In an interview with the French media earlier this month, Vladimir Putin nonchalantly hoped that “we [were] not on the verge of any war,” referring to Russia’s ongoing crisis with Ukraine and the consequent condemnation from the European Union and the United States. The last five months in Europe eerily share characteristics with the Cold War of the twentieth century, with tensions between the West and Russia slowly, but surely, escalating to a point where military action seems impending yet desperately halted at the very last moment.
The Ukrainian Revolution of February 2014, as it is now known, followed a series of protests and violent revolts in the capital of Kiev culminating in the ousting of the then-President of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych. In the years following the Orange Revolution in 2004, Ukraine was mired by corruption, bureaucratic mismanagement, and lack of economic growth. Yanukovych, who initially vowed to establish closer relations with the European Union to attract necessary capital and improve economic development, went back on his word and signed an action plan with Russia in December of last year, sparking the aforementioned civil unrest.
Russia, to whom Ukraine’s alliance is of great economic and political importance, refused to recognize the new interim government and claimed that the revolution was an unconstitutional coup d’état. In retaliation, it seized control of the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine and initiated an election to secede from Ukraine; in a controversial referendum, an alleged 95% (81% turnout) voted to join the Russian Federation. Naturally, this has been condemned by much of the international community, accusing Russia of international law violations and falsifying votes. Nevertheless, Moscow continues to maintain a strong military presence in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, with lackluster responses from the West in the form of economic sanctions.
The rationale for ‘invading’ Ukraine remains unclear. The apparent pretext, as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told the UN Council of Human Rights in Geneva, is “the protection of our citizens and compatriots… [and] the protection of the most fundamental of human rights – the right to live and nothing more.” More realistic reasons, however, include the strategic importance of Ukraine’s geographic location — Russia’s only warm water naval base in in Sevastopol and much of its natural gas trade with Europe passes through Ukraine. Moreover, the stability and assured alliance with Moscow is imperative to Russian foreign policy, considering Ukraine acts as a buffer zone between Russia and Europe.
America, as a self proclaimed beacon of democracy, remains fixated on what Putin really intends to do in Ukraine i.e. will he invade or not? Putin has encouraged the West to see his actions through a conventional war framework, primarily analyzing the possible advancements of Russian troops and comparing Russian and Ukrainian military assets. For any real rapprochement to succeed, America needs to understand that Moscow’s interests can be achieved without a conventional invasion, which so far has simply acted as a distraction to Western intruders. The costs of an invasion and subsequently, a war, are far too great for Russia to bear; beyond the military and economic detriments, such an action would alienate its non-aligned partners, including but not limited to India. As the country desperately tries to match the advancements of the capitalist West, losing economic allies to make a political statement would be imprudent, even for the unpredictable Putin.
Thus, while the possibility of a conventional invasion is out of the question, the West must, as Emile Simpson of Foreign Policy notes, “remove the blinkers of the frame of war and understand that it is currently in a conflict of coercive communication.” Armed politics, in which hardline diplomacy substitutes military action, seems to be the strongest response the West has at its disposal. Sanctions are a promising move in that direction, but they are not without their flaws. At the moment, America’s sanctions target the energy, banking, and defense sectors; but they are not hardened enough to be operationally effective. The risk, of course, is that an escalation in such sanctions generates a new strategic risk — the lack of a clear boundary between war and peace.
Furthermore, the general ambiguity of the legality of Russia’s actions have played to its advantage, as their intervention in Ukraine does not fit into any proper conceptual or legal categories. There has not been peace, but there has not been war either. Although Putin has implicitly threatened to use military force to invade Ukraine, citing the Russian Federation Council’s grant to effectively uncontested power, the West has no option but to treat it as political play rather than real policy.
On March 2, Kerry noted that Russia was engaging in “19th century behavior in the 21st century,” using gunboat diplomacy to advance its political ambitions. With that in mind, the West needs to strike a very difficult but important balance, whereby they remain steadfast in their denunciation of Russia’s actions but careful not to appease or provoke further military movements.
“Putin Speaks out on Ukraine, Crimea and US Relations with French Media.” RT. 5 June 2014. Web.
“Russian Option to Send Troops Is Only to Protect Human Rights – Lavrov.” RT News. 3 Mar. 2014. Web.
Simpson, Emile. “It’s Not a Russian Invasion of Ukraine We Should Be Worried About.” Foreign Policy. 30 Apr. 2014. Web.