On CNN last Sunday, Stephen Cohen suggested that we are only two steps away from another Cuban missile crisis. Is that possible, or hyperbole?
Revolutions create great risks because they create uncertainty and anxiety. The strength and policies of the new revolutionary regime are difficult to predict. This is unavoidable, because with crowds still active in the Maidan and making demands on the Parliament, the government in Kiev itself cannot be certain what it must do to remain in power.
Such uncertainty about what the revolutionary government may do (or can do) forces other actors to protect their interests. Yet the more vigorously they do so, the more anxiety and uncertainty they create in the minds of other actors and the vulnerable regime in Kiev. At some point major actors may decide there is no point talking to each other, as all they can rationally do is try to protect themselves by maximizing the support they have at home. That leads to distortion and misunderstanding among the actors, ever-higher uncertainty, and a cycle of more and more aggressive actions as each actor tries to maximize their gains under uncertainty. Differences give way to polarization; discussion gives way to move and counter-move; and at some point one move goes too far for other actors to accept. At that point threats mount, and if actors do not step back, the next move is to war. And throughout history, revolutions usually HAVE led to war.
Is that where things are headed in Ukraine? It needn’t be. President Obama and Chancellor Merkel could say something like the following to President Putin:
“Vladimir Vladimirovich, we know you couldn’t take the risk that the extreme nationalists who have taken power in Kiev would take control of Sevastopol — after all, where else can you put your Black Sea Fleet? And we know that Crimea has been part of Russia for almost all of its history; indeed Russia fought one horrific war for the peninsula in the 19th century and we realize you might be willing to do so again. It’s too bad about Yanukovich; that turned out to be a poor choice for you. But even you realize that he is not coming back. So let us work out some way for you to be secure in your control of Sevastopol. You could even have a referendum in Crimea; if you recognize the interim government in Kiev and consider the results of the new national elections in May as legitimate, we will consider a referendum in Crimea as legitimate. We know we supported self-determination in Kosovo, so we will accept self-determination in Crimea. That way you get to keep control of Crimea and the crucial base at Sevastopol; but you leave the government in Kiev alone and avoid any conflict with Ukrainian forces in Crimea. Everyone gets what they need and there is no need to escalate.”
Yet that is not what happened. The new nationalist government in Kiev, even if only briefly, demoted the Russian language and thus signaled its hostility to Russian influence. It also proclaimed Crimea an integral and permanent part of Ukraine. This was a direct challenge to Russia’s control of its crucial naval base that could not be tolerated. Russia acted to show who was really in charge of Crimea and Sevastopol, using armed force to secure its hold on the peninsula. With the fate of Crimea a fait accompli, waiting a referendum only to ratify it, the only question for the government in Kiev and the West is how to respond.
After aggressive statements by Western powers that they will not recognize a referendum in Crimea as legitimate, what choices does Russia have now? How can Russia ensure the referendum will be accepted? Only by making ever more clear how much force it will use to back its absorption of Crimea, or threatening to take even more of Ukraine if the “free choice” of Crimea is not respected. And how will the West respond when Russia flaunts its absorption of Crimea after a referendum that the West has already said it will not accept? With sanctions designed to make Russia “pay a price” for its actions?
What is the point of imposing sanctions for a fait accompli that Russia would not possibly surrender? At best, those sanctions will impose economic costs on both Russian and Western businesses. At worst, Russia may interpret those sanctions as unwarranted aggression (after all, Crimea has made a ‘free choice’, so what can sanctions be but Western aggression aiming to undo that choice?), and respond with aggressive measures of its own. It may even send troops into other regions of Ukraine. At that point, Ukrainian forces may fight to defend their country and ask for Western assistance. It is then a very short and straight path to war, possibly one involving the major powers.
We are already dangerously far down that road. We have gone from early talk of simply excluding Russia from the G-8 to current discussions of Iran-style sanctions designed to exclude Russia from the world economy. Such talk — much as President Obama deems it necessary to defend himself from pressure in Congress — is dangerous and irresponsible, without a clear plan for how Russia is expected to respond.
Russia is already taking great risks by promoting a referendum in Crimea. China — facing chronic rebellion in Tibet and Xinjiang — is horrified by the idea of provinces being able to choose their future without permission from the national government. China is therefore not likely to support Russia’s actions. Most of Ukraine will be further repelled by Russia’s moves, and like Georgia after Russia’s invasion in 2008, will likely draw closer to the West. Putin’s project of building a renewed imperial sphere of power incorporating Ukraine as a cornerstone is therefore likely already dead; which makes Russian control of Crimea all the more essential to Russia’s security. The border states of eastern Europe and the Baltics will be ever more wary of Russia and more fortified by NATO. In other words, Russia has already taken huge risks and isolated itself; but it had no choice as surrendering control of Crimea would have been the equivalent of scuttling its Black Sea Fleet.
So it is very questionable what more can be gained by trying to punish Russia for these actions by isolating it further. No doubt Russia can be made to feel some economic pain; but Putin and those closest to him will feel little pain and are more than willing to pay that price for actions they view as absolutely essential. The more pain the West tries to impose on Russia, the more Russia will want to find ways to push back — and it is dangerous to corner a wounded state, which is exactly what Russia will feel like after losing its ally Yanukovich to a nationalist uprising.
Far better to agree to what Russia views as its essential need — control of Crimea — in exchange for behavior that the West wants to see and that Russia can tolerate: Russian recognition of the new regime and national elections in Ukraine and restraint in acting in southern and eastern Ukraine.
What we have now is a situation where what Russia views as absolutely necessary and essential (control of Crimea) the West and the current Ukrainian regime view as absolutely unacceptable and intolerable. There is no way to negotiate on those premises without one side changing their view, and Russia will not do so. That leaves only further aggression as an option for the West, with no clear notion where that will lead.
A week ago, talk was of finding an “off-ramp” for Putin that would avoid war. Now the West needs an “off-ramp” for itself to avoid a spiral of threat and counter-threat, aggression and counter-aggression. Danger is mounting; it’s time to look for ways to de-escalate rather than escalate further.