Back in the U.S.S.R.?
It was only about a month ago that Russian President Vladimir Putin condemned EU Foreign Affairs Representative Catherine Ashton’s visit to Kiev as an unacceptable interference of the West in Ukraine’s internal affairs. A few days ago, proving his dedication to the upholding of his neighbor’s national sovereignty, Putin requested that Russian troops be swiftly deployed to Ukraine. On March 1st, the Russian Parliament approved Putin’s proposal and Russian troops swiftly took control of the Crimean peninsula.
According to the Russian President, Ukraine’s new pro-EU government overthrew a legally elected President and is therefore illegitimate. Putin therefore claims that the deployment of Russian troops is necessary for protecting Ukraine’s pro-Russian population and restoring democracy to the conflict-stricken country. If foreign intervention aims to protect the interests of Ukrainians who are opposed to their country’s alliance to the West—so Putin’s logic goes—then that interference is not a violation of Ukraine’s national sovereignty. So what is it then, exactly?
For Putin, deploying Russian troops into Ukraine to protect Russian interests is equivalent to making use of Russian troops on Russia’s own territory. In his eyes, Ukraine is Russia. The country is considered by many Russians to be the birthplace of the Russian state, and Kiev the fountainhead of the Russian Orthodox faith. For Putin, Ukraine’s turn to the West is a personal affront and cannot be tolerated.
To remedy the situation, therefore, Putin has deployed troops to Crimea, an autonomous republic within Ukraine. Forget the agreement that any movement of Russian troops outside their naval base must be authorized by the Ukrainian government. Russian soldiers profited from the overwhelmingly pro-Russian sentiment in Crimea to take control of the entire peninsula and ready themselves to enter the main territory of Ukraine at the first sign of instigation from the opposition.
This has made for an extremely tense situation in the region. The new Ukrainian Prime Minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, declared that Russia’s move is an unequivocal declaration of war, and Ukrainian men have been receiving calls to report to military training. But how would Ukraine’s forces fare against Russia’s? According to a BBC analysis, Russia’s armed forces far outnumber Ukraine’s. Additionally, Ukraine’s forces are much more dispersed and unprepared, and their equipment is more antiquated. A breakout of conflict is therefore incredibly undesirable. If Russian troops were to move into eastern Ukraine, a civil war would be likely to erupt between pro-EU and pro-Russia sympathizers, with the latter having Russia’s military backing and therefore the upper hand.
At this point, one might wonder why Ukraine does not make an appeal for help to the big players of the West who have hitherto expressed solidarity with the anti-Russian opposition. The fact is that, although the West rhetorically and economically supports Ukraine’s new government, it will not interfere militarily in the conflict. The U.S. and the U.K., Ukraine’s most vocal supporters, have chastised Putin’s intervention but have no desire to use armed force against him. Instead, they threaten that anything short of a withdrawal of Russian troops will cast Russia in an irreparably unfavorable light on the international stage. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.K. Secretary of State William Hague have both stated that Russia will face punitive economic measures if it does not respect Ukraine’s sovereignty, with the former claiming that Putin might even end up being excluded from the G8 altogether. Aside from this, the West also threatens visa bans for Russian officials and asset freezes for Russian businesses.
Is Putin shaking? Apparently not. And when considering the West’s response to the situation in Georgia in 2008 and Europe’s reliance on Russian oil, who can blame him for being cavalier? When Russia interfered in Georgia, the West’s sanctions did not last long. As for the oil question, many European countries depend on Russia for that resource, the most influential of which is Germany. Furthermore, worsening relations with Putin might have disastrous impacts on conflict regions of the Middle East which have been the traditional battleground for the U.S. and Russia. The West might threaten Russia with economic sanctions, but will the U.S. and Europe actually risk further antagonizing the trigger-happy Putin and take a bullet for Ukraine?
This issue not only calls into question the sovereignty of Ukraine and the function of democracy in that country, but also has significant implications for Ukraine’s neighbors, and the international stage at large. How will the conflict in Ukraine affect those countries on its borders? With the economically backward, often neglected Romania and with Viktor Orban’s ultra-nationalist, anti-EU Hungary on its borders, Ukraine could end up bringing further instability to its already precariously-positioned neighbors. Will this situation turn into a Cold War 2.0? Although Europe is geographically in the midst of the conflict, the U.S. has high stakes in whether or not Russia will gain more control over that part of the globe. But can the West, and especially the U.S., even reprimand Putin without risking being labeled with the stamp of hypocrisy? Putin’s intervention in Ukraine is a clear violation of that country’s national sovereignty and is therefore wrong. Condemning such an action is certainly justified. But how much weight do those condemnations hold when they are expressed by those who have similar stains on their records? It is perhaps for this reason that Putin is forging ahead with his plans, sticking his tongue out at the enraged West. Whether Russia will march into Ukraine unabated—or whether it will raise the white flag—is as of yet unclear. For now, the West holds its breath.