Wednesday, April 23, 2014

What to do about Putin’s moves in the Ukraine

This piece was written by Notre Dame junior Tyler Bowen and originally published as an article in Common Sense on April 23, 2014.

Over the last month and a half, the crisis in Ukraine has provoked fears of a resurgent Russia, the erosion of American credibility, and the general decline of the United States.

Many politicians and commentators, both conservative and liberal, believe that the crisis is a huge blow to American ‘exceptionalism’ and hegemony in today’s world. In addition, they also argue that the crisis proves Russia has resurged as a protector of Eastern Europe from NATO and Obama’s limited response to Russian intervention makes America look weak — encouraging Putin to make more power moves in other areas.

The crisis, however, actually exposes Russia’s relative historical weakness and the U.S. has nothing to worry about as long as it responds properly to Russian aggression. While the concerns about perceived American weakness are overblown, they also point out that America does need to do more to counter Russian aggression.

First, I want to establish what exactly is happening in Ukraine, and contrary to popular belief, the events reflect more of a Russian intervention in a Ukranian civil conflict rather than a full-blown Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Ukraine is split ethnically along an East-West divide with an ethnic Russian majority in the east and a heavily ethnic Ukranian, pro-European population in the west. On February 23, Euromaidan protestors in the capital of Kiev overthrew the government of pro-Russian president Victor Yanukovych and installed a pro-European interim government headed by Oleksandr Turchynov. This sparked a series of pro-Russian political backlash and protests in the Eastern parts of the Ukraine.

These protests quickly turned into a political coup d’etat in the autonomous region of Crimea, and on February 26, Russian forces began infiltrating the Crimean peninsula. Despite the overwhelming evidence that the soldiers in Crimea were Russian soldiers without proper insignias, Russian president Vladimir Putin declared that they were pro-Russian domestic Crimean forces taking over the region.

On March 16, the Crimean people voted in a referendum to secede from Ukraine and join the Russian Federation, which they supported with an 83% turnout and 95% of the vote. After that, the crisis was relatively quiet until last week, when pro-Russian protestors in the Eastern province of Donetsk ousted pro-Ukranian political figures and called for a referendum similar to Crimea’s on May 11. Involvement of Russian forces is suspected here as well.
These events tell us that while Russia has not fully invaded Ukraine, they have still breached Ukranian sovereignty in order to intervene and add territory to the Russian Federation. This understandably fans fears of a resurgent Russia, but I believe these fears are unfounded for three reasons.

 First, the result of Ukraine’s Euromaidan movement could have made Ukraine a member of the European Union and NATO, thus putting a huge pro-Western ally right on Russia’s doorstep. Russia’s seizure of Crimea and possible future seizure of the Eastern Donetsk region indicates an opportunity for Putin to compensate for weakness in a geopolitical conflict with the West.

Second, the enhancement of power through territorial expansion is an ineffective way to gain allies and supporters. The Soviet Union maintained their allies through force and coercion during the Cold War, and that allowed the United States to win the global balance of allies. The same thing will happen here, and the balance favors the United States even more considering many former members of the Soviet bloc are now staunchly pro-Western. European states will be alarmed at Russian expansion and band together to contain Russian aggression.
Third, the containment strategy will leave Russia to rot from the inside, which it is quickly doing thanks to poverty and alcoholism. I believe rising disappointment with the Putin regime among the Russian people will lead to rebellion and eventual political change (which we saw a glimpse of in 2013 with Russian election protests). Thanks to Russian weakness domestically and a geopolitical balance that favors the United States, the fears of declining American power and a resurgent Russia are misguided.

However, those who are fearful on the issue do point out a key criticism of Obama’s response to Russian aggression: it is not enough to deter further aggression and contain Russia. History from the Cold War indicates that an expansionist Russia could easily be contained with a mildly aggressive allied counterpoise. This could be done with a contemporary version of the naval blockade to diffuse the Cuban Missile Crisis, not in form but in idea.

 The United States should show serious opposition to Russian expansion and willingness to use force if Russia goes too far (i.e. invades Ukraine, invades Belarus, etc.). A response which accomplishes these things should come in the form of heavier economic sanctions, more military exercises with NATO in Eastern Europe, and clearly articulated threats warning Russia that any aggression with NATO and the US could inadvertently escalate to nuclear destruction. If history repeats itself, these threats and aggressive countermoves will end in eventual Russian defeat without the need to resort to war.
For all those who fear Putin’s Russia and the events in Ukraine, look back at recent Cold War history and ease your minds. The United States will remain the leading international power with minimal aggressive effort.  

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Yeah, Russians wouldn't have to infiltrate if they didn't have 16-25K career military permanently stationed in Crimea already.

Silly Russians must be trying to annex SE to let the West Ukraine radicalize itself completely and turn itself into another NATO military base.