A Cold War hangover
Within the past several days, the situation in the Ukraine has escalated from a local to a regional crisis with international ramifications.
At some point during the weekend, Russian military forces took over various Ukrainian government sites in the Crimea. The action came despite a warning last Friday from President Obama to Russia to “respect the independence … sovereignty and borders of Ukraine.” He also said, “There will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine.”
It’s difficult to assess how the crisis will unfold. What is certain is the outcome will impact Europe’s — perhaps the world’s — strategic environment.
Why is the Crimea important? Was President Obama’s threat empty or viable? How will NATO react? And what course of action will Russia pursue?
The Crimea is vital to Russia and Ukraine for different political and historical reasons.
President Obama’s threats were probably directed toward any Russian military intervention against the non-Crimean portion of the Ukraine, not the Crimean peninsula.
The Ukrainian crisis places NATO in an awkward position, considering Kiev technically isn’t eligible for military protection.
There’s a high possibility that American and other NATO special forces are currently in the former Soviet Republic, working with their Ukrainian counterparts.
The crisis’ direction and severity is contingent upon the Kremlin.
The Crimea has been a source of contention for centuries. The region belonged to Russia until 1954. The Soviet Union’s late president, Nikita Khrushchev, awarded it to the Ukraine shortly after he became general secretary. The region is home to Russians, Ukrainians and Tatars — all of whom have varying allegiances. The situation is further complicated considering that Moscow and Kiev have failed to resolve several issues since Ukraine declared independence from Russia in 1991. The most controversial issue is the long-term status of Russia’s Black Sea naval fleet in Sevastopol.
The Kremlin appeared to challenge President Obama’s warning. Did Russia’s actions in the Crimea test the White House? Or did Washington refer to the Ukraine’s non-Crimean territory?
It’s difficult to ascertain what geographical area Obama referred to precisely. The Kremlin didn’t technically invade the Crimea — it had forces stationed in the region. Several Crimean-based Russian forces took over some Ukrainian government facilities.
An invasion would have occurred if Russian-based military forces had directly crossed over Ukrainian territory to the Crimea. A strong possibility is President Obama’s threat was directed at any invasion from Russia into the Ukraine — Crimea doesn’t fall into the category.
A key problem facing the U.S. administration is precisely defining what those “costs” to Russia entail.
Ukraine doesn’t belong to NATO or the EU. Kiev is not covered under the alliance’s Article V provision, which mandates that “an armed attack against one or more of (NATO’s members is) considered an attack against … all.”
The chances are remote NATO will directly act against a Russian invasion against Ukraine. The North Atlantic Alliance will probably augment NATO forces in the Baltic States and the former Warsaw Pact nations.
It will likely initiate various diplomatic, economic and trade sanctions against Moscow. The objective would be to isolate Russia internationally, compel the Kremlin to withdraw its forces and encourage Russia to reconsider its overall foreign policy objectives toward Ukraine and other former Soviet states.
Perhaps about the only event that might have occurred since last Friday is the U.S. and NATO deployment of special forces to the region. They likely are evaluating how to buttress Ukraine’s military forces and how to slow a Russian military advance if an invasion occurred.
One military option the U.S. administration may be considering is limited air and naval strikes. These would transpire from U.S. European-based assets against Russian military forces that invade the Ukraine.
This action only would occur if the Ukrainian military failed to repulse the Russians, on-military measures didn’t compel the Kremlin to withdraw its forces, and as a last resort, especially since it would place Moscow and Washington in direct confrontation. That’s a scenario the White House will seek to avoid.
The situation is in Russia’s control. Moscow can avoid long-term strategic repercussions if the Kremlin limits its military activities to the Crimea. An expanded Russian invasion into the Ukraine’s would send a clear message that Putin intends to re-establish a new Russian empire.
The onus then would be on the Obama administration to counter the threat. Failure to respond may tempt Iran, Syria, North Korea and perhaps even China to test American resolve.
A swift, decisive combined economic, diplomatic and military reply compelling Russia to withdraw its forces would strengthen Washington’s strategic clout — and prevent a second, arguably more dangerous, cold war from starting.
Matthew Kennedy has a master’s degree in diplomatic studies from the University of Westminster in London. He’s lived in Europe, Asia and Russia. Comments or questions can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.