Yesterday I was able to listen to the Prime Minister of Ukraine, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, at the Atlantic Council, right after he met with President Obama at the White House.
Yatsenyuk projected calm and confidence — quite a feat for someone with tens of thousands of Russian troops massing on his eastern border!
Most of what Yatsenyuk said was unexceptional: he expressed faith that the U.S. and Europe would help to enforce the 1994 Budapest agreement guaranteeing the sovereign territory of the Ukraine [although President Putin of Russia claims that the government that signed that agreement no longer exists so it is no longer valid]. He also expressed gratitude for the financial help that is now forthcoming from the West. And he continued to say that Ukraine does not want, and could not fight, a war against Russia, and so expects a peaceful resolution of all outstanding issues. He also affirmed the unity and resolve of the Ukraine, and his desire for good relations and partnerships with both Russia and Europe.
But what the Prime Minister said that worried me was the mantra that Ukraine’s leaders seem unable to leave behind: “Crimea is, has always been, and always will be an integral part of the Ukraine.”
Really? Historically, Russia would be more correct to say that Crimea has for much longer been an integral part of the Russian empire (and always will be?). But more importantly, it seems that without some plan to force Russia to relinquish Crimea and recognize an autonomy agreement, these are empty words.
What happens next? After the referendum, it is now clear that Europe and the US will impose sanctions on Russia, as even Germany — Russia’s closest friend in Europe for many years — has now declared that Russia’s actions, in occupying Crimea with troops and promoting a hasty referendum during that occupation, auger a dangerous return to 19th century politics and must be given a firm response.
There seem to be at least two ways to view, from the point of the West, what has happened in Crimea. One way is to see this as a fait accompli, something Russia felt it had to do to show some resolve and retain its critical naval base at Sevastopol, and which it will never undo. From this perspective, the goal now is to figure how to de-escalate tensions and guarantee the security and independence of the rest of Ukraine. From that perspective, there is no point in insisting that Russia “give back” Crimea. Rather, there should be a mix of carrots and sticks to induce Russia to recognize the new government in Kiev, negotiate a legal fiction to smooth the change in Crimea’s status, and ensure that Ukraine can choose its own path even if that moves it closer to Europe. In this view, Russia has already badly hurt itself, as by annexing Crimea it has permanently chased Ukraine out of its sphere of influence, created anxiety in other CIS countries, and created downright shock and enmity in the EU and China. Even without sanctions, this will damage investment in Russia and hurt its economy and foreign relationships. There is no need to do more to sanction or “punish” Putin; simply sit back and let him reap the costs of having shot himself in the foot by being so openly aggressive toward a neighbor who wishes him only good will.
The second school of thought — and the one that seems to dominate among specialists, diplomats, and heads of Western states — is that Russia has “gone too far.” That by occupying Crimea, it has shown disregard for international conventions it has signed and for modern standards of civilized international behavior. Instead, these are the actions of a “rogue state” and therefore Russia must be punished. Initially, sanctions should target Russia’s leaders to induce them to pull back and negotiate jointly with the government in Kiev over the future of the Crimea, with any referendum at least being delayed until after Kiev has national elections and can set up a proper referendum with international observers and civilian control in place of today’s military occupation. Then, if Russia does not agree to that, sanctions must be stepped up higher, even to Iran-style complete isolation from the international economic and banking systems, if Russia does not see the error of its ways and change course. In this view, escalation of the conflict through sanctions is necessary and the only reasonable course. This view is buttressed by belief that sanctions will be effective, because Russia’s businesses and banks are so dependent on their activities in the West that sanctions will force them to demand that Putin change his actions. Moreover, imposing economic pain on Russia will eventually force Putin to yield because in the long run, his legitimacy depends on maintaining a stable or growing standard of living for Russians.
All of this assumes that Putin can be induced to trust the regime in Kiev and an autonomous Crimea to honor his military basing agreements as did prior Ukrainian regimes, and that “stepping back” from Crimea will not be more humiliating and politically costly to Putin than defying and coping with sanctions.
I would have to say that I doubt these assumptions can be sustained. So far, Putin has paid no price for his detachment of South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia, and his aggressive actions on Crimea have so far propelled him to the highest popularity ratings of his presidency. In that respect, being aggressive on Crimea has done more for Putin than all the money poured into the Sochi Olympics, which mainly yielded disgust at the cost and corruption involved. The record of sanctions in getting authoritarian regimes to change their ways has been dismal: Sanctions against Iraq led only to corrupt dealings on the back of oil-for-food swaps and no real change in regime behavior. Sanctions against Iran that have crippled its economy have led to virtually no change in that regime’s behavior either, although after some years it has begun to enter negotiations on its nuclear program it shows no sign of backing off on its support for terror groups or anti-Western dictators.
Moreover, Putin views the regime in Kiev as an illegitimate extremist movement that forced out an elected leader. As we often hear, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. The West may hail men like Yatsenyuk as courageous proponents of democracy in a long-stifled country; but Putin views the people who put Yatsenyuk in power, those who fought the police in the Maidan and the streets of the capital, as terrorists.
We will soon find out what the imposition of sanctions will do to Russia, for the referendum in Crimea will go ahead. What if Western sanctions do indeed start to bite, and Putin feels something must be done to get those sanctions lifted? Will Putin simply walk away from Crimea? Or will he threaten to go even further, moving his military into still other parts of Ukraine if the West does not lift its sanctions?
Russia has promised to match the imposition of Western sanctions with a response of its own. Let us pray that response does not involve the over 200,000 troops now engaged in military exercises next door to Ukraine’s borders. Will Europe be putting persuasive pressure on a regime capable of changing course and backing down? Or will Europe be poking a wounded but still powerful and angry bear?