What is the endgame in Crimea?

What has happened so far?

As everyone likely knows, Russian troops seized control of the Crimean region of Ukraine in the final days of February.  It quickly became apparent that the uniformed troops without insignia were indeed Russians.  The occupation of Crimea came in response to a change in Ukraine's government from a pro-Russian to a pro-Western government.  You may recall that a (normally elected) pro-Russian government came under intense pressure late last year due to popular protests in the capitol, Kiev.  The violence of those protests led to condemnation of Ukraine's leaders by the Western nations and also ultimately led to the establishment of a new government that is seeking closer ties with Europe.

The Russians - claiming that ethnic Russians who populate Crimea will not be treated fairly by this new government - seized control of the Crimean Region of Ukraine to "protect Russians living there."  It is also worth noting that Crimea is home to a strategically important Russian naval base that was being leased from Ukraine by Russia (an arrangement that may have been endangered by the rise of the new Ukrainian government that wanted to distance itself from Russia).  Last Sunday the people of Crimea voted overwhelmingly to break away from Ukraine and join Russia.  Despite some concerns that the presence of Russian troops nullifies the legitimacy of such a vote, many commentators believe that actually the vast majority of people in Crimea do indeed wish to rejoin Russia.  The Russian Parliament is now moving on annexation of Crimea.

Where are we now?

The US and European Union have condemned the Russian move as an act of blatant invasion and have already put in place economic sanctions to punish Russia and Russian leaders.  Commentators have suggested that these sanctions are intended to push Russia into diplomatic talks and to serve as a deterrent to further aggression rather than persuade Russia to give Crimea back.
When I was a child we were living through the final decade of the Cold War; Russia was "the bad guy" on the world stage, and to find myself again in a US/Europe versus Russia moment actually has a certain familiarity to it.  Perhaps others feel the same way.

Yet I wonder if seeing this situation through a Cold War lens has perhaps led to a knee-jerk reaction among US and European leaders that misses the point of current events.  Or at least this is what I've been wondering since listening to former US Ambassador  Jack Matlock's contribution to the March 19th episode of "To The Point" on NPR (which you can listen to here, beginning at 19 minutes 32 seconds).  Ambassador Matlock's arguments really challenged the way I've understood this whole situation in Crimea.    

Ambassador Matlock points that that - as Putin claims - Crimea was indeed historically a part of Russia (that is why the people there are Russian) - it was given to Ukraine when both Russia and Ukraine were part of the Soviet Union, so that was a transfer of bureaucratic functions without any real "national boundary" significance since the people were still being ruled from Moscow in either case.  The feeling, he says, both in Russia and in Crimea has been that the Crimean region is indeed a part of Russia.

Matlock also points out that what Russia has done in Crimea is essentially the exact same thing that NATO did in Kosovo a few years back: forcing a larger country to give up claims to an ethnic minority region that wants to separate anyways - except Russia has done so without killing anyone (whereas we bombed Serbia for almost 3 months to pound them into submission and force them to relinquish Kosovo).  Is it not, then, hypocritical for us to condemn this move by Russia?  Ambassador Matlock also states that - technically - Putin and Crimea have acted within the letter of the law (a point that US Secretary of State John Kerry obviously disputes) in terms of how regions break away from larger countries and become independent - and once independent their decision to join Russia is their own business, not ours.

The most important question he raises is "what is the compelling US interest here?"  Ambassador Matlock says he does not see a "Western stake" in this conflict, suggesting that we are inserting ourselves into someone else's family dispute.  Given the history, it may actually be true (as Putin claims) that Russia is simply reclaiming what both Russians and Crimeans see as Russian territory that was cut off by an accident of history.  If that is the case then there is little reason to think that Russia will try to conquer all of Ukraine or other countries/regions that are not ethnically Russian.  Further, if the people of Crimea do wish to join Russia, and have expressed that wish through a democratic vote - does the US and EU (champions of democracy that we are) really want to over-rule (from far-off Washington) the voice of the Crimean people there on the ground?  Who does that ultimately help?

Yesterday (March 20) the US and EU increased the intensity of economic sanctions against Russia.  My question is: "To what end?"  Do we really think that Russia will give Crimea back to Ukraine?  Even if they did so, do we really think that the Crimean people - having achieved their goal of reunion with Russia - would then willingly go back to Ukrainian control?  Would we not simply be setting the stage for an on-going guerrilla war as the Russian population of Crimea refused to submit to the authority of the government in Kiev?  Would not such a protracted conflict simply further de-stabilize the country and especially the pro-Western government in Kiev? 

If, on the other hand, we do not expect Russia to give Crimea back (I certainly do not expect that) in response to sanctions, then how long are we expected to keep these sanctions in place?  Forever?  What is the endgame here?  Considering that these sanctions may have negative impacts on economies far beyond Russia, how can the US possibly come out "ahead" from having gotten involved here?

It seems that our best move going forward is to concede Crimea to Russia and do what we can to strengthen the rest of Ukraine economically, militarily, and politically so that it can stand stable on its own two feet without threat of further aggression and chart its own (presumably pro-Western) course into the future.

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Blogger Bill said...

Good summary. It seems to me that the U.S. has no dog in this fight. It also seems clear that the vast majority of the Crimeans want to be part of Russia, not Ukraine. That has to factor large into what is fair here. But the reason there are so many Russians in Crimea is because Stalin deported all the native Tartars and replaced them with Russians. So, as with Palestine, it's not as simple as it seems.

8:07 PM, March 28, 2014  

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