitrary fashion. In some cases, the drawing of borders is analogous to the infamously bizarre gerrymandering of U.S. congressional districts – the idea being to split your opposition between two areas to diminish the efficacy of their resistance. On a larger scale, this was done with ethnic groups in many parts of the world. In other cases, the interests of ethnic minorities were totally cast aside.
I personally trace a partial Ruthenian/Rusyn heritage. You are blameless for not hearing about this group. They hail roughly from the borderlands around Ukraine, Poland and Slovakia, in the Carpathian Mountains. In medieval Europe, this Slavic group was a prominent part of the kingdom of Kievan Rus’, though The Mongol Horde eventually brought this area under its yoke. In more recent centuries – though some people continued to (and still do) identify as Ruthenian, indeed, many set up short-lived independent republics – others simply acquiesced to the demonym conferred by modern borders, particularly as lines of control settled after World War II. The point here is that while Ruthenians lack their own independent state, they also do not suffer ethnic prejudice where they live. When applying this to the Crimea, it becomes quite easy to shoot down the most coherent and oft-repeated pretext Russia has offered for its intervention: the protection of ethnic Russians in the turmoil of the Ukrainian Revolution.
Undoubtedly, Putin’s intentions in Ukraine do not stem from some latent altruism in his heart for his brethren. Russia has a huge economic and political interest in subjugating Ukraine, which it has demonstrated in the past. Energy supplies like natural gas and oil are a critical part of this, and Europe is highly dependent on Russia in this regard. Ukraine is practically a captive market. Maintaining that arrangement, so as to further enrich the Russian industrial oligarchy, is in Putin’s interest. This means any moves toward EU accession by Ukraine must be quashed. It wouldn’t be the first time Russia used its military to assert economic power. Though the pretext of protecting Russians in South Ossetia was skillfully exploited by Putin in the 2008 war with Georgia, the purpose was at least in part to interrupt the flow of natural gas in the South Caucasus Pipeline, which bypassed Russia. Thereby raising demand for Russian natural gas significantly at a time when prices in the global market neared their peak.
Before this crisis, the last time I payed much close attention to Ukraine was in 2004, during the Orange Revolution electoral crisis between Yanukovich and Viktor Yushchenko. After massive electoral fraud, several rounds of voting, and the assassination attempt on Yushchenko with dioxin poison, Yanukovich conceded defeat – only to come to power easily in 2010. Whatever one thinks of Yushchenko, the Maidan protesters or any of the new crop of political elements in Ukraine’s current government, the fact that Russia now harbors Yanukovich (as well as some figures implicated in the aforementioned assassination attempt) is a glaringly obvious sign of Russia’s urge for political control of Ukraine.
Putin knows he can get away with much of this, in spite of the Budapest Memorandum, sovereignty, the UN – in spite of everything. Though American leadership and foreign policy has been embarrassingly passive and wishy-washy under Obama – particularly on Syria – this is not the cause of Russia’s boldness. Rather it is Russia’s existing political and economic advantages that allow it to ignore international law and effectively bully other countries, particularly those formerly within the sphere of influence of the Soviet Union. Though Russian stocks may take a short-term hit and sanctions leveled at its officials, Russia sees a long-term benefit.
Ultimately this crisis does come down to the question of ‘Where does it end?’ The loss of the Crimea could be a net gain for Ukraine, as some have argued. Crimea is a drain on the Ukrainian economy. Its political status is the product of card-dealer Krushchev’s territorial deck shuffle back in 1954. Russia’s reclamation of Crimea might very well be a correction to historical short-sightedness, as well as an unintended economic salve to Ukraine. Alternatively, it has the potential to backfire. The following scenarios highlight issues that ought to give Russia pause:
1) Thus far, this has been a remarkably peaceful invasion. This owes to restraint on both sides despite several blustery ultimatums. But obviously, there are those in Ukraine who could be annexed against their will. If Putin shares any characteristics with ex-president Yanukovich (and does he ever), this may spiral into violent repression of opposition protesters. Seizure of more Ukrainian territory (particularly in the east) could follow on the same pretexts already used. Currently there is no popular appetite or legal basis for Western counter-intervention, and even if there were, nothing could be done under the auspices of the United Nations Security Council, of which Russia is a permanent member. Should things become more heated and other European countries – particularly NATO members – come under threat, the possibilities become less predictable but certainly darker. What of the Russians in one of the Baltic republics? Uprisings and other events elsewhere could lead to a slippery slope.
2) Russia’s supposed protection of ethnic Russians may transform into its granting privilege to ethnic Russians. Hundreds of thousands of Muslim Tatars live in Crimea. Russia’s track record on relations with its Muslim minorities are typically poor. Just look at Chechnya and Dagestan. If Russian occupation and annexation of Crimea leads to a regime of xenophobia and oppression against Tatars, you have a dangerous recipe for radicalization and insurgency.
As for what to do in the moment, it is probably best to wait this out for a few months at least. If there were active instances of killings by Russian forces against civilians, it would be a return to Yanukovich’s bloody final days in office, and action would be warranted. So long as this non-violent stalemate holds, the Ukrainian government will have time to stabilize, review its options and prepare for elections. Though Crimea remaining with Ukraine looks to be a lost cause right now, perhaps an accord can be reached to keep Crimea in some sort of federal or confederate arrangement. While these diplomatic considerations carry on quietly behind the scenes, all eyes will be on further Russian military actions. Based on everything that could go wrong, it would be wise for Russia to tread lightly.