Preliminary Thoughts on the Ukraine Situation
Russian invasion or legitimate secessionist movement? And does it matter?
Russia’s parliament has legimated the reality, formally authorizing the use of troops in Ukraine. What, if anything, the United States and its European allies can or should do about it is unclear.
President Obama had previously announced that there would be “costs.”
President Barack Obama is warning Russia “there will be costs” for any military maneuvers it launches in Ukraine, a move U.S. and Ukrainian officials say they believe to be already underway.
Officials say Obama may retaliate by canceling a trip to Russia this summer for an international summit and could also cut off trade discussions with Moscow. But it’s unclear whether those moves will have any impact on Russia’s calculus in Ukraine, which is at the center of what many see as a tug of war between East and West.
“Any violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity would be deeply destabilizing,” Obama declared Friday in a statement from the White House. Such action by Russia would represent a “profound interference” in matters that must be decided by the Ukrainian people, he said.
Separately, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said that while he would not address specific U.S. options, “this could be a very dangerous situation if this continues in a provocative way.” Asked about options in a CBS News interview, he said that “we’re trying to deal with a diplomatic focus, that’s the appropriate, responsible approach.”
As Obama prepared to speak late Friday, a spokesman for the Ukrainian border service said eight Russian transport planes had landed with unknown cargo in Ukraine’s Crimea region. Serhiy Astakhov told The Associated Press that the Il-76 planes arrived unexpectedly and were given permission to land, one after the other, at Gvardeiskoye air base.
U.S. officials said they also believed Russian personnel had entered Crimea. The State Department urged U.S. citizens to defer nonessential travel plans in Ukraine because of “the potential for instability.”
Old hands will be reminded of President Carter’s boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics in response to the invasion of Afghanistan. The more contemporary example of Obama’s “red line” against the use of chemical weapons in Syria also comes to mind. But it’s not as though better options are readily available. Nor, frankly, is it completely obvious that the majority-Russian border provinces ought remain part of a politically divided Ukraine.
Regardless, the Duma has given Putin domestic cover.
Russian President Vladimir Putin asked parliament Saturday for permission to use the country’s military in Ukraine, moving to formalize troop deployments that Ukrainian officials have described as an ongoing invasion of the strategic region of Crimea.
Putin’s motion loosely refers to the “territory of Ukraine” rather than specifically to Crimea, raising the possibility that Moscow could use military force in other Russian-speaking provinces in eastern and southern Ukraine where many oppose the new authorities in Kiev. Pro-Russian protests were reported in the eastern cities of Kharkiv, Donetsk and Odessa.
Ukrainian officials and some Western diplomats said that a Russian military intervention is already well underway after heavily armed gunmen in unmarked military uniforms seized control of local government buildings, airports and other strategic facilities in Crimea in recent days.
Ignoring President Barack Obama’s warning Friday that “there will be costs” if Russia intervenes militarily, Putin said the “extraordinary situation in Ukraine” was putting at risk the lives of Russian citizens and military personnel stationed at a naval base that Moscow has maintained in the Black Sea peninsula since the Soviet collapse.
“I’m submitting a request for using the armed forces of the Russian Federation on the territory of Ukraine pending the normalization of the socio-political situation in that country,” Putin said in a statement released by the Kremlin.
Putin sent the request to the Russian legislature’s upper house, which was expected to rubber-stamp it in a vote Saturday.
In Crimea, the pro-Russian prime minister who took office after gunmen seized the regional Parliament claimed control of the military and police there and asked Putin for help in keeping peace, sharpening the discord between the two neighboring Slavic countries.
Ukraine’s acting president Oleksandr Turchynov said the election of the election of Sergei Aksyonov as prime minister of Crimea was invalid.
It was the latest escalation following the ouster of Ukraine’s pro-Russian president last week by a protest movement aimed at turning Ukraine toward the European Union and away from Russia.
Ukraine has accused Russia of a “military invasion and occupation” — a claim that brought an alarming new dimension to the crisis, and raised fears that Moscow is moving to intervene on the strategic peninsula where Russia’s Black Sea fleet is based.
Ukraine’s population is divided in loyalties between Russia and Europe, with much of western Ukraine advocating closer ties with the European Union while eastern and southern regions look to Russia for support. Crimea, a semi-autonomous region of Ukraine, is mainly Russian-speaking.
How one views this largely depends on the degree to which this is a Russian invasion and the degree to which this is Russia backstopping a legitimate secessionist movement. It’s clearly some of both but I lack both the regional expertise and on-the-ground intelligence to know what the proportions are.
There was a referendum set for late spring that has now been moved up to the end of this month. I’d have much preferred to have that take place without Russian troops on the ground. But we’re here now.
Some smart hands are calling for taking this to the UN Security Council to force Russia to cast an embarrassing veto. I don’t have a strong opinion on that, even though I think Russia’s national interests here are going to outweigh such considerations. Further, even if Russia didn’t have veto power, I’m not at all persuaded that a united Ukraine—much less one that’s being held together despite the wishes of a geographically compact and easily separable minority nationality—is something worth American blood and treasure.
Additionally, this highlights my longstanding opposition to further NATO expansion. The closer we get to Russia’s borders, as with Georgia and Ukraine, the more likely confrontation exists. And I’m not prepared to consider the use of military force against either of those countries an attack on the United States.
UPDATE: I think Daniel Serwer gets it exactly right here:
It looks as if Russia has already taken a big slice of what it wants-effective control of the main governance and security centers in Crimea. Similar moves in Russian-speaking portions of Moldova and Georgia have led to “frozen” conflicts in which Moscow occupies portions of those countries, backing up Russian-speaking local governments, despite many international community (not to mention Moldovan and Georgian) protests.
I’ll be happy to be proved wrong, but it is likely Moscow has already succeeded in putting Crimea back within its control, without firing a shot. Moscow is showing little interest in the rest of Ukraine, which is an economic and financial mess it will be glad to see picked up by Europe, the US and the International Monetary Fund. You’ve got to admire the statecraft, even if you object to the outcome.
The downward spiral in US/Russian relations won’t, as some fear, generate a new Cold War, because the ideological clash is not dominant and Russia no longer poses the global threat to America’s interests that the Soviet Union once did. But we could certainly see some some future tit-for-tat. The Washington Post is calling for heavy diplomatic and economic sanctions. It is not clear what those might be. Military action against the Russians in Crimea would be foolhardy.
Whatever he does, President Obama has to worry about Russian retaliation. That could take the form of hindering US withdrawal from Afghanistan through the northern distribution network, which Russia controls, or hampering P5+1 (US, UK, France, Russia, China and Germany) coordination of the nuclear talks with Iran. Moscow wouldn’t mind keeping the US in Afghanistan a while longer, as it fears the consequences of withdrawal. It is less likely to mess with the nuclear talks, as they are aimed at preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons, which Moscow definitely doesn’t want to see happen.
It’s all over but the shouting, which may go on for a long time.
Like Serwer, I don’t much like any of this. But I think this encapsulates the reality nicely.
Someone noted that Putin made a similar move regarding the country of Georgia, and President Bush did nothing.
@LAgraves: Georgia was different in many ways. On the one hand, Bush and others had made a big show of trying to get Georgia into NATO, so much so that NATO officially declared Georgia “would” be a member just months before the invasion. On the other hand, the two regions were much more autonomous than the Crimea and there was an actual armed border dispute.
Well said, a problem though, Russia’s gas pipeline goes thu the Ukraine. Imagine protecting it will the top priority for now.
Russia won’t relinquish either Odessa or Sevastopol. Russia won’t allow a former republic to become openly hostile and, please note, a signficant number of the protestors are, as the Russians have been complaining, far right wing Ukrainian nationalists. And it’s not just that the pipeline goes Ukraine. It’s how the pipeline goes through Ukraine.
It’s pretty clear that Russia is not willing to lose the Crimea, and the Black Sea. It’s also pretty clear that we are not willing to go to war over this. So we’ve got a selection of crappy options to pursue.
Also, that people — well, Republican Ideologues — will be crawling out of the woodwork to say that Obama is weak, this wouldn’t have happened with a strong president like Ronald Reagan, etc, and that there will be a big domestic push that will end up limiting the set of crappy options. Rest assured, whatever Obama says or does will be opposed by the Republican establishment and base. There will be demands that something be done, even if the best course is to do nothing.
Right now, it looks like Russia has grabbed control of the Crimea without firing a shot. This is better than them taking it by firing shots.
I’m inclined to support a partition of the Ukraine, giving the Russian-nationality provinces back to Russia (where they had been historically), and pushing the Russians very hard to set up a resettlement fund for the minorities who are on the wrong side of the border and wish to move. I suspect that there would be an ethnic cleansing campaign either way — maybe try it with carrots rather than sticks.
We have no realistic ability to do a single damn thing about this. So we make some diplomatic noise, we huff and puff a bit as we are required to do given our status as the status quo superpower. Then we cancel some cultural exchanges, issue some strongly-worded statements, and Putin does whatever he wants.
I think for the Russians the Black Sea is in effect a southern border. Russians are touchy about border defense. If you wonder why, see: June, 1941. So any solution involves Russia with a big naval base in the Crimea. Beyond that it’s just a matter of guessing how Putin wants to play this. Because he’s in charge and the EU and US are not.
Anyone who suggests this is about American weakness needs to explain how any more active scenario would play out, or shut up.
How would the Budapest Memorandum of 1994 come into play here? It’s my understanding that it’s binding, but non-enforceable.
Jeez, you guys seem to justify anything a tinpot dictator wants. Bet you’d even agree that it was OK for Hitler to take Austria.
Actually the Austrian people were generally fine with Anschluss. The better example might be Czechoslovakia. However that example would make the point that sometimes there is not a damned thing you can do. You want the US to do something? Fine. Explain the what and the how as well as the why.
One, Russia always had a vested interest in Crimea since it has its Black Sea forces there. If it sees a threat to them from Ukrainian interests, it will defend them. Just as we would. That scenario has always been out there.
Two, as we found out in the aftermath of the Cold War, Russia is always weaker than it seems. But clever in leveraging what power it has. There is not a lot to back up Putin. We just have to find the right lever back.
Third, thinking of military power first is a lack of imagination and is our weakness as we’ve demonstrated over and over again. I don’t know anything for a fact but I suspect our non-hard military forces (think intel and cyber warfare) are already gearing up.
I don’t see the lever you’re talking about, or the reason we should use it. I don’t think we are planning anything but a tough statement at the UN. Nor should we be.
Then there’s the matter of the Budapest Memo
In return for giving up their nuclear weapons, Ukraine signed a treaty with the US, UK, Ukraine and Russia designed to protect the Ukraine from Russian invasion. It binds the US and UK to action if the borders are compromised, and Kyiv has invoked it.
A lot of water under the bridge since 1994. I’m sure WOPR is chewing on the scenario as we speak.
It will be a sad day if Russian tanks move in and occupy the Ukraine. I lived through too many Russian shenanigans and takeovers. They have always tried to take over everything. It did not matter who the president was or the party.
I think I remember that Truman or Eisenhower said that there was no way that the US could have got troops and tanks into Hungary and driven the Russians out. Probably the same for Czechoslovakia. And of course we remember the Berlin Wall of Shame and the takeover of East Germany. We should have pushed the Russians back to where they belonged after the German surrender in ’45.
This is hardly a particularly Russian attribute. Every country in Europe, not just Russia, has been invaded many multiple times (often by Russia!) and is sensitive about border defense.
I think we need to take advantage of this situation in typical neo con fashion and invade Iran.
Hey it makes as much sense as us invading Iraq.
Anyway, the Crimea never was traditionally part of Ukraine. It was part of Russia till Kruschev gave it to Ukraine in the 1950s. If Russia takes it back that’s not much of a big deal IMO. Sucks for the Crimean Tartars, but then they can line behind the Kurds, the native Americans and the Palestinians in the list of peoples screwed by history.
Idea for punishment: kick Russia out of the WTO. They spent almost 20 years trying to get in and only succeeded a bit more than a year ago.
James, this is a perfect example of me relying on you to help me understand a murky issue. What I’m getting from you here is more helpful than anything I can find anywhere else, so thank you for this post. I’m glad to have a chance to say this because over the years there have been other topics where I have criticized you harshly.
Part of what I appreciate is you showing me excellent material that I would not find on my own, like the Serwer article.
That you attract smart commenters who know a lot more about this subject than I do is also a bonus.
This site has been pretty up to date and very informative. There is a definite anti-russian slant but what can you do. I think I found it through a j.m.berger of infowire retweet.http://www.interpretermag.com/ukraine-liveblog-day-12-putin-prepares-an-invasion/
Well, we are approaching the centennial of the first world war, and is there a better way to celebrate than starting a new one?
With what? Or perhaps you think we should have liberated those countries by nuking them?
How would we have done that? Be specific.
@ Stormy Dragon
That’s not a bad idea.
I stole this from the BBC:
The reality of Ukraine’s difficulties comes down to one simple truth.
It is fast becoming an economic basket-case due to the mismanagement and pilfering of the previous leadership in Kiev.
It needs massive external economic support. This cannot come from Russia alone. It would prove a millstone around the Russian economy’s neck.
Also, someone snarked that all we should do is occasionally point out that Putin is only 5feet/5inches tall, which apparently he is VERY sensitive about!
The paleo-cons are getting the policies that they want but not for the reasons that they wanted it. As the demographics of the U.S. changes, the number of voters interested in foreign policy will continue to decline and when the federal government has run up a debt of over $17 trillion, every dollar spent in foreign adventures is a dollar that it not being spent on a domestic program.
It is humorous that the Obama Administration is implementing the foreign policies pushed by Pat Buchanan.
@James in Silverdale, WA:
The memorandum isn’t a defense pact. It’s a toothless document that Russia is currently violating and it then requires the other signatories to not recognize Russia’s actions as legal and to “consult”. Also if Russia threatens the Ukraine with nukes the other signatories are required to take it up with the UNSC.
So very stupid as always. American voters have never cared about foreign policy. It has nothing whatever to do with demographics. But thanks for lowering the level.
As politics in the U.S. becomes a fight among different economic, ethnic, and racial groups for entitlements, who gets them, and who pays for them, there will be little money left over for any major initiatives in foreign policy. The far left in the Democratic Party sound like the paleocons in their desire to withdraw from the world and concentrate on domestic policy.
The big difference now is that the Democrats will be electing more politicians in the future who have zero interest in foreign policy and are totally focused on domestic policy.
Politics in the US is a rigged game where the 1% always wins, and people like you are duped into thinking that the crumbs everyone else gets are the problem.
God forbid that we should spend money on our own country/people when we could be killing people abroad or pouring money into bottomless pits like the joint strike fighter.
Yes the situation in Ukraine really is all about your racist obsessions. Get help you freak. Or at least go somewhere with an ambient IQ more in line with yours.
So your position is that more people from foreign nations move to the United States, the less the US will care about foreign nations? Well that and white Christians good, other people bad.
While I see your point, let me play devil’s advocate for a second: would Russia be doing this is Ukraine were a NATO member? The whole point of alliances is to make aggressive wars like this more costly and thus prevent them (although this didn’t work out terribly well in the 1910’s).
i think the issue is moot because I don’t see Putin allowing Ukraine to join NATO.
We should bear in mind our reaction to the presence in the Caribbean of a small, powerless nation allied to our enemies. We haven’t exactly been calm and rational in dealing with Cuba. Ukraine is a whole lot more important to Russia than Cuba is to us. I’m not excusing Putin’s actions, just saying.
@Hal_10000: The argument has been floating around in some NATO circles and is not without merit. It certainly changes the nature of Russia’s calculations. But here’s the thing: What if Putin decides Crimea is important enough to take that risk? Are we willing to go to war over that? Doing so could well scuttle NATO, as it would make American citizens—and further the trend among European citizens—question what they hell we’re doing. And, certainly, not responding to an attack on a NATO ally would be the death knell.
Further, I think @michael reynolds has it right. I don’t like Putin at all but Russia has real interests in its near abroad even beyond fantasies of reconstituting the empire. Bringing Georgia and Ukraine into an alliance conceived as anti-Russia is provocative. The only way I can see that making sense is if we bring Russia in at the time time. With an appropriate Membership Action Plan, one that forces real reforms—as we’ve demanded from many other East and Central European members before accession—i could get on board with that plan.
That is actually what is happening. Do you really think that the Latinos, the Asians, the Indians who have migrated to the U.S. for economic reasons care at all about Russia, the Ukraine, or any other part of the world that is not their country of origin?
It is very easy for the Obama Administration to become more isolationist because of the built in support for isolationism from the CHC, CHC, and CPC.
@superdestroyer: That just doesn’t make any sense. Wouldn’t people who had actually lived in Asia and India (which, incidentally, is in Asia) and still have relatives in those places care more about goings on in Russia than the average American, who was born in North America and never traveled outside the continent?
It was a big mistake to give Russia control of a lot of Europe at the end of WWII. Once the Germans surrendered it should have been required that they get their armies and equipment back home where they belonged. After the war the Russians then thought they owned Europe and it was one country after another. Millions of people suffered as a result. And it continues on.
One option in the Ukraine would be a type of Berlin airlift. The US would send in relief supplies as needed, including arms and ammunition. Another would be to stop all trade and no more assistance on anything: cut out any aid to them.
An interesting and thoughtful article states that Putin wants to rebuild the old Soviet empire. See “Putins troubling gambit in Ukraine” (C. Krauthammer)
Interesting that a Russian naval ship has now been spotted roaming around Florida and Cuba.
“You can go home pig or pork. Make your choice !” (Dillon, “Gunsmoke”)
It wasn’t a choice. If we’d attacked the Russians, they’d have kicked our asses.
Don’t forget our dropped opportunity to place the Chinese mainland under the U.S. umbrella when Truman sacked MacArthur!
An airlift? For Ukraine? Perhaps you are unaware of the immense logistical and cost issues when we airlifted one half of one city.
And, sorry, still astonished that the “Roosevelt sold us out at Yalta” nonsense has somehow survived our Vietnam and Iraq adventures. We. Aren’t. An. Empire.
Whomever has a military presence in an area has de facto control of that area, and very few countries voluntarily withdraw from an area they won through battle. The only way the Soviets were going to relinquish control was through force, and the US was not going to war over Eastern Europe.
Since Peter the Great, Ukraine territory has been mostly under Russian control, but there have been Cossack uprisings under weaker Czars. If the Russian Empire is reestablished, Ukraine territory will be part of it.
What can be done is limited by the will of the American people. I suspect that even the hawks lack the will to do what is necessary. Unless one is an unrepentant warmonger, there is nothing substantive the US can do. I am an unrepentant warmonger, and I mostly support President Obama’s stay away approach. I am tired of half-assed wars.
@Tyrell: ” We should have pushed the Russians back to where they belonged after the German surrender in ’45.”
Yes, Tyrrell, after four bloody years of war against two empires, we should have immediately launched into a new war against the ally that had just helped us win. Because that’s what the American people wanted then more than anything — to send hundreds of thousands more men to their deaths, only this time in a war of choice against an ally.
@Stonetools: “I think we need to take advantage of this situation in typical neo con fashion and invade Iran.”
Clearly you have no understanding of neocon thinking. Neocons won’t want to invade Iran now for the same reason they didn’t in 2003 — it’s hard. Typical neocon thinking demands we invade Iraq again.
I am a low information American who does not know what to think largely due to the failure of my information sources to provide analysis and follow. In 2008, the situation in Georgia, which I still can’t find on a map, was so dire that a candidate for president interrupted his campaign. Then what happened, and how did it affect America? Two-three years ago, I was supposed to be worried about the Arab Spring. How did that turn out for America? Recently, I’m opposing Hezbollah in Syria by supporting the Al Qaida clone in Syria; how can that possibly turn out? I see people talking about military options, but I vaguely remember that fighting in Iraq did not turn out to be a simple home before Christmas invasion, and even I know that the Russians are a gazillion times tougher. In the meantime, there is unrest in Venezuela which is much closer and more important than caviar producing areas, and there is very little information in the American media.
I would like to have an opinion about Ukraine, but almost all that I get are kneejerk reactions from people who have never been in Russia/Ukraine, can’t speak either language, are not students of the region’s history. Can someone tell me why my country is on bad terms with Russia? What do we gain from this militancy?
Most opinions seem to come from people who should shut their mouths and listen; I will take my own advise and shut up till there is more information from people who actually know something and think.
You really need to learn some history. Because to anyone who knows anything about WW2 you just sound ridiculous. Go read. Rick Atkinson’s trilogy is great. And if you want to understand the human cost of that awful disaster of a war read Max Hasting’s Inferno. Both easy reads.
Couple of thoughts: First that the Russian natural gas pipeline through Ukraine is important to everyone involved. The Ukrainians probably collect some rent and buy some cheap fuel. And eastern-and-central Europeans get their home heating through it. This is an example of the relative importance of infrastructure vis-a-vis diplomatic agreements (such as the Budapest Memorandum noted above).
Second that the Russian justification for their actions as ‘protecting’ the Russian-speakers of Crimea/Ukraine is no doubt causing some sleepless nights in (for example) Latvia where over 500,000 Russian speaking citizens are roughly 1/4th the total population (and are only poorly integrated IIRC).
Third, that Russian boys of my generation grew up playing Turks & Russians like I grew up playing Cowboys & Indians, and that the Crimea/Black Sea is the effective border between the Turkic Asia Minor and the Caucasus. So a big thumbs-up to the remark of Mr Reynolds (“…Russians are touchy about border defense…”).
Fourth, as mentioned above the connection between the anti-Yanukovych militants and neofascists is not exactly imaginary (something we should learn a good bit more about before finding allies in this mess).
The Russians did not help us beat Germany. The hard fact is that Russia had already broken Germany before we got in the game.
We moved into North Africa (where the Brits had already stalemated the Germans) in November 1942. That was an irrelevant sideshow. We did Sicily in in summer 1943 at which exact point the Germans were engaged at Kursk in the greatest tank battle in history. We were doing small, irrelevant things around the fringes while Russia was winning the war.
Further, with the notable exception of American paratroop and ranger elements, our soldiers in Europe fought poorly. Our men were far, far less motivated than the Russians. Our allies the Brits were in even worse shape – and this was despite the fact that we were down to fighting the dregs of the Wehrmacht which, evil as it was, was one hell of a fighting force. Man for man far better than our guys.
The idea that we should have taken on the USSR is bloody insanity. 1) By 1945 there was no German army left to turn against the Soviets. 2) We were already ramping down war production. 3) American interest in more war was nil. We were already suffering large numbers of desertions. 4) The Soviets had just carried out a thousand mile long advance against the Germans and would have been extraordinarily tough on the defensive where their numbers would have given them a big edge. 5) We fought in Europe with complete air superiority, the Luftwaffe was shattered. But the Russian air forces were not.
A stupid idea that originated with Hitler and was picked up by Patton and is now regurgitated by people who don’t have any understanding of the situation.
@michael reynolds: If I may be so bold: 6) We were still deeply committed to the war in the Pacific and it was not clear to Roosevelt at Yalta that the atomic bomb would become operational.
No offense, but the fact that you have called a Charles Krauthammer article “interesting and thoughtful” really suggests that the entire “geo-political commentary” thing might not be the best hobby for you.
Either that or you’ve been brilliantly trolling us this entire time.
I’ll go you another one. 7) Stalin already knew about the Manhattan project and had a lot of the technological info and might well have had his own bomb within a year or two given the rather impressive ability of the Russians to marshall industrial production. As it is he had the bomb by 1949.
@michael reynolds: As always, you are correct and I tip my hat.
@michael reynolds: They also had the greatest spy ring in the world. Hence Stalin knew about the bomb before even Truman found out.
slate.com has an interesting take on the Crimean situation.
@Tyrell: The Russians would of decimated the allies if the USA had tried to push the Russians back..
@anjin-san: Well, THAT was certainly interesting. Thank you for the link.
This calls for a variation of Godwin’s Law:
As a thread grows longer, the odds of Superdestroyer forcing the topic back to immigration approaches 1.
I mean, seriously, this was a masterful bit of trolling, somehow connecting a border war in Crimea to Latinos in the US.
You only missed a perfect 10, by not connecting it to Kevin Bacon.
Lost me at the suggestion Putin is thinking of installing Yanukovych in the Crimea. Putin is only using Yanukocych as a paper-thin legal excuse for the moment. He never liked the man and now that he has been exposed as Leona Helmsley on crack there will be no installing him anywhere, not by anyone in any place. I find it remarkable that none of the pundits mention what it would be like for Russians to lose that base. It’s as if this isn’t something we would ever do.
Putin will probably sit tight until everybody process their angst with a good, righteous pout, and then announce that he thinks the people of the Crimea deserve their God given and UN sanctioned right of self determination.