The unfolding political crisis in the Ukraine leaves the United States no moral authority as the world struggles for a solution. It has been approximately one week since Ukrainian protestors ousted pro-Russian former President Viktor Yanukovych. This has provoked an aggressive response from Russia as Russian military forces secured the Ukrainian region of Crimea and pro-Russian civilian gunmen have attacked airports and other government facilities. The Crimea is heavily populated by ethnic Russians and has selected its own Prime Minister, Sergiy Aksyonov. He immediately appealed to Putin to provide Russian forces to “secure peace” in the region. Russian forces are firmly in control of the Crimean region and the sovereignty of the rest of the Ukraine is currently in question.
The United States and other world powers find themselves in a difficult position. President Barack Obama called Putin personally and has declared publicly that there “would be a cost” for Russian military intervention in the Ukraine. The G8 economic summit is due to take place in Sochi soon and other G8 member countries have begun to signal their reluctance to participate in the summit due to Russian aggression. Great Britain has already postponed preparations to attend and other European powers have given indications that they may do the same. Economic sanctions against Russia have also been discussed, but implementing these may prove difficult as many European countries are currently dependent on natural gas exports from Russia to meet their energy needs.
Direct military action by the U.S. or its European allies is extremely unlikely. The Ukraine is in a region of the world where it would be particularly difficult for the U.S. to project power effectively. It is also difficult to consider the practical consequences of a direct confrontation between the military forces of the U.S. and Russia. Such a confrontation has not taken place since the days of the Cold War and even then, most conflicts were handled by “proxies” and U.S. and Soviet forces rarely confronted each other directly. Regardless of the course of action the United States chooses however, it lacks moral authority in the Ukraine crisis.
The actions of President Putin can and will be decried on many fronts, however his behavior is not much different than how the U.S. has acted in the Western Hemisphere many times over the past two hundred years. Beginning with the issuance of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, the U.S. has taken a very “hands on” approach concerning political affairs within its sphere of influence. The Doctrine was directed to Europe effectively declaring the Western Hemisphere off-limits from European intervention; however it did not say that the U.S. would be similarly distant. To the contrary, it has served as justification for political and military interventions in numerous countries over the past two centuries. This was particularly apparent during the Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt as he issued the so-called “Roosevelt Corollary” which expanded the justification for U.S. interventions in the Americas.
Vladimir Putin is acting very similarly in the Ukraine. The Ukraine, and the Crimea particularly, is of economic and strategic significance to Russia. Furthermore, Ukraine resides geographically within Russia’s direct sphere of influence. There are numerous benefits to Russia and Putin for this region to be under Russian control. Russia cannot afford an unfriendly regime in the Ukraine, just as the U.S. did not want unfriendly regimes in South and Central America and therefore intervened in places such as Panama, Grenada, and others. Putin is in the midst of an expansive plan to grow Russian power. The “loss” of the Ukraine to a pro-Western regime would be a blow to Russian prestige that Putin cannot afford, just as the U.S. did not want to suffer the embarrassment of pro-Soviet regimes in the Western Hemisphere during the Cold War.
The current crisis in the Ukraine has the potential to create the most dangerous international confrontation since the days of the Cold War. Regardless of the course of action the United States chooses to pursue, it is left with no moral authority to deal with the Ukraine crisis.
Editorial by Christopher V. Spencer
On Twitter @CVSpencer79