Russia did not invade Ukraine. Russians have not “invaded” Crimea, either. They were invited in by the Crimeans and that is a distinction with an important difference. If there is a crisis, it is a crisis of intelligence, which may be due to the convergence of the event rather than the event itself or the players involved. The Ukrainian crisis does not exist. If anything, it is a Crimean crisis.
Take a closer look at a map of Ukraine (image above). Crimea is a peninsula connected to Ukraine by a narrow isthmus and two 40 km (25 mile) roads running through an archipelago of tiny islands in the sea of Azov, which is basically a Soviet saltwater lake, and the Black Sea. Crimea is separated from Russia by seven-mile narrows between the Crimean peninsula and the Russian mainland. The Russians are already talking about building a bridge across those narrows.
The Russian occupation of Crimea was triggered when the Ukrainian parliament metaphorically kicked up its heels and pushed the former Russian-leaning Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, out of office on corruption charges. By removing Yanukovych from office, the Ukrainian parliament “destabilized” Russia’s control over the Crimean military bases it occupies under long-term leases with the Ukrainian government which were negotiated during the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Having let that genie out of the bottle by demonstrating its independence from Russia, the Ukrainians sent a perhaps unintentional message that Russia’s former province was no longer “reliable.” That was the Ukrainian crisis, as far as Russian President Vladimir Putin is concerned, because it threw a shadow over Russia’s long-term occupancy rights.
When the Soviet Union broke up into 12 autonomous republics, Crimea was bundled with Ukraine for an obvious reason: geography. A separate, independent Crimea would have no choice but to route all ground shipments to and from Crimea through Ukraine, putting Crimeans at Ukraine’s mercy with respect to its commerce with the rest of Europe. So, instead, Crimea was set up as an “autonomous parliamentary republic” within Ukraine, essentially becoming an independent nation inside another independent nation.
Putin has no interest in becoming embroiled in a long, bloody guerrilla war with Ukraine. That would be a crisis Putin wants no part of, because there is nothing in Ukraine that Russia wants, except for the military bases in Crimea. There are no roads between Russia and Crimea. The only ground routes between Russia and its military bases in Crimea run through Ukraine. That is the main reason Putin is interested in Ukraine at all, because a hostile regime in Kiev could effectively blockade land routes between Russia and its Crimean bases.
As an “autonomous parliamentary republic,” Crimea presumably has an absolute right to ask Ukrainian troops to leave. They also appear to have the right to seek a closer relationship with Russia, to the point of outright annexation, which could easily include inviting Russian troops to occupy the region. That appears to be happening right now.
Future Prospects For the Region
The United States has no military options in the Crimean situation. Since Crimea is officially an autonomous state, an invasion of Crimea by U.S. troops to support Ukrainian efforts to pacify the area would violate international law. The Russian presence, having been invited in by Crimeans, does not violate either Ukrainian sovereignty or international law.
President Obama’s big mistake with respect to the Crimean situation was made when he became involved with the region in the first place. The knee-jerk reaction that, if the Russians are doing it, then it must be wrong, turns out to be wrong itself. So far, this is an internal matter involving Ukraine, Crimea and Russia. Until Russian troops occupy actual Ukrainian soil, it will remain that way.
It would be both a strategic blunder and a tactical nightmare to send U.S. troops to confront Russian forces in Crimea. But there is already unrest in Eastern Ukraine, where ethnic Russians appear to believe that the ouster of former president Yanukovych indicates a change in the sentiments of the Ukrainian majority to the Russian minority.
That unrest is probably being instigated by Russian agents provocateur, which is the usual practice in such situations, but that does not mean there is no genuine sentiment in Ukraine’s eastern provinces toward secession from the Ukraine and adoption of those largely Russian provinces by the motherland.
The United States has few options available right now. There is no sentiment in Europe for a more aggressive posture than the threatened economic sanctions, but Russia is not Iran. Economic sanctions would not work quickly enough to affect the outcome of the situation.
Short of triggering a shooting war, there is little that President Obama, or any other president, can do under these circumstances. The best course of action would have been to say this is a local matter that the parties involved need to work out themselves, but that would have been politically unacceptable. Obama had to say something to stave off further criticism of his presidency.
Ultimately, the United States has no dog in this fight. Ukraine is not an American ally. No treaty obligations require the United States to get involved in this no-win situation. The knee-jerk reaction that the United States has to get involved in the internal affairs of other nations, or referee between neighboring countries at odds with each other, has to be challenged because, sooner or later, push is going to come to shove and the United States will have to put up or shut up–again.
There is no Ukrainian crisis. Russia did not invade Ukraine. No one did. Russia did not even invade Crimea. They were invited in by a group of partisans who invaded the Crimean parliament, tossed the incumbents out, declared themselves the new government and invited their Russian friends to join the party.
Commentary by Alan M. Milner