I have watched with interest as the Russian military, under orders from Russian President Vladimir Putin (United Russia), has invaded and occupied the Crimean Peninsula in Ukraine. This is reminiscent of when Putin’s forces entered South Ossetia in Georgia back in 2008. Around that time, former Governor Mitt Romney (R-MA), then the Republican candidate for president, said that he considered Putin to be our greatest geopolitical foe. President Barack Obama (D) and a pliant media ridiculed him mercilessly for this . . . but who’s laughing now?
Anyway, back then it was not crystal clear who the ‘bad guy’ was in the South Ossetian war. Many South Ossetians have been clamoring for political autonomy for decades, which has been denied them by the Georgian government despite repeated independence referendums. There has been a long string of flare-ups in the region, which culminated when Georgian forces invaded South Ossetia in an attempt to reclaim political control. After an incredibly fast build-up of Russian forces, they too entered South Ossetia and effectively went to war with Georgia—including bombing Georgian targets elsewhere in the country.
The European Union brokered a cease fire between Russia and Georgia in a matter of weeks, and Russian forces had mostly withdrawn from the region by the early days of 2009. During the war, South Ossetian authorities and militias engaged in ethnic cleansing against their ethnic Georgian neighbors, expelling over 190,000, although all but 30,000 have since been allowed to return.
This time, in the Ukraine, violence began as simple civil unrest between Ukrainians who desire closer ties with the European Union, and those who desire instead closer ties with Russia. (Of course I am oversimplifying things for the sake of keeping this article at a readable length.) These protests continued to flare-up, becoming violent at times, with pro-European groups demanding the ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych (Party of Regions)—who fell solidly on the pro-Russian side.
On February 22, the Ukrainian parliament voted with a 328 vote supermajority (out of 447 members) to remove Yanukovych from office . . . a vote that likely did not meet the requirements set by the Ukrainian constitution, which requires a three-fourths majority to impeach (338 members). Putin and the Russian government consider Yanukovych’s ouster to be illegal, the outcome of an armed coup rather than a legitimate political act. Most of the rest of the world community—including President Barack Obama (D) and the U.S. government—recognize the new government as legitimate and do not acknowledge Yanukovych’s ouster as a coup, despite much evidence to the contrary.
Yanukovych’s center of power was in south-eastern Ukraine, particularly among the ethnic Russians who make up the majority of the population in the Crimean Peninsula. Although the peninsula is part of Ukraine, it is governed by the Autonomous Republic of Crimea. Amid the Ukrainian crisis, possibly at the request of the semi-autonomous Crimean government, Russian forces moved in to the territory.
This was immediately condemned as an illegal invasion by much of the world community, but the reality is not so clear. Crimea has, at times, been part of Russia, and there are long-standing Russian interests in the area. Under the 1997 Russian-Ukrainian Partition Treaty, which was renewed in 2010 to last until 2042, the Russian government is permitted to maintain military bases in Crimea. In fact, the Russian Navy’s entire Black Sea Fleet is based in Sevastopol. In return for the right to keep maintaining a military presence in Crimea, Russia gives the Ukraine price breaks on natural gas and pays Ukraine nearly one hundred million dollars per year in debt write-offs.
With all of this in mind, I find it hard to believe that anybody—let alone the President of the United States—doesn’t recognize that Russia has legitimate national interests in Crimea. That is not to say that Putin is handling this properly. He isn’t. A full-scale military invasion of Crimea was, to say the least, disproportionate to the threat against Russian interests. And Putin’s absurd claims that Russia has the right to defend ethnic Russians anywhere in the world is, as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (D) aptly pointed out, startlingly reminiscent of Adolf Hitler’s erstwhile claims over all ethnic Germans. Clinton started walking-back those claims soon thereafter in response to a small media uproar, but she should have held her ground. She was right.
In addition, now that Crimea is under a Russian military occupation, we must question the legitimacy of any public referendum about Crimea’s future. It is very possible—even likely—that the Crimean people really want to be part of Russia instead of part of Ukraine, and the United Nations Charter says that the U.N. exists, in part, “To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples . . . ” (Chapter 1, Article 1, Clause 2). The Crimean people, like all people, have an internationally-recognized right to self-determination—to choose their own destiny—but they must do so in a fair, open, monitored referendum . . . not a rushed poll in the middle of the early days of a military occupation when tensions, passions, and fears are high.
Despite all of this, Obama, along with so many other world leaders, have cast themselves as irrecoverable hypocrites. Honest observers know that, if the United States had a military and cultural presence in Baja Mexico akin to the one that Russia has in Crimea, and Mexico erupted into civil unrest and underwent an armed coup, we would be storming in with our own military forces to defend our legitimate interests too. And we aren’t even standing strong in our hypocrisy; we’ve condemned Russia’s actions with strong words, backed by nothing but spineless vacillation. All this does is lend credence and political cover to Putin’s actions.
So what do we do now? What can the United States and other world powers do about Crimea? The right course of action here is, in my opinion, quite clear.
First, we need to stop condemning Russia outright for something that we would be doing ourselves (albeit a bit differently) in their shoes. And then we need to make Putin a fair, reasonable offer: Deescalate, pull back the troops to an appropriate level for protecting Russian interests in Crimea, and stop sabre-rattling. In return, the international community will supervise a free and open referendum in Crimea within two months whereby the people can choose to remain part of Ukraine, or become part of Russia. To seal the deal with Putin, we’ll have to offer a guarantee: the United States, the nations of the European Union, and whoever else we can scrounge up to join us in making this deal will accept the outcome of the referendum, and recognize Crimea as a legitimate part of the Russian Federation if the people vote that way.
It’s a reasonable deal—one that doesn’t roll over and accede to Putin’s demands, but deescalates the situation and respects the Crimean peoples’ right to self-determination. But to make such an offer, we would need to have leaders willing to lead, rather than declare and vacillate and declare and vacillate.