Russian troops have established control over most of the Crimean peninsula, a sizable portion of eastern Ukraine that juts out into the Black Sea, since Feb. 27. They came primarily from Russia’s naval bases in Crimea, quickly seizing control. They were assisted by pro-Russia militiamen, who may have been directed from Moscow or who may be members of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea’s Russian ethnic majority.
The Russian military action is a response to political events in Ukraine. After months of unrest and protests over an attempt to move the country away from European Union membership and closer to trade compacts with neighboring Russia, President Viktor Yanukovych fled the capital city of Kiev. The rise of a pro-European administration aggravated ethnic Russian residents, who tend to live in eastern Ukraine (closer to Russia) and support closer ties to Russia. This provided a rationale for Russian intervention; President Vladimir Putin’s administration cited concern for the safety of Russian citizens due to Ukraine’s instability.
This intervention is highly suspect, because there is little evidence Russian citizens in Crimea were in danger. The traditional American response to such actions is clear: we historically voice strong opposition, a policy that originated with the Stimson Doctrine. In the ‘30s, then-Secretary of State Henry Stimson declared that the United States would not recognize Imperial Japan’s occupation of the Chinese region of Manchuria nor any other country’s acquisition of territory through force. This principle would be incorporated in the United Nations Charter, and has occasionally been used to justify a forceful response, as in the Gulf War liberation of occupied Kuwait.
Foreign policy, though, tends not to be guided by tradition but by the interests of the United States and its allies. Happily, that frequently aligns with what is morally right, as it tends to be anti-American states that oppress their people and commit international crimes. (Though, as we saw during the Cold War, this is not necessarily the case.) To formulate a wise American response, let us look beyond the outrage of the violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and see what’s in it for us.
On foreign policy, the modern rule of thumb is that what is bad for Russia is good for the United States. Russia is a barely democratic state, labeled “not free” by watchdog organization Freedom House. There are significant restrictions on freedom of the press and the right to peaceful political protest. That is the model it aims to export to countries it draws into its sphere of influence. American foreign expeditions that have sought to “spread democracy,” however ill-advised some of them may have been, at least aimed to spread a successful and beneficial form of government.
Letting Russia take political control of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, directly or indirectly, will subject Crimeans to an authoritarian government — a large price to pay for self-determination by ethnic Russians there. The same goes for Ukraine as a whole, whose fragile democracy might crumble under economic pressure from Moscow if it sought closer ties to Russia. Already, Russia has used its control of natural gas lines to threaten Ukrainians with high energy costs and, inevitably, death from lack of heating. If Russia had its way, trade with the United States would be restricted, not to mention the exchange of people and ideas.
Consider the opposite scenario. A swing to the West offers Ukraine an opportunity to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union. That means protection from Russia via military aid, access to a large common market, and safeguards for democracy and the rights of minorities. Ethnic Russians who feel threatened should particularly take note of that last requirement of EU membership. The United States would benefit if Ukraine followed the same trade policy as the rest of the EU, which is generally amicable, and would be able to count on Ukraine as an ally in future defensive wars (e.g. if NATO member Turkey were to come under serious threat from Syria).
It is tempting for contrarian pundits to characterize this as a conflict due to Western imperialism, rather than Russian. Under that perspective, one could say the expansion of the EU and NATO eastward into Russia’s backyard rightfully upsets them, and this is a typical standoff between great powers wishing to expand their sphere of influence at the expense of lesser powers.
This idea is not entirely without merit, but it lacks context. This can be seen as a standoff between East and West, but remember what those factions represent: on the Eastern side, we have Russia casting a long authoritarian shadow over Eastern Europe. On the Western side, there is the promise of security, democracy and economic growth for Ukraine. Even if this conflict is framed in terms of great power politics, the West is on the side of righteousness.
To be sure, the people of Crimea do have a right to self-determination. But any referendum on the future of the peninsula must be free and fair. Unfree Russia cannot provide this, especially not as an occupying power. The European Union or United Nations would be a better supervisor for such a referendum, which ought to take place in an unoccupied (i.e. unpressured) Crimea. Only then can the result have any sense of legitimacy.
From an American perspective, it seems clear that Ukraine needs to be supported against Russia’s invasion of Crimea, and furthermore that it must be supported in joining Western institutions like NATO and the EU. It offers us an ally and a trade partner and a blow against an authoritarian rival that seems to have nostalgia for Soviet-era imperialism.
How can the liberation of Crimea be accomplished? Economic leverage is the easiest step; the U.S. must act unilaterally to restrict trade with Russia as soon as possible and coordinate with other countries to bring about a comprehensive embargo. Militarily, leverage must be applied with more caution, but at the very least a line in the sand can be drawn: for the sake of European security, NATO ought to guarantee that Ukraine will be defended if any Russian troops advance beyond Crimea.
War in Ukraine is obviously undesirable, so it will be Russia’s choice to retreat or not. What the West can do is contain further Russian aggression and stack up incentives for Russia to make the right choice: that is, to withdraw all Russian forces back to their bases and to denounce the militias flouting law and order. Withdrawal from Crimea would be the condition for starting diplomacy, the aim of which should be to establish a framework in which Ukraine can choose its path free of Russian pressure and which outlines a peaceful and democratic solution to the Crimean Question.
A lack of action on the United States’ part is not an option. It would mean legitimizing the use of force for territorial expansion and halting the spread of democracy and free trade in Eastern Europe. That is neither morally acceptable nor in the national interest.
Kim Post is a copy editor at The Triangle. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.