Why should we care about Crimea?

Why should we care about Crimea?

Beyond the question of what exactly the Western powers expect of Russia and how likely it is that Russia will meet those expectations there is a more fundamental question that should be asked. Why should the west care what happens with Crimea? What US national interests, for example, are at stake there? What difference would it make if the people of Crimea decide to leave Ukraine – as the Kosovo Albanians did with Serbia – and join Russia. 

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By Gerard M. Gallucci

The US continues to stumble around like a zombie vis-à-vis Ukraine.  As Russia makes clearer with every response to the latest reiteration of the Western demand that it remove its forces from Crimea, this is not going to happen.  The West, led by the US, demands that Russian troops be withdrawn and Ukrainian sovereignty respected.  It offers international monitors to ensure no one is threatening Russians in Ukraine – as Moscow disingenuously charges –  as well as negotiations to ensure Russian interests.  It warns of sanctions while the US presses forward with its own first tranche targeted on individuals and entities deemed to be violating Ukraine sovereignty.  Russia responds with further moves to push not only for increased Crimean autonomy but now for outright annexation.  The US already is warning it would not recognize such a move.  It is deploying planes and ships to the region.  The UK foreign minister warns of a “shooting war” should Russia move elsewhere into eastern Ukraine.  Putin just shakes off Western demands and threats and, early last week, ordered the test firing of an intercontinental ballistic missile just to remind anyone who forgot that Russia remains a nuclear power.  It seems that Western policy is to continue asking Putin to give up and retreat in the face of every indication he has no intention to do so.

Some – including now the New York Times – are beginning to notice that the Russians appear to be taking advantage of precedents set by the US and EU for previous armed interventions and unilateral political alterations.  At the top of many lists is the 1999 NATO intervention in Serbia – taken without any UN Security Council authorization – and the 2008 Kosovo declaration of independence taken outside the framework of UNSCR 1244.  The US and most EU members recognized the new “state” even though it violated Serbian sovereignty.  The US has consistently argued that the Kosovo intervention and eventual rejection of Serbia’s claim to its cultural homeland were “unique” and set no precedents.  The US continues to repeat the same refrain now, suggesting that the NATO intervention there was to protect people and arguing that Serbia lost its claim to Kosovo because of its actions there. But all this is clearly in the eye of the beholder and ignores that others may see things differently and see their own national interests at stake in other places, such as Russia in Ukraine.

Without reprising the complex history of Ukraine and Crimea, the essentials appear clear.  Russia sees the US and Western Europe trying to extend their political and economic empire into the very birthplace of its civilization.  Russia sees an effort to manage a post-Yanukovych transition agreed in negotiations immediately trashed and recognized by the West.  Putin put pieces on the board in Crimea – the actions on the ground over the last several days – while signaling that he is open to deal with the new Ukrainian government and accept that Yanukovych is history.  Perhaps there are genuine negotiations going on between the parties behind closed doors.  But the rhetoric from the West suggests that all Moscow is getting in return is continued US and EU demands that first it surrender.

Beyond the question of what exactly the Western powers expect of Russia and how likely it is that Russia will meet those expectations there is a more fundamental question that should be asked.   Why should the west care what happens with Crimea?  What US national interests, for example, are at stake there?  What difference would it make if the people of Crimea decide to leave Ukraine – as the Kosovo Albanians did with Serbia – and join Russia.  We all know the shallow historical connection of Crimea to Ukraine and that Russians are a large majority there.  Why could the West not accept Russian annexation of Crimea as a somewhat belated border adjustment in the wake of the end of the USSR?   The knee-jerk support the West gives to Ukrainian sovereignty cannot in the full light of day be seen as simply “principled.”  Rather it is an assertion that when the West violates international standards – that force may be used only with the approval of the UNSC and that state sovereignty must otherwise be respected – it’s okay because it’s the good guys doing it.  When others do the same, it is unacceptable.

Perhaps Putin missed a trick in not seeking a Security Council resolution calling for the reestablishment of the legitimate government in Ukraine with a possibility of sanctions to back it up.  It could have cited threats to ethnic Russians and their language.  The US, France and UK would probably have refused and Russia could then have acted on its own anyway.  But the charade of going to the UN would have made the analogy to the 1999 Kosovo intervention complete.

Ultimately, the US and its European allies should take a deep breath and consider their real interests.  A new cold war with Russia over Crimea serves no one, including Ukraine.  The West should ratchet down the rhetoric and avoid military gestures that we really have no intention – and certainly no interest – in backing up.  We should focus instead on practical relations with Moscow so that important equities elsewhere can be preserved, including cooperation on issues such as Syria and Iran.  Our continued partnership with Russia on the International Space Station shows that we can work together.  It will take accepting that however much we dislike Putin rubbing our noses in our own past actions, we have to work with realities and recognize Russia’s bottom lines.  Nothing in Crimea merits putting our common interests at risk.  Indeed, we should let relations between Ukraine and Russia seek their own level.  NATO and the EU marched up to the very borders of the old USSR and, in the Baltics, past them.  It’s not unreasonable to accept that Russia has its own regional interests so close to home.  How would the US feel if China sought a greater role in Mexico?  How did the US feel about Soviet missiles in Cuba?  What was that Monroe Doctrine all about?

Gerard M. Gallucci is a retired US diplomat and UN peacekeeper. He worked as part of US efforts to resolve the conflicts in Angola, South Africa and Sudan and as Director for Inter-American Affairs at the National Security Council. He served as UN Regional Representative in Mitrovica, Kosovo from July 2005 until October 2008 and as Chief of Staff for the UN mission in East Timor from November 2008 until June 2010. He will serve as Diplomat-in-Residence at Drake University for the 2013-14 school year.

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