Is the crisis in Ukraine almost over or just beginning? The answer depends on what Vladimir Putin really wants and what the West does next.
Did Putin want nothing more than to seize Crimea, to turn Russia’s control of the republic from de facto to de jure—or does he want to creep deeper into southern and eastern Ukraine on the pretext of “fraternal assistance” to ethnic Russians?
Either way, two things should be understood. First, Putin’s actions have been driven less by a belief that the West is weak than his knowledge that Russia is. Second, he dreams of restoring Russia’s empire—his March 18 Kremlin speech is, at heart, a cry of resentment against the West for its humiliation of his country during the early years after the Soviet Union’s collapse. A bitter autocrat with a head full of grandiose daydreams can be a dangerous creature.
This crisis began, after all, when Putin took notice that Ukraine—which he and every other Russian leader in history have regarded as deeply tied to Russia—was drifting into the West’s orbit. Then-President Viktor Yanukovych had taken steps toward an affiliation with the European Union. Putin feared, correctly, that this development could wreck his plans for a “Eurasian Union” (which he saw as the basis for a revived Russian empire), and so he offered Yanukovych $15 billion in exchange for backing out of the Western league. Yanukovych took the bribe. Demonstrations broke out in Kiev, prompting crackdowns, prompting a widening of the protests … and the rest, we all know.
Lawrence Freedman, the pre-eminent scholar of strategy, has a long blog post in Wednesday’s War on the Rocks, noting that the “basic challenge of crisis management is to protect core interests while avoiding major war.” Part of this challenge, he adds, involves “a sense of knowing when to exercise restraints and respect limits,” as well as “a grasp of what the adversary needs to enable it to de-escalate or at least to desist from further escalation.”
The first step to take in following this idea—a step that many pundits and politicians have skipped—is to define what our “core interests” are. Crimea is not a core interest to the United States or the West; it is a core interest to Russia. Cold as it may seem to say, Crimea is gone; there’s nothing we can do to get it back, and we—however you define “we”—never really had it to begin with.
However, the forcible annexation of Crimea did violate international law. Specifically, it broke the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, signed by Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom, which—while it didn’t have the binding effect of the North Atlantic Treaty that established NATO—did offer Ukraine security assurances in exchange for giving up the 2,000 nuclear weapons left in its territory as a remnant of Soviet days.
So, yes, it’s worth getting upset about the seizure of Crimea. The things that President Obama and the European Union have done—relatively mild sanctions, the exclusion of Russia from an upcoming G-7 (formerly G-8) meeting, the shoring up of defenses in Poland and the Baltic nations, and presumably more actions of this sort to come—are proportional steps worth taking.
But no one should suffer the illusion that any of this will prod Putin to send the troops in Crimea home (most of them were already stationed there) or give the land back to Ukraine. To pretend that it might—as some of Obama’s rhetoric about “costs” and “consequences” has implied—works only to Putin’s benefit; it makes him seem stronger (he’s withstood the American sanctions!) than he really is.