The escalating crisis in Ukraine has set off reckless missile-rattling in this country. As Harvard’s Stephen Walt tweeted on March 2: “Public discourse on #Ukraine situation hitting new hghts in hyperbole. (‘New Cold War, WW III,’ etc.) Rhetorical overkill not helpful.” He may have been thinking of neocon Charles Krauthammer, who in his Washington Post column called for the United States to ante up $15 billion for Ukraine and send a naval flotilla to the Black Sea. The same paper headlined that the crisis “tests Obama’s focus on diplomacy over military force,” quoting Andrew Kuchins of the Center for Strategic and International Studies decrying President Obama’s “taking the stick option off the table.”
The Obama administration has responded to the crisis by flexing its own rhetorical muscles. When Russian President Vladimir Putin ignored Obama’s warning that “there will be costs” if Russia sent troops into Crimea, Secretary of State John Kerry denounced the “brazen act of aggression,” vowing that “Russia is going to lose, the Russian people are going to lose” and suggesting “asset freezes…isolation with respect to trade and investment,” while promising “economic assistance of the major sort” for whatever government emerges in Kiev.
European governments were far more measured, with many condemning Russia’s Crimean invasion but most of them clearly reluctant to impose economic sanctions. Their economic ties to Russia are much closer than America’s, of course, but they also understand that diplomacy will be more effective. Among the cooler heads at home was Jack Matlock, ambassador to the Soviet Union under Ronald Reagan, who described the administration’s warnings to Putin as “ill-advised” and argued that “whatever slim hope that Moscow might avoid overt military intervention in Ukraine disappeared when Obama in effect threw down a gauntlet and challenged him. This was not just a mistake of political judgment—it was a failure to understand human psychology—unless, of course, he actually wanted a Russian intervention, which is hard for me to believe.”
We should take a deep breath—and a sober look—before committing treasure and prestige to a still-unsettled new leadership in a country on Russia’s border, one that has had a fragile independent existence for barely two decades. Some history would also serve us well if we’re to understand fast-moving developments. We are reaping the bitter fruit of a deeply flawed post–Cold War settlement that looks more like Versailles than Bretton Woods, a settlement inflamed by the shortsighted American decision to expand NATO eastward and pursue other policies aimed at isolating Russia and ignoring Russian interests.
Russia’s dispatch of military forces to Crimea is a clear violation of international law. Putin justifies the invasion as necessary to protect Russian citizens and allies, but this is a fig leaf. The Obama administration is right to condemn it, although much of the world will grimace at the irony of Secretary Kerry denouncing the invasion of a sovereign country even as the United States only now winds down its “war of choice” against Iraq, which is thousands of miles away from US borders. Crimea, of course, not only abuts Russia but houses its Black Sea Fleet, which, by treaty agreement between Ukraine and Russia, is set to remain there until at least 2042. Crimea historically was part of Russia until 1954, when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred it to Ukraine in what many viewed as a gesture of good will.
Viktor Yanukovych was corrupt and unpopular, but he was the democratically elected president of Ukraine. He had been steering the country toward an association agreement with the European Union last fall when he reversed course after Russia offered $15 billion in financial aid to the all-but-bankrupt country. That led to the street demonstrations—spurred in part by the EU and the United States—that eventually sent Yanukovych packing.