Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | March 3, 2014



Sergei Ivanov, At the Southern Border, 1907.

Thousands of Russian troops invaded Ukraine over the weekend and occupied the Crimean peninsula. And it seems that there is little or nothing that Ukraine or the Western democracies can do about it.

Putin’s government says that the troops are there to protect Russian citizens in Crimea. Or, they are there because the deposed and exiled Ukrainian President Yanukovych asked Russia to send the troops. (Pick whichever diplomatic fig leaf you prefer.)

A few days ago I said that I was skeptical that Russia would invade Ukraine. It just seemed like such an invasion would be too brazen and egregious a violation of international norms, even for Russia and for Vladimir Putin. Well, I guess I was wrong. Russia may invade other parts of eastern Ukraine as well.

On Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry said:

You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pre-text.

Well, you do if you’re Russia, apparently. Like I said, I thought that a pretty strong norm had evolved in international law against the unilateral use of military force to carve off territory from a rival — this isn’t Bismarck’s Europe. But it seems that Russia plays by different rules and is unimpressed by the condemnation of other countries.

President Obama says that Russia’s invasion will place Putin on “the wrong side of history.” Yes, I’m sure that thought is causing Putin to lose sleep.

Western leaders have condemned the Russian violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, but one senses a lack of bite behind their bark. Everyone is quick to say that a military response is “off the table” — since one does not attack a nuclear power.

As Anderson says, “this isn’t materially different from Saddam seizing Kuwait.” But unlike Argentina or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Russia has nuclear weapons. Russia also has oil, which it seems will dampen the impact of any economic sanctions —
even if the US and the EU and other powers could agree on sanctions, which apparently is not a given (“at an emergency meeting in Brussels the foreign ministers of Germany, France, Italy and Spain resisted calls for trade sanctions…”). The spice must flow, and Russia has spice and family atomics.

Hungary 1956. Czechoslovakia 1968. And now Crimea 2014.

Fullarton, A. & Co. Caucausus & Crimea. 1872 (N)

Like Chris Bertram, I am a non-expert on this subject, and it can be difficult “to work out what’s true and false about the situation in the Ukraine, who to believe, what to trust.” On background, Bertram recommends this piece by Mark Ames, which is a few days old. Paul Mason has a column that appears to be perceptive. Anderson points to Timothy Snyder’s piece in the NYRB, which is also good on background. In the Guardian, Alan Yuhas has a decent round-up of commentary. See also this timeline for some bearings.

At Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen tries to look at Russia’s incentives and motivations, and at a possible end-game:

For Russia, matters in Ukraine are close to an existential crisis, as Ukraine is intimately tied up with Russia’s sense of itself as presiding over a mini-empire of sorts. Nor could an autocratic Russia tolerate a free and prosperous Ukraine, developing along the lines of Poland. America cares about Ukraine less, and cares more about Syria and Iran, or at least cares about saving face in those latter venues. Therefore there is a Coasean deal to be had between America and Russia, where Russia gets to partition part of Ukraine, create a buffer against Europeanization and democratization, keep the larger Ukraine unit weak, and also keep its Black Sea fleet. In turn Russia would do something less than totally sabotage all American plans for Syria and Iran. (Of course that is Coasean for the leaders, and not necessarily for the citizenries.)

On the one hand, from a Paul Kennedy/Henry Kissinger balance-of-power perspective, I can see how this sort of bargain could work. On the other hand, I can’t see how the presidents and prime ministers of the NATO powers could (publicly) agree to such a bargain without being compared them Munich 1938 and earning the scorn of their publics. On the third hand, those publics show no eagerness to go to war over Crimea — especially in the US, where we are exhausted by Iraq and Afghanistan.

Sometimes, there are no good options.

Image Credits: (1) Sergei Ivanov, At the Southern Border, 1907. Watchers see smoke beacons on the horizon and a rider fast approaching on the right, while on the left one of the sentries moves to light their own signal beacon while his compatriot steadies a nervous horse. Source: Wikimedia Commons. (2) Crimea according to Huot & Demidoff. Drawn & Engraved by J. Bartholomew, Edinburgh, 1872. Source: Wikimedia Commons.



  1. Wrote a comment, then lost it. Short version: as a non-fan in the first place of NATO expansion, I cd see a deal (tho unlikely to happen) in which US and Europe promise not to bring Ukraine into NATO (for which there is, imo, little or no substantive justification) in return for Russian w/dl or pullback. Btw Mearsheimer was on NewsHr this eve., made a fair amt of sense imo. Sees a possible path to de-escalation involving the May elections in Ukraine.

    • I too saw Mearsheimer on PBS, and he was talking about how deescalation might be tied to a freeze on NATO expansion. (He said that loose talk of NATO expansion was also a factor in the recent war in Georgia.) Referendum in Crimea will also help, no doubt.

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