I try not to be too predictable with my column topics, but some weeks I don’t have much of a choice. This is one of those weeks. If I don’t write about Ukraine I suspect I might be refused my degree at commencement for not being a real IR major.
For those who are not following the situation, a power struggle between pro-EU and pro-Russian Ukrainians has caused tensions in the Crimea, a semi-autonomous region of Ukraine populated mostly by ethnic Russians and home to a Russian naval fleet.
The Russian parliament has authorized military action to protect its interests in the area, although blanket authorization to intervene anywhere in Ukraine was also granted. As many regions in the east are full of ethnic Russians as well, the mandate can be read as an authorization to dismantle Ukraine if Vladimir Putin feels so inclined.
The crisis in Ukraine is so startling because states simply do not do this sort of thing anymore. The idea of a country invading another to seize territory feels archaic, out of place in a world in which all the attention goes to terrorist groups, smartphone-wielding protestors and other non-traditional foreign policy actors.
Whatever your feelings on American global hegemony, it is hard to question that the territorial integrity of states has been a defining feature of the American-led world order. New countries form frequently and civil wars are depressingly common, but there are very few examples of countries trying to invade and hold territory with conventional armies anymore. Sadaam Hussein’s disastrous attempt to annex Kuwait in 1991 made it very clear that such things are not acceptable to the international community.
That is why the world cannot tolerate a Russian carve-up of Ukraine. To do so would risk signaling that the old way of international relations is back in business. Military action by NATO is clearly not a real option, but an unambiguous statement sent to the Kremlin that their ill-gotten gains will not be recognized is in order.
Refusal to recognize any ill-gotten Russian gains or puppet states would be a good place to start. Travel bans, asset freezes and sanctions could also have a role to play. Essentially, the United States and its allies must clearly signal that Russia can be a full member of the international community or it can invade Ukraine. It cannot do both.
That is not to say compromise is not possible. The Crimea could become one of the various half-states that dot Russia’s borders, such as Transnistria or Abkhazia, which are essentially protectorates of Moscow that the world chooses to tacitly accept. Russia could keep its sphere of influence, Ukraine could retain theoretical control of the area and everyone gets to avoid bloodshed.
It is not ideal, but foreign policy is about choosing the least bad option far more than it is about choosing the optimal one. Politics, as the cliché goes, is the art of the possible. It is possible to keep the situation in Ukraine from boiling over. It remains to be seen if that is what will actually happen.