When the Soviet Union collapsed on December 26, 1991, much of the world welcomed it as a belated Christmas present of global peace. But, inevitably, that encouraging illusion soon vanished.
Now the unrest in Ukraine, a former Soviet satellite, has awakened the Russian bear, and the world again is confronted with another major East-West confrontation.
If not handled with care, it could easily escalate to dangerous levels.
The West must make it clear to Moscow that there will be a price to be paid for its aggressive move to regain control of Crimea, an essentially Russian-speaking part of Ukraine. That’s why Secretary of State John Kerry has flown to Kiev.
But exactly what price should Kerry and our Western allies demand? And will it be a price steep enough to persuade Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin, to abandon his Ukraine initiative?
What Putin is doing in Crimea clearly sunders a 1994 Budapest Memorandum between Russia, Ukraine, the United States and Britain in which all parties agreed to respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine. It is tempting to want to give Putin, who seems ever eager to jab the United States, a comeuppance. But, given the Crimean people’s apparent preference for Moscow over Kiev and the presence of Russia’s biggest naval base on the Black Sea, it isn’t a simple proposition.
And it should be remembered that until 1954 Crimea was part of Russia. That year, in an act that appeared almost whimsical, Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev “donated” it to Ukraine.
President Obama has said that sanctions are under consideration. One would be to boot Russia out of the so-called G-8 organization of the world’s leading economies, but that might not deter Putin since Russia really doesn’t have a great deal in common with the other seven member nations.
“The question is: Are those costs big enough to cause Russia not to take advantage of the situation in the Crimea? That’s the $64,000 question,” Brig. Gen. Kevin Ryan, a retired Army officer and former defense attaché in the American Embassy in Moscow, observed last weekend.
Based on what’s transpired, the answer seems to be in the negative.
In Crimea, the ominous presence of unidentified but heavily armed troops — they wore no insignia, and they wouldn’t answer questions — had an unmistakable and frankly intimidating Kremlin accent. Yesterday, Soviet jets flew over Crimea, violating Ukrainian airspace in a further act of aggression.
But if it all seemed downright menacing to outside observers and outraged the new Ukrainian leadership in Kiev, the local pro-Russian population seemed largely unfazed.
Here’s why: Nearly 60 percent of Crimeans are ethnic Russians while only 24 percent consider themselves genuine Ukrainians. There are also Crimean Tatars, but they’re relatively few in number. In Crimea’s largest city, Sevastopol, 70 percent of the people are Russians, and only 22 percent are Ukrainians.
According to a Kiev International Institute of Sociology poll, 97 percent of the people in Crimea consider Russian their main language. And yet one of the first moves of the interim Kiev government was to revoke a law that allowed Russian and other minority languages to be recognized as official in multicultural regions.
Is it any wonder the Crimean majority would prefer to look to Moscow rather than Kiev?
Even so, President Obama had no choice Saturday but to deliver his stern warning to Putin, telling him to leave Ukraine’s fate to the Ukrainian people. Had Obama not done so, he would have risked vilification, fair or not, not only from his most assertive domestic critics but also from world leaders accustomed to looking to Washington to carry the heavy baggage on international affairs, or at least to set an example they can endorse.
That’s fine, but the United States and Europe must be very wary of being drawn into what could easily become a no-win situation in Ukraine.
The West would welcome any economic and even indirect military advantages that would follow should the Ukrainian unrest result in greater Western influence in that financially stricken nation, Europe’s largest, but the question is this: How much risk should the West be prepared to take to pursue that elusive and difficult-to-quantify objective?
The evidence strongly suggests that Ukrainians, while united in their contempt for the government of their ousted president, are deeply divided — often along geographic lines — over what the next step in the revolutionary process should be.
The choices appear to essentially boil down to seizing the opportunity to link up with their European neighbors to the West or, as those living closer to Russia favor, refreshing their long-standing association with Moscow.
There are few perfect outcomes in this messy world, and, unless the situation worsens appreciably, direct intervention — especially the threat of military intervention — by the West could backfire in a big way.
Those who counsel caution are the ones who understand that perfect outcomes rarely happen and that the law of unintended consequences has by far the better track record.