I try not to repeat column topics too often. There are far too many interesting things going on in the world to restrict yourself to just a few, but frequent readers of this column will probably realize I have something of a weakness for writing about Russian foreign policy. Vladimir Putin has a habit of being newsworthy in a way that it is difficult for me to resist.
So it is that I’m writing yet again about Ukraine, where things have only gotten worse in recent weeks. Pro-Russian separatists have functionally removed several provinces from the government’s authority, the fighting has spread as far west as Odessa and one government minister in Kiev has openly declared that his county is in a state of civil war.
To heighten the drama of all of this, 40,000 Russian troops linger ominously on their side of the border, their intentions still uncertain.
It is important to cut through all that is going on and realize that there are two fundamental questions that we in the United States need to ask: Is Russia going to invade Ukraine? And regardless of the answer to the first question, what should the West being doing?
In regards to the first, I think the answer is actually no. An overt invasion is counter to Russia’s interests and would likely trigger devastating sanctions. The West has put up with a great deal so far but there will eventually come a point at which they will grow tired of the Kremlin’s antics and inflict real economic damage. An outright invasion of Ukraine would probably be the tripwire.
Are a few decaying industrial regions worth that risk for Putin? Probably not.
That does not mean, however, that Russian troops will not at some point enter the region. If they do, it will be in some form acceptable to the West, most likely as “peacekeeping” forces. It’s worth remembering that Russia never “invaded” Crimea. The Russians simply stirred up enough trouble that when the troops did finally march in it was too late. It may be functionally the same, but the way in which it apes the West’s human rights rhetoric makes an effective response more difficult.
What Russia wants is to maintain a certain level of influence in Ukraine’s east and create a buffer against NATO. It can achieve those goals without actually annexing the eastern provinces. An independent Donetsk People’s Republic or even a united Ukraine with weak central authority would work just as well.
The second question is probably even more tricky. Biting sanctions against Russia are probably not a realistic possibility anymore. The economic ties are simply too strong in some quarters, particularly in Germany, whose support would be essential to any effective sanctions.
War is obviously off the table as well, so what options does that really leave? Other than doing nothing, there is really only one.
We should keep aiding the government for Kiev and work to integrate it into modern Europe.
A majority of those in the eastern regions clearly want some level of independence. It may be distasteful to us, but as long as it is a choice arrived at freely and without compulsion, we should respect is.